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Today's blog: Who are the Syrians?

People first walked to Syria from Africa about 60,000 BC, in the Quaternary Period, and they settled down there as hunter-gatherers. Some may also have arrived by boat, coming up the Euphrates river from the Persian Gulf or along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea from Egypt. Gradually their skin got lighter so they could absorb more Vitamin D from sunlight, because the sun wasn't quite as strong as in Africa. By around 10,000 BC, these people began to farm wheat and barley, figs and lentils. They kept sheep and goats, and pigs, and some cattle too. They spoke a Semitic language related to Hebrew and Arabic, and (more distantly) to Ancient Egyptian.

In the early days of farming, Syrian rulers built their own empires. Around 3000 BC, the city of Ebla controlled not only Syria but a lot of what is now Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, the Sinai, and southern Turkey. Ebla's rulers exchanged gifts with the Old Kingdom pharaohs in Egypt. Ebla's empire collapsed when Sargon the Akkadian conquered Ebla around 2330 BC, and then became independent again as the Amorite kingdom, only to fall under the rule of the Hittites about 2000 BC.

After 2000 BC, West Asia was more and more often united into bigger and bigger empires, and Syria was usually part of one of these empires. The New Kingdom Egyptian pharaohs conquered Syria, and then Syria became part of the Assyrian Empire in the 1200s BC. After the Assyrians, Syria was part of the Neo-Babylonian empire of Nebuchadnezzar, and then Cyrus the Great forced Syria into the Persian Empire. In the 300s BC, Alexander conquered Syria too.

But here the story changes: Alexander's Greek successors, the Seleucids, could not hold West Asia together. Soon they ruled only the western part, while the Parthians ruled the eastern part. This division continued when the Romans conquered Syria, in the 100s BC. Syria was part of the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire for most of the next 600 years, often fighting with the Parthian Empire to its east in what is now Iraq.

In the 600s AD, the Islamic Empire once again united all of West Asia into one empire, papering over the old border between Syria and Iraq. But that dividing line between East and West persisted. While the early Islamic caliphs had their capital in Damascus, in Syria, by the 800s AD they moved their capital east to Iraq, in Baghdad, choosing the East over the West. By 1000 AD, Syria was mostly ruled by the Fatimids, from Egypt, and the border was right where it had been under the Parthians.

For the last thousand years, that's been the situation: Syria's been ruled by western empires, with a hostile border to the east. For a while in the 1000s parts of Syria fell to the First Crusade; then Syria was part of Saladin's Ayyubid kingdom, then under Mamluk rule, and then part of the Ottoman Empire. Syria was an important piece of the Ottoman Empire from about 1500 to 1900 AD, on the border with the Safavid Empire which held Iraq. But in 1920, French and British forces dismantled the Ottoman Empire. They made Syria theoretically an independent country, but it was really controlled by France until 1946.

Since independence in 1946, Syria, as a weak country with no tradition of independence, has tried to find powerful friends to support it - sometimes Egypt, sometimes Russia, sometimes the United States. In 2000 AD, the "Damascus Spring" movement tried to bring real democracy and independence to Syria, but found only a bitter civil war. Taking advantage of the civil war, and of the chaos left by the United States invasion of Iraq, ISIS (made up mainly of Iraqis) has crossed the traditional border and is also trying to get control of Syria and form a new West Asian empire that would once again unite the western and eastern parts of West Asia. Right now, ISIS controls most of Syria, but the part they control is mostly desert: they're still fighting over the parts where most people live.

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Copyright 2012-2015 Karen Carr, Portland State University. This page last updated September 2015.

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