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About the Ancient Area of Greater Syria

Syria From the Bronze Age to Roman Occupation

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Map of Ancient Syria

Map of Ancient Syria

Public Domain. Samuel Butler Atlas of the Ancient and Classical World (1907/8).

A Desirable Location - At the Crossroads

Greater Syria Covered Several Modern Nations

In antiquity, the Levant or Greater Syria, which includes modern Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestinian territories, part of Jordan, and Kurdistan, was named Syria by the Greeks. At the time, it was a landbridge connecting three continents. It was bounded by the Mediterranean on the west, the Arabian Desert on the south, and the Taurus mountain range to the north. The Syrian Ministry of Tourism adds that it was also on the crossroads of the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Nile. In this vital position it was the hub of a trade network involving the ancient areas of Syria, Anatolia (Turkey), Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Aegean.

Ancient Divisions

Ancient Syria was divided into an upper and lower section. Lower Syria was known as Coele-Syria (Hollow Syria) and was located between the Libanus and Antilibanus mountain ranges. Damascus was the ancient capital city. The Roman emperor known for dividing the emperor into four parts (the Tetrarchy) Diocletian (c. 245-c. 312) established an arms manufacturing center there. When the Romans took over, they subdivided Upper Syria into multiple provinces.

Syria came under Roman control in 64 B.C. Romans emperors replaced the Greeks and Seleucid rulers. Rome divided Syria into 2 provinces, Syria Prima and Syria Secunda. Antioch was the capital and Aleppo the major city of Syria Prima. Syria Secunda was divided into two sections, Phoenicia Prima (mostly modern Lebanon), with its capital at Tyre, and Phoenicia Secunda, with its capital at Damascus.

Important Ancient Syrian Cities

Doura Europos
The first ruler of the Seleucid dynasty founded this city along the Euphrates. It came under Roman and Parthian rule, and fell under the Sassanids, possibly through an early use of chemical warfare. Archaeologists have uncovered religious venues in the city for practitioners of Christianity, Judaism, and Mithraism.

Emesa (Homs)
Along the Silk Route after Doura Europos and Palmyra. It was the home of the Roman emperor Elagabalus.

Hamah
Located along the Orontes between Emesa and Palmyra. A Hittite center and capital of the Aramaean kingdom. Named Epiphania, after the Seleucid monarch Antiochus IV.

Antioch
Now a part of Turkey, Antioch lies along the Orontes River. It was founded by Alexander's general Seleucus I Nicator.

Palmyra
The city of palm trees was located in the desert along the Silk Route. Became part of the Roman Empire under Tiberius. Palmyra was the home of the third century A.D Roman-defying queen Zenobia.

Damascus
Called the oldest continually occupied city in the word and is the capital of Syria. Pharaoh Thutmosis III and later the Assyrian Tiglath Pileser II conquered Damascus. Rome under Pompey acquired Syria, including Damascus.
Decapolis

Aleppo
A major caravan stopping point in Syria on the road to Baghdad is in competition with Damascus as the oldest continually occupied city in the world. It was a major center of Christianity, with a large cathedral, in the Byzantine Empire.

Early Contacts

Syrian Natural Resources

The major ethnic groups that migrated to ancient Syria were Akkadians, Amorites, Canaanites, Phoenicians, and Arameans.

To the fourth millennium Egyptians and third millennium Sumerians, the Syrian coastland was the source of the soft woods, cedar, pine, and cypress. The Sumerians also went to Cilicia, in the northwest area of Greater Syria, in pursuit of gold and silver, and probably traded with the port city of Byblos, which was supplying Egypt with resin for mummification.

For additional information, see:
"Literary Sources for the History of Palestine and Syria: Contacts between Egypt and Syro-Palestine during the Old Kingdom," by Mary Wright; Dennis Pardee. The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 51, No. 3. (Sep., 1988), pp. 143-161.
"Egypt and the East Mediterranean from Predynastic Times to the End of the Old Kingdom," by William A. Ward. Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 6, No. 1. (May, 1963), pp. 1-57.

Ebla

The trade network may have been under the control of the ancient city Ebla, an independent Syrian kingdom that exerted power from the northern mountains to Sinai. Located 64 km (42 mi) south of Aleppo, about halfway between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates. Tell Mardikh is an archaeological site in Ebla that was discovered in 1975. There archaeologists found a royal palace and 17,000 clay tablets. Epigrapher Giovanni Pettinato found a Paleo-Canaanite language on the tablets that was older than Amorite, which had previously been considered the oldest Semitic language. Ebla conquered Mari, capital of Amurru, which spoke Amorite. Ebla was destroyed by a great king of the southern Mesopotamian kingdom of Akkad, Naram Sim, in 2300 or 2250. The same great king destroyed Arram, which may have been an ancient name for Aleppo.

For more on Ebla, see
"Literary Sources for the History of Palestine and Syria: The Ebla Tablets," by Lorenzo Viganò; Dennis Pardee. The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 47, No. 1. (Mar., 1984), pp. 6-16.
"The Royal Archives of Tell Mardikh-Ebla," by Giovanni Pettinato. The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 39, No. 2. (May, 1976), pp. 44-52.

Accomplishments of the Syrians

The Phoenicians or Canaanites produced the purple dye for which they are named. It comes from mollusks that lived along the Syrian coast. The Phoenicians created a consonantal alphabet in second millennium in the kingdom of Ugarit (Ras Shamra). They brought their 30-letter abecedary to the Aramaeans, who settled Greater Syria at the end of the 13th century B.C. This is the Syria of the Bible. They also founded colonies, including Carthage on the north coast of Africa where modern Tunis is located. The Phoenicians are credited with discovering the Atlantic Ocean.

The Aramaeans opened trade to southwest Asia and set up a capital in Damascus. They also built a fortress at Aleppo. They simplified the Phoenician alphabet and made Aramaic the vernacular, replacing Hebrew. Aramaic was the language of Jesus and the Persian Empire.

Conquests of Syria

Syria was not only valuable, but vulnerable, since it was surrounded by many other powerful groups. In about 1600, Egypt attacked Greater Syria. At the same time, Assyrian power was growing to the east and Hittites were invading from the north. Canaanites in coastal Syria who intermarried with the indigenous people producing the Phoenicians, probably fell under the Egyptians, and the Amorites, under the Mesopotamians.

In the 8th century B.C., the Assyrians under Nebuchadnezzar conquered the Syrians. In the 7th century the Babylonians conquered the Assyrians. The next century, it was the Persians. At the death of Alexander, Greater Syria came under the control of Alexander's general Seleucus Nicator, who first established his capital on the Tigris River at Seleucia, but then following the Battle at Ipsus, moved it into Syria, at Antioch. Seleucid rule lasted for 3 centuries with its capital at Damascus. The area was now referred to as the kingdom of Syria. Greeks colonizing in Syria created new cities and expanded trade into India.

Sources:

The Library of Congress - SYRIA - A Country Study, Data as of April 1987
Supplemental: [www.syriatourism.org/] Syria - Ministry of Tourism
Syrian Cities
A Manual of Geographical Science: Ancient Geography, by W. L. Bevan (1859).

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