Syria, past and present: mover and shaken
For the past few weeks, the world's gaze has focused on Syria, a nation currently in the grip of civil war. There has been much talk about the heavy foreign involvement in the conflict — both of who's been fuelling the fire of rebel aggression, and of who's been defending the regime against global sanctions and condemnation. While it has genuine grassroots origins – and while giving any one label to it (i.e. to an extremely complex situation) would be a gross over-simplification — many have described the conflict as a proxy war involving numerous external powers.
Foreign intervention is nothing new in Syria, which is the heart of one of the most ancient civilised regions in the world. Whether it be Syria's intervention in the affairs of others, or the intervention of others in the affairs of Syria – both of the above have been going on unabated for thousands of years. With an alternating role throughout history as either a World Power in its own right, or as a point of significance to other World Powers (with the latter being more often the case), Syria could be described as a serious "mover and shaken" kind of place.
This article examines, over the ages, the role of the land that is modern-day Syria (which, for convenience's sake and at the expense of anachronism, I will continue to refer to as "Syria"), in light of this theme. It is my endeavour that by exploring the history of Syria in this way, I am able to highlight the deep roots of "being influential" versus "being influenced by" – a game that Syria has been playing expertly for millennia – and that ultimately, I manage to inform readers from a new angle, regarding the current tragic events that are occurring there.
The borders of Syria in the ancient world were not clearly defined; however, for as far back as its recorded history extends, the region has been centred upon the cities of Damascus and Aleppo. These remain the two largest and most important cities in Syria to this day. They are also both contenders for the claim of oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world.
One or the other of these two cities has almost always been the seat of power; and on various occasions, Syria has been reduced (by the encroachment of surrounding kingdoms / empires) to little more than the area immediately surrounding one or both of these cities. From the capital, the dominion of Syria has generally extended west to the coastal plains region (centred on the port of Latakia), east to the Euphrates river and beyond (the "Al-Jazira" region), and south to the Hawran Plateau.
Syria's recorded history begins in the Late Bronze Age / Early Iron Age, c. 1200 BC. In this era, the region was populated and ruled by various ancient kingdoms, including the Phoenicians (based in modern-day Lebanon, to the west of Syria), the Hittites (based in modern-day Turkey, to the north of Syria), the Assyrians (based in modern-day Northern Iraq, to the east of Syria), and the ancient Egyptians. Additionally, Syria was often in contact (both friendly and hostile) with the ancient kingdom of Israel, and with the other Biblical realms — including Ammon, Moab, Edom (all in modern-day Jordan), and Philistia (in modern day Israel and Gaza) — which all lay to the south. Most importantly, however, it was around this time that the Arameans emerged.
The Arameans can be thought of as the original, defining native tribe of Syria. The Arameans began as a small kingdom in southern Syria, where they captured Damascus and made it their capital; this also marked the birth of Damascus as a city of significance. The Arameans' early conquests included areas in southern modern-day Lebanon (such as the Bekaa Valley), and in northern modern-day Israel (such as Rehov). Between 1100 BC and 900 BC, the Aramean kingdoms expanded northward to the Aleppo area, and eastward to the Euphrates area. All of this area (i.e. basically all of modern-day Syria) was in ancient times known as Aram, i.e. land of the Arameans.
*Note: Antioch was not founded until c. 320 BC; it is included on this map as a point of reference, due to its significance in later ancient Syrian history.
The story of Aramaic
It is with the Arameans that we can observe the first significant example, in Syria's long history, of a land that has its own distinct style of "influencing" and of "being influenced by". The Arameans are generally regarded by historians as a weak civilisation, that was repeatedly conquered and dominated by neighbouring empires. They never united into a single kingdom; rather, they were a loose confederation of city-states and tribes. The Aramean civilisation in its original form – i.e. as independent states, able to assert their self-determination – came to an end c. 900 BC, when the entire region was subjugted by the Neo Assyrian Empire. Fairly clear example of "being influenced by".
Ironically, however, this subjugation was precisely the event that led to the Arameans subsequently leaving a profound and long-lasting legacy upon the entire region. During the rule of the Neo Assyrians in Syria, a significant portion of the Aramean population migrated – both voluntarily and under duress – to the Assyrian heartland and to Babylonia. Once there, the Aramaic language began to spread: first within the Empire's heartland; and ultimately throughout the greater Empire, which at its height included most of the Fertile Crescent of the ancient Middle East.
The Aramaic language was the lingua franca of the Middle East between approximately 700 BC and 700 AD. Aramaic came to displace its "cousin" languages, Hebrew and Phoenician, in the areas of modern-day Israel and Lebanon. Hebrew is considered the "language of the Jews" and the "language of the Bible"; however, for the entire latter half or so of Bibical Israel's history, the language of conversation was Aramaic, with Hebrew relegated to little more than ritual and scriptural use. It is for this reason that Jesus spoke Aramaic; and it is also for this reason that most of the later Jewish scriptural texts (including several books of the Tanakh, and almost the entire Talmud) were written in Aramaic.
Aramaic included various dialects: of these, the most influential was Syriac, which itself evolved into various regional sub-dialects. Syriac was originally the dialect used by the Imperial Assyrians in their homeland – but in later years, it spread west to northern Syria and to Turkey; and east to Persia, and even as far as India. Syriac played a significant role in the early history of Christianity, and a small number of Christian groups continue to read Syriac Christian texts to this day. Another important dialect of ancient Aramaic was Mandaic, which was the dominant dialect spoken by those Aramaic speakers who settled in ancient Persia.
Although not a direct descendant of Aramaic, Arabic is another member of the Semitic language family; and spoken Arabic was heavily influenced by Aramaic, in the centuries preceding the birth of Islam. The Arabic writing system is a direct descendant of the Nabatean (ancient Jordanian) Aramaic writing system. With the rise of Islam, from c. 630 AD onwards, Arabic began to spread throughout the Middle East, first as the language of religion, then later as the language of bureaucracy, and ultimately as the new lingua franca. As such, it was Arabic that finally ended the long and influential dominance of Aramaic in the region. To this day, the majority of the formerly Aramaic-speaking world – including Syria itself – now uses Arabic almost universally.
Aramaic remains a living language in the modern world, although it is highly endangered. To this day, Aramaic's roots in ancient Aram are attested to, by the fact that the only remaining native speakers of (non-Syriac / non-Mandaic) Aramaic, are the residents of a handful of remote villages, in the mountains of Syria near Damascus. It seems that Aramaic's heyday, as the de facto language of much of the civilised world, has long passed. Linguistically speaking, Syria has long since been "under the influence"; nevertheless, Syria's linguistic heyday still lives on in an isolated corner of the nation's patchwork.
Syria and the Empires
After the conquest of Syria by the Assyrians in c. 900 BC, Syria continued to be ruled by neighbouring or distant empires for the next 1,500 years. Towards the end of the 7th century BC, the Assyrians were overshadowed by the Babylonians, and by c. 600 BC the Babylonians had conquered Syria. Shortly after, the Babylonians were overwhelmed by the growing might of the Persian Empire, and by c. 500 BC Syria was under Persian dominion. Little is known about Syria during these years, apart from accounts of numerous rebellions (particularly under Assyrian rule). However, it seems unlikely that the changes of governance in this era had any noticeable cultural or political effect on Syria.
All that changed c. 330 BC, when Alexander the Great conquered Syria – along with conquering virtually the entire Persian Empire in all its vastness – and Syria, for the first time, fell under the influence of an Empire to its west, rather than to its east (it also came to be known as "Syria" only from this time onward, as the name is of Greek origin). The Greeks built a new capital, Antioch, which dealt a severe blow to Damascus, and which shifted Syria's seat of power to the north for the first time (the Greeks also established Aleppo, which they called Beroea; from its onset, the city was of some importance). The Greeks also imposed their language and religion upon Syria, as they did upon all their Empire; however, these failed to completely replace the Aramaic language and the old religious worship, which continued to flourish outside of the Greek centres.
Syria remained firmly under occidental dominion for quite some time thereafter. The Armenian kingdom conquered Greek Syria in 83 BC, although the Armenians held on to it for only a brief period. Syria was conquered by the Romans, and was made a Roman province in 64 BC; this marked the start of more than 300 years of Syrian administration directly by Imperial Rome.
Syria remained subordinate during this time; however, Antioch was one of the largest and most powerful cities of the Empire (surpassed only by Rome and Byzantium), and as such, it enjoyed a certain level of autonomy. As in the Greek era, Syria continued to be influenced by both the Imperial language (now Latin – although Greek remained more widely-used than Latin in Syria and its neighbours), and by the Imperial religion ("Greco-Roman"); and as in Greek times, this influence continued to grow, but it never completely engulfed Syria.
Syria was also heavily influenced by, and heavily influential in, the birth and early growth of Christianity. From c. 252 AD, Antioch became the home of the world's first organised Christian Church, which later became the Antiochian Orthodox Church (this Church has since moved its headquarters to Damascus). It is said that Paul the Apostle was converted while travelling on the Road to Damascus – thus giving Damascus, too, a significant role in the stories of the New Testament.
From 260 to 273 AD, Syria was controlled by the rebel group of the Roman Empire that governed from Palmyra, a city in central Syria. This rebel government was crushed by the Romans, and Syria and its neighbouring provinces subsequently returned to Roman rule. For the next hundred or so years, the split of the Roman Empire into Western and Eastern halves developed in various stages; until c. 395 AD, when Constantinople (formerly known as Byzantium) officially became the capital of the new Eastern Roman Empire (or "Byzantine Empire"), and Syria (along with its neighbours) became a Byzantine province.
Both the capital (Antioch), and the province of Syria in general, continued to flourish for the next several hundred years of Byzantine rule (including Aleppo, which was second only to Antioch in this era) – until the Muslim conquest of Syria in c. 635 AD, when Antioch fell into a steep decline from which it never recovered. Antioch was finally destroyed c. 1260 AD, thus terminating the final stronghold of Byzantine influence in Syria.
The Muslim conquest of Syria
In 636 AD, the Muslims of Arabia conquered Syria; and Caliph Muawiya I declared Damascus his new home, as well as the capital of the new Islamic world. This marked a dramatic and sudden change for Syria: for the first time in almost 1,000 years, Damascus was re-instated as the seat of power; and, more importantly, Syria was to return to Semitic rule after centuries of Occidental rule.
This also marked the start of Syria's Golden Age: for the first and only time in its history, Syria was to be the capital of a world empire, a serious "mover" and an influencer. Under the Ummayad dynasty, Syria commanded an empire of considerable proportions, stretching all the way from Spain to India. Much of the wealth, knowledge, and strength of this empire flowed directly to the rulers in Damascus.
During the Ummayad Caliphate, Syria was home to an Arab Muslim presence for the first time. The Empire's ruling elite were leading families from Mecca, who moved permanently to Damascus. The conquerors were ultimately the first and the only rulers, in Syria's history, to successfully impose a new language and a new religion on almost the entire populace. However, the conversion of Syria was not an overnight success story: in the early years of the Caliphate, the population of Syria remained predominantly Aramaic- and Greek-speaking, as well as adherents to the old "pagan" religions. It wasn't until many centuries later, that Syria became the majority Arab-speaking, Islam-adherent place that it is today. The fact that Syria being anything other than an "Arab Muslim country" seems far-fetched to a modern reader, is testament to the thoroughness with which the Ummayads and their successors undertook their transformation campaign.
Syria's Golden Age ended in 750 AD, with the Abbasid Dynasty replacing the Ummayads as rulers of the Islamic world, and with the Empire's capital shifting from Damascus to Baghdad. The rest of Syria's history through Medieval times was far from Golden – the formerly prosperous and unified region was divided up and conquered many times over.
A variety of invaders left their mark on Syria in these centuries: Byzantines successfully re-captured much of the north, and even briefly conquered Damascus in 975 AD; the Seljuk Turks controlled much of Syria from Damascus (and Aleppo) c. 1079-1104 AD; Crusaders invaded Syria (along with its neighbours), and caused rampant damage and bloodshed, during the various Crusades that took place throughout the 1100's AD; the Ayyubid Dynasty of Egypt (under Saladin and his successors) intermittently ruled Syria throughout the first half of the 1200's AD; the Mongols attacked Syria numerous times between 1260 and 1300 AD (but failed to conquer Syria or the Holy Land); the Mamluks ruled Syria (from Egypt) for most of the period 1260-1516 AD; and Tamerlane of Samarkand attacked Syria in 1400 AD, sacking both Aleppo and Damascus, and massacring thousands of the inhabitants (before being driven out again by the Mamluks).
It should also be noted that at some point during these turbulent centuries, the Alawite ethnic group and religious sect was born in the north-west of Syria, and quietly grew to dominate the villages of the mountains and the coastal plains near Latakia. The Alawites remained an isolated and secluded rural group until modern times.
These tumultuous and often bloody centuries of Syrian history came to an end in the 1500s, when the Ottoman Turks defeated the Mamluks, and wrested control of Syria and neighbouring territories from them. The subsequent four centuries, under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, marked a welcome period of peace and stability for Syria (in contrast to the devasation of the Crusader and Mongol invasion waves in prior centuries). However, the Ottomans also severely neglected Syria, along with the rest of the Levant, treating the region ever-increasingly as a provincial backwater.
The Ottomans made Aleppo the Syrian capital, thus shifting Syria's power base back to the north after almost nine centuries of Damascus rule (although by this time, Antioch had long been lying in ruins). In the Ottoman period, Aleppo grew to become Syria's largest city (and one of the more important cities of the Empire), far outstripping Damascus in terms of fame and fortune. However, Syria under the Ottomans was an impoverished province of an increasingly ageing empire.
The modern world galloped abruptly into Syria on 1 Oct 1918, when the 10th Australian Light Horse Brigade formally accepted the surrender of Damascus by the Ottoman Empire, on behalf of the WWI Allied Forces. The cavalry were shortly followed by the arrival of Lawrence of Arabia, who helped to establish Emir Faisal as the interim leader of a British-backed Syrian government. Officially, from 1918-1920, Syria fell under the British- and French-headed Occupied Enemy Territory Administration.
For the first time since the end of the Ummayad Caliphate, almost 12 centuries prior, Syria became a unified sovereign power again on 7 Mar 1920, when Faisal became king of a newly-declared independent Greater Syria (and as with Caliph Muawiya 12 centuries earlier, King Faisal was also from Mecca). Faisal had been promised Arab independence and governorship by the Allies during WWI, in return for the significant assistance that he and his Arabian brethren provided in the defeat of the Ottomans. However, the Allies failed to live up to their promise: the French successfully attacked the fledgling kingdom; and on 14 Jul 1920, Syria's brief independence ended, and the French Mandate of Syria began its governance. King Faisal was shortly thereafter sent into exile.
Syria had enjoyed a short yet all-too-sweet taste of independence in 1920, for the first time in centuries; and under the French Mandate, the people of Syria demonstrated on numerous occasions that the tasting had left them hungry for permanent self-determination. France, however – which was supposedly filling no more than a "caretaker" role of the region, and which was supposedly no longer a colonial power – consistently crushed Syrian protests and revolts in the Mandate period with violence and mercilessness, particularly in the revolt of 1925.
During the French Mandate, the Alawites emerged as a significant force in Syria for the first time. Embittered by centuries of discrimination and repression under Ottoman rule, this non-Sunni muslim group – along with other minority groups, such as the Druze – were keen to take advantage of the ending of the old status quo in Syria.
Under their governance, the French allowed the north-west corner of Syria – which was at the time known by its Ottoman name, the Sanjuk of Alexandretta – to fall into Turkish hands. This was a major blow to the future Syrian state – although the French hardly cared about Syria's future; they considered the giving-away of the region as a good political move with Turkey. The region was declared the independent Republic of Hatay in 1938; and in 1939, the new state voted to join Turkey as Hatay Province. This region is home to the ruins of Antioch, which was (as discussed earlier) the Syrian capital for almost 1,000 years. It is therefore understandable that Hatay continues to be a thorn in Syrian-Turkish relations to this day.
Syria adopted various names under French rule. From 1922, it was called the "Syrian Federation" for several years; and from 1930, it was called the Syrian Republic. Also, in 1936, Syria signed a treaty of independence from France. However, despite the treaties and the name changes, in reality Syria remained under French Mandate control (including during WWII, first under Vichy French rule and then under Free French rule) until 1946, when the last French troops finally left for good.
Syria has been a sovereign nation (almost) continuously since 17 Apr 1946. However, the first few decades of modern independent Syria were turbulent. Syria experiened numerous changes of government during the 1950s, several of which were considered coups. From 1958-1961, Syria ceded its independence and formed the United Arab Republic with Eygpt; however, this union proved short-lived, and Syria regained its previous sovereignty after the UAR's collapse. Syria has officially been known as the Syrian Arab Republic since re-declaring its independence on 28 Sep 1961.
Syria's government remained unstable for the following decade: however, in 1963, the Ba'ath party took over the nation's rule; and since then, the Ba'ath remain the ruling force in Syria to this day. The Ba'ath themselves experienced several internal coups for the remainder of the decade. Finally, in Nov 1970, then Defence Minister Hafez al-Assad orchestrated a coup; and Syria's government has effectively remained unchanged from that time to the present day. Hafez al-Assad was President until his death in 2000; at which point he was succeeded by his son Bashar al-Assad, who remains President so far amidst Syria's recent return to tumult.
The Assad family is part of Syria's Alawite minority; and for the entire 42-year reign of the Assads, the Alawites have come to dominate virtually the entire top tier of Syria's government, bureaucracy, military, and police force. Assad-ruled Syria has consistently demonstrated favouritism towards the Alawites, and towards various other minority groups (such as the Druze); while flagrantly discriminating against Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, and against larger minority groups (such as the Kurds). Syria's current civil war is, therefore, rooted in centuries-old sectarian bitterness as a highly significant factor.
Modern independent Syria continues its age-old tradition of both being significantly influenced by other world powers, and of exerting an influence of its own (particularly upon its neighbours), in a rather tangled web. Syria has been a strong ally of Russia for the majority of its independent history, in particular during the Soviet years, when Syria was considered to be on the USSR's side of the global Cold War. Russia has provided arms to Syria for many years, and to this day the majority of the Syrian military's weapons arsenal is of Soviet origin. Russia demonstrated its commitment to its longstanding Syrian alliance as recently as last month, when it and China (who acted in support of Russia) vetoed a UN resolution that aimed to impose international sanctions on the Syrian regime.
Syria has also been a friend of Iran for some time, and is considered Iran's closest ally. The friendship between these two nations began in the 1980s, following Iran's Islamic revolution, when Syria supported Iran in the Iran-Iraq War. In the recent crisis, Iran has been the most vocal supporter of the Assad regime, repeatedly asserting that the current conflict in Syria is being artificially exacerbated by US intervention. Some have commented that Iran and Syria are effectively isolated together – that is, neither has any other good friends that it can rely on (even a number of other Arab states, most notably Saudi Arabia, have vocally shunned the regime) – and that as such, the respective Ayatollah- and Alawite-ruled regimes will be allies to the bitter end.
In terms of exerting an influence of its own, the principal example of this in modern Syria is the state's heavy sponsorship of Hezbollah, and its ongoing intervention in Lebanon, on account of Hezbollah among other things. Syria supports Hezbollah for two reasons: firstly, in order to maintain a strong influence within Lebanese domestic politics and power-plays; and secondly, as part of its ongoing conflict with Israel.
Of the five Arab states that attacked Israel in 1948 (and several times again thereafter), Syria is the only one that still has yet to establish a peace treaty with the State of Israel. As such – despite the fact that not a single bullet has been fired between Israeli and Syrian forces since 1973 – the two states are still officially at war. Israel occupied the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six-Day War, and remains in control of the highly disputed territory to this day. The Golan Heights has alternated between Israeli and Syrian rule for thousands of years – evidence suggests that the conflict stretches back as far as Israelite-Aramean disputes three millenia ago – however, the area is recognised as sovereign Syrian territory by the international community today.
The story continues
As I hope my extensive account of the land's narrative demonstrates, Syria is a land that has seen many rulers and many influences come and go, for thousands of years. Neither conflict, nor revolution, nor foreign intervention, are anything new for Syria.
The uprising against Syria's ruling Ba'ath government began almost 18 months ago, and it has become a particularly brutal and destructive conflict in recent months. It seems unlikely that Syria's current civil war will end quickly – on the contrary, it appears to be growing ever-increasingly drawn-out, at this stage. Various international commentators have stated that it's "almost certain" that the Assad regime will ultimately fall, and that it's now only a matter of time. Personally, I wouldn't be too quick to draw such conclusions – as my historical investigations have revealed, Syria is a land of surprises, as well as a land where webs of interrelations stretch back to ancient times.
The Assad regime was merely the latest chapter in Syria's long history; and whatever comes next, will merely be the land's following chapter. For a land that has witnessed the rise and fall of almost every major empire in civilised history; that has seen languages, religions, and ethnic groups make their distinctive mark and leave their legacy; for such a land as this, the current events – dramatic, tragic, and pivotal though they may be – are but a drop in the ocean.