Syrian Heritage > Overview
Overview - From the ‘Stone Age’ to modern times
Used dating abbreviations:
BP = Before Present
BC = Before Christ
CE = Common Era
- Prehistoric Syria
Epipaleolithic / Mesolithic
- Bronze Age Syria
Early Bronze Age
Middle Bronze Age
Late Bronze Age
- Iron Age
- Persian Syria
- Syria in the classical period
- The Islamic Era
Ayyubid dynasties / Crusaders / Mamluk
- Ottoman Period
- Modern times
Earliest traces of human presence
The earliest traces of human presence in Syria have been found primarily in coastal rivers basins, in the Orontes Valley, and along the inland river tributaries. These traces belong to the type of human known as Homo erectus (‘upright man’), which first moved out of Africa and settled Asia and Europe around one million years ago. Evidence of human activity from the Lower Palaeolithic period, known to experts as the Lower Acheulean, have been found at the site of Sitt Marko, Berzine, in the Kabir al-Shamali River basin on the Syrian coast. These finds consist of a number of stone and worn flint tools, such as the distinctive Acheulean bifaces, which are hand-axes representative of Acheulean culture. There is evidence of human settlement in Syria’s desert region and in the Euphrates Valley from around 600,000 BC onwards.
Study of the local culture during this period reveals a diversity of human occupation, encompassing a range of tools development and production practices. This and later periods produced the first datable huts constructed by small hunter-gatherer societies as well as evidence for the use of fire. Representative sites for these initial pages in Syrian prehistory are Khattab and Gharmachi at Latamne in the Orontes Valley. By around 250,000 BC (the Middle Acheulean), several prehistoric cultures coexisted in the territory of present-day Syria. Examples include the culture discovered at Yabrud, in a suburb of Damascus) and that discovered at the sites of Nadaouiyeh and Hummal, Umm el Tlel in the El Kowm oasis region of the Syrian desert. This stage in history saw the emergence of the earliest open-air constructions, composed of huts for the hunter-gatherer communities. Syrian sites provide the longest known stratigraphic sequences in the area, covering over 300,000 years. The excavated sequence evidences an exceptionally long life span, with wonderful flint tools from the Stone Age (Palaeolithic) and discoveries attesting to the emergence of agricultural communities.
The Neanderthals reached Syria at around 200,000 BC (the Middle Palaeolithic). Neanderthal culture was characterised by flint points and advanced stone tools. Discoveries of this culture are more variable and come from open-air sites, caves, and rock shelters. Evidence of Neanderthal culture has been found in the Syrian desert region, mainly at the sites of Jerf Ajla and Um el-Tlel. An interesting stone and flint tools industry furthermore developed at Yabrud near Damascus. However, the most significant discovery from the Neanderthal culture is the rare nearly complete skeleton of a three-year-old child found buried in a natural pit, in the Dederiyeh Cave, located in Afrin Valley, northwest of Aleppo. The clearly intentional burial and tools found at Dederiyeh mark the site as a key find for the whole of the prehistoric Levant.
By around 40,000 – 35,000 BC, the type of human called Homo sapiens (thinking man) was already present in Syria but is only weakly attested to in Syria and the Orient, possibly on account of a declining population to a cooling climate.
Later, around 16,000 – 10,000 BC (the Epipaleolithic / Mesolithic), there is evidence for the appearance of the Kibaran and Natufian cultures. These two cultures, which are also known from Palestine, spread across Syria. Similar cultural practices to the Palestinian sites have been found at the Abu-Hureyra and Mureybet sites in the Euphrates Valley. Discoveries include open-air construction, composed of circular units built with wood and clay, as well numerous artefacts. The Natufian culture is best represented at Abu Hureyra in the Euphrates Valley, with discoveries including advanced flint tools; elaborately worked bone; a collection of ground stone tools; and richly ornamented furniture, beads, and pendants. The site is considered the first permanently occupied village of hunter-gatherers in Southwest Asia, and there is evidence of significant changes across its phases of occupation from the Epipaleolithic to the Neolithic period. Indeed, research into the economies of the prehistoric Syrian sites attests to a shift from seasonally occupied sites to a more sedentary type of constructed settlement, such as at Abu Hureyra. The economy later underwent further major changes. Thus, for instance, although the inhabitants of Abu Hureyra were complete farmers, cultivating several species of domesticated several plants, they continued hunting animals and collecting wild plants.
The Agricultural Revolution
The so-called Agricultural Revolution is dated at around 9000 BC (the Neolithic), featuring the invention of advanced agricultural practices and the widespread practice of domestication in prehistoric societies. Archaeological discoveries have demonstrated that Syria was a significant focal point for agricultural development in Southwest Asia. Significant finds at Abu Hureyra provide an excellent reflection of this period, pointing to the emergence of an early, well-planned agricultural settlement. This was accompanied by the first evidence of a co-called ancestor cult and the earliest anthropomorphic figurines of the so-called mother goddess, depicted seated, with exaggerated hips and breasts. Artistic styles were varied, ranging from realistic to stylised. These figurines were intended for more private use rather than holding the public significance linked to the large human statues and busts found at Jericho in Palestine and ‘Ain Ghazal in Jordan. Syrian sites have also provided the earliest evidence for the development of burial rituals involving a deep awareness of life and death and reverence towards ancestors as well as the production of coiled handmade pottery composed of lime and ash. Similar material culture was found in the Euphrates Valley at the sites of Dja’de al-Mughara, Mureybet, Jerf-al Ahmar, Haloula, Boqros, and Tell Sabi Abyad. This attests to a sense of shared culture as well as a common set of beliefs, artistic values (evidenced by the human clay figurines), and modes of expressions during the period.
The rescue excavations at Jerf al- Ahmar (due to the construction of the Tishren dam on the Euphrates River) led to an amazing discovery worthy of comment. A small village here from the Neolithic period (9th millennium BC) contains a number of stone round houses, which formed a farming-sedentary settlement. Its engraved stones, with incised motifs depicting animals and geometric designs, could also be considered Syria’s earliest pictographic artefacts. At the same time, in the Damascus basin zone, we find the earliest domesticated plants and evidence of extensive skull worship in the form of plastered human skulls as well as the construction of specific houses for the dead, as attested to at Tell Aswad and Tell Ramad. Such elaborate burial customs may indicate a reverence for ancestors that was important for the construction of communal ideology in Neolithic societies. A later fresco painting and fragmentary textiles (from around 7000 years ago) have been found at Tell Halula. This period witnessed the emergence of a new farming settlement at Hama in north-western Syria and at Ras Shamra (Ugarit) on the coast. During the final stages of the Neolithic period, the appearances of new developments in pottery production and other finds at Syrian sites suggest that pastoralism had by this point become a distinct way of life.
Organized communities and the first towns
During the final stages of the 7th millennium BC, the Neolithic societies began evidencing pottery production traditions that would come to represent distinguishing characteristics of two cultural areas in Syria. The first, on the coast, recognisable by its dark, polished pottery while the second, in the Jezireh region, is distinguished by its developed and shiny pottery. Another distinguishing characteristic is the production and use of stamp seals cut into clay, bone, and shell and carved with geometric designs, suggesting a desire to identify personal property as well as the organisation of storage procedures. Discoveries of these kinds have been made at Ras Shamra, Tell el-Kerkh, Tell Halula, El Kowm, Tell Sabi Abyad, and Bouqras.
The first use of copper is evidenced in Syria at the start of the 6th millennium BC around 5500 BC (the Chalcolithic period). This period saw the expansion of the earlier settlements at Hama and Ras Shamra as well as the emergence of new settlements at Tell Halaf, Tell Brak, and Chagar Bazar in north-eastern Syria. These settlements became important trade centres and witnessed significant technological advances as well as growing populations. The local character of Syrian civilisation is evidenced through the emergence and development of the Halaf culture (7000 – 6500/6000 BC) at Tell Halaf in the Khabour River basin in north-eastern Syria. It’s typical architectural constructions included circular domestic units known as Tholoi, which have been found at Tell Sabi Abyad. The most characteristic product of this culture was polychrome Halafian pottery: fine, painted ware, extensively decorated in a lustrous red or black. Decorations consisted of different geometric and naturalistic patterns while the vessels themselves were created in complex shapes. The diffusion of the Halaf culture’s distinctively urban technological advances paved the way for the birth of the kingdoms of the Early Bronze Age.
With the beginning of the 5th millennium BC, the well-known Ubaid culture of southern Mesopotamia replaced the Halafian culture, spreading to a much greater extent than had its predecessors. During this phase, temples were built alongside public and domestic units at a variety of settlements in Syria and Iraq. These societies are the direct ancestors of later and more urbanised societies – such as the Warka culture – which spread across southern Mesopotamia and into Syria in the early 4th Millennium BC.
Around 4500 BC, at the end of the prehistoric age and the start of the historic era, Syria entered a phase of population vacuum, perhaps due to volcanic eruption, which was later filled by the Sumerians, who settled in large numbers across various zones of the Syro-Mespotamian region. The so-called Uruk-Warka culture once covered the southern portion of Syro-Mesopotamia while the Ghassul culture – represented at Tlelat el Ghassul, east of Dead Sea – developed in the northern portion. During the initial stages of this period, there is a link between the material culture of the Syrian sites and those of Mesopotamia, yet a distinctive variety of metallic ware pottery would later develop in Syria. In this so-called Urban Revolution, sites such as Tell Brak and Habuba Kabira developed into major population centres, doubtless due to as-yet-unknown influences from the south. The settlements at sites such as Habuba Kabira and Gabal Aruda in the Euphrates Valley represent the first Syrian communities organised under a centralised economic and social power, which led to the construction of cities with defensive walls and towers as well as regular house designs. There is even evidence of the use of pictographic writing systems as well as cylindrical seals, indicating a high degree of commercial change as well as administrative control.
At the site of Tell Hamoukar (located in northeastern Syria) the excavations have shown the remains of one of the world's oldest discovered cities. The discoveries of architectural vestiges and archaeological finds (including riche material culture such as cylinder seals and clay figurines) indicate the importance of this site in the middle of the fourth millennium BC. Discoveries attest to highly organized political structure as well as significant network of trade relations between Tell Hamoukar and other Syrian sites such as Tell Brak at the time. Tell Brak has also contributed to archaeology a group of small alabaster statues (the so-called eye idols) that seem to have been of mystical significance, functioning perhaps as votive amulets used for prayers or depicting perhaps odorants. Syrian sites have also contained the earliest wheel-produced pottery, which became universal across the Mesopotamian and Syrian cultures.
The Early Bronze Age saw the emergence of several new political configurations, such as Ebla and Hama or Mari on the Euphrates, but the dominant political type is that of the core territorial state, which contributed to Syria’s growing population. Two major groups attested to in this period are the Semitic culture (closely associated with southern cities and represented in Syria by the sites of Ebla and Mari) and the Hurrian culture (represented by the discoveries at Urkish, that is, at present-day Tell Mozan in the Khabour River basin. Other Syrian sites or city-states attest to a high degree of urbanisation and cultural development, as evidenced by the constructions unearthed at Tell Leilan, Tell Chuera in north-eastern Syria and the significant Hama pottery finds in north-western Syria.
Among the most representative sites for this stage of Syrian history is Nabada (the ancient name of a Bronze Age kingdom located in present-day Tell Beydar, Khabour River basin). Excavation here revealed a large settlement, including palatial and religious complexes, with amazing artefacts, such as the bullae bearing the impression of seals and other cuneiform signs. These discoveries attest to the existence of commercial between Beydar and other sites in the vicinity, such as Tell Brak. The most significant discovery, however, is that of the oldest known archives in Syria, which contained cuneiform tablets of a variety of shapes, documenting various aspects of life, trade, and policy in this ancient Syrian kingdom. At Ebla (present-day Tell Mardikh), a rich cuneiform archive was discovered, containing over 15,000 tablets. Likewise, at Mari (present-day Tell Hariri, on the Euphrates), a rich archive (over 26,000 tablets) was unearthed. Parallel to this archival wealth, a significant material culture, including pottery and metallic and stoon tools and objects, especially cylindrical seals cut in precious stones, some of which were imported from distant lands, such as lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. The Early Bronze Age urban centres encompassed communities at various social levels from different backgrounds, such as the Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians. Their buildings were well planned, including decorated areas like the throne hall or alter. Representative examples are the Temple of the Eyes at Tell Brak and the Royal Palace at Ebla ( so-called Palace G). In terms of art and architecture, this phase sees the first examples of temples dedicated to deities such as Ishtar and Hadad as well as palaces with extensive storage and administrative facilities.
Syria fell under the Amorite domination from the early 2nd Millennium BC. This resulted in new political configurations, with an Assyrian regional kingdom under the ruler Samshi-Adad I and a Babylonian kingdom under the ruler of Hammurabi. There is evidence of new ‘macroregional’ administrative and political patterns relative to the old Assyrian kingdom, with the state gaining its own identity distinct from that of the mere expansion of the earlier city-states. Amazing findings related to material culture ascribed to this period have been made at Syrian sites. There is an obvious development in sacred and palatial architecture, as evidenced by the royal places at Mari, Lielan, Alalakh, Qatna, and Ugarit. Ebla has provided impressive architectural remains, including palaces; temples; and the largest cuneiform tablet archive found in Syria as well as various valuable artefacts, such as sculptured basalt cultic basins, stone statues of human and divine figures, and decorative objects.
Mari (the Bronze Age kingdom at present-day Tell Hariri) has been on the tentative list of UNESCO sites since 1999 and represents one of Syria’s key archaeological sites. Mari’s impressive palaces and temples bear witness to the city’s Bronze Age importance and its role in shaping the history of Syria. Excavations have also revealed a rich cuneiform tablet archive and various valuable artefacts.
Excavations at Qatna (present-day Tell Meshrefeh) have unearthed portions of a significant royal complex, including a throne room, a royal tomb with impressive furniture, and valuable artefacts and cuneiform tablets. The cultural material is so rich and varied that we need only mention the developed pottery production, metallurgic knowledge, and skilfully crafted and elaborately decorated cylindrical and stamp seals through which local Syrian characteristics began to emerge. Trouble, however, began in 1785 BC, when groups of migrants from the Levant reached Egypt and established the so-called Hyksos reign, which eventually fell to Hittite forces at around 1600 BC.
Around the middle of the Bronze Age, the area underwent significant social and political changes linked to the end of the regional Babylonian political organisation and the emergence of a new type of political organisation that was no longer based on a common linguistic and ethnic background. We have the kingdom of Mittani in Upper Khabour, which was the first major power of the Bronze Age to be created in Syria. The most important site in Bronze Age Syria is the coastal kingdom of Ugarit, where an alphabet was invented in 1200 BC. French excavations here revealed palatial complexes, several temples, and a number of spectacular sculptures and other artistic artefacts. Most important, however, is the archive at Ugarit. A number of technological advances took place around 1500 BC, such as the domestication and widespread use of horses and the invention of glazing. Discoveries from Ugarit include amazing, temples, palaces, and the earliest extant musical score, yet the city’s major contribution to Syrian civilisation is its fully ledged alphabetic script. The diplomatic correspondence between the major powers of that period – Syria, Egypt, and Mitanni – are held in the Al Amarna archive in Egypt, and they provide key information on the political and socio-economic situation of the Late Bronze Age. At the start of the 14th Century BC, the Qadish battle took place between the Hittites and the Egyptian over the control of Syria.
The Arameans are the next key players with which we shall deal. They were descendants of the early Amorites in the Euphrates Valley and gave rise to a series of territorial states. Their political and linguistic effect extends beyond Syrian territory, in which the Aramaic language and alphabet became the lingua franca of the empire.
The ‘Sea People’ invasion in around 1200 BC led to drastic changes and interrupted urban life in Syria. Arameans tribes now established many kingdoms in the region of the Euphrates and the Khabour Valley in north-eastern Syria. These were named after their tribal ancestors, such as Bit-Bahiani, with its capital of Guzana (present-day Tell Halaf); the mighty kingdom of Hama, which stood against Assyrian interests in the region in the Battle of Qarqour around 850 BC; and the kingdom of Aram-Zobah (later Aram Damascus). The Arameans had their own distinctive type of religious character, called bit-hilani, which is visible at the wonderful palace at Tell Halaf. A significant Aramaic building in Syria is the Temple of Ain-Dara, which is famous for the massive footprints carved into the floor. In the field of sculpture, we can note the extensive use of orthostats to decorate the temple walls as well as the sculptures of lions and sphinxes that flanked and protected the entrance to the city and temples, as are seen in the temples of Tell Halaf, Ain-Dara, and Sam’al/Zincirli.
In the period after 1250 BC, Phoenicians dominated the coasts, and there were a number of small Canaanite states, such as Gubla/Byblos, Arwad, and Siyanu/ Ushnato. Towards the end of this period, we have the so-called Neo-Assyrian period, involving the Assyrian invasion of Syria and the destruction of Hama in around 720 BC.
In around 550 BC, the new Babylonian-Chadaen kingdoms emerged in southern Mesopotamia and Syria fell shortly after to the Persians.
Starting around 539 BC, Persian domination over Syria ended a period of 2000 years of local authorities, with nations of the region ruling one another. This period is very poorly attested to in the archaeological record, one explanation being that the cities established in the Classical period damaged the Persian layers and that there is very little epigraphic evidence since writing seems to have been done on very perishable material. An exceptionally well-preserved archaeological remain is the open-air temple of Amrit on the coast, dedicated to the god Melqart of Tyre. We can also note the architectural similarities between the tower tombs at Palmyra, Zenobia, and Amrit on the one hand and the towers in Persia. Clay figurines of horsemen were also found at different Syrian sites, attesting to common cultural material practices at this time, for example at the sites of Dura-Europos on the Euphrates.
In the administration of Persian Empire, Syria was now considered the 5th satrapy of the empire and called ʿAbar Nahrā, an Aramaic word meaning ‘Beyond the River (Euphrates)’. The Persian rulers allowed local Syrian dynasties in places like Hama, Damascus, and Houran (in the south) to exercise a sort of self-governance. The Phoenician federation of coastal principalities located in modern Syria and Lebanon – such as Arwad, Byblos, Sidon, and Tripoli – represented a major political configuration during the 5th century. On the linguistic and cultural level, Syrians were bilingual and bicultural: Whereas Aramaic became the Syrians’ lingua franca, some Canaanite was spoken on the coast. Syriac, for its part, was reserved for religious rites.
The Battle of Issus, at which Alexander the Great defeated the Persians (330 BC), opened the path to Asia for Alexander’s troops. The Macedonian military presence in Syria placed the country under western influence for the following several hundred years.
After Alexander’s death in 323 BC and the dissolution of his empire among his generals, Seleucus II Nicator ruled over the lands between the Euphrates and Indus Valleys, including Anatolia and Syria. The Seleucid kingdom was declared in Syria on the date of 1 October 312 BC. After the Battle of Ipsus (301 BC), numerous clashes for control over Syria took place between the Ptolemaics (the rulers of Egypt) and the Seleucids. Following the death of Selecus, 18 kings ruled Syria during a period marked by five wars with the rulers of the Lagids (the Ptolemaic dynasty), who wished to control strategic Syrian harbours. With the Seleucids’ loss of Persia to the Parthian dynasty (250 BC), local Arab principalities confirmed their independence: the Abgars of Edessa, the Samšǧerams of Homs/Emesea, and the Iturean kingdoms in Biqa’ and the Golan Heights.
The Hellenistic period saw waves of cities of the Hippodamus type being established, with examples being Antiochus, Aphemia, Dura Europos, and the Arab Nabatian dynasties in Petra, Jordan. In around 85 BC, Damascus submitted to Nabatian rule, but was shortly thereafter occupied by the Roman emperor Trajan.
In 64 BC, Syria became a Roman province under the rule of Pompey, and the names of more than 100 roman governors for Syria are known. The start of the Romanisation of Syria began with the emperor Trajan, who annexed in the Nabatian kingdom in 106, creating the province of Arabia in its place, with Trajana Bostra Metropolis (present-day Bosra in southern Syria) as its capital. Traces of Syrian architecture can be found in Rome through the work of the Damascus architect Appollodorus, who designed many important buildings in Rome (ex. Forum Trajanum and Trajan's Column). Syria experienced a period of prosperity under the rule of Hadrian (117-138 AD), with Syrian cities such as Damascus and Palmyra benefiting in particular. In the following period, during the Severean dynasty, Syria flourished to an exceptional degree as Syrians reached the Roman court, with one example being Philip the Arab, who became emperor in the third century (204 – 249 AD) and organised Rome’s millenary celebration. It is also necessary to mention the renovation of most of Syria’s cities, the granting of Roman citizenship to Syrians, and the expansion of Syrian territory all the way to Mesopotamia thanks to victory over the Parthians. In 239 AD, Dura-Europos was attacked by Sassanids, and Uḏainā, or Odaenthus, Prince of Palmyra, drove the Sassanids out of Syria. Following his death, his widow Zenobia inaugurated an exceptional page in Syrian history around the year 268 AD. Zenobia, ruling on behalf of her son Wahaballāt, defeated the Roman armies and took the imperial titles. Zenobia’s ambitions extended far beyond the borders of Palmyra and Syria, and she succeeded in extending her power to Anatolia and Egypt. Palmyra’s dangerously growing influence pushed the roman emperor Aurelian to redress the situation, and he had Zenobia taken prisoner in 272 AD.
Two major sites best reflect the richness and complexity of this period. The first site is Palmyra, where scattered ruins cover more than ten square kilometres, representing the extent of the city during a reign stretching between the first and third centuries AD. The city enjoyed a strategic position on the trade routes through Syria. Convoys and caravans carried precious cargo as well as customs and cultural influences into Palmyra. Different artistic traditions and cultures influenced the fabric of the city’s urban environment, blending the beauty of East and West. The city follows the Roman planning system even though the Greek system (that of Hippodamus) was prevalent in urban planning at the time. The city extends from the spring horizon to the temple but also includes the oasis as well as cemeteries outside the city walls. Palmyra features a Roman theatre that could hold 5000 people and sported decorated columns and a large stage.
With the beginning of the first century AD, the Temple of Baal was built on the ruins of the former Helinsta temple, atop a hill containing archaeological remains stretching back to the second millennium BC. Another significant temple was that of Nebo. The Diocletian Palace was constructed around the year 300 AD, and a city wall had been built, which was later renovated during the reign of Justinian in the sixth century AD.
The second site is Dura-Europos, which was excavated under the French mandate (1920) and is known for its scared buildings, including one of the earliest Christian sanctuaries, one of the earliest synagogues ever found, and several Greco-Roman temples. Temples and shrines were dedicated to Syrian deities such as the millennia-old Ba’al as well as to Greco-Roman deities such as Mithras. These rich, varied trends reflect best the composite nature of local society in Dura-Europos, where various cultures co-existed harmoniously. Dura produced significant material culture, reflecting the long period of occupation at the site from around 300 BC under the Selouccides, then the Parthians, and then the Romans. The material remains consist of sculptures as well as unique coloured wall paintings depicting daily life in the city, including the local rituals of its various inhabitants.
The archaeological evidence suggests that Christianity was practiced in communities in Syria from the end of the second century and flourished at the end of the fourth century at the time when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Greco-Roman civilisation in Syria
The founding of new cities or the refounding of old ones represents a true urban revolution, which found its echo in Roman historic sources. These sources speak of 16 cities with fortifications and ramparts, underlining their commercial and strategic importance. The most famous cities are those of Tetrapolis, Antioch, Seleucia/Sweidiya, Laodicia/Latakia, and Apamea. These cities were true urban endeavours with regular plans of blocks and parallel cross streets as well as the inevitable agora, theatres, temples, etc. It is worth mentioning that Antioch was among the three largest and richest cites in the world and that Apamea formed one of the largest military centres during the Roman period. The Syrian economy was integrated into the economy of the Roman Empire, thereby providing the country with significant commercial infrastructure, roads, and bridges in addition to a highly developed irrigation and agricultural system. The best evidence of this are the hundreds of villages and towns located on the limestone plateau in the north-western Syria.
As early as the 8th Century BC, Greek culture and beliefs met with a favourable reception in Syria since Greek mythology preserves traces of religious exchange between the Syrian and Greek pantheons, and the Syrian-Aramaic kings had to present ex-votos for temples in Greece. The meeting of Greek and Oriental tradition led to the Hellenistic symbioses in which elements of art and thought penetrated deep into the Oriental repositories of knowledge all the way until the Islamic period. Not only did a religious syncretism take place between local and classical pantheons, with Zeus being received and worshipped in the same manner as the Semitic god Ba’al and Athena becoming Allāt, but important renovation activities took place at temples in Damascus, Baalbek, and Palmyra.
The Syrian and Hellenistic cultural elements were dominant under Roman rule, and Greek language was used side by side with Arabic and Aramaic while Latin was reserved for official records. During the Greco-Roman period, official art principally followed Hellenistic canons whereas local art kept to such Oriental traditions such as formality and stylisation on funerary and religious stelae as well as in mosaics and frescos. Discoveries attesting to this richly multicultural material come from across Syria, all the way from the Palmyra desert region to Menbig in the north and Hauran in the south.
Finally, the Syrian intellectual input should be highlighted; philosophers, scholars, poets, historians of Syrian origin were universally recognized and appreciated. Names such as Zeno (founder of Stoicism), Numenious of Apamea and Porphyros of Gaza (pioneering Neo-Platonists), and Loginus of Emesea/Homs (counsellor of Queen Zenobia) were among the many impressive figures of this period.
Another aspect of Syria’s history is the strategic position of the country on the Silk Road and southern commercial routes for convoys of traders of silk and other expensive and exotic goods. Syrian desert cities such as Palmyra and coastal harbours represented crossroads of East and West, North and South. Established in the 2nd Century BC, the Silk Road lasted until the 8th Century AD and was not only a trade route but also a prolific medium for all sorts of cultural and artistic exchange between Syria and its close and distant neighbours.
The Byzantine period was a prosperous one in Syria. It began with the declaration of the city of Constantinople as the new capital of the Roman Empire in 330 AD. Changes are visible in Syria’s financial and administrative systems, with the implementation of a new tax system and more administrative careers for the Syrian elite as well as the formation of the Order of the Curials and the Honorati group, who dispensed public services. The Syrian city of Antioch reached a high degree of urban development and was considered one of the world’s largest and most attractive cities. Other cities – such as Apamea, Chalcis of Belus (today, the Dead Cities), Aleppo, Epiphania/Hama, Emesea/Homs, and Damascus – knew unprecedented growth of population, wealth, and architecture. On the coast, cities such as Tyre and Berutus/Beirut flourished. From the period of 330 – 500 AD, the limestone plateau region of northern Syria (much of it is present-day Idlib) experienced impressive material and human expansion linked to increasing cultivation of wine, olives, and fruit trees. Evidence of architectural monuments from the Byzantine period is seen in Syria’s two main regions: in the north, in Idlīb, with the so-called massif calcaire or Dead Cities archaeological park, which is the largest concentration of villages in Syria, and in the south, in al Suweidʾ, Gebel ǧebel el ʿAlarab, with large urban concentrations, such as Šahbā and Qanwāt.
The spread of Christianity and the large number of churches built in the countryside of Syria represented a significant cultural transformation from the 4th Century onwards. Syria can be considered the true cradle of Christianity, and apostles left from Syria to spread the religion across the world. Around 451 AD, Syria was divided into eastern and western churches, but Syrian priests favoured the eastern churches and the use of Syriac over Greco-Latin tradition.
Starting from 530, a series of natural disasters affected the country, including earthquakes, famine, and epidemics (the Plague). Conflicts with Persia, now ruled by the Sassanian dynasty, began in 527, and the invasion of the Apamea led to the exile of 30,000 of its inhabitants. In the 6th Century, a wave of construction is attested in Apamea, Sergiopolis/Ruṣafā, Zenobia, and Androna (present-day al-Mandrin). In 634 AD, the first Arab conquerors reached Syria and were favourably received by the population.
The Syrian impact on the Byzantine empire pushed historians to speak of a certain Syrianisation of Rome, which was visible in the following aspects: Aramaic became the lingua franca of the Byzantine Empire; developed and advanced technical devices and scholastic life flourished in Syrian cities such as Edeesa/al -Rahā, Nṣibin, and Ḥarrāan, which can be considered the first true universities; and Syrian thinking influenced theories in Rome itself.
In 634 – 637 CE, the Muslim conquest of Syria, under the reign of the Caliph ʿUmar ibn al-ḫaṭāb took place. With the arrival of Islam, a new era began. The Greco-Roman domination, which began in the fourth century BC, came to an end. Syria was one of the first areas to fall under the Islamic rule after the general Khalid ibn al-Walīd defeated the Byzantines at the battle of Yarmuk in 636 CE. In 661, Damascus was proclaimed the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate.
The Muslim conquest of Syria in the 7th Century was a key element in the history of the region. During the Islamic period, the idea of Bilad al-Shām (that of the greater cultural Syria, covering present-day Syria, the Jezireh region (Upper Mesopotamia), and the Badiat al-Shām or Syrian steppe) emerged. The Umayyad heartlands (i.e. Bilad al-Sham and the Hijaz) were ruled more or less directly by the caliph, while the remaining empire largely was under the control of governors. Nevertheless, Bilad al-Sham was also subdivided into administrative provinces known as the ajnad, of which a major one centred on Damascus.
In 656 CE, the governor of Syria, Muʿawiya ibn Abī Sufyān, engaged in conflict with the fourth Caliph ʿnga. In 661 CE, Damascus was declared the capital of the Umayyad Empire,, which lasted until 750 CE, following the victory of Muʿawiya over ʿAli. Under the Umayyads, the Islamic world reached for the first time in history a stage of empire reaching from the Iberian Peninsula to the Indus River and Transoxiana. The Abbasid dynasty was established in 750 CE and Baghdad was to become the new capital of the Islamic world. The Abbasids never intended to rule from Damascus, perhaps because the power structures in Syria were largely loyal to the Umayyad family. Indeed the Abbasid caliph al-Manṣur laid the foundation of his new capital “madīnat al- salaam, the “City of Peace” which is today’s Baghdad. Under the Abbasids, Syria became a series of provinces, but nevertheless al-Manṣur established Raqqa as his second new city after the capital. The 5th Abbasid caliph, Harȗn al-Rašīd (796-809 CE), made Raqqa his residence and erected a monument to commemorate his victory over Byzantium near the city. During the reign of al-Maʾmȗn (813 – 833), a serious of astronomical observations were conducted in Damascus, and instruments were developed in order to take solar and lunar observations from Mount Qasiyun.
The Abbasid Empire disintegrated owing to internal revolts and the growing influence of the Qarmatians, combined with Egyptian interests in the region represented by the Tulinid and Ikhshid armies. Many dynasties established semi-independent states within the confines of the weakening Abbasid state. In 941 CE, Sayf al-Dawla drove the Egyptian troops out of Homs and Aleppo and established a new principality that ruled Syria for the next half century (Hamdanid). However, he soon submitted to the growing influence of the Seljuqs, who controlled Syria by the 11th century and have been able thus to restore Syria to the obedience of the Abbasid Caliph after it has been a part of the Fatimid Caliphate settled in Egypt ( 909-1171 CE) . During the latest stages of the Abbasside period, Syria experienced instability and became an arena of conflict. The local shi’a dynasties (the Hamdanid, Uqaylids, and Merdasid) in north-eastern Syria have left a significant material culture of their own.
Three major crusading movements saw the installation of new Frankish states in parts of Syria and the Levant, with Antioch and Edessa established as a capitals. The second of the Crusades met with fierce resistance from the Zinged dynasty (1174-1128 CE), which defended Damascus. The third of the Crusades witnessed the victory of the Ayyubid dynasty, led by Ṣalaḥ al-Dīn, who defeated the crusaders near Jerusalem at the Battle of Ḥiṭṭtīn (1187 CE). This historic defeat pushed the kings of France, Germany, and England to launch the Third Crusade, which lasted till 1192 CE.
Later one another player to emerge on the scene is the Mamluks. They struggled against the Mongols, (the destroyers of Damascus, Hama, and Baghdad). The crusades finally ended at the close of the 13th century. The Mamluk period (1260 –1516 CE) came to an end with a long phase of Ottoman rule, which itself lasted until the Arab Revolt of 1916. However, many dynastic, political and administrative changes were under way in Syria at that period of time.
Islamic civilisation in Syria
The Islamic era in Syria can be perceived as a series of shifts, conflicts and innovations in the fields of politics, economic life, art, architecture, language, religion, and science. Indeed, the advent of Islam did not mean the arrival of a new language: the Arabic spoken in Syria much earlier by the 7th century CE was a common tongue, whereas the administration was maintained in Greek. Also in some places Aramaic was the language of orthodox liturgy, but little else. By the 8th century CE was developing into the language of science, theology, philosophy, and translation. This contrasted to the earlier predominance of Aramaic (Syriac). The political influence of Syria was at its height when Damascus served as the capital of the Umayyad Empire reaching from the Atlantic in the west and the borders of China to the east. During the Abbasid period, Syria witnessed a period of decline since the Abbasid caliphs have shifted their attention from Damascus to the more eastern located region of the Euphrates Valley where a number of the ruling family settled in order to enjoy the comfort and the landscape.
The political dissolution of the Abbasid caliphate was accompanied by a challenge to the Islamic faith. Both Sunni and Shiʿa communities were influenced by Greek philosophy during the 8th–10th centuries AD. One important result of this influence was the emergence of a new kind of theological thought characterized by its attempt to rationalize Islamic dogmas by means of Greek rationality. The clearest and perhaps most profound expression of this tendency of thought was the so called Muʿtazilah. In the Syrian context religious community known as Ismaili (who had their stronghold in the region of Hama, especially in the city of Salamiyya, where they erected a fort still standing till today) is also noteworthy. The Ismaili contributed significantly to the cultural and intellectual life of that period of time.
On the administrative level, notable is the creation of the dīwān, civil register, by Caliph Umar ibn al-Haṭāb, indicated the concern of Islamic rulers with administrating in autochthonous manner. This became true with the arabisation trends in the fields of education and state affairs as well as the monetary system, especially under the reign of the 5th Umayyad caliph, ʿAbd al Malik ibn Marwan whereas important records were translated into Arabic, and for the first time a special currency for the Muslim world was minted (685 – 705 CE). Indeed, the Muslims ‘polity’ involved itself in mercantile activities in various ways.
On the linguistic level, inhabitants of Syria switched in both private and official use from Syriac to Arabic smoothly and progressively since the Arabic language belongs to the same family as Syriac. On the religious level, it is important to mention that the Islamic period was for the most part a time of harmony between the Islamic newcomers who were assimilated and showed respect to the local Christians with their Syriac backgrounds. However, the degree of social harmony during the long process of Islamization is largely unknown, and the historic accounts available offer somehow conflicting narratives. The holy Qurān, illustrated its universal respect for human kind by means of tolerance, acceptance, and the role of the reason in leading to the lights of the creation. Syria and Damascus in particular, remained an intellectual stronghold of the Islamic orthodoxy (Sunni Also Shi’a) and was productive in scientific fields.
The Muslims initiated a wave of construction of cities; one has to mention major urban centres built by Muslims such as Basra and Kufah in Iraq and Fustat in Egypt. The raison for establishing these cities were various, if both Iraqi and Egyptian towns were initially established as military encampments rather than urban unities, the cities of Ramamalh in Palastine and Ar Raqqa in Syria were meant to be urbanistic fully since the construction. Also the Qasr al-Hayr al Sharqi is an Syrian example of the flexible and experimental nature of Early Islamic urbanism.
Endless monuments and archaeological discoveries prove that Syria played an important role in the formative process of Islamic art and architecture. The Umayyad dynasty undertook agricultural and urbanisation initiatives in sizeable parts of the Syrian steppe. Harsh, sandy deserts became green and agreeable places for living, for hosting residential palaces. Indeed, Islamic historians record as many as 15 properties besides the desert palaces that were substantial population centres, with all of the required facilities: mosques, baths, caravanserai, water supplies, and artificial oases. Among these desert palaces are Qasr al- Hayr al Sharqi, Jabal Usays, and Qasr al- Hayr al-Gharbi. Among the major Islamic buildings of the period are the Umayyad mosques in Aleppo and in Damascus. Their plans and architectural features represent a harmonious combination with Byzantine church traditions: the open space in the church becomes a courtyard, and the closed space becomes a prayer hall while half-open spaces become porticos surrounding the courtyard. Nonetheless, though churches were taken over and converted into mosques, the spatial concept of a mosque remains entirely different from a church.
Schools, libraries, baths, and hospitals were also built, and some are even under local (different) use today, such as the al Tekiya Sulaimaniyya in Damascus. Defensive architecture represents an important aspect of the Islamic period, in which Muslims constructed castles and forts called in Arabic qalʿat. The most representative examples are Aleppo citadel, Damascus and Homs citadels. These fortified complexes were characterised by impressive stone ramparts, watchtowers, storage spaces, and halls.
The pearl of the defensive architecture in Syria is Qalʿat al-Huṣn or Krak des Chevaliers castle, located in the Homs Gap and altered and renovated several times since its foundation. The Crusaders controlled it in 1099 AD, and in 1110 Raymond de Saint-Gilles annexed the site to the Principality of Tripoli, later giving it to the Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem in 1142. The castle remained under Frankish control until 1271AD when it has fallen to the Mamluks who improved the fortification of the site by adding watchtowers and defensive walls. It later fell under the Mamluk sultan Baybars. Krak des Chevaliers was inscribed on the UNESCO world heritage list in 1980.
The Islamic art and imagery world is an amazing world of endless use of floral, faunal, and geometric designs as well as a rich visual representation of the infinite or all-consuming (a.k.a. Allah) he introduction of Arabic was also essential to artistic composition. Yet the Islamic canons avoided the representation of human and realistic forms for fear of defying the creator. Another aspect of Islamic art and craftsmanship are the wonderful glazed, polished pottery vessels and dishes and cups in different colours (green, blue, and red), with an endless repertoire of naturalistic and geometric decorations, besides the many technological advances in the fields of medicine and science.
In 1516, after the Battle of Marj Dabeq, Syria fell into Ottoman hands and remained under their control for more than 400 years until the Arab Revolt in 1916. During the first stages of Ottoman rule, Syria enjoyed a quiet and prosperous life, where the same political and economic system continued functioning in the new state. However, the Ottomans introduced new administrative divisions, and Greater Syria was split into four principalities: Aleppo, Damascus, Tripoli, and Sidon. The period of Sultan Selim and his son was a good period. It was the Sultan Suliman al qanoni (called also Suleyman the Magnificent) who ordered the construction of the famous al tīkiīa al Sūlaīmanīā in Damascus. In the second half of 17th century, the Ottomans faced several revolts in Syria, and to maintain their power. A local leader called Amir Faḫr al-Dīn al-Maʿni II, (1590 - 1635) constructed a fort in Palmyra. Faḫr al-Dīn in made use probably of and earlier Arab castle on this site, a late Ayyubid construction dated to the period around 1230 CE.
From the later 16th century, Syria was not ruled by the Ottomans officials directly but through a number of local governing families who often fought each other. European interest (mainly French and British) in Syrian matters demonstrated it’s self with the late 18 century. Thus, in 1799, Napoleon sent his army to control Damascus and dislodge the army of the Ottoman ruler ʿAli bāša, who had entered the city. Indeed the French had campaigns as far as Acre and the Jordan valley, but they never got to modern Syria. In the 18th Century, the Syrian elite started to shape its path in Syria’s modern history, such as the al ʿAzm family which originated in the city of Maʿarat al Nūʿmān in the region of Idlib in northern Syria. The members of this family constructed several residential palaces, with extensive decoration and clearly separated spaces, in Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus. During the second stage of Ottoman rule, several regional events influenced Syria: the emergence of the Wahhabī faction in Arabia and the French military campaigns in Egypt and Syria. In 1832, the Egyptian ruler Ibrahim bašā seized the coastal city of Acre to counter French domination and advanced his troops to occupy Damascus. This was the start of a union between Syria and Egypt, which lasted eight years (1833-1841). This period witnessed the birth of the Pan Arab educational programmes and several economic reforms and significant achievements, including the digging of canals to supply Damascus with water from the Barada River (although the water installations existed since antiquities)
With respect to the art and architecture during the Ottoman period, one must mention the construction of several mosques (Jamiʿ in Arabic), including the Jamiʿ al ʿAdaliyya and al-ʿOsmaniyya in Aleppo, as well as the Jami al-Sinaniyya and al-Darwishiyya in Damascus. Besides the mosques, several schools and baths and new residential areas were developed. Syrian artists were masters of pottery, glass, copper, metal, and textile, production, and contributed their skills to the embellishment of Ottoman Istanbul.
After the First World War, the Ottoman Empire disintegrated, and in 1918, the Arab armies under the leadership of Faysal entered Damascus and ended Ottoman rule in Syria. Syria’s liberation from foreign domination did not last long, as in the 16th of May 1916 the French and the British signed the Sykes-Picot agreement, according to which they would share Greater Syria as follows: Syria and Lebanon would fall under the French Mandate, and Iraq, Palestine and Trans-Jordan would be under the British Mandate. Syria was split into five parts, including the Hatay, the state of Damascus, and the state of Aleppo. Thus began a period of French occupation, in which the Syrians had to fight to obtain their independence on the 17th of April 1946. At this point Syria has become a full independence independent state, with Fares al Houri as its first president.
To finish this broad overview of Syrian history, it is important to mention the following significant events:
- First excavation at the archeological site of Qatna (1924–1927 and 1929) under the French protectorate.
- The Danish excavation begun at the site of Hama (1931-1938)
- The inauguration of the national Museum in Damascus (1936)
- The first Syrian director to the Directorate-General for Antiquities and Museums ǧaʾfar al ḥūsaynī (1950)
- First Syrian missions to excavate at Palmyra and Apamea (1950)
- The discoveries of Mari, Ebla (1970) and Qatna (2003)
- The following archaeological and heritage sites being inscribed in the UNESCO nominative list :
- Ancient City of Damascus (1979)
- Ancient City of Bosra (1980)
- Archaeological site of Palmyra (1980)
- Ancient City of Aleppo (1986)
- Krac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah al-Din (Sahyun) (2006),
- Ancient villages of Northern Syria (2011)
- The following archaeological and heritage sites being inscribed in the UNESCO tentative list, all in 1999:
- The norias (waterwheels) of Hama
- Ugarit (Ras Shamra)
- Ebla (Tell Mardikh)
- Mari (Tell Hariri)
- Apamaea (Afamia)
- Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi
- Tartus: the crusader citadel and walled town
- Raqqa-Rafiqa : the Abassid city
- The island of Arwad
- The construction of the Museum of Hama with generous help from Danish funders (1994)
- The issuing of a presidential decree implementing unprecedentedly severe judicial penalties for those who threaten the archaeological wealth of the country or encourage the illicit trafficking of antiquities (1999)
- The inauguration of the restored traditional house of Bayt al-ʿAqqād, which now hosts the Danish Institute (project lasted from 1995-2000)
- The largest classical open-air archaeological park in Syria, the Dead Cities near Idlib being on the nominal list of UNESCO (2011)
- The outbreak of the Syrian conflict, the war had a considerable impact on the country's archaeological and cultural heritage, several sites including the UNESCO world heritage sites, were damaged with the severest destruction taking place in the Old City of Aleppo and Homs. Archaeological sites were plundered and looted especially in the northern and north eastern parts of the country.
- In 2012 - 2013 UNESCO carried out a series of activities which reflect the concern of the international community towards the conflict. On the 19th of June 2013, the World Heritage Committee decided to place the six World Heritage sites of the Syrian Arab Republic on the List of World Heritage in Danger so as to draw attention to the risks they are facing because of the situation in the country.