The Syria of today offers tourists as much a cultural experience as a sightseeing one, where ancient history provides a fascinating backdrop to everyday life on the streets                          

 


Syrian Provinces History

Words and Pictures

تاريخ المدن السورية

كلمات و صور

Very Early History of Syria

Very Early History

Damascus is known to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. There is firm evidence that in the third millennium BC, Damascus was a population center of a civilization that was considerably prosperous and economically influential. The earliest reference to the city was found in the archaeological site of Ebla in 1975; where the word "Damaski" was found on one of the clay tablets. Some historians believe that the city actually dates back to the seventh millennium BC.

Aramaeans and Assyrians

However, there is no knowledge about how Damascus was in the third millennium BC. The documented history of the city starts in the second millennium BC, in the Amorite period, when Damascus became the capital of a small Aramaean principality. Aramaeans spoke a northern Arabian dialect of Arabic, later called Syriac or Aramaic. They originated from the Arabian Peninsula and moved northwards to settle in the Fertile Crescent. The moderate climate and fertile soil of Syria made it an ideal place for the settlement of the Aramaeans. Being a natural oasis irrigated by the River Barada, Damascus became an increasingly important city in the Aramaean Kingdom, as mentioned in the Old Testament. It's said that city used to be known as "Dar Meshq", which stands for "a well-watered place".

Threat to the Aramaean kingdoms came from the east, where the Assyrians of Mesopotamia were trying to expand their territory. After several battles, the Assyrian armies managed to reach the Syrian coast and in 841 BC, Damascus was besieged and taken by King Hadad Niari III.

It is most probable that the remains of the Aramaean town lie buried under the eastern part of the old walled city. However, excavation of the area is almost impossible because of the architectural value of the monuments and buildings standing there today. It is beleived that the major buildings of the Aramaean era were the Temple of Hadad and the Royal Palace. The Temple was built on the site now occupied by the Great Omayyad Mosque, and was dedicated to Hadad, the god of storm. Ruins believed to have belonged to the Temple were found in 1949 during restorations in the Omayyad Mosque.

Persians and Seleucids

Sovereignty over Damascus passed from the Assyrians to the Chaldaeans (Neo-Babylonians) under King Nebuchadnezzar in 572 BC. Babylonian domination came to an end in 538 BC, when Cyrus, King of Persia, took the city and established it as the capital of the Persian province of Syria. The year 333 BC was a turning point in Syria's history; in this year, the armies of Alexander the Great swept through the near east, marking the start of an age of classical civilization that lasted until 630 AD. It was the first time that Damascus came under western control.

After the breakup of the Macedonian Empire upon the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, Damascus had to face the instability caused by the struggle between the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires.

Seleucus, Alexander's successor, made Syria the heart of an empire that included all Asia Minor, up to Iran and Afghanistan. He made Antioch the capital, but Damascus remained to be the most prominent political and economic center in the Fertile Crescent. During the wars between the Seleucids and the Ptolemaic Egyptian Empire, the control over Damascus passed rapidly from one side to the other.

The Greek era lasted for 250 years, but left very few traces in Damascus. There was much interaction between the local inhabitants of Damascus and the new Greek community, which resulted in Damascenes adopting many aspects of the Greek culture, especially in social and economic fields. The decay of the Seleucid Kingdom allowed the Nabataeans to conquer Damascus in the beginning of the first century BC. In 72 BC, the armies of Armenia took over Damascus for a short while before the Roman coquest.

Romans and Byzantines

In 64 BC, the Roman General Pompey annexed Syria and declared it as a province of the Roman Empire. While some Syrian principalities, like Palmyra, were granted a certain degree of autonomy, Damascus was under full control of Roman and Byzantine authorities. The city flourished as a result of political stability and economic growth that accompanied the expansion of the Roman Empire. Damascus gained a significant economic importance as the crossroads on the east-west tarde route. Damascene products such as swords, glassware and cloth became renowned throughout the Empire. This prosperity led to further expansion of the city.

In the second century AD, Emperor Hadrian gave Damascus the status of Metropolis, and the city began to play a greater role in the politics of the Empire. Under Alexander Severus, it was raised to the rank or Roman Colony, and under Emperor Diocletian, it became the headquarters of the Roman armies in the eastern Empire.

It was during this period that Christianity was introduced to Damascus, shortly after the death of Christ. It had already taken root there by the time St. Paul arrived in Damascus in 34 AD. It was on the road to Damascus that he had the vision not to carry out his mission of arresting all Christians in Damascus. He converted to Christianity and was cured of blindness by a native Damascene, Ananias. Damascus soon became an important center of Christianity and its bishop used to be considered the most important ecclesiastical figure after the Bishop of Antioch. A theological school was built in Damascus, attracting scholars such as Sophronius, Andrew of Crete and St. John of Damascus.

The Romans incorporated the Aramaean and Greek sectors of the city to form into a uniform city plan and built a broad wall encircling the whole area. Seven gates were built at intervals along the wall and were named after the stars in the constellation of the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades. Damascus was divided by the Street Called Straight, which was mentioned in the bible in connection with St. Paul's conversion to Christianity. The Street connected and still connects the Eastern Gate (Bab Sharqi) to Bab al-Jabieh. Along the length of the Street was an aqueduct supported by columns. A covered colonnade stood along its both sides of the Street, sheltering warehouses and stores.

The major construction in Damascus during the Roman era was the Temple of Jupiter. Some of its remains are still standing near the enterance of the Omayyad Moaque and Souk al-Hamidieh. It was built on the same site were the Aramaean temple once was. Another major construction was the Forum, located at the eastern side of the Great Mosque. A colonnaded street connected the Forum to the Temple of Jupiter, and its columns can still be found in al-Qaymariyyeh quarter.

With the breakup of the Roman Empire in 395 AD, Syria became a part of the eastern province of the Byzantine Empire. Under the new rulers, Damascus maintained its economic and strategic significance. To defend their eastern border against Persian attacks, the Byzantines fortified Damascus and turned it into a military headquarters, but they were still not able to face the continuous assaults from the east, so they entrusted the defense of Syria to the Ghassanids.

The Ghassanids were an Arabian tribe that had converted to Christianity in the fourth century. They assisted the Byzantine governorsof Damascus and defended the area against the Sassanid Persians. However, in 612, the Persian king Chosraes II invaded Damascus, and the Persians ruled the city until 627, when Byzantine rule was restored.

Byzantine Damascus remained much the same as it had during the Roman period, except for the mass construction of churches and the transformation of the Temple of Jupiter into a cathedral dedicated to St. John the Baptist in the fourth century. In addition to this cathedral, 16 churches were built in and around Damascus. The Church of al-Mosallaba was built near the Eastern Gate at the site where the Chapel of Ananias now stands. The site has been chosen because it's thought to be the place where St. Paul was cured of his blindness after his vision on the road to Damascus. Two churches were also built in this area: The Church of al-Maqsala'at and the Church of Mariam (Mary), which was replaced by the Maryamiyyah Church which still stands there today. There are descriptions of other churches, but no remains of which were found.

The only notable Ghassanid architectural contribution to Damascus was al-Baris Citadel, which was built in the center of the city on the Street Called Straight. There are also descriptions of a palace for Ghassanid princes.

The Omayyads

The year 635 was a turning point in the history of Damascus. In March 635, Muslim armies under Khaled Ibn al-Walid entered Damascus and annexed Syria to the quickly expanding Muslim empire. The Muslims had traveled from the Arabian Peninsula northwards, inspired by their new religion, facing little resistance on their way. But Damascus proved to be more than an obstacle to the invaders; the city held against attacks for six months before a committee of Damascene notables surrendered the city to the Muslim leaders.

Islam brought to Damascus a new set of cultural, economic and social rules. The way of life changed in accordance with the teachings of the Quran, the holy book of Islam. There was mass conversion to Islam, but Jews and Christians, who now became a minority, were treated with tolerance by the Muslims. Christians and Muslims prayed side by side in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, before Muslim rulers decided to build the Great Mosque on the same site.

In 661, a golden age started for Damascus when Muawiyah Bin Abi Sufian established himself as the fifth caliph or successor of the prophet, founding the Omayyad Dynasty that continued to rule the Muslim empire for about one century. Muawiyah made Damascus the capital of his empire, which was expanding to the east and the west. Soon, Damascus became the most important cultural, economic and political center in an empire that stretched from Spain and shores of the Atlantic Ocean to Iran and India.

Each of the 14 Omayyad caliphs that ruled Damascus, made their own contribution to the city, either by building mosques and palaces, patronizing arts and sciences, or developing the administrative system. The first palace they built was Qasr al Amara or Qasr al Khadra (the Green Palace), so named because of its splendid green dome. The palace was built very close to the Great Mosque and it was used by most Omayyad caliphs. It was destroyed after the Abbasids took over the city, so nothing remains of it today.

Omayyads built tens of palaces, some of them outside the city walls as country residences. The most prolific builder amongst the Omayyad Caliphs is said to have been al-Walid (who was responsible for building the Great Mosque), Hisham and Yazid. The Omayyad rulers were also responsible for the introduction of new styles of art and architecture which were mainly inspired by Islam. These new styles combined with Byzantine and Persian influences to produce the Great Omayyad Mosque, Damascus' greatest monument. The Mosque, built between 705 and 715, was the first of its type and became the blueprint for other mosques throughout the Islamic world.

The center of the city remained behind the city walls, but suburbs like Shaghour, Midan and Qanawat were built to incorporate the growing population. As houses crowded the limited area of the walled city, Damascus became a labyrinth of passageways rather than the Roman streamlined city. It was served by an advanced water supply system built by Yazid, the son of Muawiyah. A canal, called Nahr Yazid (Yazid's River) was constructed to divert water from River Barada to the houses inside and outside the walls, and to supply Hammams (Baths) that sprang up all over the city in that period.

To the south and west of the Old City were two large open spaces. One was Haql al-Husa (field of pebbles) and the other was Marj al-Akhdar (Green Meadow), the site where Damascus International Fair is held today. In these two sites, Omayyad princes spent their leisure times, watching horse races and various tournaments.

The Abbasids

In 750 the golden age of Damascus came to an abrupt end. The Abbasids, a powerful Arab family that had settled in Iran and led the opposition against the Omayyad rule, swept from the east and occupied Damascus, killing the Omayyad Caliph and putting an end to the Omayyad Caliphate. The new rulers, with the aim of eradicating all traces of the Omayyad rule, set about defacing Damascus and tearing down all the great buildings constructed by the Omayyads. They moved the capital of the Islamic empire to Baghdad, and Damascus became just a provincial town with a declining population and a declining role in politics and culture. The next three centuries were marked by successive assaults and civil strife, and Damascus continued to lose its strategic importance in the empire.

Most of the city was burnt down, including the anterior of the Great Mosque. No effort was made to maintain the beautiful buildings left by the Omayyads. An Abbasid palace was built for the city's governor on the site of Qasr al-Khadra; it was destroyed in a riot in 1069.

Political developments in the Empire in 878 led to Tulunid rule in Damascus. Ahmad Bin Tulun, a Turk from Central Asia, was appointed in 868 as a governor of Egypt by the Abbasid Caliph, but he soon proclaimed independence. He later decided to expand his rule and took Damascus in 878. From this time until the takeover of the Fatimids, Damascus witnessed political disturbances that were usually accompanied by violence and shortages. The city was easily overrun by the Ikhshidis then the Hamdanid dynasty of Aleppo. The Ikhshidis regained the city but in 969, they were driven out by the powerful Fatimids of Egypt. It took the Fatimids only six months to establish themselves as the new rulers of Damascus.

The Fatimids

During their century-long rein, the Fatimids had to face internal opposition and external enemies, including the Qarmatians, the Turks, the Byzantines and the Seljuks. The most serious internal revolt occured in 975, when Atfakin, a Turkish general, managed to take over the governorship of Damascus. He was ousted after two years when the Fatimids conquered the city. Political instability resulted in great economic hardships for the people of Damascus. There was a sharp decrease in the population with the increasing poverty and inflation.

All this had effect on the city planning. Houses were built close together and quarters built fortified gates and fences for protection. Young men of each quarter formed local militias called "Ahdath" to defend inhabitants against aggressive neighbours. The division of the old city into separate quarters led to a significant increase in the number of mosques, as each quarter wanted to build its own. By the 12th century, there were 242 mosques in the Old City alone. The Fatimids left no great artistic heritage behind.

The Seljuks and the Atabegs

In 1076, the Fatimids lost control over Damascus to the Seljuks, a Turkish tribe that converted to Islam in the 10th century. Syria fell victim to rivalries between Seljuk princes, the country was split into two to satisfy the ambitions of the two Seljuk brothers, Redwan and Duqaq. Ridwan governed northern Syria and Aleppo, while Duqaq became the ruler of Damascus. He was a weak ruler, and when he died, the Atabeg dynasty, established by Tughtakin, took over.

The Assasins, under their leader Bahram, were the greatest threat to Tughtakin. The Assasins carried out a series of political assasinations in an attempt to take power, and the Atabeg leader had to give Bahram the castle Banyas (western Syria) just to get rid of him and his threats.

Another more serious threat came from Europe this time. In 1069 the First Crusade was launched, starting two centuries of conflict in the Middle East. By 1099, the Crusaders had taken over Jerusalem, the city with religious significance for both Muslims and Christians. The truce that Tughtakin held with the Crusaders did not last long; in 1113, an army of Damascenes and followers of Sharaf Addin Mawdud of Musul, defeated the Crusader King Baldwin I near lake Tiberias.

The period up until the arrival of Nour Ed-Din in 1154 was marked by attacks, counter attacks and seiges. Nour Ed-Din appeared on the scene at the time of the Second Crusade, when Damascus was beseiged by Crusaders under the leadership of three European kings: Baldwin III, Louis VII and Conrad III. Nour Ed-Din defeated the Crusader armies, driving them back from the walls of Damascus. The people of the city opened their gates and welcomed their new ruler and his armies. He used Damascus as the base for his military campaigns. His victories led to a rapprochement with the Fatimid Caliph in Cairo, and soon Syria and Egypt were united.

The Seljuk and Atabeg eras brought an artistic and architectural revival to Damascus. A citadel was built in 1078 to house the ruler of the city as well as to provide a military stronghold. Tens of schools (Madrassas) were built across the city. Nour Ed-Din was a great patron of art and architecture. Many monuments carried his name and some still stand today: The Maristan (Hospital) of Nour Ed-Din, the Hammam (Bath) of Nour Ed-Din and the Madrassa (School) of Nour Ed-Din. He also ordered the construction of a Shams al-Muluk Palace and the renovation of the city's walls and gates.

The Ayyubids

Nour Ed-Din died in 1174 and was succeeded by his eleven-year-old son, whose regent tried to take power. However, his plans were thwarted by the arrival of Salah Ed-Din (Saladin). Saladin had been appointed by Nour Ed-Din as a Vizier and commander of the Syrian forces in Egypt. He had gained a reputation of being a skilled military and political leader. Fearful that the city would fall into the hands of a weak leader, Saladin took over Damascus, starting the rule of the Ayyubid dynasty.

After successive military victories over the Crusaders and the liberation of Jerusalem, Saladin was seen as the champion of the Arabs and the arch enemy of the Crusader invaders. By his death in 1193, he had expanded his control over an empire that included Syria, northern Mesopotamia, Hijaz, Nubia, Yemen and Egypt. The irony was that when he died after four years of successful campaigns against the Crusaders, he left a fortune of no more than 47 dinars.

After the death of Saladin, his empire was divided between his three sons. One of them, Al-Afdal became the ruler of Damascus, but was overthrown by his uncle, Al-Malik Al-Adil, who moved the Ayyubid capital to Cairo. When Al-Adil died, the power of the Ayyubids was weakened by family feuds that allowed the Crusaders to reoccupy some cities that had been liberated by Saladin. By 1229, the Crusaders had regained control over Jerusalem, Nazareth and the Ayyubids were still being weakened by dynastic disputes.

In 1260, Damascus was occupied by another enemy, this time coming from the east. The Tartars under their leader, Houlagou, besieged the city for one month before taking over the city. However, they did not stay for long, as they were driven out by the Memluks, led by Sultan Baybars. The Ayyubids were to weak to resist, and Damascus easily fell to the Memluks.

The Memluks

The period between the Memluk takeover in 1260 and the invasion of Tamurlane in 1400 was one of a relative prosperity to Damascus. After driving the Tartars out, Sultan Baybars established Memluk sovereignty over the city and continued to fight against the Crusaders. One after another, the Crusader strongholds fell into the Memluk hands and were annexed to the Memluk empire which was ruled from Cairo.

A new sophisticated administration system was introduced. Two governors were appointed to run the city affairs: The Governor of the Citadel was appointed directly from the central government in Cairo, while his subordinate, the Governor of the City, was appointed by Memluk princes and notables who resided in Damascus. An army of officials was appointed to help the Governor of the City, and thus, he was able to intrigue against the Governor of the Citadel.

Many competed for the governorship, and the position passed into different hands 60 times during the period between 1312 and 1340. However, this was a period of great stability and prosperity under the governorship of Tankiz. His overthrow in 1340 marked the beginning of Memluk decline as Damascus did not find another strong leader that can bring back political stability. At the end of the 14th century, the governor of Damascus, Tanabik, made a fatal mistake by launching a military campaign against his Memluk overlords in Cairo.

Atabik left Damascus leading is armies against Cairo, only to be defeated. At the same time he lost the now vulnerable Damascus to the Mongols under the leadership of Tanurlane. The notorious leader of the Tartars did not spare the city nor its people. The stories of how he put all male population to the sword, raped and imprisoned women, looted and destroyed mosques and schools, and burnt down much of the city, had become legendary. Tamurlane only left after the people of Damascus bought their freedom back for the sum of a million pieces of gold. He took the celebrated Damascene craftsmen back with him to his capital, Samarkand, and from that time on, the Damascus blades were manufactured in that city.

Before the invasion of Tamurlane in 1400, Damascus was a flourishing city. As the second most important city in the Memluk empire, the development of Damascus was put high on the list of Memluk priorities. Ideally situated on the trade route between east and west, the city attracted foreign traders who particularly impressed by the quality of its luxury items that were being produced for Memluk Sultans, such as silk brocades, fine glass, copperware and brassware.

The Memluks were also great contributors to the Damascus' architectural heritage. The city grew rapidly with the new wealth generated. There was little room for building in the Old City, and most Memluk buildings that can be seen today are found outside the Old City. Salhiyyeh quarter underwent a surge of building and developed into a twon of its own, with 500 mosques, 10 khans (motels), 20 baths and a number of different markets. The map of Damascus at the time shows that, unlike in former periods, the city was completely surrounded by suburbs.

The Memluks built lots of mosques and introduced the idea of the minaret as an essential element in a mosque. Before this period, only the Great Omayyad Mosque and few other mosques had minarets. The most notable exapmles of Memluk minarets in Damascus are those of Hisham al-Qali, al-Aqsab and Al-Sabuniyyeh mosques. One of the major constructions of the Memluk era was Al-Ablaq Palace, which was built by Sultan Baybars on the site where the Tekiyyeh Sulaymaniyeh mosque stands today. A thriving commercial area grew around the Palace and was called al-Marjeh, it's the same site known today as the Marjeh Square or the Martyrs Square.

Unfortunately, Memluk Damascus never recovered from the blow that Temurlane gave it. The city declined with successive shortages, epidemics and constant political instability and attacks from Bedouin raiding parties. The Memluks could no longer hold on when their armies were defeated by the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Selim I in northern Syria. In 1516, the Ottomans took control over Damascus.

The Ottomans

From 1516 to 1918, Damascus was under Ottoman occupation. The Ottoman dynasty was established in Turkey in 1299, they started invading the weak, divided Arab states in Syria and Iraq, and by mid 16th century, they managed to dominate large parts of the Near East.

A Memluk defector became the first Ottoman governor of Damascus. Janbirdi al-Ghazali helped Sultan Selim capture Damascus, and was rewarded for his betrayal by giving him the governorship of the city. When Selim died, Ghazali proclaimed himself Sultan of Syria, but his ambitions were stopped by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who quickly intervened. Sine then, governors of Damascus were directly appointed from the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Constantinople (Istanbul).

Suleiman the Magnificent divided the Fertile Crescent into 3 vilayets (provinces): Damascus, Aleppo and Tripoli. Damascus became the administrative capital of the vilayet that included the sanjaks (smaller administrative areas) of Gaza, Nablus, Palmyra, Sido, Beirut and Jerusalem.

In 1634, the Ottomans were forced to cede rule over Syria to the very powerful warlord of Mount Lebanon, Fakhr Eddin el-Ma'ni. He governed the area with very little interference from the Ottoman authorities until the central government in Costantipole ordered its armies based in Damascus to destroy his power bases in Lebanon. The Ottomans won and Damascus was reinforced with Ottoman troops. The governors of Damascus, who in the 18th century were chosen from the Damascene Azem family, were unable to put an end to armed incursions from Lebanon. Another threat came from the Memluks of Egypt, who sent armed forces that succeeded in capturing Damascus in 1771. The Memluks left shortly after, but left the city to the power thriving Ahmad Al-Jazzar, who entrenched himself in Syria and forced the Ottoman Sultan to recognize him as the governor of Damascus.

The 19th century witnessed a further decline in the Ottoman Empire. The governor of Damascus, Selim Pasha, was killed by his townspeople in 1831. Next year, Ottoman forces were driven out of Syria by Ibrahim Pasha, son of Muhammad Ali, the self-proclaimed ruler of Egypt. Damascus was subject to enlightened and reformist Egyptian administration between 1832 and 1840. Only British intervention was able to stop Ibrahim Pasha's conquests, and after fierce naval battles, he was forced to return to Egypt and Ottoman rule was restored in Syria.

The foreign powers that helped restoring the Ottoman rule in Syria took advantage of the weak Ottoman administration to achieve their own economic aims. Foreign merchants poured to Damascus to buy raw materials that were processed by the new machines of the industrial revolution. The British had the first foreign consulate opened in Damascus in 1834 and other western powers followed soon after.

During World War I, the Ottomans sided with Germany, and Syria was drawn into the conflict. An Arab revolution against Turkish rule started from Hijaz under leadership of Sherfi Hussein of Mecca. In 1918, Arab troups under his son. Faisal, entered Damascus along with British forces, marking the end of a four-century long Ottoman occupation.

Damascus witnessed great changes during the Ottoman era. Most building took place during the first century of the Ottoman rule, when the empire was economically and militarily strong. Immediately after taking Damascus, Sultan Selim I built the Tkiyyeh Mosque. Similar projects were unbdertaken by Darwish Pasha in 1574 and Sinan Pasha in 1586. Darwish Pasha was also responsible for building the Silk Souk, a bath and a khan inside the walled Old City. In the same period, Murad Pasha built another souk that was crowned by a huge dome supported by remaining columns of the Roman Temple of Jupiter, but this souk was later destroyed by fire and no longer exists today.

The governorship of the wealthy Azem family in the 18th century brought a building bloom to Damascus. Tens of baths, khans, schools and souks were built, most of which still remain today. Ismael Pasha built the school in Souk al-Khayyatin (tailors' market) and his successor, Suleiman Pasha built the khan in the Street Called Straight in 1732. Rge finest Azem-sponsored buildings in Damascus owe their existence to Assaad Pasha al-Azem, whose architectural legacy includes the Azem Palace, a typical example of luxury Damascene houses.

Damascus grew to twice its former size during the 19th century. The city was streamlined with new avenues, and many new souks were constructed in residential areas, including Souk al-Hamidiyyeh, Souk Medhat Pasha, Souk Nazem Pasha and Souk Ali Pasha, all named after the governors who ordered their construction.

Post World War I

Damascus became a major center of Arab nationalism in the early 20th century. In April 1915, a committee of Damascus leaders reached a secret agreement with Prince Faisal, son of Sherif Hussein of Mecca, in which they pledged to join forces against the Ottoman authorities. Negotiations then ensued between Britain and Sherif Hussein, and an agreement was reached whereby Britain guaranteed the independence of Syria, Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula after the war ends.

In 1916, the Great Arab Revolution, led by Sherif Hussein, was declared. On May 6, tens of national Syrian leaders were accused of spying and allying with foreign powers, and were hanged in Beirut in Marjeh Square in Damascus. Since then, the square is known as the Martyrs' Square. In 1918, Arab and British troops entered Damascus, ending four centuries of Ottoman rule. In the same year, a Syrian general conference declared Syria (including current-day Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan) an independent kingdom under King Faisal.

The newly won independence was short lived, however. In 1916, it was revealed that Britain and France had secretly concluded an agreement, known as the Sykes-Picot agreement, in which these two major powers carved the Middle East up into "spheres of influence". Ignoring the guarantees of independence promised to King Faisal earlier, the French army landed in Syria, imposed a mandate, and forced King Faisal into exile.

Syrians tried to resist. A poorly equipped army under Defense Minister Youssef Al-Azmah fought the French near the village of Maysaloon. The French acheived an easy victory, and Azmah was killed in battle. Other revolutions that sprang up in many parts of Syria were soon repressed by the new occupiers.

But still, Syrians did not accept the mandate. In 1925, the Great Syrian Revolt started from Jabal Al-Arab, southern Syria. Battles quickly spread to Damascus, and the French warplanes bombed the capital, causing much damage in parts of the Old City. In 1941, during World War II, France recognized Syrian independence, but France kept its military presence on Syrian soil, promising full independence after the war. When the French did not live up to their promise, Syrian revolted again. Damascus came under heavy bombardment again in May 1945 and the Parliament building was targeted. Growing international pressure forced France to leave. On April 17, 1946, the last French troops left Syrian soil.

Independence

The early years of independence were marked with political instability and successive coups d'etat. The national government of President Shukri Al-Qouwatli was overthrown in 1949 by Hussni Al-Zaim, who established a military dictatorial rule. Five other coups occured between 1949 and 1954. Syria also had to face regional instability. In 1948, the State of Israel was declared on Arab Palestinian territory. Syria was among Arab countries that sent troops to Palestine to prevent the creation of Israel. However, Arabs were defeated and armistice agreements were signed with Israel. It was only the start of the long Arab-Israeli conflict.

In 1958, Syria and Egypt were united under the United Arab Republic (UAR). The unity came to a soon end in 1961, when Syrian military took power in Damascus. In 1963, a new era started with the coup d'etat of Baath Arab Socialist Party, known today as the March Revolution. The Baath continued to rule Syria ever since.

 In 1967, Arabs and Israel went into war when Israel invaded Sinai of Egypt and the West Bank of Jordan on June 5. Four days later, Israeli troops broke through Syrian defense lines in the Golan Heights, and Syria lost the strategic Heights to Israel.

The early years of Baathist rule was also charectarized by instability and inter-party conflicts. Political stability was only achieved on the accession of power of President Hafez al-Assad on November 16, 1970. Assad was later elected President. In October 1973, he led the country into war to liberate the occupied Golan Heights. During the fighting, and while its troops were suffering great losses on the frontlines, Israel sent warplanes to bomb civilian targets in Damascus and other Syrian cities, causing damage and human losses. Although the war did not achieve the main goal of liberating the Golan, it proved to be a major moral victory for Arabs. In June 1974, Syria regained control over parts of the occupied Golan, including the main city of Quneitra.

Stability changed the face of Syria. There were major developments in industrial, agricultural and commercial sectors, and the capital, Damascus, continued to grow. It is estimated that more than 4 million people live in the city today.

 
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