syria

A brief history of Syria

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by Tsh

Tsh is the founder of this blog and lives in Bend, Oregon with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

If you’ve got ears and eyes, then you’ve been hearing and reading about Syria nonstop lately. With good reason—we should focus on this heartbreaking, volatile region.

I knew I wanted to write about this country for this month’s Intellectual Grownup offering, but I also knew there was no way on earth I was going to pretend like I understood all the ins and outs of it all. It’s unbelievably complicated, obviously political, and potentially divisive. Not stuff I wanted to get into around here.

But I write these monthly posts because to me, part of simple living is jettisoning the stuff that doesn’t really matter so that we can focus on the truly important. Keeping up with world events is important, even if our days are mostly filled with story time and lunch making. Making time to continually learn about the world, even if it’s a few minutes each day, means your kids, spouse, and community will have a more thoughtful parent, spouse, and friend.

I love history, so I thought it helpful to dig into the history of this ancient country, perhaps as a backdrop to all the news we’re hearing. So here you are… a brief history of Syria.

The Intellectual Grownup

The ancient era

Archaeologists believe the original civilization in Syria was one of the most ancient on earth. Seeing as it’s part of the Fertile Crescent, where some of the first people on earth practiced cattle breeding and agriculture, the land is chock-full of neolithic remains.

Syria is home to one of the oldest cities ever excavated—Ebla, believed to exist around 3,000 BCE, is where people spoke one of the oldest known written languages.

Clay tablet from Ebla

This sought-after land was occupied by all sorts of ancient empires—the Egyptians, Hittites, Sumerians, Mitanni, Assyrians, Babylonians, Canaanites, Phoenicians, Arameans, Amorites, Persians, and eventually, Greeks with the conquest of Alexander the Great (‘Syria’ means ‘formerly Assyria’ in ancient Greek, and it’s assumed this is when the area was given its name). Several hundred years later, Pompey the Great captured the Greek capital of Antioch (now part of Turkey, but what was once Syria), turning it into a Roman province.

Syria has a vastly diverse beginning.

Syria is also important in early Christian Church history—Paul the Apostle converted on the road to Damascus and was a significant figure at the local church in Antioch, where people were first called Christians.

Church of Saint Simeon Stylites

When the Roman Empire declined, Syria became part of the eastern half, better known as the Byzantine Empire, around 395 CE. Several hundred years later, it was conquered by Muslim Arabs, transferring power to the Islamic Empire.

Damascus was its capital and the empire spread far and wide, making the city prosperous—ancient palaces and mosques still stand from the era. It is believed that Christians lived in Syria peacefully during the early years of the empire, and several held governmental posts.

The middle ages

In 750, the Empire’s capital was moved to Baghdad and the Syrian territory weakened, and eventually, the land was in turmoil between the Hamdanids, Byzantines, and Fatimids, all who wanted to rule the area. The Byzantines eventually won out, but things were still chaotic for hundreds of years. Eventually, Syria was conquered by the Seljuk Turks and then the Ayyubid dynasty of Egypt in 1185.

For the next several centuries, Syria was held by Crusader states, Mongols, Egyptians, Mamluks, and in 1400, Timur Lenk (a Turko-Mongol general from Central Asia) captured Damascus, where many of the people were massacred and the Christian population suffered persecution. (Oddly enough, the artisans were spared and deported to Samarkand.)

Got all this so far?

the ottoman empire in 1792

In 1516, Syria was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, and it remained part until its collapse in 1918. There was peace during most of these centuries. Syrian territory constituted modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Palestinian Authority, Gaza Strip, and parts of Turkey and Iraq.

The 20th century

In 1916, the Sykes-Picot Agreement from World War I secretly divided the Ottoman Empire into zones, and in 1918, when Arab and British troops captured Damascus and Aleppo, Syria became a League of Nations mandate and moved under French control in 1920.

Syria 1922

A large number of Syrians weren’t thrilled with the sudden French Mandate, and in 1925 a revolt broke out, spreading into Lebanon, but was suppressed in 1926. In 1928 elections were held for a constituent assembly, which included a Syrian constitution, but France rejected the idea, leading to more protests.

france syria treatyEventually, in 1936, France and Syria negotiated a treaty of independence, allowing Syria to maintain independence in theory, even though France held military and economic dominance. But the French never ratified the treaty, and when they themselves were captured in 1940 during World War II, Syria was briefly held by Vichy France (axis-controlled) until British occupied the land in 1941.

Syria was finally recognized as an independent republic in 1944, and the French military eventually left by 1946. It became officially independent on April 17, 1946, but between then and the late 50s, it had 20 different cabinets and four constitutions. Not a very stable government, to say the least.

In 1948 Syria got involved in the Arab-Israeli War out of protest from the establishment of Israel, and once the demilitarized zone under UN supervision was established, future Syrian-Israel negotiations became volatile (and remain heavily so since). Many Syrian Jews left the country.

There were three (three!) military coup d’etats in 1949, leading to a fourth coup in 1954 (the first one is considered the first military overthrow in the post-World War II Arab world).

the suez canal

For most of the 20th century, Syria’s power remained in its military and not so much in its parliament. Because of the Suez Crisis in 1956, Syria signed a pact with the Soviet Union, allowing a Communist foothold in the government in exchange for military equipment. This angered neighboring Turkey, but brought Syria closer to Egypt because of their socialist leanings at the time.

Egypt and Syria decided to merge and become the United Arab Republic, but the idea lasted only a few years because of Egypt’s dominance. Syria broke ties and became the Syrian Arab Republic, and most of the 60s were characterized by frequent coups, military revolts, bloody riots, and civil disorders. There were also tons of issues involving the demilitarized zone in Israel and their occupation of Golan Heights, and they leaned closer and closer toward a socialist regime with Soviet blocs as their allies.

How’s it going… still with me?

Eventually, the Minister of Defense, a guy named Hafez al-Assad, seized power in a bloodless coup in 1970, and thus began a new era for 30 years.

The Assad era

hafez al-assad

So Syria’s history might be confusing so far—but now this is where things get really complicated. Shortly after gaining power, Assad created a new legislature and local councils to govern smaller provinces, consolidated political parties, wrote a new constitution (again), declared Syria a secular socialist state with Islam as the majority religion, and launched a surprise attack on Israel with Egypt.

Shortly after, Syria got involved in Lebanon’s civil war, which basically led to a 30-year Syrian military occupation. Assad had his critics, but open dissent was “repressed.” There was an assassination attempt in 1980, and in 1982 between 10,000 and 25,000 civilians were killed or wounded by artillery fire in Hama in a battle against the Muslim Brotherhood.

Syria joined the US-led coalition against Iraq in 1990, leading to better relations in the West, but when Assad died in 2000, his son Bashar al-Assad became his successor at age 34 (parliament quickly changed the mandatory minimum age of the President from 40 so that he could take charge). He officially ran for president, but he ran unopposed and earned 97.3% of the vote.

bashar al-assad

People were initially positive at the start of his regime, and even called this super-short era Damascus Spring, hopeful there would be change in the dictatorial style of leadership from his father. Assad released 600 political prisoners, and Pope John Paul II visited a few months later.

But only one year later, pro-reform movements were suppressed, leading intellectuals were arrested, and in 2002, the U.S. officially accused Syria of acquiring weapons of mass destruction and included them in their list of “axis of evil” countries. Syria was accused of being behind the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister in 2005.

Over the next few years, Internet censorship tightened, and though things were slowly looking up in its relationship with western countries and the EU, all that was set back (again) when Israel led an air strike in northern Syria on what they claimed was a nuclear facility constructed with North Korea’s help.

assad and sarkozy
Photo courtesy Reuters

In 2008, Assad met with French president Nicolas Sarkozy and the new Lebanese president Michel Suleiman, laying down foundations for better diplomacy between the countries, and they even hosted a summit including Turkey and Qatar with the goal of Middle East peace. And in 2009, the US sent a special envoy to negotiate peace talks and posted its first ambassador in five years.

All this progress came to an abrupt end, however, when in 2010, the U.S. renewed economic sanctions against Syria, accusing it of supporting terrorist groups (Hamas, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, and the like), and a year later, the UN basically said the same thing.

Remember part of the Arab Spring in early 2011, when Egypt protested and successfully changed its governments’ regime? Well, that gave Syrian civilians courage to try and do the same. Unfortunately, though, the Syrian government did not respond peacefully.

Syria map

That brings us to all the craziness happening in Syria the past two years—and where I’m going to leave off trying to explain things. However, this is a fantastic, easy-to-read article that explains what’s going on right now—I highly recommend reading it after you finish this one.

So… there you have it. A brief history of one of the oldest countries in existence. So many layers of culture and civilizations, and yet a country filled with repeat stories pursuing dominance, control, and power. Learning and writing all this has been a sobering reminder to keep doing what we all need to do daily: pray for peace.

Things are a mess there.

Unless noted, all photos are from Wikimedia Commons. Final map from cia.gov.

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Comments

  1. This is very interesting, thank you!

  2. First time reading this series and im glad I did. Thanks for taking the time to fill in the background. Its always fascinating. Perspective is everything.

  3. Wow, what a great post. Thank you for writing it. I sure wish I had paid more attention to World History in school. The backdrop for all this is so complected but very helpful. The reference article at the end was excellent too. Thanks.

  4. Thanks!!! I read the article at the end as well. And then the 9 Questions about Britain. Good perspectives to consider.

    Arielle
    “Live in the sunshine, swim in the sea, drink the wild air.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

  5. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…I love The Intellectual Grownup…this is one of my favorites because I, like most others, am ignorant of why all this is happening…and why it seems like the Middle East is about to implode. I followed up with the other articles also and want to thank you for pointing us in their direction also. I think the main word in your post is “Intellectual” and thank you! Susan

  6. Bookmarked to read with a second cup of coffee when I don’t have a toddler crawling all over me!!

  7. To better understand the present we need to look to the past. This was a great overview. I know very little about Syria, but like you say it is important that we take an interest in world history and news, it helps us to become compassionate people and more globally aware.

  8. Hi Tsh,
    A cool read…… I am from Bangalore, India, and a connoisseur of history like you do…. Let me know if you would like to exchange any notes about India…

    Cheers,
    Sai

  9. This is just such a great post, lots of work and so well written… loved having something interesting and relevant to read!!!

  10. Seriously fascinating, Tsh. Thank you for writing this and putting the “brain back in mommy brain.”

  11. Thank you! I was going to save this for later, but figured I would read it now since my coffee was still warm! Never being much of a student of world history, I have been so confused by what is going on there right now, to the point of asking my husband, “whose side are we on?” I haven’t read the second article yet, but this gives me a little more understanding about where the country came from.

    Thanks again!

  12. avatar
    Kelly Pietrangeli says:

    Thanks so much for this Tsh. This is one of those subjects I keep wanting to educate myself on, yet it’s been a case of Where do I Begin?? I really appreciate you taking the time (and doing the research) for me.

  13. Thanks so much for investing all this time in this post, Tsh! Completely enlightened me.

  14. Syria has an interesting piece of history. Unfortunately the innocent people of Syria are victim of all this and I wonder what we can do to help them?

  15. Excellent information. This is definitely what women need to be discussing. Thank you Tsh!

  16. Thank you. This is very helpful. Once folks finish reading this and the 9 Questions piece from the Washington Post, I recommend this one: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/09/your-labor-day-syria-reader-part-2-william-polk/279255/

    • Awesome; thanks, Katherine! Man, that dude is smart.

    • Bookmarking The Atlantic article, thanks!

      Tsh, great synopsis. Thanks for the link to the Washington Post article as well. Current events is our dinner time topic, so I made copies for everyone at the table and printed the map as placemats. (Not that that was my intention; they just looked like placemats once I printed them.)

  17. Thanks for posting the link to the Washington Post article. It summed up a lot of info I wasn’t sure about and helps me better understand exactly what’s going on over there and how we can and can’t help. I appreciate it.

  18. Thanks, between your article and the one from the WP I think I’m starting to sort of understand things a little better. When you catch snippets on the news I know I’m missing all the undercurrents of the events. I appreciate you taking the time to give us some background. I feel slightly smarter now and that’s a good thing once in a while! :-)

  19. You have no idea how helpful this has been. One can be well-read but equally clueless about politics (ahem, myself), and this post along with the links gave me a crash course.
    Sarah M

  20. I remembered to see if there was a new post up today because I remembered you referencing am upcoming post on Syria somewhere on social media yesterday.

    Oddly, this is the only post in WEEKS that hasn’t appeared in my Feedly.

  21. Love this, Tsh!

  22. Thanks, great post! My take is linked below :)

  23. I read through your entire article and all the links and feel much better educated. I thank God for my blogger friends who keep me up to date and find a way to bring the reality of the outside world (as I’m being overwhelmed by the inside world with three kids!!!). I also appreciate that it was factual and without bias. Thank you!

  24. I loved this post! It’s always great to get a good perspective of places making headlines, and this was the perfect combination of detail and brevity. Watch out Susan Bauer…you might be the next author of world history! =)

  25. Great information! Thanks for taking the time to write and share with us! :)

  26. Thanks for the post and the link to the other article! Very good info and feel like I have a better understanding of what is going on.

  27. Between this and the Washington Post’s “9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask”I feel much more capable of *at least* trying to wrap my head around what is going on.

    Thanks.

  28. I want to echo those saying thanks for all the time & work that obviously went into this post. So much of our current media completely ignores things like history, which leads to polarized reporting instead of a nuanced examination of the real situation. It is hard to be reminded that things are messy and there are no easy black and white answers. Thanks for helping to educate!

  29. Thanks for writing this informative article. This past year, my boys and I studied the Ancient world together in history and geography. It is great to be able to recognize the places mentioned in a current context. Thanks for always providing such a great variety of topics on your blog!

  30. I was excited to see this article, and really learned so much from it. Thank you for taking the time to do this! Now I will go back and follow the link to the WP article!

  31. Aahh…layman’s terms. Thank you. THANK YOU. My dear husband is a history buff, but I am not. Trying to navigate this situation via the Internet or by watching the news is difficult for me. I just didn’t “get it.” But I think I sort of understand WHY everything is going on now. Thank you!

  32. avatar
    Ursula Liao says:

    I agree with so many of the comments – thank you so much for these Intellectual Grownups posts (my first time seeing it) and for the background on Syria and the link to the article. So helpful and so important!! SUCH a nice and needed break from the daily demands of mothering a toddler and a baby. Thank you Tsh!

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