Since about 10,000 BC, Syria has been one of the Neolithic culture’s (known as Pre-Pottery Neolithic A) hubs, when agriculture and cattle breeding first emerged in the globe. The succeeding Neolithic era (PPNB) is characterized by Mureybet culture’s rectangular dwellings. People utilized stone, gyps, and burned lime containers throughout the pre-pottery Neolithic period (Vaisselle blanche). Anatolia obsidian tool finds provide proof of early commercial connections. During the late Neolithic and Bronze Ages, the cities of Hamoukar and Emar were prominent. Archaeologists have discovered that Syria’s civilisation was one of the oldest on the planet, perhaps predating only Mesopotamia’s.
Eblaites and Amorites
The Kingdom of Ebla, located near present-day Idlib in northern Syria, was the region’s first documented indigenous civilization. Ebla seems to have been established about 3500 BC, and it progressively developed its wealth via commerce with the Mesopotamian kingdoms of Sumer, Assyria, and Akkad, as well as the Hurrian and Hattian peoples of Asia Minor to the northwest. Pharaoh’s gifts discovered during excavations indicate Ebla’s connections with Egypt.
A trade agreement c. 2300 BC between Vizier Ibrium of Ebla and an unclear kingdom named Abarsal is one of the oldest recorded documents from Syria. Scholars think Ebla’s language is one of the earliest known written Semitic languages, second only to Akkadian. Recent classifications of the Eblaite language have shown that it was an East Semitic language, closely linked to Akkadian.
After Sargon of Akkad and his grandson Naram-conquests Sin’s ended Eblan dominance over Syria in the first half of the 23rd century BC, the entirety of Syria became part of the Mesopotamian Akkadian Empire.
By the 21st century BC, the Hurrians had inhabited the northern east portions of Syria, while the Amorites controlled the remainder of the area; Syria was dubbed the Land of the Amurru (Amorites) by their Assyro-Babylonian neighbors. The Amorites’ Northwest Semitic language is the most ancient of the Canaanite languages. Mari reemerged at this time and had renewed prosperity until it was captured by Hammurabi of Babylon. Ugarit originated about 1800 BC, near to modern Latakia. Ugaritic was a Semitic language that created the Ugaritic script and was linked to the Canaanite languages. The Ugarites kingdom lasted until the 12th century BC, when it was destroyed by invading Indo-European Sea Peoples.
Yamhad (modern Aleppo) controlled northern Syria for two centuries, but Eastern Syria was conquered in the 19th and 18th century BC by the Old Assyrian Empire headed by the Amorite Dynasty of Shamshi-Adad I, and by the Babylonian Empire established by Amorites. In the Mari tablets, Yamhad was characterized as the mightiest kingdom in the near east, with more vassals than Hammurabi of Babylon. Yamhad ruled over Alalakh, Qatna, the Hurrian states, and the Euphrates Valley all the way to the boundary with Babylon. Yamhad’s troops marched all the way to Dr on Elam’s border (modern Iran). Around 1600 BC, the Indo-European Hittites from Asia Minor attacked and destroyed Yamhad and Ebla.
Syria became a battleground for many foreign powers, including the Hittite Empire, Mitanni Empire, Egyptian Empire, Middle Assyrian Empire, and, to a lesser extent, Babylonia, from this point on. Initially, the Egyptians controlled most of the south, while the Hittites and Mitanni occupied much of the north. However, Assyria ultimately won, toppling the Mitanni Empire and annexing vast swaths of land formerly controlled by the Hittites and Babylon.
Arameans and Phoenicians
Around the 14th century BC, several Semitic peoples emerged in the region, including the semi-nomadic Suteans, who had a failed war with Babylonia to the east, and the West Semitic language Arameans, who absorbed the earlier Amorites. For centuries, they were also conquered by Assyria and the Hittites. The Egyptians battled the Hittites for dominance of western Syria, culminating in 1274 BC with the Battle of Kadesh. The west remained a part of the Hittite empire until its collapse about 1200 BC, while eastern Syria was mostly conquered by the Middle Assyrian Empire, which also acquired much of the west during Tiglath-Pileser I’s rule 1114–1076 BC.
Following the fall of the Hittites and the decline of Assyria in the late 11th century BC, the Aramean tribes took control of much of the interior, establishing kingdoms such as Bit Bahiani, Aram-Damascus, Hamath, Aram-Rehob, Aram-Naharaim, and Luhuti. From this moment on, the area was known as Aramea or Aram. There was also a synthesis between Semitic Arameans and Indo-European Hittite remains, with the establishment of a series of Syro-Hittite kingdoms concentrated in north central Aram (Syria) and south central Asia Minor (modern Turkey), notably Palistin, Carchemish, and Sam’al.
From the 13th century BC, a Canaanite tribe known as the Phoenicians began to dominate the coastlines of Syria (as well as Lebanon and northern Palestine), establishing city states such as Amrit, Simyra, Arwad, Paltos, Ramitha, and Shuksi. They eventually spread their influence throughout the Mediterranean, founding colonies in Malta, Sicily, the Iberian peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal), the coasts of North Africa, and, most importantly, founding the major city state of Carthage (in modern Tunisia) in the 9th century BC, which was much later to become the center of a major empire rivaling the Roman Empire.
Syria, as well as the rest of the Near East and beyond, succumbed to the massive Neo Assyrian Empire (911 BC – 605 BC). The Assyrians established Imperial Aramaic as their empire’s language franca. This language would dominate Syria and the whole Near East until the Arab Islamic conquest in the 7th and 8th century AD, and it would serve as a vehicle for the introduction of Christianity. Eber-Nari was the name given by the Assyrians to their colonies in Syria and Lebanon. Assyrian dominance came to an end when the Assyrians were severely weakened by a series of violent internal civil wars, which were followed by an invading coalition of their former subject peoples, including the Medes, Babylonians, Chaldeans, Persians, Scythians, and Cimmerians. The Scythians devastated and looted most of Syria during the collapse of Assyria. In 605 BC, the Assyrian army made their last stand at Carchemish in northern Syria.
The Neo-Babylonian Empire (605 BC – 539 BC) succeeded the Assyrian Empire. During this time, Syria became a battleground between Babylonia and Egypt, another former Assyrian province. The Babylonians, like their Assyrian cousins, defeated Egypt.
In 539 BC, the Achaemenid Persians captured Syria from Babylonia as part of their rule over Southwest Asia. After four centuries under Assyrian domination, the Persians maintained Imperial Aramaic as a diplomatic language in the Achaemenid Empire (539 BC-330 BC), as well as the Assyrian name of the satrapy of Aram/Syria Eber-Nari.
Syria was invaded by the Greek Macedonian Empire, which was controlled by Alexander the Great about 330 BC, and became the Coele-Syria province of the Greek Seleucid Empire (323 BC – 64 BC).
The name “Syria” was given to the area by the Greeks. Originally an Indo-European perversion of the word “Assyria” in northern Mesopotamia, the Greeks used this phrase to designate not just Assyria but also the countries to the west that had been under Assyrian control for ages. Thus, throughout the Greco-Roman world, both the Arameans of Syria and the Assyrians of Mesopotamia to the east were referred to as “Syrians” or “Syriacs,” despite the fact that these were different peoples in their own right, a misunderstanding that would persist until the modern day. Following the gradual collapse of the Hellenistic Empire, portions of southern Seleucid Syria were eventually seized by Judean Hasmoneans.
Syria temporarily fell under Armenian rule beginning in 83 BC, with the conquests of Tigranes the Great, who was hailed by its people as a rescuer from the Seleucids and Romans. The Armenians ruled Syria for two decades until being expelled by the Romans.
Palmyra, a wealthy and often strong native Aramaic-speaking kingdom that emerged in northern Syria in the 2nd century, created a trading network that made the city one of the wealthiest in the Roman empire. In the late third century AD, the Palmyrene king Odaenathus defeated the Persian emperor Shapur I and took control of the entire Roman East, while his successor and widow Zenobia established the Palmyrene Empire, which briefly conquered Egypt, Syria, Palestine, much of Asia Minor, Judah, and Lebanon before falling under Roman control in 273 AD.
Between 10 AD to 117 AD, the northern Mesopotamian Assyrian kingdom of Adiabene ruled over parts of north east Syria before being overrun by Rome.
The Aramaic language has been discovered as far away as Hadrian’s Wall in Ancient Britain, including inscriptions written by Roman Empire Assyrian and Aramean troops.
With the break in the Roman Empire, control of Syria ultimately shifted from the Romans to the Byzantines.
Syria’s mainly Aramaic-speaking population during the Byzantine empire’s height was likely not surpassed until the nineteenth century. Prior to the Arab Islamic Conquest in the 7th century AD, the majority of the population was Arameans, but Syria was also home to Greek and Roman ruling classes, Assyrians still dwelt in the north east, Phoenicians along the coasts, and Jewish and Armenian communities were also present in major cities, with Nabateans and pre-Islamic Arabs such as the Lakhmids and Ghassanids living in the deserts. Syriac Christianity had surpassed Judaism, Mithraism, Manicheanism, Greco-Roman Religion, Canaanite Religion, and Mesopotamian Religion as the dominant religion, while some continued to practice Judaism, Mithraism, Manicheanism, Greco-Roman Religion, Canaanite Religion, and Mesopotamian Religion. Syria’s vast and wealthy population made it one of the most important Roman and Byzantine provinces, especially during the second and third centuries (AD).
Alexander Severus, the Roman Emperor from 222 to 235, was an Aramean from Syria. Elagabalus, his cousin and emperor from 218 to 222, was also from Syria, and his family had hereditary rights to the high priesthood of the Aramean sun deity El-Gabal at Emesa (modern Homs). Another Syrian-born Roman emperor was Philip the Arab (Marcus Julius Philippus), who reigned from 244 to 249.
Syria is important in Christian history; the Apostle Paul, better known as Saulus of Tarsus, was converted on the Road to Damascus and developed as a major figure in the Christian Church at Antioch in ancient Syria, from where he departed on several of his missionary trips.
During Muhammad’s era
Muhammad’s first contact with the people and tribes of Syria was during the Invasion of Dumatul Jandal in July 626, when he ordered his followers to invade Duma after receiving information that certain tribes there were engaged in highway robbery and planning an assault on Medina.
Despite receiving little attention in early sources, William Montgomery Watt argues that this was the most important mission Muhammad authorized at the period. Dumat Al-Jandal was 800 kilometers (500 miles) from Medina, and Watt claims that the only immediate danger to Muhammad was the chance that his connections with Syria and supplies to Medina might be disrupted. According to Watt, “it is tempting to assume that Muhammad was already imagining something of the expansion that took occurred after his death,” and the fast march of his soldiers must have “impressed all those who heard of it.”
William Muir thinks that the trip was significant because Muhammad, accompanied by 1000 men, reached the limits of Syria, where distant tribes had now learned his name, and Muhammad’s political vision was expanded.
Islamic Syria (al-Sham)
Syria was captured by the ArabRashidun army commanded by Khalid ibn al-Walid in AD 640. The Umayyad family, then rulers of the empire, established Damascus as the empire’s capital in the mid-7th century. During the latter Umayyad reign, the country’s authority fell, owing mostly to authoritarianism, corruption, and the ensuing uprisings. The Umayyad dynasty was subsequently deposed in 750 by the Abbasid dynasty, who relocated the empire’s center to Baghdad.
Under Umayyad authority, Arabic became the main language, displacing Greek and Aramaic from the Byzantine period. The Egypt-based Tulunids conquered Syria from the Abbasids in 887, and were subsequently succeeded by the Egypt-based Ikhshidids, and then by the Hamdanids, established in Aleppo by Sayf al-Dawla.
Crusaders, Ayubids, Mamluks and Nizaris
Between 1098 and 1189 AD, sections of Syria were controlled by French, English, Italian, and German rulers during the Crusades, and were known collectively as the Crusader kingdoms, with the Principality of Antioch being the most important one in Syria. The coastal mountainous area was also partially held by the Nizari Ismailis, commonly known as the Assassins, who had periodic clashes and truces with the Crusader States. Later in history, when “the Nizaris faced fresh Frankish hostilities, the Ayyubids provided timely aid.”
Syria was mainly captured (1175–1185) by the Kurdish warrior Saladin, founder of Egypt’s Ayyubid dynasty, after a century of Seljuk dominance. Hulegu’s Mongols took Aleppo in January 1260 and Damascus in March, but Hulegu was compelled to abandon his assault and return to China to settle a succession issue.
A few months later, the Mamluks arrived in Galilee with an Egyptian army and destroyed the Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut. Baibars, the Mamluk king, declared Damascus a regional capital. Qalawun inherited control when he died. Meanwhile, an emir called Sunqur al-Ashqar attempted to proclaim himself king of Damascus, but was defeated by Qalawun on June 21, 1280, and fled to northern Syria. Al-Ashqar, who had married a Mongol lady, sought assistance from the Mongols. The Ilkhanate Mongols seized the city, but Qalawun convinced Al-Ashqar to join him, and they fought against the Mongols on October 29, 1281, in the Second Battle of Homs, which the Mamluks won.
Timur Lenk (Tamurlane), a Muslim Turco-Mongol conqueror, entered Syria in 1400, destroyed Aleppo, and seized Damascus after defeating the Mamluk army. Except for the craftsmen, who were exiled to Samarkand, the city’s population were murdered. Timur-Lenk also massacred the Aramean and Assyrian Christian communities, severely decreasing their numbers. The discovery of a sea route from Europe to the Far East by the end of the 15th century eliminated the necessity for an overland trade route via Syria.
In 1516, the Ottoman Dominion attacked Egypt’s Mamluk Sultanate, capturing and integrating Syria into its empire. Syrians were not burdened by the Ottoman system since the Turks recognized Arabic as the language of the Quran and embraced the mantle of religion protectors. Damascus was designated as the main entry point to Mecca, and as such it gained a sacred status among Muslims as a consequence of the many pilgrims that passed through on their way to Mecca on the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.
The Ottoman government adhered to a system that promoted peaceful cohabitation. Each ethno-religious minority — Arab Shia Muslims, Arab Sunni Muslims, Aramean-Syriac Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Maronite Christians, Assyrian Christians, Armenians, Kurds, and Jews – was a millet. Each community’s religious leaders handled all personal status rules as well as some civic duties. In 1831, Egypt’s Ibrahim Pasha betrayed the Empire and overran Ottoman Syria, seizing Damascus. During his brief reign over the domain, he attempted to alter the region’s demographics and social structure by bringing thousands of Egyptian villagers to populate the plains of Southern Syria, rebuilding Jaffa and settling it with veteran Egyptian soldiers with the goal of turning it into a regional capital, crushing peasant and Druze rebellions, and deporting non-loyal tribesmen. However, by 1840, he was forced to return the region to the Ottomans.
Tanzimat reforms were implemented on Ottoman Syria beginning in 1864, splitting apart the provinces (vilayets) of Aleppo, Zor, Beirut, and Damascus Vilayet; the Mutasarrifate of Mount Lebanon was also established, and shortly after, the Mutasarrifate of Jerusalem was granted independent status.
During World War I, the Ottoman Empire fought alongside Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was eventually defeated and lost control of the whole Near East to the British and French empires. During the war, the Ottomans and their allies committed genocide against indigenous Christian peoples in the form of the Armenian and Assyrian genocides, with Deir ez-Zor, in Ottoman Syria, serving as the ultimate destination of these death marches. In the middle of World War I, two Allied diplomats (Frenchman François Georges-Picot and British Mark Sykes) secretly agreed in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 on the post-war partition of the Ottoman Empire into separate zones of influence. Initially, a boundary that stretched nearly straight from Jordan to Iran divided the two regions. However, the discovery of oil in the Mosul area shortly before the war’s conclusion prompted yet another agreement with France in 1918 to surrender this territory to ‘Zone B,’ or the British zone of influence. This boundary was subsequently officially acknowledged when Syria became a League of Nations mandate in 1920, and it has remained unchanged to this day.
Faisal I of the Hashemite dynasty founded a short-lived sovereign Kingdom of Syria in 1920. His reign over Syria, however, came to an end after just a few months, after the Battle of Maysalun. Later that year, when the San Remo conference suggested that the League of Nations place Syria under French control, French soldiers seized Syria. According to his secretary de Caix, General Gouraud had two options: “either create a Syrian country that does not exist… by smoothing the rifts that still separate it” or “cultivate and preserve all the phenomena that need our abitration that these divides provide.” “I must admit that only the second alternative fascinates me,” De Caix said. This is exactly what Gouraud accomplished.
Sultan al-Atrash led a rebellion that erupted in the Druze Mountain in 1925 and expanded to include all of Syria and portions of Lebanon. Al-Atrash defeated the French in numerous engagements, including the Battle of al-Kafr on 21 July 1925, the Battle of al-Mazraa on 2–3 August 1925, and the battles of Salkhad, al-Musayfirah, and Suwayda. Despite the fact that France deployed hundreds of soldiers from Morocco and Senegal, the French were able to retake several towns until the spring of 1927. Sultan al-Atrash was condemned to death by the French, but he fled with the rebels to Transjordan and was ultimately pardoned. Following the ratification of the Syrian-French Treaty in 1937, he returned to Syria.
Syria and France signed an independence treaty in September 1936, and Hashim al-Atassi was the first president chosen under the first iteration of Syria’s modern republic. The pact, however, never entered into effect since the French legislature refused to approve it. Syria fell under the authority of Vichy France after the fall of France in 1940 during World War II, until the British and Free French seized the nation in the Syria-Lebanon campaign in July 1941. Continuing pressure from Syrian nationalists and the British prompted the French to withdraw their forces in April 1946, handing over the country to a republican administration established under the mandate.
Independent Syrian Republic
From independence until the late 1960s, Syrian politics was characterized by upheaval. Syria, along with other Arab nations, invaded Palestine in May 1948 and promptly assaulted Jewish communities. Their president, Shukri al-Quwwatli, ordered his soldiers on the front lines to “annihilate the Zionists.” The goal of the invasion was to prevent the formation of the State of Israel. The defeat in this battle was one of many catalysts for Col. Husni al-March Za’im’s 1949 Syrian coup d’état, which was characterized as the Arab World’s first military upheaval since the start of World War II. This was shortly followed by another deposition, this time by Col. Sami al-Hinnawi, who was promptly deposed by Col. Adib Shishakli, all within the same year.
Shishakli ultimately eliminated multipartyism entirely, but he was deposed in a coup in 1954, and the parliamentary system was reinstated. However, authority had been more consolidated in the military and security apparatus by this point. The inadequacy of Parliamentary institutions, as well as economic mismanagement, contributed to discontent and the impact of Nasserism and other ideologies. Various Arab nationalist, Syrian nationalist, and socialist organizations, representing disgruntled sections of society, found fruitful root. Religious minority, in particular, sought drastic change.
Syria signed a treaty with the Soviet Union in November 1956, as a direct consequence of the Suez Crisis. In return for military weapons, this provided a footing for Communist control inside the administration. Turkey grew concerned about this development in Syrian military capability since it seemed possible that Syria might try to recapture Skenderun. Only heated discussions at the United Nations reduced the danger of war.
On February 1, 1958, Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli and Egypt’s Nasser declared the merger of Egypt and Syria, becoming the United Arab Republic, and all Syrian political groups, including communists, stopped overt activity. Meanwhile, concerned by the party’s weak position and the union’s growing frailty, a group of Syrian Ba’athist officers decided to establish a covert Military Committee, with Lieutenant-Colonel Muhammad Umran, Major Salah Jadid, and Captain Hafez al-Assad as its first members. Syria seceded from Egypt on September 28, 1961, after a coup.
Following the 1961 coup, the subsequent instability culminated in the 8 March 1963 Ba’athist coup. Members of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, headed by Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar, orchestrated the coup. The new Syrian government was controlled by members of the Ba’ath party.
The Military Committee carried out an intra-party coup on February 23, 1966, imprisoning President Amin Hafiz and establishing a regionalist, civilian Ba’ath administration on March 1. Salah Jadid was Syria’s effective ruler from 1966 to 1970, despite the fact that Nureddin al-Atassi became the official head of state. The coup caused a schism within the original pan-Arab Ba’ath Party, establishing one Iraqi-led Ba’ath movement (which governed Iraq from 1968 to 2003) and one Syrian-led Ba’ath movement.
Syria and Israel were in a low-key state of conflict throughout the first half of 1967. Conflict over Israeli cultivation of land in the Demilitarized Zone resulted in prewar aerial skirmishes between Israel and Syria on April 7. After Israel launched a pre-emptive strike on Egypt to start the Six-Day War, Syria joined the fight and launched an attack on Israel as well. In the closing days of the conflict, Israel focused on Syria, seizing two-thirds of the Golan Heights in less than 48 hours. The loss created a schism between Jadid and Assad regarding the future measures.
There was a schism between Jadid, who controlled the party machinery, and Assad, who controlled the military. This dispute was evident in the 1970 withdrawal of Syrian troops deployed to assist the PLO during the “Black September” conflicts with Jordan. The power struggle ended in the November 1970 Syrian Corrective Revolution, a bloodless military takeover that established Hafez al-Assad as the country’s strongman.
Syria and Egypt launched the Yom Kippur War against Israel on October 6, 1973. The Israeli Defense Forces overturned Syria’s early advances and advanced further into Syrian territory.
Syria invaded Lebanon in early 1976, starting a thirty-year military occupation. During the 15-year civil war that followed, Syria battled for control of Lebanon and tried to prevent Israel from gaining control of southern Lebanon via the widespread deployment of proxy militias. Syria stayed in Lebanon until 2005.
The Muslim Brotherhood launched an Islamist revolt against the government in the late 1970s. In response to Islamist attacks on civilians and off-duty military members, security forces killed civilians in retaliatory strikes. The revolt had reached a peak in the 1982 Hama massacre, when regular Syrian Army soldiers murdered 10,000 to 40,000 civilians.
Syria took part in the US-led Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, signaling a significant change in ties with both other Arab nations and the Western world. Syria took part in the multilateral Madrid Conference in 1991 and engaged in talks with Israel during the 1990s. These discussions fell down, and there have been no direct Syrian-Israeli talks since President Hafez al-Assad met then-President Bill Clinton in Geneva in March 2000.
On June 10, 2000, Hafez al-Assad died. Bashar al-Assad, his son, was elected President in an uncontested election. After his victory, the Damascus Spring and aspirations for change were born, but by fall 2001, the government had crushed the movement, imprisoning some of its prominent intellectuals. Reforms have instead been restricted to certain market reforms.
Israel attacked a location in Damascus on October 5, 2003, claiming it was a terrorist training center for Islamic Jihad militants. Syrian Kurds and Arabs fought in the northeastern city of al-Qamishli in March 2004. Rioting was seen in the cities of Qamishli and Hasakeh. Syria terminated its occupation of Lebanon in 2005. On September 6, 2007, foreign jet aircraft, believed to be Israeli, conducted out Operation Orchard against a putative nuclear reactor being built by North Korean experts.
Syrian Civil War
The Arab Spring uprisings sparked the current Syrian Civil War. It started with a series of nonviolent demonstrations in 2011, followed by a crackdown by the Syrian Army. Army defectors announced the creation of the Free Syrian Army and started establishing combat groups in July 2011. Sunni Muslims dominate the opposition, while Alawites control the government. According to different reports, including the UN, up to 100,000 people have been murdered by June 2013, with 11,000 of them being children. 4.9 million Syrian refugees have migrated to neighboring Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey to escape the bloodshed. A total of 450,000 Syrian Christians are said to have left their homes. As the civil war went on, there were fears that the nation might split and cease to operate as a state.