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From Antiquity to French Mandate

From the 16th until the end of the 13th centuries BCE the city of Ugarit (Ras Shamra) on the coast was the most important harbour of the Levant, trading with Egypt, Greece, Anatolia and Mesopotamia. Archaeologists have excavated remains of palaces, domestic complexes, temples and shrines, and – most importantly – libraries. Ugarit was sacked around 1200 BCE, probably by the infamous Sea Peoples, of whom not much is known.

During the Iron Age (circa 1200-600 BCE) the region was divided into several kingdoms, with their capitals at Damascus, Hama and Aleppo. Most famous was the temple of the weather god Hadad in Aleppo, to whom even the mighty Assyrian kings paid hommage.

Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians

The Assyrian empire stretched from Mesopotamia to Armenia and at times held sway over parts of northern Syria. Eventually, the Assyrians managed to extend their empire to the west.

In 612 BCE, Assyria’s capital Nineveh fell and the Assyrian empire succumbed to the Babylonians. For more than half a century, Syria was under the rule of Babylon, until another and greater power, the Achaemenids (Persians), took over (538 BCE).

Hellenistic Rule

When the Macedonian Alexander the Great conquered the region in the 4th century BCE, the Levant came under Hellenistic rule. Alexander went on to conquer Egypt and the Persian Empire, but he died within a decade of his conquests. After his death (323 BCE), his empire was divided among his three generals. Antigonos became the ruler of Greece, Egypt went to Ptolemy, and Seleukos (or Seleucus) received the eastern part of the empire, from Asia Minor to the eastern border, more or less coinciding with present-day Iran’s border with Afghanistan. Seleukos built Antioch and made this the capital of the Seleucid Empire. Syria was partitioned between the Seleucids and the Ptolemaians, until it befell entirely to the Seleucids around 200 BCE and subsequently disintegrated as a result of incessant wars.

Roman Empire

In 64 BCE, Pompey turned Syria into a Roman province. Periods of prosperity and peace alternated with periods of anarchy and (civil) war. The Roman Empire was regularly attacked, both by the Parthians and Sassanid (Persians) on its south-eastern flank, and by Germanic speaking bands of warriors (Goths) and Vandals in the north and north-east. In addition to these attacks, the Roman Empire was at times weakened by internal power struggles. In the flourishing trade city of Palmyra, located in the Syrian desert, Queen Zenobia took advantage of this weakness and declared herself independent of the Romans around 270. She built her own empire, stretching from Egypt to Ankara and called herself empress (Augusta).

From the first century CE, the Christian religion spread along the Mediterranean coasts and beyond. The Levant was among the very first regions to be Christianized. At first the Christians in the Roman Empire were either ignored or tolerated; then they were persecuted, and eventually recognized.

The persecutions were at their height during the reign of Diocletian (284-305). His successor, Constantine (305-337), converted to Christianity. With him came a new, more stable era. Under his predecessor, the Roman Empire had been divided into a Western and an Eastern Empire. Constantine, head of the Eastern Empire, which was by far the more powerful and economically successful, moved its capital to Constantinople, which allowed him to be closer to its enemy, the Sassanids (Persians). Constantine thus laid the foundations of what would later be called the Byzantine Empire, consolidated by Justinian I (527-565). Justinian reunited the two empires and temporarily submitted the Goths and Vandals in the provinces (Italy, Spain, North Africa) they had occupied. On the eastern frontier, he waged war against the Persians – eventually with success.

Arab Conquest and the Umayyads

In Justinian’s life and times, Christianity was the main religion in the Roman Empire. Within the religion, there were – almost from the very beginning – theological dissensions, even schisms, as well as power struggles, for instance between Rome and Constantinople. The theological dissensions led to scissions, and thus the foundations were laid of the different churches that still coexist in present-day Syria and Lebanon.

At about the same time, Islamic conquerors, arriving from the Arabian Peninsula, appeared in the region. There had been Arabs in Syria for many centuries – although the origins of the Arabs are unclear, the first reference to their existence is an Assyrian cuneiform mentioning a certain Gindibu, coming from the land of Aribi in 854 BCE. The Arabs who came in the seventh century were different; they were followers of a prophet named Muhammad and called themselves Muslims, seeking to spread their religion throughout the region.

The Prophet Muhammad

Muhammad ibn Abd Allah, who was to become the founder of Islam, was born in Mecca in 570 CE. In 613 CE, after he had his first revelations, Muhammad started preaching. In 622 CE, he and his followers were invited to move to Yathrib (later renamed Madinat al-Nabi – City of the Prophet, or Medina). This move, the Hijra (Emigration) and the year in which it took place, 622 CE, became the starting point of the Islamic calendar. The Hijra also was the starting point of the nation building that Muhammad undertook – with success, although it took him almost ten years. From Medina, he conquered the whole of the Arabian Peninsula and united the Arabs under the banner of Islam. Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians – as People of the Book (Ahl al-Kitab) – enjoyed freedom of religion.

After the Prophet’s death in 632 CE, his followers continued his mission. Although there were tribal conflicts in the Arabian Peninsula, the conquest of the regions to the north was relatively expeditious, for several reasons. Firstly, the Byzantine Empire had been weakened by wars and internal conflicts, and the population in Asia Minor was weary of its rulers. Secondly, the Arabs deployed friendly tribes – related to those already established in the region – to conquer these populations. The first dynasty of caliphs to govern these regions, the Umayyads, who governed from Damascus, were quite tolerant toward Jews and Christians.


Abu Sufyan, a descendant of Umayya ibn Abd Shams, was a leading figure in Mecca in the 7th century, who, after first opposing Muhammad, adopted Islam later in life. His son Muawiya, the first governor of ‘Greater Syria’, became the first Umayyad caliph after having emerged victorious over Muhammad’s descendants Hasan and his brother Husayn, sons of Imam Ali, whom the Shiites to this day venerate as the Prophet’s only legitimate successor.

The wars continued intermittently despite a treaty between Muawiya and Emperor Constantine IV. The war against the Byzantines flared up especially under the fifth Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan. However, despite these hostilities, culture and art thrived in the caliphate. The caliphs built splendid palaces and mosques, among which the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, the centre of the caliphate under the Umayyad dynasty. In the 8th century, Damascus became the most important intellectual and cultural centre in this part of the world. The city produced scientists, astronomers, mathematicians, doctors, and philosophers.

More and more, Syria’s population composition turned into the mosaic that it remains to this day. Descendants of the Phoenicians, Persians, Romans, Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians, Jews and others had settled there throughout the centuries. Under the Umayyads, Arabic supplanted the Syriac (Aramaic) and Greek, the common languages until then. Islam became the dominant religion, but the Umayyad were tolerant toward Jews and Christians, certainly in the early stages. In the early days, the Great Mosque in Damascus, built on the site of an older Christian church, offered room for both the Muslim and the Christian faith.

Eventually, both the strength of the central government and the Umayyads’ tolerance toward Christians declined. In 750 CE, the Abbasid dynasty took over and relocated the caliphate’s capital to Baghdad.

Crusades (1095-1291)

The First Crusade began in 1095 when pope Urban II called for a military expedition to the Byzantine Empire to help it fight the Seljuk (Turk) assailants and to take control of the Holy Land, whicn at that time was under the rule of the Fatimids of Egypt. This inaugurated a period of two centuries in which Christians and Muslims often fought one another – and sometimes their own co-religionists – all over the region from Anatolia and Palestine to Egypt. At times, they did however also work together.

The first troubles arose in 1097 when the Norman Bohemond took the city of Antioch, one of the patriarchal sees of Christianity, from the Seljuk Turks. The crusaders had promised to hand back the territories they conquered to the Byzantine emperor, but Bohemond did not comply. Shortly after his conquest, however, an army led by Kerbogha of Mosul retook the city. Eventually, the crusaders managed to re-conquer Antioch, but internal strife broke out. Some stayed; some went on to conquer the Holy Land.

Godfrey of Bouillon’s army went south. In the beginning, the Fatimids did not seem overtly distressed by the crusaders passing through their territory, and even considered helping them against the Seljuks. This changed, however, when the Europeans approached Palestine – and Egypt. In 1099, Godfrey of Bouillon conquered Jerusalem. However, the Lebanese and Syrian territories proved more difficult to conquer – and even less easy to hold on to. There were shifting alliances, with former enemies fighting alongside or transforming into opponents.


Emir Nur al-Din (1116-1174), whose origins lie in Aleppo, conquered Damascus and united the Syrian Arabs in the name of the jihad. He was a legendary ruler, but his successor Saladin became even more famous. Saladin (Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, 1138-1193), a Kurd born in Tikrit and raised in Aleppo, Baalbek and Damascus, was the nephew of Nur al-Din’s confident Asad al-Din Shirkuh, who conquered Egypt, taking his nephew with him. When Shirkuh died, Nur al-Din appointed Saladin both commander of the Syrian troops in Egypt and vizier. Saladin proclaimed the end of the (Shiite) Fatimid rule, which he replaced with his own Ayyubid dynasty. Subsequently, he won famous battles such as the Battle of Hattin in 1187 which led to the fall of Jerusalem and the end of the occupation of that region by the Franks.

Saladin was famed not only for his strategic acumen, but also for his courageous and chivalrous feats as a warrior. In this respect, his reputation was similar to that of his adversary Richard Lionheart; there are reports that both men respected one another.

Consequences of the Crusades

However, neither the Christians nor the Muslims always closed ranks. The emirates in the region remained divided in their allegiance. Eventually, in 1292, it was the Mamluks, a new Egyptian dynasty – of Turkish origin – who brought the final blow to the crusaders. By then, the eastern part of their territory had been invaded by the Mongols, who took Baghdad (in 1258) and Damascus before eventually being defeated by the Mamluks in the Battle of Ayn Jalut in 1260.

The Crusades (eight in total) cost many lives, and brought a lot of destruction, disease and disorder. Most of the time, the local inhabitants were allowed to remain true to their faith – except for slaves and prisoners of war. They also retained their local authorities and justice system. In many ways, the eastern and western cultures influenced one another. Trade thrived, especially in the coastal regions. Traders – Muslims, Christians or Jews – enjoyed special protection when crossing borders, even when they had to enter ‘enemy’ territory. Caravans crossed the whole region, ships went from Egypt via Tyre to Constantinople and further. After the last of the crusaders left the Levantine coast, many Christian traders also left and settled in Cyprus.

Mamluks (1291-1517)

Half a century after Saladin’s death (1193), the Ayyubid dynasty ended when the Mamluks – slave officers of Turkish origins – took over in Egypt. At that time, the European occupants of the Levant had lost important battles, but they had not been entirely defeated yet.

Circa 1250, when the Mamluks came to power in Cairo, the Mongols under Genghis Khan and his descendants conquered all of Central and large parts of Western Asia, and even some parts of Eastern Europe. In the Middle East, the Mongols and their allies, the Tatars, led by Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulagu, penetrated as far as Damascus – sacking the capital (in 1258) as well as its northern counterpart Aleppo on their way, killing thousands of inhabitants. Afterwards they went on in the direction of Egypt.

The Mamluks ran into them in the north of Palestine, where the famous battle of Ayn Jalut (1260) is said to have changed the course of history. There, the Mamluks defeated the Mongols, and went on to conquer Syria and Mount Lebanon. In September 1260, the troops of the Mamluk general – later Sultan – Baibars (1223-1277) entered Damascus, where they were received as liberators.

After a few years of relative calm, Baibars took to the battlefield again in 1268, when he conquered – and destroyed – the northern city of Antioch (Antakya), a stronghold of the crusaders. Antioch never recovered from this defeat. In 1277, Baibars (alledgedly) died of poisoning, and his successor Qalawun carried on the fight against both the Frank crusaders and the Mongols. It was only on 17 June 1291, that Acre, until then solidly in the hands of the Franks, was conquered by Qalawun’s son Khalil, after the Christian Europeans broke a long-lasting truce. The last crusaders took refuge in Cyprus. This is generally considered the end to the presence of the Franks in the Middle East, although there remained one – very small – Frankish stronghold, the tiny island of Arwad, opposite Tartus, which was only conquered by the Mamluks in 1301.

In 1401, after a century of relative peace, the Mongol ruler Tamerlane (also known as Timur) reconquered and sacked Aleppo and Damascus, killing thousands of inhabitants and thus setting in the decline of Damascus. The Mongols were ousted by the Mamluks, but again, it took fierce fighting.

Next to being warriors, the Mamluks were also builders. They left many fortresses – and fortified existing castles, churches and mosques as well as ancient temples – but also mosques, madrasas and khans (caravanserails).

As Sunnite Muslims, the Mamluks were wary of both Christians – mainly Maronite – and Shiite Muslims. However, the Mamluks entertained good relations with Catholic Venice, and therefore generally let the Christian communities be. The Shiites, however, were considered not only as heterodox, but – worse – as friends of the Mongols, whom they at times sheltered during the war with the Mamluks. The Mamluks consequently persecuted the Shiites. Many were killed, those who managed to survive did so by hiding in the mountains. The same fate was reserved for all those who helped the Mongols, such as the Christian knights of the Templar Order.

When, finally, in 1517, the Ottomans conquered the region, the inhabitants welcomed them as liberators after the Mamluks’ harsh regime – just as some had welcomed the Mamluks as liberators after the devastation and killings of the Mongols.

Ottoman Empire (1516-1914): Golden Age of the Empire

The Ottomans divided Syria, including Mount Lebanon, in wilayat or vilayets (governorates): Aleppo, Tripoli, and Damascus. Each wilaya, governed by a wali (governor) – who had to pay tribute to the sultan by providing both soldiers and money – was subdivided into sanjaks (districts). The wilaya of Aleppo covered the most northern part of Syria. Tripoli included the central sanjaks Homs and Hama, as well as the coast. Damascus, the largest governorate, which included the sanjaks Beirut and Sidon, also paid the heaviest tribute. As individuals, the people had to pay other taxes, too, especially in times of war. In addition, special taxes were levied on dhimmis (protected people, Jews and Christians) who were otherwise generally left in peace. The governor of Damascus – from where pilgrims departed to Mecca – also had to accomodate the pilgrims during the hadj season, and often led the expedition to the holy city.

In the beginning, the Ottomans appointed Mamluks as governors, as only they were considered to have enough knowledge and experience to administer the regions. However, some Mamluks – among whom the wali of Damascus, Janbirdi al-Ghazali – revolted against the Sultanate. Al-Ghazali termed himself malik or king for a while. He raised an army and marched towards Aleppo, besieging the city for a fortnight, but failing to take it as the population remained loyal to the Ottomans. After he returned to Damascus, al-Ghazali was defeated and killed by the Ottoman forces, who sacked Damascus. From then on, Damascus had an Ottoman wali.

For about a century, the region was relatively prosperous, producing silk, cereals, and cotton, among other products. Later, the Ottoman let local feudal chiefs administer the country, like the al-Azm family in Damascus. However, these families were often more concerned with self-enrichment than the prosperity of their governorate. Slowly, from the 18th century, a decline set in. In Damascus, law and order were not maintained; the local janissaries – an elite force – were corrupt and often directed their violence against the people.

There were sometimes tensions between governors and the Sublime Porte, the Ottoman Empire’s centre of power. Revolts broke out regularly in the vast Ottoman Empire. In addition, throughout the whole of the Levant, Bedouin tribes crossed the desert without paying tribute to the Sultan, attacking local people.

Modern times: Arab Revival

The last decades of the 19th century saw the awakening of an Arab identity. Several factors contributed to this. The central power of the Ottoman Empire underwent notable modifications. The structures were modernized and, to an extent, democratized. At the same time, the Empire tightened its grip on unruly regions like Syria. The modernization consisted of a series of reforms called Tanzimat, after the enthronement, in 1876, of a new Sultan in Istanbul, Abdülhamid II. The most essential reforms were the adoption of a constitution and the creation of a parliament, to which all the wilayat or vilayets in the Empire were supposed to send representatives.

Earlier, after the violence of 1860, Mount Lebanon had been cut off from the governorates – Damascus and Sidon – and transformed into an autonomous province. A newly created wilaya of Syria – uniting the former wilayat of Damascus and Sidon but not that of Aleppo – encompassed the central and southern part of present-day Syria, plus Palestine and present-day Jordan, and a large part of present-day Lebanon, excluding Mount Lebanon. The borders between the two newly created provinces were unclear, leading to frequent incidents.

Rise of pan-Arabism

The feudal leaders of Mount Lebanon continued to exercise their influence under the new status. It was thus in their interest to uphold this new constitution, despite the economic problems it caused, as the province was now separated from the fertile Beqaa Valley and the prosperous coastal cities. In light thereof, the feudal leaders refused to send representatives to Istanbul, opposing the reforms promulgated by the grand vizier – reforms that were supposed to annul the special status of Mount Lebanon and to proclaim equal rights and duties for all the Sultan’s subjects. In reaction to all these changes imposed upon them, the Arab subjects of the Sultan began to stress their Arab identity, and like other nations within the Empire, started to consider their independence.

This sentiment increased as some Turkish governors milked the provinces they administrated and economic conditions became harsh. This pan-Arab movement, often referred to as al-Nahda (the Revival), spread quickly among the intellectual elite, in particular in effervescent Beirut. Christians – often educated either by French Jesuits or by English-speaking, protestant missionaries – played an important part in this Nahda movement, although it would later take on a religious dimension. Many newspapers were launched in the latter half of the 19th century – some of which still exist – and if the censorship in Beirut became too severe, writers and journalists took refuge in Cairo. These newspapers spread the idea of a Syrian identity as well as that of pan-Arabism.

Despite the feudal chiefs’ opposition to the reforms, elections did take place, in the Arab provinces as well as in the other regions of the Ottoman Empire. For the new representatives in the Turkish Parliament – and the Arab nationalists among them – this was a learning tool. The rise to power, in 1908, of the nationalist Young Turks, whose policy it was to ‘Turkify’ and centralize the administration rather than to democratize it, put an end to the earlier reforms. This in turn strengthened the pan-Arab movement.

In 1913, an Arab Conference took place in Paris, despite attempts by the Young Turks to prevent it. The conference – 23 of the 25 participants were Muslim and Christian Syrians, the other two came from Iraq – called for reforms. The Turkish government’s reaction came a year later, when World War I broke out and Turkey sided with Germany and Austria-Hungary against France, Britain and Russia (until the Russian Revolution of 1917). Its support consisted mainly of sending troops to Lebanon.

Arab Revolt

The last years under Turkish rule were extremely harsh. There was famine, and dozens of popular leaders were executed by hanging, most of whom on 6 May 1916. A month later, the Sharif of the Holy Places Mecca and Medina, Husayn ibn Ali, symbolically ignited the Arab revolt that would eventually lead to the defeat of the Ottoman army, not just in the Arabian Peninsula and in Palestine, but in the whole of the Levant. To this end Husayn’s sons Faysal and Abdullah joined forces with the British. In return, they were promised the Kingdom of Arabia. When, in 1917, the Russian Revolution put an end to Russia’s participation in the war, the Turks regained strength. Eventually, however, in the autumn of 1918, the Arab, British and French forces defeated the Turkish forces in the Levant. On 30 October 1918, the armistice was signed.

French Mandate

Following the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I, Syria was governed under a French mandate, despite pledges of independence made by the British and French during World War I, a betrayal that colours Syria’s relations with the West to this day.

Keen to secure Arab support against the Ottomans, the British offered their backing to a nationalist movement that was then stirring in the Ottoman Empire’s Arab territories. In 1915-1916 London negotiated with Sharif Husayn ibn Ali, the ruler of Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. In exchange for an Arab rebellion against the Turks, the British agreed to recognize the independence of the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire, within certain limits. Britain also stipulated that Arab independence would apply only where that did not conflict with the interests of its wartime ally, France.

In June 1916 Sharif Husayn launched the Arab Revolt, with logistical support from the British (including T. E. Lawrence, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’). Having taken control of the Hijaz the rebels, commanded by Husayn’s third son, the emir (prince) Faysal, moved into Greater Syria, where they operated in cooperation with a British army that had invaded Palestine along the coast from Egypt. Faysal took Aqaba, at the head of the Red Sea, in July 1917, and Amman, then little more than a large village, in September. Jerusalem fell to the British three months later, and Damascus was taken in October 1918.

Sykes-Picot Agreement

While urging the Arabs to rebel, with promises of independence, London was quietly negotiating a conflicting deal with France and Russia. Concluded in May 1916, the so-called Sykes-Picot Agreement divided the region into French and British spheres of influence. The French were allocated a zone corresponding roughly to modern Lebanon, Syria, eastern Turkey, and northern Iraq, and the British were allocated an area corresponding to modern Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and southern Iraq. Jerusalem and part of Palestine were designated for some form of international administration, in recognition of their religious significance.

On 2 November 1917, meanwhile, following negotiations with the Zionist movement, London issued the Balfour Declaration, which affirmed that the British viewed ‘with favour the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people’.

In September 1918 supporters of the Arab Revolt declared an Arab government headed by Sharif Husayn’s son Faysal, even though Britain remained the real power in Syria.

Sykes-Picot map 1024px
Map of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Click to enlarge. ©Fanack ©Fanack

The 1919 Paris Peace Conference agreed that the former possessions of the defeated Germans and Ottomans would be administered as mandates, under the supervision of a new international body, the League of Nations. It was resolved that France should have a mandate for Syria (including present-day Lebanon) and Britain should have Palestine (including present-day Jordan) and Iraq.

Prince Faysal

Prince Faysal, son of the Sharif of Mecca and leader of the Arab military uprising

To pre-empt French designs, a General Syrian Congress of nationalist figures convened in Damascus in March 1920 and elected Faysal king of a united Syria, that is, the territory today encompassing Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. Twenty-nine Iraqis present proclaimed Faysal’s elder brother, Abdullah, king of an independent Iraq, but these were vain gestures. To formalize what had already been agreed in Paris, Britain and France hastily convened a meeting, at San Remo, of the Supreme Council of the League of Nations. On 5 May 1920 this granted France mandates over Syria and Lebanon and Britain mandates over Palestine and Iraq. Transjordan, the territory east of the Jordan River, was not explicitly mentioned, but, as it formed part of the Sykes-Picot Treaty’s zone of British influence, it was understood to form part of the Palestine mandate. French troops moved into Syria from Lebanon and occupied Damascus in July 1920. Faysal was forced into exile, although the British installed him as King of Iraq the following year.

Divide and Rule

France adopted a divide-and-rule policy in Syria, dividing the country into semi-autonomous statelets. In 1920 Greater Lebanon was formed by adding extensive, mainly Muslim, areas to the core area, Mount Lebanon, where Maronite Christians dominated and which, under the Ottomans, had been a separate administrative unit known as a mutasarrifiya. The same year the rest of Syria was divided into the states of Damascus, Aleppo, and of the Alawites (the latter was in north-western Syria, along the coast, a region inhabited largely by the heterodox Shiite Alawite sect). In 1921 a Jabal al-Druze State, centred on the southern Syrian heartland of the Druze, another heterodox Shiite sect, was added.

Under the Franco-Turkish Ankara Agreement of October 1921 the Sanjak (sub-province) of Alexandretta, with its mixed Turkish, Armenian, and Arab population, was that year added to Syria as an autonomous province. Against a background of insistent claims on the territory by Turkey, under the rule of Mustafa Kemal (later to be named Kemal Atatürk), Alexandretta was, in 1923, joined to Aleppo State while retaining a special administrative status. In 1938 Turkish forces entered Alexandretta and expelled most of its Arab (mainly Alawite) and Armenian inhabitants. The same year, the province proclaimed independence as Hatay State, but in 1939 Hatay’s legislature voted for annexation to Turkey, as the province of Hatay, whose main port is Iskenderun, the former Alexandretta. In July of that year the French departed from Syria.

In 1922-1924 the Alawite, Damascus, and Aleppo states were joined in a Syrian Federation. In January 1925 Damascus and Aleppo were united into a single Syrian state, while the Alawite State maintained its quasi-independence.

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