The love affair between me and the ancient pottery of Tell Halaf started when a friend of mine, a fellow potter and a university lecturer lent me some of his books about ancient Mesopotamia and the history of archaeological excavations there. It was then that I began a serious study of arguably the finest pottery in the Neolithic produced.
We, the Syrians, belong to a country which was a cradle of civilization, taking part in creating the first civilizations known to mankind. Even in prehistoric times and before the invention of writing, Syria recorded in the amazing pottery of Tell Halaf (circa 7000 BC onward), the awakening of the artistic spirit in mankind and their early attempts to express themselves in images, patterns and shapes. Our lands witnessed in the Neolithic, the human revolution which introduced the first agricultural settlements and the domestication of animals. The first settlements or small villages led gradually to the building of the first cities, Damascus is the oldest existing city, some say Aleppo. Civilization and humanity will not depart from Syria. Even if the world chooses to forget Syria or tries to distort its picture in order to ease its conscience, even if the Super powers continue to stand aside, just watching emersed in an ambivalent stupour or resort to support the regime against the people, thinking that by doing this they might deceive themselves and deceive history. Why will civilization not forsake its birthplace no matter what transpires, no matter the destruction and the annihilation? It is because Syria knows Syria and knows that the whole world is indebted to its cradles and because the Syrians know Syria and its great heritage and indeed what is greater than that: its human legacy.
Looking at the pottery of Tell Halaf from a potter’s point of view, was exciting and revealing.I was still learning the techniques of the potter at that stage with a passion that coloured everything I did or learnt.
The Tell Halaf culture, which was succeeded by Ubaid culture and the civilization of Sumer, produced, in my opinion, some of the most elegant and refined pottery of the Neolithic ancient world. The delicacy of the best examples of this pottery is breathtaking, the dexterity and intricacy puzzling and the craftsmanship of a very high quality. The Halaf culture covered the geographical expanse between upper Iraq and Syria reaching as far as Ras Shamra, Ugarit, on the Syrian coast, and spreading its influence even further to Anatolia. However, the main centers were to be found in Mesopotamia.
The final phase of Halaf culture, about 4900 – 4500 BC, displays in its pottery an accumulation of skills learned and tested. The vividly painted ware using mainly red and black paint over the common apricot slip or grayish background enhanced by the use of details in white over darker paints, shows vivid reliance on balance and symmetry. By now, the geometric design of Halaf which started simple and tentative in the earlier phases has multiplied to include cruciform shapes, fish scales, dotted circles, wavy patterns, also double ax, herringbone and small diamond patterns. In addition, multiple rows of hatching and cross hatching, a variety of ornament, including the very popular chequer design and many textile-like motifs were also in vogue. The splendid thin plates of this period are among the most beautiful products of the Tell Halaf kilns, probably the first of their kind in the world.
On a visit the British Museum, I had the opportunity to see some of the pottery and shards of Tell Halaf. What impressed me most was the breath-taking quality of the brushwork. How did they do it? What methods of preparing and mixing the colours did they develop in order to produce such consistency, and what kind of brushes did they use to achieve this complex, sophisticated quality which I and many fellow potters can only dream of achieving? In describing the Halaf Pottery, Some archaeologists tend to emphasize qualities like static and formal in order to mean lacking in vigour and inventiveness. However, what I see is beauty of composition and a sensitive admirable control. James Mellart, the archeologist, commented, “Precise and neat, minute but repetitive, the Halaf designs formed an overwhelming rich brocade’.
After reading and studying the shapes and techniques of Tel Half poetry, it was time for me to become pre-historic myself and sit down with the clay in order to try my luck. I had to live up to the name I called myself archaeological potter. In many ways, the potters of Tell Halaf were cleverer than me and more accomplished because they made everything themselves, while I had to depend on modern technology in my use of tools, clay and paints. In the pots I made, I attempted to summarize and condense most of the vocabulary of patterns the Halaf potters developed over the centuries. Never the less, I was creating modern contemporary pots decorated with designs derived from the Tell Halaf culture of clay.