the crossroads of historic military and trade routes between the
Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, Syria was the object of invasion and
occupation by powerful neighbors from earliest times.
Archaeological finds from the Stone Age confirm that Syria was one
of the areas in which early man lived and developed. Later, but
still in prehistoric times, Semitic-speaking peoples moved into the
territories of the original inhabitants. One such invasion was that
of the Amorites in the 3d millennium B.C. Later there were those of
the Canaanites (Phoenicians), Aramaeans, Hebrews, and similar tribes
of the same Arabian origin.
The earliest Syrian historical period was in the 2d millennium B.C.,
during the incursions of the Hittites from Asia Minor, who achieved
dominance in northern Syria. Egyptians conducted similar raids and
temporary occupations. Although it was the prey of both these
neighbors for centuries in the 2d millennium, Syria retained its
identity, Semitic dialects, and local autonomy in sizable areas.
As Hittite power declined, its place was assumed by the Assyrians of
northern Iraq. Assyrian monarchs, from the mid-8th century B.C.,
repeatedly occupied the more attractive Syrian areas, levied
tribute, and seized hostages. In the face of these and Egyptian
invasions the population centers of Syria could not maintain their
independence as city-states. Then, in the 6th century, the Persian
empire intervened and held hegemony over Syria for two centuries.
Persian domination ended in 332 B.C. with the conquest of Syria by
Alexander the Great. It was followed by three centuries of vigorous
Hellenization and the founding of important Greek cities. Under
Pompey in 64–63 B.C. the Roman occupation began. Rome administered
Syria as a Roman province but normally tolerated some local
self-rule. The language and traditions of the Syrian cities and
tribes survived, and most were spared the rigors inflicted on
Palestine, the cradle of a new religion, Christianity.
In 330 A.D., when the administrative center of the Roman world
shifted from Rome to Byzantium (Constantinople), Syria was little
affected, except for a greater spread of Christianity. Frequent
incursions and partial occupations by the Sassanian Persians
concerned the Syrians from the 4th to 7th centuries.
all its passively endured foreign invasions and occupations, Syria
had gained new experience of community life, politics, culture, and
ideas. Yet the Syrians were unprepared for the crucial event of 635.
In March of that year, the city faced the onslaught of the Islamic
armies that was very welcomed by the Syrians at large. The Muslims
had traveled north from the Arabian peninsula, inspired by their new
religion, and had come across little opposition (from the Romanians)
on their way.
Within a quarter century Damascus had become the capital of the
first imperial Islamic caliphate, the Umayyad (661–750). Massive
conversion of town and tribe alike to Islam occurred, the Arabic
language began to prevail over all others (Syriac/Aramaic), and Arab
culture was everywhere in evidence. This Islamization and
Arabization continued after the Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad
superseded the Umayyad in the mid-8th century.
In succeeding centuries, as the caliphate lost its hold, Syria and
other Muslim lands paid mere lip service to the enfeebled caliph.
Turkish elements entered the Fertile Crescent as mercenary troops
and stayed on as masters and finally as dynasts. At times Syria
maintained a fitful, fragmented autonomy, while at other times it
suffered the short-lived rule of the partially revived Abbasids or
that of the Tulunids and Ikhshidids, based in Egypt, of the northern
Iraqi Hamdanids—a brief cultural “golden age”—and of Seljuk
and Zangid rulers from northern Iraq and Turkey.
From the mid-10th to mid-12th century petty local dynasties rose and
fell within Syria, but the country was mostly under the uninspiring
sway of the Shiite Fatimids of Egypt. During the latter period the
European Crusaders were able, against feeble resistance, to
establish military states in Syria, at Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli, and
Jerusalem. The effect of these Crusading states within Syria was
local and limited. However, the 200-year stay of the Crusaders in
the Levant did much to increase familiarity between West and East,
Christianity and Islam.
The virile Ayyubids, whose greatest ruler was Saladin, evicted the
Fatimids from Egypt in about 1160, effectively ruled Egypt and
Syria, and expelled most of the Crusaders. Declining morally and
militarily, the Ayyubids were in turn (1249) succeeded in Egypt, and
thereby as de facto rulers of most of Syria, by the Mamluks. These
were a remarkable corps of mainly Turkish and Circassian former
slaves who had evolved into an oligarchic military elite. Mamluk
commanders succeeded in repelling invasions by the Mongol
hordes—the brutal scourge of western Asia in the 13th and 14th
centuries—from Genghis Khan to Timur (Tamerlane). Even so, Mongols
devastated the land and committed mass slaughter in 1260, 1270, and
1300. In the period from 1250 to 1515, Syria was an unhappy country,
as it suffered the ambitions of its local dynasties and resisted
non-Arab rule from outside.
event as sudden as that of the Arab conquest, though less
unexpected, now settled Syria's fate for four centuries: the
invasion and occupation of the country by the Ottoman Turkish Sultan
Selim I in 1517. For the next 400 years Ottoman rulers, who were
Muslim but non-Arab and unsympathetic toward or contemptuous of all
Arabs, permitted Syria some limited regional autonomy, granted
intra-community self-rule to the Christian sects, and allowed some
privileged foreign trade. But they ignored local social conditions,
which were backward and impoverished. For Syria, the Ottoman period
was in the main one of non-progressive passivity until about 1800.
From roughly 1800, Syria was emerging from Ottoman stagnation. The
territory today known as Syria was edging toward its future as a
revitalized, ambitious state, in control of its own destiny as it
had rarely been in the past. This movement resulted in part from
reforms in the central Turkish government—reforms that were
greatly accelerated early in the 20th century under the
revolutionary Young Turks.
Also contributing to Syrian emergence was the increasing
Arab-Islamic pride of Syrians and Lebanese, who were then
indistinguishable, and indeed of Arabs everywhere. Other factors
included a remarkable Arab literary revival in modern styles,
improved communication with Europe through trade, books, and
newspapers, better schools, and the fast evolution of the upper
social strata from ancient ways. Direct French, American, and
British educational and philanthropic work also contributed. Syria
also drew lessons from the national self-liberation efforts of
long-suppressed communities in East Europe, Latin America, and
Also educative, in terms of broadening Syrian perspectives, was the
10-year Egyptian occupation of Syria-Lebanon by Ibrahim Pasha from
1831 to 1840. French intervention in Druze-Maronite quarrels in
1860–1861 had a similar effect. It was at this point that half the
Druze community moved from their Lebanese home to their present
Jebel Druze abode in southern Syria.
By 1914 tribal and village life was actually little changed from
that of earlier centuries, except for higher standards of law and
order and a habituation to better organized government. But members
of the Syrian elite, with increased numbers and greater aspirations,
were attending universities, forming social and political clubs, and
formulating, with like-minded Arabs elsewhere, a political program.
Their program was intended to lead to “decentralization” in the
Ottoman Empire, to a greater share of power for Arabs in, or
against, Turkish officialdom, and finally, though not yet
specifically, to an Arab state or states.
During the period 1900–1914 this movement—in Paris as well as in
Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, and elsewhere in the eastern Arab
world—attained a strength alarming to the Turkish authorities. In
fact, however, Arab reformers had achieved nothing practical before
the outbreak of World War I in 1914. And during the war the brutal
execution by the Turks of dozens of the Arab ideological leaders as
traitors, the army's firm grip on the entire country, and sheer
hunger paralyzed all reforming effort.
movement revived, however, after British forces entered Syria in
October 1918 and evicted the Turks. The League of Nations bestowed
on France a mandate for Syria-Lebanon in 1920, and the local
Christian, especially the Catholic communities, hailed the move with
delight. But the great majority strongly opposed the mandate and the
French presence, which was to last 25 years. They objected to the
detachment by France of considerable Muslim areas of Syria to form
the separate Greater Lebanon—which later (1926) became a
republic—and to the pervasive closeness of French control and the
French policy of “divide and rule” in a Syria now diminished
Syrian nationalists, eager for self-determination and power, were
not placated by French excellence in the techniques of
administration, justice, the social services, and communications.
Their chronic discontent took the form in 1925 of a sizable, though
partial and ill-organized, uprising, the so-called “Druze
rebellion.” To crush it, the French were compelled to devote
increased forces over a two-year period.
By 1939, successive Syrian ministers and French high commissioners
had still not solved the conflicts between mandatory and mandated in
the constitutional, political, and administrative fields. Feeling
was further embittered by the enforced cession of the Antioch-Alexandretta
province, which Syrians claimed was strictly Arab, to Turkey in
1939. France consented to the transfer of this area, the present-day
Turkish province of Hatay, because of its desire for Turkish
Nevertheless, by 1939, Syria was better organized and equipped and
its elite better trained and experienced than ever before. And the
nationalists' goal, that of complete independence, was within reach.
During World War II, in 1941, British forces expelled from Syria
French troops of the Vichy government. Their Free French successors
still withheld independence from Syria. They refused to admit the
termination of the hated mandate, although in 1941 they had promised
this to the country, and the British favored the move. The French
did allow elections in 1943, and in August, Shukri el-Kuwatli of the
National party was elected president of the republic.
As the war ended, discontent was acute among all political elements,
and disorders broke out in urban centers. Only British intervention
cut short a French bombardment of Damascus. The mandate, never
officially abrogated, in fact faded and disappeared in 1945–1946,
The 19th century was a period of increasing
restlessness in the area – Napoleon’s campaign in 1799/1800, the
Egyptian invasion in the 1830s and the insurrection in 1860-61 are
three instances of this. The Turks were defeated in World War I and
Syria was occupied by the French for a short time, before Syria was
granted full independence in 1946 and
the last foreign troops withdrew, Syria became a
sovereign member of the United Nations, was now an independent,