The region of present day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan was amongst the earliest areas – perhaps even THE earliest – to experience a shift away from the hunter-gatherer to the farming lifestyle. However, it was not here but in the great river valleys of Mesopotamia and Egypt that urban, literate civilizations first developed.
The people of Syria were soon affected by the rise of civilizations elsewhere in the Middle East. Already in the 3rd millennium, trade routes connecting the two main centers of civilization of Mesopotamia and Egypt ran through Syria.
Two main trade routes were used at this time. Both came into Syria from Mesopotamia via the Euphrates valley, where the ancient trading city of Aleppo grew up. One then ran through northern Syria to the coast, where Egyptian trading ships called at the ports of Ugarit and Byblos. The other route took traders down the Jordan valley through Palestine, via such towns as Damascus and Jericho.
Along with the trade came Sumerian influences. The city of Ebla was the capital of a major kingdom in north-eastern Syria, and flourished around 2500 BCE. It was home to a Sumerian-style culture, though the language of the local population was Semitic. More than 15,000 clay tablets, inscribed with cuneiform script in a Semitic language, have been found in the ruins of the palace, and give detailed knowledge of many aspects of the life of the kingdom. What is clear is that it was regularly at war with the Sumerian city of Mari, in Mesopotamia.
On the coast, the port of Byblos was of particular importance to Egyptian traders as the source of a much needed commodity, timber. This was obtained from the mountains of Lebanon (Egypt had very little wood of its own). In exchange, Byblos imported papyrus, a sought-after writing material in days long before paper. Byblos came to be so strongly associated with this material that, in a later age, the Hebrew word for “book” would be derived from that city (hence the name “Bible” applied to their scriptures).
Ebla and northern Syria came under the rule of the great Mesopotamian ruler, Sargon of Akkad, and his successors, from around 2300 BCE. Ebla, indeed, was destroyed at this time, and was rebuilt on a smaller scale, never again reaching the importance it had had previously.
To the east of Ebla lay the Syrian desert, and the nomadic tribes who had lived here for centuries were the Amorites. These began penetrating west by the end of the 3rd millennium, possibly taking advantage of the disruption caused by the conquests of Sargon and his successors. They established themselves as rulers of cities like Ebla and Aleppo.
Aleppo became the center of an important Amorite kingdom in northern Syria, with another kingdom based on Qatna, to the south. Both became deeply involved in the struggles between the powerful Mesopotamian kingdoms further east, coming under the influence, if not outright control, of the Babylonian empire of Hammurabi, around 1750 BCE.
In the next century, northern Syria, along with western Mesopotamia, fell under the control of a people new to the region, the Mitanni. The Mitanni were in fact Hurrians, a tribe long known to the history of these parts, who had come under the control of a warlike Indo-European ruling class. They established a well-organized and militaristic state in northern Mesopotamia and northern Syria, which by c. 1500 BCE was one of the leading powers in the Middle East. It successfully resisted the imperial ambitions of New Kingdom Egypt, subdued Assyria to vassalage, and gained control of such wealthy trading cities as Ugarit and Aleppo.
Further south, at around the same time, the Canaanites and the Hyksos (if they were not one and same people), near-relatives of the Amorites and, like them, pastoral nomads, expanded into the settled areas of Palestine, right to the coast. They took over the small towns and villages of the land which later became known as Canaan, founding small kingdoms where they settled. On the coast their descendants were later known to history as the Phoenicians.
Following the decline of Babylonian power in the area, northern Syria became a battle-ground between other great states of the late Bronze Age Middle East. The first round was between the Hittites, based in Asia Minor, and the Mitanni.
For a long time the Mitanni resisted the encroachments of the Hittites, but in the late fifteenth century BCE the Hittite kingdom entered a new and aggressive phase, posing an increasing threat to the Mitanni. In response, the Mitanni kings patched up their relations with Egypt, but this was not able to save them. In 1380 BCE a strong Hittite army, led by their king, invaded the Mitanni kingdom and successfully wrested huge tracts of Syrian territory from its control.
This disaster destabilized the Mitanni state, and set off a chain of coups, civil wars and secessions. In c. 1360 BCE the king of Assyria, Ashur-uballit I (1365-1330 BCE was able to break free, and then, taking advantage of Mitanni weakness, occupied the eastern half of the kingdom. The Hittites quickly occupied the rest, and northern Syria thus came under the firm control of the Hittites. The Mitanni vanished from history.
Meanwhile, given the crucial importance of the sea-borne trade to Egypt which was centered on Byblos, it is easy to see why the kings of Egypt had become involved in trying to secure southern Syria within their sphere of influence. The southern Syrian coast and Palestine became a battle-ground between whoever ruled the north, whether Hittites or Mitanni, on the one hand, and Egypt, on the other.
Egypt’s main object was to secure her trade routes with the rest of the Middle East, and to do so she had to impose her will on the many small kingdoms of Palestine and the Syrian coast. The great seaport of Byblos became the base for the Egyptian presence in the Levant, and Egyptian armies frequently campaigned in the area. They fought major wars with the northern powers, which included one of the most famous battles in ancient history, the battle of Kadesh, in 1290 BCE. This was a draw between the Egyptians and Hittites, which led to the drawing of a clear demarcation line between their spheres of influence.
The Amarna letters, found in a royal archive containing over 350 diplomatic letters between the Egyptian king and foreign rulers, offer a fascinating glimpse into the international scene at this time. The king of Egypt related to the powerful kings of Babylon and the Hittites as equals (“brothers”), but to the many petty chiefs and kinglets of Palestine, he was their overlord.
The Canaanites seem to have been the pioneers of a new style of writing by developing a proto-alphabet.
The period of Hittite and Egyptian domination marked the high point of Bronze Age civilization in Syria, as elsewhere. This came to an end in the chaos of the late 13th century. The Hittite empire collapsed around 1200 BCE, though northern Syria and south-eastern Asia Minor continued to be covered by a network of small Hittite kingdoms (the “Neo-Hittites”, as modern scholars call them), which in Syria were centered on Aleppo and Carchemish.
Ugarit was destroyed by attackers from the West known as the “Sea Peoples”, around 1200 BCE, and Byblos was also badly affected. However, new port cities came to the fore on the Syrian coast, particularly Tyre and Sidon. These were home to a Canaanite people whom the Greeks came to call the Phoenicians. They formed a loose confederacy, and grew prosperous on seaborne trade.
During the troubled times at the end of the 2nd millennium BCE, Aramaean tribes (who had displaced the Amorites as the inhabitants of the Syrian desert) founded a number of small states in a broad stretch of inland territory in northern Syria. By 1000 BCE, these had become well-established and stable kingdoms, notably the kingdom of Damascus. Their wealth helped the Phoenician cities of the coast, through which much of their trade passed, to become prosperous ports.
Further south, two new peoples emerged during these troubled times, The Israelites had migrated into the land of Canaan at an unknown date, but probably shortly after 1200 BCE, bringing with them their monotheistic religion. In around 1050 BCE, they established a kingdom. By 1000 BCE this had acquired a new royal capital, Jerusalem. Meanwhile, on the coast, the Philistines, one of the groups who had made up the “Sea Peoples”, established themselves in a group of cities including Gaza, Ashkelon and Joppa.
During this period, both the Phoenicians and Aramaeans adopted the proto-alphabet which had appeared amongst the Canaanites some centuries before. They adapted it in different ways so that two distinct alphabetic scripts emerged.
The Phoenician city-states, particularly Tyre and Sidon, flourished as the leading trading powers of the Mediterranean Sea. In this capacity, they spread Middle Eastern “know-how” to the peoples further west. Above all, the Phoenicians introduced alphabetic writing to the Greeks. The Greeks would add additional letters, to represent vowels, before passing their alphabet on to peoples in Asia Minor and Italy. In Italy, it would be further developed into the Latin alphabet, which is essentially the same alphabet which is used today throughout western Europe and most of the rest of the world.
Inland from the Phoenicians, a patchwork of Aramaean and Neo-Hittite kingdoms, like those of Damascus and Aleppo, covered the region. From the mid-9th century these kingdoms came increasingly under the domination of the rising power of Assyria, and between 745 and 708 BCE were one by one incorporated into the Assyrian empire. The Assyrians destroyed the kingdom of Israel in 722, and the kingdom of Judah became a vassal state, and the great Phoenician city of Sidon was raised to the ground in 677.
One important result of the conquest of the Aramaean kingdoms by the Assyrians was that the Assyrians adopted the Aramaic alphabet for use in everyday transactions. With the expansion of the Assyrian empire throughout the Middle East, use of this alphabet spread throughout the region, and well beyond. A version of the Aramaic alphabet was adopted in India, becoming the ancestor of most Indian scripts and of other scripts in central Asia and as far afield as South East Asia.
With the downfall of Assyria, Syria again became a battle-ground, this time between the new power of Babylon and a resurgent Egypt. The Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar completely defeated the Egyptians at the battle of Carchemish in 605 BCE, and the region came under the firm control of the Babylonian empire. A little later, Nebuchadnessar destroyed the kingdom of Judah, taking thousands of its elite off to his capital, Babylon.
Syria passed into the hands of the new Persian empire when their king, Cyrus, conquered Babylon in 539 BCE. One of Cyrus’ most famous acts was to restore the exiled Jews to their homeland, and encourage them to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem.
Under the Persian king Darius (reigned 522 to 486 BCE), the whole of Syria, along with Cyprus, was organized into one great province, or satrapy, with Damascus as its capital. The states of the region became vassals of the Persians, allowed to run their internal affairs and maintain their trade so long as they remained loyal to the Persian Great King (as represented by the satrap of Syria). The Phoenicians were used by the Persian government to build, man and lead their powerful navy.
The Persians gave the region a large measure of peace for more than a hundred and fifty years. In the mid-4th century, however, the Phoenician cities rebelled. The defeat of the rebellion ended in the destruction of the wealthy city of Sidon in 345 BCE.
In the struggles for control of Alexander’s conquests after his death in 323 BCE, his general Seleucus ended up in control of northern Syria, and Ptolemy, another of Alexander’s generals, whose power was based in Egypt, had control of the south.
Under Seleucus and his successors (known as the “Seleucids”), northern Syria soon became a center of Hellenistic civilization. They founded many Greek-style cities, including their capital, Antioch, which was soon one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean world. They attracted many Greeks to settle in these cities (though under the firm control of the Seleucid king). The old Phoenician cities of Tyre, Sidon, Byblos and Aradus also took on a predominantly Hellenistic veneer over time.
Hellenistic civilization penetrated much less effectively in southern Syria, which remained mostly under native kings ruling as vassals of the kings of Egypt, the Ptolemies. The Jews remained located in and around Jerusalem, under a line of hereditary chief priests.
Soon after 200 BCE the Seleucid king Antiochus the Great succeeded in taking the southern part of Syria from Ptolemaic control. His successor, Antiochus Epiphanes, tried to impose Hellenistic culture on the inhabitants of this area. This attempt backfired, most notably in the successful rebellion of the Jews against Seleucid rule and the establishment of a new Jewish kingdom.
By this time, in fact, Seleucid power was in general decline as constant civil wars destabilized the kingdom. The Parthians, an Iranian people originally from the steppes of central Asia, took all the Seleucids’ eastern territories away from them. Closer to home, southern Syria returned to native rule – including the independent Jewish state – and finally the north fell to foreign conquerors, first Tigranes, king of Armenia (in 83 BCE), and then the Romans under their general Pompey the Great (64-63 BCE). Pompey went on to bring the rest of Syria under his control by conquering the kingdom of Judaea.
The Romans left things more or less as they had been before, with much of Syria under native dynasties, now client kings of the Romans. The main threat the Romans faced in Syria was from the east, where a major new empire had emerged, under Parthian rule. The Roman army had to deal with Parthian invasions in 51–50 and 40–39 BCE. The Roman and Parthian empires divided most of the Middle East between them.
Syria was one of the most important provinces in the Roman Empire. It was governed by a very senior official, responsible not only for maintaining law and order in the province, and other civil duties, but also for commanding an army of three or four legions. Most of the native rulers were gradually “retired” and their territories brought under the direct authority of Rome; to cope with this administratively, Judaea and Arabia became separate Roman provinces, and in 196 the province of Syria itself was divide into two, Syria Coele and Syria Phoenice.
Under Roman rule, the inhabitants of Syria experienced a long period of peace and prosperity. Roman Syria boasted many magnificent cities, major centers of trade and industry. Above all, Antioch was one of the largest cities in the empire, with a population probably in the region of 200,000, vast at that time. The culture of the upper classes in the cities remained Hellenistic, with the Latin culture of the Roman rulers making little headway. Syrian cities were also important cultural centers, with schools of rhetoric, law and medicine.
Despite their Hellenistic culture, Roman citizenship spread widely amongst the upper classes of Syrian cities. By the second century, indeed, members of leading Syrian families were entering the Roman senate and becoming integral members of the empire’s ruling elite.
In the countryside and amongst the lower classes of the towns, most people still spoke Aramaic. Life presumably did not change much for them, with the proviso that they experienced peace for generations.
The main episodes which disturbed the peace of the region were two fierce Jewish revolts, in 66-70 CE and 133-6 CE. After the latter one, the Jews were banned from living in Palestine.
By that time, a new religion, which would in due course become one of the greatest faiths in world history, had come out of Judaea and was spreading rapidly round the Roman world. This was Christianity, founded by Jesus of Nazareth, who lived c. 4 BCE to 30 CE. The Syrian provinces became some of the most Christianized provinces of the empire.
In the late 2nd century a destructive plague spread through the region (c. 160). Many communities lost up to a third of their inhabitants, and some would never reach pre-plague population levels again until modern times.
The Syrian provinces experienced invasions from the East in the 3rd century. To the east, the Parthian empire was replaced by a better organized and more aggressive Persian empire, in 224. In 260, a Roman army met with a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Persians, and the Roman emperor, Valerian, was taken prisoner. In the power vacuum that followed the defeat, Odeonathus, the king of the border city of Palmyra, became the leading figure in organizing the defenses of the eastern frontier of the empire, but was assassinated in 267. He was succeeded by his wife, queen, Zenobia, who threw off Roman rule and set herself up as an independent ruler.
Zenobia’s breakaway regime lasted until 273, when a new emperor, Aurelian, defeated her armies and brought the east back under Roman authority (Zenobia herself was paraded in triumph in Rome, but then married a Roman senator!). With the unity of the Roman empire restored, peace and prosperity returned to the Syrian provinces, though not perhaps at the same level as in the earlier empire. The region became again a center of trade and industry, and of a lively cultural life. Further Persian invasions did some damage, but each time were soon pushed back. 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 Persian raids.
The Later Roman government was greatly preoccupied with the threat from beyond its eastern frontiers, and massive border defenses were built up, with much greater troop numbers than in the early empire. The Romans also recruited an Arab tribe, the Ghazzanids, to act as a forward defense. Ghazzanid scouts patrolled the desert, securing the Roman border from any surprise invasion or disturbance. The Persian government had likewise recruited the Lakhmid tribe to the same role on its behalf. Between them, these two tribes came to dominate a large area of northern Arabia.