Syria Table of Contents
Figure 2. Ancient Syria
Roman ruins at Palmyra
Courtesy Embassy of Syria
The first recorded mention of Greater Syria is in Egyptian annals detailing expeditions to the Syrian coastland to log the cedar, pine, and cypress of the Ammanus and Lebanon mountain ranges in the fourth millennium. Sumer, a kingdom of non-Semitic peoples that formed the southern boundary of ancient Babylonia, also sent expeditions in the third millennium, chiefly in pursuit of cedar from the Ammanus and gold and silver from Cilicia. The Sumerians most probably traded with the Syrian port city of Byblos, which was also negotiating with Egypt for exportation of timber and the resin necessary for mummification.
An enormous commercial network linking Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Aegean, and the Syrian coast was developed. The network was perhaps under the aegis of the kingdom of Ebla ("city of the white stones"), the chief site of which was discovered in 1975 at Tall Mardikh, 64 kilometers south of Aleppo (see fig. 2). Numerous tablets give evidence of a sophisticated and powerful indigenous Syrian empire, which dominated northern Syria and portions of lower Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Iran. Its chief rival was Akkad in southern Mesopotamia, which flourished circa 2300 B.C. In addition to identifying another great cultural and political power for the period--and an independent Syrian kingdom at that--the discovery of Ebla has had other important ramifications. The oldest Semitic language was thought to have been Amorite, but the newly found language of Ebla, a variant of Paleo-Canaanite, is considerably older. Ebla twice conquered the city of Mari, the capital of Amurru, the kingdom of the Semitic- speaking Amorites. After protracted tension between Akkad and Ebla, the great king of Akkad, Naram Sin, destroyed Ebla by fire in either 2300 or 2250. Naram Sin also destroyed Arman, which may have been an ancient name for Aleppo.
Amorite power was effectively eclipsed in 1600 when Egypt mounted a full attack on Greater Syria and brought the entire region under its suzerainty. During the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries, the area was in tremendous political upheaval because of the growing Assyrian power pressing from the east and invasions from the north of Hittites who eventually settled in north and central Syria.
Another Semitic-speaking people, the Canaanites, may have been part of the same migration that brought the Amorites into Syria from northern Arabia in approximately 2400. The Amorites came under the influence of Mesopotamia, whereas the Canaanites, who had intermarried with indigenous Syrians of the coast, were probably under the initial influence of Egypt.
The descendants of the intermarriages between Canaanites and coastal Syrians were the Phoenicians, the greatest seafaring merchants of the ancient world. The Phoenicians improved and developed iron tools and significantly advanced the art of shipbuilding. Their mastery of the seas allowed them to establish a network of independent city-states; however, these entities were never united politically, partially because of the continual harassment from Hittites to the north and Egyptians to the south. The name given to their land--Canaan in Hurrian, Phoenicia in Greek--refers to the fabulously valued purple dye extracted from mollusks found at that time only on the Syrian coast. From this period purple became the color of the robes of kings because only they and other small groups of the ancient Middle Eastern elite could afford to purchase the rare dye. The wealth derived in part from the dye trade sparked the economic flame that made it possible for Greater Syrian city-states to enjoy a wide measure of prosperity.
Many of Greater Syria's major contributions to civilization were developed during the ancient period. Syria's greatest legacy, the alphabet, was developed by Phoenicians during the second millennium. The Phoenicians introduced their 30-letter alphabet to the Aramaeans, among other Semitic-speaking people, and to the Greeks, who added vowel letters not used in Semitic grammatical construction.
The Phoenicians, somewhat pressed for space for their growing population, founded major colonies on the North African littoral, the most notable of which was Carthage. In the process of founding new city-states, they discovered the Atlantic Ocean.
The Aramaeans had settled in Greater Syria at approximately the end of the thirteenth century B.C., the same time at which the Jews, or Israelites, migrated to the area. The Aramaeans settled in the Mesopotamian-Syrian corridor to the north and established the kingdom of Aram, biblical Syria. As overland merchants, they opened trade to Southwest Asia, and their capital Damascus became a city of immense wealth and influence. At Aleppo they built a huge fortress, still standing. The Aramaeans simplified the Phoenician alphabet and carried their language, Aramaic, to their chief areas of commerce. Aramaic displaced Hebrew in Greater Syria as the vernacular (Jesus spoke Aramaic), and it became the language of commerce throughout the Middle East and the official language of the Persian Empire. Aramaic continued to be spoken in the Syrian countryside for almost 1,000 years, and in the 1980s remained in daily use in a handful of villages on the Syrian-Lebanese border. A dialect of Aramaic continues to be the language of worship in the Syrian Orthodox Church.
The plethora of city-states in Greater Syria could not withstand the repeated attacks from the north by the powerful Assyrian Empire, which under the leadership of Nebuchadnezzar finally overwhelmed them in the eighth century. Assyrian aggressors were replaced by the conquering Babylonians in the seventh century, and the then mighty Persian Empire in the sixth century. Under Persian aegis, Syria had a measure of self-rule, as it was to have under a succession of foreign rulers from that time until independence in the twentieth century. When Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire in 333, local political powers--which probably would have continued to contest for control of Greater Syria--were effectively shattered, and the area came into the strong cultural orbit of Western ideas and institutions.
At Alexander's death, the empire was divided among five of his generals. General Seleucus became heir to the lands formerly under Persian control, which included Greater Syria. The Seleucids ruled for three centuries and founded a kingdom with the capital at Damascus, which later became referred to as the Kingdom of Syria. Seleucus named many cities after his mother, Laodicea; the greatest became Latakia, Syria's major port.
Enormous numbers of Greek immigrants flocked to the Kingdom of Syria. Syrian trade was vastly expanded as a result of the newcomers' efforts, reaching into India, the Far East, and Europe. The Greeks built new cities in Syria and colonized existing ones. Syrian and Greek cultures synthesized to create Near Eastern Hellenism, noted for remarkable developments in jurisprudence, philosophy, and science.
Replacing the Greeks and the Seleucids, Roman emperors inherited already thriving cities--Damascus, Tadmur (once called Palmyra), and Busra ash Sham in the fertile Hawran Plateau south of Damascus. Under the emperor Hadrian, Syria was prosperous and its cities, major trading centers; Hawran was a well-watered breadbasket. After making a survey of the country, the Romans established a tax system based on the potential harvest of farmlands; it remained the key to the land tax structure until 1945. They bequeathed Syria some of the grandest buildings in the world, as well as aqueducts, wells, and roads that were still in use in modern times.
Neither the Seleucids nor the Romans ruled the area without conflict. The Seleucids had to deal with powerful Arab peoples, the Nabataeans, who had established an empire at Petra (in present-day Jordan) and at Busra ash Sham. The Romans had to face the Palmyrenes, who had built Palmyra, a city even more magnificent than Damascus and the principal stop on the caravan route from Homs to the Euphrates.
By the time the Romans arrived, Greater Syrians had developed irrigation techniques, the alphabet, and astronomy. In A.D. 324 the Emperor Constantine moved his capital from Rome to Byzantium, renaming it Constantinople (modern Istanbul). From there the Byzantines ruled Greater Syria, dividing it into two provinces: Syria Prima, with Antioch as the capital and Aleppo the major city; and Syria Secunda, ruled frequently from Hamah. Syria Secunda was divided into two districts: Phoenicia Prima, with Tyre as the capital; and Phoenicia Secunda, ruled from Damascus. (Most of Phoenicia Prima is now Lebanon.) The ruling families of Syria during this period were the Ghassanids, Christian Arabs loyal to Byzantium, from whom many Syrians now trace descent.
Byzantine rule in Syria was marked by constant warfare with the Persian Sassanian Empire to the east. In these struggles, Syria often became a battleground. In 611 the Persians succeeded in invading Syria and Palestine, capturing Jerusalem in 614. Shortly thereafter, the Byzantines counterattacked and retook their former possessions. During the campaign the Byzantines tried to force Greek orthodoxy on the Syrian inhabitants, but were unsuccessful. Beset by financial problems, largely as a result of their costly campaigns against the Persians, the Byzantines stopped subsidizing the Christian Arab tribes guarding the Syrian steppe. Some scholars believe this was a fatal mistake, for these tribes were then susceptible to a new force emanating from the south--Islam.
The Byzantine heritage remains in Syria's Christian sects and great monastic ruins. In the fourth century A.D., Roman Emperor Theodosius destroyed the temple to Jupiter in Damascus and built a cathedral in honor of John the Baptist. The huge monastery at Dayr Siman near Aleppo, erected by Simeon Stylites in the fifth century, is perhaps the greatest Christian monument built before the tenth century.
Data as of April 1987
Syria Table of Contents