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                          




At 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.

The Arab Conquest.

From 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.

Ottoman Rule.

An 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 elsewhere.
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.

The French Mandate.

The 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 territorially.
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 goodwill.
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,

Independent Syria.  

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, constitutional republic.

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