I gave four lectures for various levels of students at the University of Central Florida (UCF) on Ancient History of Syria. The first one was for freshmen which was for an hour on Nov. 6th 2013. The other three were on Thursday Nov. 7th 2013. Rev. Fr. Alexander Kurian, director department of strategic planning for the United States government, and me shared these three sessions. Credit goes to Rev. Fr. Dr. Jacob Mathew Ph.D (Visiting lecturer, Department of Philosophy and Religion, UCF, also the vicar of St. Paul's Orthodox Church, Orlando).
ANCIENT SYRIA: AN INTRODUCTION.
The word Syria comes from Greek word “Suria”. It is pronounced SHRYN in Ugaritic, (a port city in the of the Eastern cost of Mediterranean). Some wrongly call it Assyria.
The present day Syria cannot be confused by what we are talking about here. The boundaries of ancient Syria are, in the west the Mediterranean Sea, Egypt and Arabia in the south, Mesopotamia in the east and an uncertain border to the northeast.
The crucial factors in the history of Syria and its people are three: first, its geography; two, its strategic position between the three historic continents which caused invasions from all sides and three, to be near to the two earliest seats of dynamic culture, the Sumero-Babylonian on the east and the Egyptian on the south. It may also further be said that throughout its history the land, especially in its eastern and southern margins, has been the scene of unceasing struggle between the nomads and the settled.
The history of Ancient Syria can be divided in to five periods
1. The pre-literary age. 2. The Semitic period beginning with the Amorites (2500 BCE) ending with the Neo-Babylonia or Chaldean Empire in 538 BCE and the Persian period (330 BCE). 3. The Greco-Roman period starting with Alexander in 333 BCE which ended by the Arab invasion in 633-40 CE. 4. The Arab Moslem period until the Ottoman – Turkish conquest in 1516 CE
5. The Ottoman period that ended with the First World War (1914 – 1919).
It is estimated that Natufian (13,000 – 9,800 B.C.E) culture existed in the Levant, a region in the Eastern Mediterranean as early as fourteenth century BCE.
The earliest human skeletal remains in the West Asia come from the middle Paleolithic age from south of Nazareth and west of the Sea of Galilee. It is also said that these people lived in caves in Lebanon and Palestine.
The home of the Semitic community who later made Syria their home is believed to be Arabian Peninsula. Around 3500, BCE a Semitic migration from the Arabian Peninsula moved north-eastward and spread its component nomadic parts over the settled and highly civilized Sumerian population of Mesopotamia; producing the Akkadians (latter called the Babylonians). Syria was populated by various tribes and communities in the course of its history.
THE AMORITES IN SYRIA
They were the first to find settlement in the Syrian region with capital city Mari. The word Amorites is not a Semitic word rather given by their neighbors the Sumerians. The word means ‘westerners’. They flourished until Hammurabi (1700 BCE) conquered after which they vanished. A recent excavation at Tell al-Hariri unearthed the site of Mari which is considered as the most notable discoveries of modern times. They had 20,000 cuneiform tablets including that of Simri-Lim, the last king of Mari (1730-1700 BCE). The prosperity of the Amorite land was based on its irrigation, agriculture and commercial relations with its neighbors.
This was the second major Semitic people settled in Syria. Canaan means ‘low land’. In Hebrew it means ‘purple’ due to the purple industry they engaged in. They are also known in Greek as ‘Phoenicians’.
Slowly Canaan became the primary designation of much of region.
They used stickles with bone or wooden handle. They domesticated animals. They cultivated beans, vetch (certain herbal plant), grapes, olives, figs, pomegranates and nuts. Phoenicians were the first maritime nation of history. Lebanon was a great source of timber. Along with timber they also carried wheat, oil and wine. To this effect they learned the night sailing of laying a course by the stars. Thus they traveled many places including North Africa. Where ever they went, they adapted themselves to the new situation.
The Phoenicians also exerted their influence on the culture of the places they set their foot on. This also helped the Egyptians and Babylonians to have their culture to be spread to these areas.
The Aramaeans were nomadic tribes in North Arabian Desert who slowly penetrated in to the outlying lands of Babylonia and Syria to settle down during the middle of the second millennium. The final stage could be by the end of 13th C. BCE.
Even after Aramaean political and military presence diminished, Aramaean cultured survived and spread all over Syria. The merchants spread their language. By 500 BCE Aramaic became the prominent language of the entire Fertile Crescent and the vernacular of the people.
THE HEBREW PEOPLE
Almost the same time the Hebrews also brought their presence to Syria. They settled in the southern part of Syria. It happened in three stages in history. The first migration was in the 18th c. BCE from Mesopotamia. The second was in the 14th c. The third immigration happened in 1230 when Ramses II (1299-1232) of Hyksos dynasty was in power in Egypt. Their entry in to Canaan was mostly peaceful and only in part violent. First they settled in the highlands where Amorites were as it was not thickly populated. They got married to the local population of Semitic, Hurrian, Hittite and other non-Semitic population. This shows Syria’s ability to absorb the nomadic and semi-nomadic settlers. Hebrews learned a lot from the locals including a new language. By the time of David (960 BCE) Hebrews got well established in Syria.
Syria Under Great Powers
In 1546 BCE During the time of Ahmose of the XVIIIth dynasty Syria became part of Egyptian empire which continued until 14th c. BCE. After a short break they again went under Egypt during the time of Ramses II (1292-1225). Even with that long slavery Egypt was not able to impose its culture as strong as the Babylonians were.
We also see the rise of Hurrian rule starting from 15th century in Syria. They are believed to be Indo-Iranians who travelled to the west. The physical features of Jewish community is believed to be that of the Hittite-Hurrian.
Tiglath Pileser I, in 1094 BCE raided Syria to bring it under Assyrian control. Egypt kept trying for its luck in the region but it helped only to continue the fight between Egypt and Assyria and make life in Syrian even more difficult.
From the time of Nabopolassar (609 BCE), Syria began to be under the Neo-Babylonian Empire. It continued till when the Persian king Cyrus in 537 defeated the Babylonians to Establish their rule which lasted until the Roman invasion in the forth c. BCE.
During this long history, people of Syria did not enjoy much political freedom. Except during the Seleucid period (301-141 BCE from Antioch) and during Umayyad Caliphate period (661-750 CE from Damascus) Syria was ruled from outside Syrian territory.
Archeological excavations in the region prove that the civilization of the region was one of the most ancient. Philip K. Hitti in the preface to his book comments: “The history of Syria, using the name in the geographic meaning, is in a sense the history of the civilized world in miniature. It is a cross-section of the history of the cradle of our civilization and of the significant part of our spiritual and intellectual heritage” (“History of Syria: Including Lebanon and Palestine”. Gorgias Press, New Jersey 2004. P. vii).
It is estimated that Natufian (Netju:fien. culture that existed from 13,000 to 9,800 B.C. in the Levant, a region in the Eastern Mediterranean) culture existed in the Levant, a region in the Eastern Mediterranean. They are believed to be the builders of the first Neolithic (middle stone age) period. It marked the gradual domestication of plants and animals and the formation of settled communities at various times and places. Neolithic communities developed in the West Asia between 9000 and 6000 BCE.
In the Chalcolithic (copper) age, as in the Neolithic period Northern Syria remained as the main cultural focus of the entire West Asia. This went to different directions. Egypt got it first. During the period we see rectangular houses with reed roof and uncut stone foundation and walls with mud bricks.
Archeological excavations show that Syria was the scene of the first domestication of wheat. Discovery of copper (starting from 4000 BCE) happened during the fifth millennium. The invention of pottery testifies to the changing patterns of life from hunting and nomadic to agricultural and sedentary.
Syria was the connecting link of three continents, Asia Africa and Europe. This was the primary reason for it becoming a battle field in its true sense. On the positive side, it was the hub of a busy trade net work. Phoenicians became the earliest international traders and that is what helped Syria to become the hub.
Between 2500 and 2400 BCE the Semitic Kingdom of Syria existed with the city of Ebla as its centre that was found in 3000 BCE.
The famous “Silk Road/Route” that had a length of 4000 miles helped cultural exchange in a big way.
During the Hellenistic and Roman periods Syria contributed greatly to philosophy. Some of the founders of the Stoic and Neo-Platonic philosophies were Syrians. One of the greatest schools of Roman law flourished in Beirut in Lebanon as seen in the Justinian Code.
This region gave birth to three major religions of the world, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Christians in Syria took a leading role in transmitting Greek language, science and Philosophy which lead to the spread of the same in to the Arabic world.
After the spread of Islam, the Syrian capital Damascus became the seat of the Umayyad Empire from where their control was extended to Spain, France in the west and to India and China in the East. Thus Damascus in Syria became the centre of a world larger than that of the Romans for a long time.
The invention and spreading of alphabet is considered to be the greatest gift by the Syrians on humanity. The Greeks borrowed it from them (during 850 and 750 BCE). The Phoenicians (Syrians) received the basis of this system from Egyptian hieroglyphic source through Sinai. Egyptians were using pictures of objects to designate phonologically forty signs which were only consonants. It was in the 16th c. BCE certain Canaanite captive who worked in the turquoise (a bluish green mineral which is hydrous phosphate of copper and aluminium) mines of Sinai gave those pictures Semitic names and values. So when he saw a fox’s head like picture he gave it a Semitic name aleph meaning ship and gave the sound using acrophonic principle. Like that he gave b for beth or house. G is gamel, which is a camel.
Phoenicians picked it up from there and made it a complete system of twenty two signs, but without vowels. They wrote it down in clay tablets, to make it actual cuneiform or wedge-shaped alphabets for them to use.
A region that contributed so much to human culture unfortunately was a battle field all through its history.