Agriculture has probably been practiced for longer here than anywhere else in the world. Small city-states, some such as Jericho and Ugarit already thousands of years old, scatter the region. Important trade routes run through Syria and Canaan between Mesopotamia to the east and Egypt to the south, both by land and sea. The city of Byblos, on the Syrian coast, is an important port, home of a thriving shipping trade with Egypt and other Mediterranean regions.
The region of Syria and Canaan has experienced repeated movements of peoples into it, from the arid lands to the east. These have formed city states, or have continued to live as nomads in the grasslands between the cities. Probably in the last few centuries one such set of wandering nomads has been a group from whom the Israelite people will eventually come.
The north of the region has come under the rule of Indo-European kingdoms, first the Mitanni, but shortly the Hittites. The south has come increasingly within the cultural orbit of Egypt, and will shortly come under its political domination as well.
The decline of the great powers of the region, the Hittites, Assyria and Egypt, has enabled new peoples to come to the fore. The Phoenicians are a people who live in a group of coastal city-states which owe their wealth to maritime trade. Their sailors and merchants are pioneering trade routes throughout the length and breadth of the Mediterranean at this time.
Sometime over the past few centuries, an alphabetic script has been developed, probably in Canaan. The Phoenicians, a Canaanite people, have adopted this script, and Phoenician merchants will carry this innovation to other peoples in the course of their travels, including the Greeks. This alphabet will therefore be the ancestor of modern European alphabets.
To the south, a people have come into the land of Canaan over the past few centuries. These are the Israelites. Originally living in a confederacy of tribes, they have recently formed a powerful kingdom, which is at this time ruled by their famous king, David. The distinctive thing about the Israelites is that they have a monotheistic religion, focussed on the worship of the one God, Yahweh. In this religion are the origins of the modern Jewish faith, as well as the roots of Christianity and Islam.
In different ways, both the Phoenicians and the Israelites will have a deep impact on the future of the entire world.
The kingdoms of Assyria and Babylon have been greatly weakened by invasions from nomadic tribes. click to view
The Hittite empire has suffered catastrophe at the hands of barbarian invaders. click to view
After centuries of greatness, the civilization of Ancient Egypt has now entered a long period of decline.. click to view
The camel has been domesticated, and trade routes now cross the great deserts of Arabia. click to view
The Phoenician city-states, particularly Tyre and Sidon, flourished as the leading trading powers of the Mediteranean Sea. To the south, the people of Israel inhabited a kingdom which, under kings David (c. 1006-965) and Solomon (c.965-928) became a leading regional power. After Solomon's death, however, the kingdom divided into two, the southern part centred on Jerusalem, the northern part centred on Samaria.
In both kingdoms, the Israelites continued to worship their one God, Yawheh, and their faith developed as a succession of prophets taught that it was not just a matter of belief and worship, but of ethical behaviour as well.
From the mid-8th century onwards, the small kingdoms of Syria and Palestine fell one by one under the power of Assyria. The Assyrians destroyed the kingdom of Israel in 722 BC, many of its people deported to other parts of the empire; and the kingdom of Judah became a vassal state.
With the fall of Assyria in 612 BC, Syria and Palestine came under Babylonian control. The kingdom of Judah, having unsucessfuly rebelled against Babylon, was destroyed in 586 BC. Thousands of Jews were sent into exile. The region passed into the hands of the Persians in 539 BC, and the Persian king, Cyrus restored the Jewish people to their homeland, and encouraged them to rebuild their temple.
The historic kingdoms of Mesopotamia have now fallen under the power of the Persian empire. click to view
For centuries a leading centre of civilization, Asia Minor is now part of the Persian empire. click to view
Its ancient glories now in the past, Egypt is now just another province within the Persian empire. click to view
Arabia, a region of flourishing civilization and desert nomads. click to view
Alexander the Great conquered Syria from the Persians in 332 BC, and in the struggles for control of Alexander’s empire after his early death, his generals Seleucus and Ptolemy divided Syria between them. They founded powerful dynasties. Under them, many Greek-style cities sprang up, which became thriving centres of Hellenistic civilization. Antioch, the Seleucid capital, was one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean world.
The Jewish community in and around Jerusalem enjoyed a high level of self-rule under their own leaders. The influence of Hellenistic civilization was welcomed by some of the elite, but was regarded with the deepest suspicion by many ordinary Jews.
Mesopotamia is now ruled by descendants of one of Alexander the Great's generals, who plant many Hellenistic cities. click to view
In the wake of Alexander the Great's conquests, Asia Minor is now divided between several Hellenistic kingdoms. click to view
Egypt is now ruled by monarchs descended from one of Alexander the Great's generals. click to view
Trade caravans bring precious spices across the desert from southern Arabia. click to view
In the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, the power of the Seleucid kings declined, eventually finished off by the Roman conquest of the region by their general, Pompey the Great (64-63 BC). Syria now formed the eastern frontier of the Roman empire, facing the Parthian empire.
The Seleucid king, Antiochus Epiphanes (reigned 175-164 BC), inflicted one of the most traumatic episodes on the Jews when he tried to impose Hellenistic culture - including its paganism - on them, sometimes with great brutality. This attempt backfired, most notably in the successful rebellion of the Jews against Seleucid rule, under the Maccabees brothers. This led to the founding of an independent Jewish state in 141 BC, which lasted until the Roman conquest. Instead of governing the area directly, the Romans have given it to one of their main allies in the region, Herod, to rule.
Mesopotamia is now ruled by descendants of one of Alexander the Great's generals, who plant many Hellenistic cities. click to view
Asia Minor has fallen under the power of Rome.. click to view
Egyptian independence has come to an end with the death of its famous queen, Cleopatra. click to view
Arabian civilization reaches a height of prosperity. click to view
Under Roman rule, the inhabitants of Syria experienced a long period of peace and prosperity. Magnificent cities, run by highly educated, Greek-speaking elites, studded the region.
In the south of the region the Jews remained unreconciled to Roman rule. A great Jewish revolt, lasting from AD 66 to AD 70, ended in the complete destruction of Jerusalem, and a second revolt in 133, after being harshly repressed by the Romans, resulted in the complete expulsion of Jews from central Judaea. Jerusalem was eventually rebuilt as a Roman colony.
By this time, the new religion of Christianity had appeared in Judaea, founded by an (apparently) ordinary Jew, Jesus of Nazareth (lived c. 6 BC to c. AD 31). It was soon spreading far and wide in the Roman and Parthian empires.
The Syrian provinces experienced invasions from the east in the 3rd century, and for a time was even ruled by a breakaway regime under the formidable queen, Zenobia of Palmyra.
With the unity of the Roman empire restored, peace and prosperity returned to the Syrian provinces in the 4th century. In the 5th century, while the western provinces were enduring massive German invasions which eventually led to the end of Roman rule there, the inhabitants of the Syrian provinces were enjoying a comparatively tranquil time, with no major disturbances.
With Christianity becoming the dominant religion of the Roman empire after Constantine's conversion in 311, Palestine became a centre of pilgrimage. Imperial patronage led to magnificent churches springing up in and around Jerusalem, and devout men and women from all over the empire came to live in the many monasteries which dotted the wilderness here.
The wars between the Byzantines and the Persians in the 7th century caused much devastation to the numerous cities of Syria, and were followed almost immediately by the Arab conquest of Syria (633-40).
The Arabs conquest was made easier by the local population's adherence to a branch of Christianity regarded as heretical by the Byzantine government, and therefore persecuted. This had weakened ties between Syria and Constantinople. The Arabs granted their conquered populations freedom of worship, and many Syrians regarded them as liberators rather than conquerors. The Arab garrisons were kept separate from the rest of the population, for whom life went on much as before.
The early Muslim period has in fact been something of a golden age for Syria. Under the Umayyad caliphs, Damascus is the capital of the Islamic Caliphate. As an imperial capital, it is beautified by palaces and mosques. Jerusalem also received special favour (and, for the first time for 500 years, Jews were allowed back by the Muslim authorities). The Great Mosque in Damascus and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem are the first great examples of Muslim architecture. However, in 750 the Umayyad royal family was destroyed by a successful uprising which brings the 'Abassid family to the caliphate throne, and power immediately starts to shift eastwards away from Syria.
Syria, which had prospered as the centre of power of the Umayyad caliphs up to the 750's, became merely another province of the caliphate when the new ruling dynasty of caliphs, the 'Abbasids, founded their capital of Baghdad, in Iraq. Syria and Palestine were the locations for a number of revolts against the new dynasty, and were regarded with suspicion by them. The region experienced a decline in prosperity.
As the 'Abbasid empire began to break up, Syria and Palestine came under the rule of the Tulunids, a rebel regime based in Egypt (877). Later, in the 940's, eastern Syria passed to the Hamdanids, an Arab tribe originally based in northern Iraq. The Hamdanid capital, Aleppo, has become an important intellectual centre where Greek philosophy is being synthesised with Islamic belief. At a more popular level, Syria, being on the borders of the Islamic world, is the location for a number of heterodox religious sects, one of which, the Alawites, will remain an important force right up to the present day. A Shi-ite Muslim sect, the Alawites flourish under the Hamdanids.
Western and southern Syria, along with Palestine, is coming under the Fatimid regime, based in Egypt.
Asia Minor is the main recruiting ground for the army of the Byzantine empire. click to view
Under the Fatimids, Egypt becomes the leading centre of Islamic civilization. click to view
Harsh taxation, civil war and rebellion undermines the prosperity of Iraq. click to view
Arabia is home to Islamic sects seen as dangerous by the orthodox Muslims. click to view
In 1071 Syria and Palestine, like much of the Middle East, passed into the hands of the Seljuqs. Then, after 1098, it fell to the Christian Crusaders from Europe, who set up four states in Syria and Palestine: the kingdom of Jerusalem, the principality of Antioch, and the counties of Edessa and Tripoli. These were organized along the feudal lines of European states of the time.
The position of the Crusaders, always an alien minority within their territories, was never secure. In 1127, northern Syria came under the control of the Turkish Zangid dynasty, originally based in northern Iraq. The Zangid ruler, Nureddin, took Antioch and Edessa from the Crusaders in 1144. His general, Saladin, then gained complete control of Egypt and, on Nuredin’s death, became ruler of Syria and Palestine as well, founding the Ayyubid dynasty. He resoundingly defeated the Crusaders at the battle of Hattin in 1187, and all inland areas fell permanently back into Muslim hands, under Saladin and his successors.
Up to the time of the Crusades, the majority of the population of Syria and Palestine were probably Christians. However, the presence of hostile and alien Christian conquerors, who treated the local population with scant concern, meant that by this time most Syrians had become Muslims. A minority kept to to their old faith, most famously the Maronites, an isolated community whose location in the difficult terrain of Mount Lebanon gave them a measure of protection against the surrounding Muslims. Mount Lebanon also sheltered another tightly-knit mountain community, the Druze. This secretive sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, was an amalgam of Islamic, Jewish and Christian beliefs.
The Turkish sultanate of Rum now rules in Asia Minor. click to view
Egypt is now under the dynasty of the renowned Muslim leader, Saladin. click to view
Although Iraq continues to deteriorate, Baghdad is a major centre of Islamic civilization. click to view
The civilization of southern Arabia has declined, along with the great desert trade routes. click to view
In the 13th century, Syria and Palestine became fragmented amongst several principalities based at Aleppo, Hamah, Damascus and other centres. These were all under princes of the Ayyubid family, and were subject to the loose control of the Ayyubid sultan in Cairo.
This was a time of economic and cultural progress for this region. The ports of the Levant coast in particular prospered, as the Crusaders had expanded trading links with Europe.
In 1260 the Mongols invaded Syria and sacked Aleppo; however, they were beaten back by the Mamluqs, a group of soldier-slaves in the service of the Ayyubids, at the battle of 'Ayn Jalut. The Mamluqs then took control of both Egypt and Syria for themselves, and brought both countries under a much more centralized rule than before. In 1291 the Mamluqs expelled the last of the Crusading strongholds from Syrian soil.
Although the Crusaders had been expelled, the maritime trade with Europe did not come to an end, and Syria continued to prosper under the Mamluqs. Then, in 1401, the armies of the central Asian conqueror Timur swept in. They sacked Aleppo and Damascus, and inflicted great destruction on much of the country. This put an end to the period of prosperity.
The Ottoman empire captures the great city of Constantinople. click to view
Yemen has been a centre of trade and Islamic culture. click to view
Egypt is now ruled by a class of slave-soldiers, the Mamluqs. click to view
Iraq is now ruled by a tribe from central Asia called the Black Sheep Turks. click to view
Syria was conquered by the Ottomans in 1516, and has been a province of their empire since then. This has for the most part been a period of peace. Agriculture has flourished under official protection by Ottoman governors. Commerce has expanded, especially with European traders, with English and French merchants replacing the earlier Italians as the dominant partners. Syrian merchants, both Muslims and Jews, have actively developed their own commercial networks in southern Europe.
Local religious communities - Jews, Alawites, Maronites and Druze - enjoy a great deal of self-government under the Ottomans, able to live according to their own laws and customs so long as they pay their taxes. Indeed, the Mount Lebanon region enjoys a semi-autonomous status, under its own line of hereditary princes. The two religious communities of the area, the Druze and Maronites, live side by side in comparative peace. The Maronites have come under the wing of the Roman Catholic Church, although they keep their own organization and ceremonies.
Asia Minor is the centre of the Ottoman empire, one of the great empires of world history. click to view
Egypt is now a part of the Ottoman empire. click to view
The Ottoman empire is the dominant power within the Arabian peninsula. click to view
Iraq is now a part of the Ottoman empire. click to view
As elsewhere in the empire, the standard of Ottoman administration in Syria has declined sharply during the 18th century. Corruption and neglect on the part of the Ottoman authorities have allowed a large amount of local power to fall into the hands of semi-independent hereditary rulers. Their power is bolstered by the support of local Mamluq and Janissary garrisons, who benefit from the loosened hold of the central government to enrich themselves, and by local militias which the rulers have themselves raised.
In this malaise, the economy has been in decline. Bedouin nomads extend their control far into hitherto agricultural areas, shrinking the amount of land available for farming. This has affected trade, which has also declined somewhat. In some cities, however, a vigorous commercial life retains a hold. The European merchant presence remains strong, and French political influence is considerable in the Mount Lebanon region, especially amongst the Maronite Christian communities.
The Ottoman government has been weakened, both internally and externally. click to view
The first Saudi kingdom has appeared in Arabia. click to view
Although officially a part of the Ottoman empire, Egypt is really ruled by the Mamluqs. click to view
Although formally a part of the Ottoman empire, a group of Mamluq soldiers now govern Iraq as virtually independent rulers. click to view
Muhammed Ali, the renegade governor of Egypt, conquered Syria in 1831 and installed his son, Ibraham Pasha, as governor there. Under Ibrahim, a much higher degree of control prevailed, with administration being in the hands of appointed officials. Law and order was strengthened, and the Bedouin nomads were pushed back from the agricultural areas. Not all this was welcomed by the local population: taxes were heavy, and Ibrahim's government tried to introduce military conscription.
An exception to this centralization was the Mount Lebanon area. Ibrahim preserved the independence of the principality in this region, and indeed formed a close working alliance with its prince.
The Ottoman government has embarked on a remarkable programme of modernization. click to view
The first Saudi kingdom has been crushed, but a second one has appeared. click to view
Egypt is now semi-independent from the Ottoman empire. click to view
The Ottoman empire has succeeded in reimposing its authority in Iraq. click to view
European powers, wishing to restore Ottoman power in the Middle East, took military action to force Ibrahim Pasha to hand back Syria to Ottoman rule (1840). The Ottoman government, at this time being modernized by a determined group of reformers, then imposed a new, more efficient administrative system on the region. For example, the Ottomans put an end to the semi-independent principality of Mount Lebanon after hundreds of years of existence.
During this period European influence was increasing, with French influence predominant with the Roman Catholic and Maronite communities, and Russian with the Orthodox community. This aroused the resentment of other sections of the population. In particular, in the absence of their traditional ruler, relations between the Druze and Maronite communities in the Mount Lebanon area deteriorated. Inter-communal conflict led to the massacre of Maronite Christians by Druze militias, which in turn provoked European intervention. An autonomous state of Mount Lebanon was again set up, under Ottoman suzerainty (1861).
By this time, Protestant missionaries from Britain and the USA were active amongst Maronites and other Christian groups, and in 1866 a Syrian Protestant College was established. This would later become the famous American University of Beirut.
In Syria, as in other parts of the Ottoman empire, standards of administration rose with the appointment of new, western-educated Ottoman officials. The introduction of railways and telegraph integrated the region better, allowed for more centralized administration and control, and stimulated economic expansion. With better security, agriculture continued to expand. In 1908 the Damascus-Hejaz railway was completed, to take pilgrims to Mecca, an important source of revenue for the country. Modern schools were opened, and the urban elite adopted western clothes and other customs. Beirut in particular was now a great international port, with its business community connected to the commercial world of the Mediterranean and Europe (especially France and Britain).
After the 1908-9 "Young Turks" revolution, relations between Turks and Syrians deteriorated, as power now became concentrated in the hands of a narrow group of Turkish military officers. This gave a boost to Arab nationalism.
Since the early 1880's an increasing number of Jews had been settling in Palestine. The new world-wide Zionist movement, with its yearning for a Jewish homeland after 1500 years of wandering, was behind this development. This well-funded movement purchased land owned largely by local absentee landowners, and established colonies on it. This proliferation of Jewish colonies, and the prospect of many more to come, aroused the hostility of the local Arab population, who feared that they would become foreigners in their own land.
The Ottoman sultans have maintained the modernizing policies of their predecessors. click to view
Egypt is now effectively a part of the British empire. click to view
A third, much larger, Saudi kingdom has appeared. click to view
Under Ottoman rule, Iraq is modernizing. click to view
In World War 1, the Ottomans were driven out of Syria and Palestine by British and Arab forces. After the war, the British took control of Palestine and Transjordan, and the French took over Syria and Lebanon, all as League of Nations "mandate territories". The British awarded Transjordan to their wartime ally, Abdullah, to rule as emir.
In World War 2, the region was again occupied by Allied forces, who granted independence to Syria and Lebanon in 1943. In 1946, Syria and Lebanon, both now parliamentary democracies, became founder-members of UN and the Arab League. From 1949 Syria was ruled by a series of military dictatorships. In 1958, Syria joined with Egypt to form the United Arab Republic.
Lebanon meanwhile remained a parliamentary democracy, under a power-sharing arrangement between the Maronite, Druze and Muslim communities.
To the south, Palestine had been the scene of violent hostility between the growing Jewish presence and the local Arab population. Rising Jewish immigration led to outright Arab revolt (1936-9). The British withdrew their forces, by now under fire from both sides, in 1948. The Jews immediately proclaimed the State of Israel, and were at once attacked by a combination of Arab states. The Jews managed to hold on to their territory, and even expand it a little: Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan (which had gained its independence in 1946 as the Kingdom of Jordan); Jordan gained territory on the West Bank; and the Gaza strip was occupied by Egypt. Israel established a western-style parliamentary system of government.
In 1961 a military coup re-established Syria as an independent state. In 1970 colonel Hafiz al-Assad seized power. He and (from 2000) his son Bashir have provided internal stability for the country. They have promoted economic growth, land reform and education, and have strengthened the army. They have enjoyed widespread support, but dissent has been crushed.
Continuing hostility between Israel and its Arab neighbours led to the 6-Day War in 1967, and then to the 1973 war. In these, Israel first gained, and then held on to, much new territory: the Arab part of Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip (occupied 1967-2005), and the Sinai peninsula (1967-1978). Peace accords with Egypt (1978) and Jordan (1994) have not ended the endless tensions, provocations and violence between Arabs and Israelis, including two major periods of Palestinian unrest (1987-93 and 2000-c.2005).
After the 1967 war a surge of Palestinian refugees flooded into Jordan, which threatened to destabilize the country and soon led to civil war, ending in their expulsion in 1970. Most Palestinians fled to Lebanon, and here too their sheer numbers destabiliazed their host country. The Lebanese civil war followed (1975-6). This ruined the country, and ended with Syrian troops occupying much of it and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in charge of the south. The threat this posed to Israel led to its invasion of Lebanon in 1982, to crush the PLO bases there. Peace and order were gradually restored in Lebanon, but the rise of Hezbollah, a Shi'ite group dedicated to the elimination of Israel, is a new source of danger to this small country.