An Incomparable Role in History
You are where history’s voice can be heard, where the soil holds the imprints of the world’s oldest civilizations, some dating back to the fourth millenium BC. The names of sites evoke the story of mankind at its beginnings: Mari, Ebla, Ugarit, Amrit, Apamea, Doura-Europos, Palmyra, Bosra, Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, Latakia…
Agriculture first appeared in Syria thousands of years ago, when man discovered the possibility of growing hundreds of new plants from seed. This discovery made it possible for civilization, as we know it, to begin. Men abandoned their caves and began building houses, and establishing settled communities. They embarked on journeys of self-discovery, observing the heavens and singing the earliest-known hymns. They tried their hand at painting and sculpture.
In ancient Syria, the secrets of metallurgy were also discovered, the possibility of hammering bronze and copper into shapes that would serve domestic, military and aesthetic uses. At Mari (Tel Hariri) were found numerous palaces, temples and murals reflecting advanced cultural and commercial activity. The kingdom of Ugarit (Ras Shamra) offered mankind its first alphabet. At Ebla (Tel Merdikh), a royal palace was discovered containing one of the largest and most comprehensive archives of the ancient world, dealing with matters of industry, diplomacy, trade, art and agriculture.
Ebla’s power spread from the Anatolian mountains in the north to Sinai in the south. It became world-famous for two industries- the manufacture of silk cloth of gold, and that of finely-carved wood, inlaid with ivory and mother of pearls. Today these industries still prosper, with Syrian brocade and mosaics fashioned according to the artisanal tradition of ancient Ebla. Syria was the theatre for many conquests, that descended from the Anatolian mountains or arrived t its shores from the sea. Its original inhabitants, migrants from the Arabian Peninsula, settled throughout the country, in the Fertile Crescent, and on the Palestinian coastline and the Sinai desert. They were known as the Akkadians, the Amorites, the Canaanite, the Phoenicians, the Arameans or the Ghassanids, depending on the time of their migration and the place of their settlement.
These settlers preserved their original characteristics despite the numerous conquests (Greek, Roman, Persian among others) which they were to experience. In 636 AD, when Muslim Arab tribes entered Syria from that same Arabian Peninsula that had given it its original inhabitants, they brought with them their language, Arabic, and their religion, Islam, both of which endure in modern Syria today.
A Unique Position
The strategic importance of Syria is due to its unique position at the meeting point of three continents, Asia, Africa and Europe, and at the crossroads between the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Nile. The Silk Road led from China to Doura-Europos (Salhieh), from Palmyra, and Homs to Syria’s coastal ports on the Mediterranean. This geographical position lent distinction to the country, not only as a trade and caravan route but also as a melting-pot of ideas, beliefs and talents.
During the Greek and Roman eras, Syria was a center for culture and politics. Several Roman emperors were natives of Syria. Greater Syria was central to the rise of the world’s monotheistic religions. Christianity began its expansion from there. Antioch in the north, was the home of the first Christian community in the first century AD. The oldest churches in the world are in Syria. When Islam spread to Syria, Damascus became the capital of the Islamic Empire under the Umayyad Caliphate.
History is Alive
When you enter an old souk (bazaar) in Syria, you will realize that history is something alive and tangible, something you can see, touch and smell. In Damascus, if you walk down the Street called Straight (Midhat Pasha), you might feel that you were walking alongside Saul of Tarsus, suddenly transformed into St Paul on seeing the light of faith, the light on “the road to Damascus”.
The glass- blower at their brick furnaces, might remind you of their predecessors, who first invented coloured glass 3,000 years ago. In the thirteenth century, two Italian brothers came to Syria to learn the skill of glass-blowing, which they took back to Venice, and started fashioning “Venetian” glass.
A journey through a Syrian town is a journey into both the past and the present at the same time. You might happen on a Roman arch, built centuries before Christ, under which you might find a shop selling the latest electronic gadgets. Or you may pass on Ottoman caravanserai, bustling under its evocative Arabesque designs with present-day commercial activity.
Damascus, the world’s oldest inhabited city, contains Greek ruins built over Aramean temples, and minarets rising over Crusader remains. The Omayyad mosque, a great edifice of Islamic civilization, became a prototype of Islamic architecture, from Spain to Samarcand.
In Aleppo, a grand fortress rises before you, on the very mount where, in the year 2,000 BC, Abraham is said to have milked his cow, giving the site of the city its name, Halab (in Arabic “to milk”). The long, winding stone bazaar of Aleppo is one of the most beautiful in the East, replete with locally-famous coloured silk scarves, perfumes, and soaps still made to ancient recipes.
On the northern coast, your imagination can wander back unhindered by the modern ships you see- to those early sailors who set forth from this very shore, taking their coloured glass, their cloth of gold, their carved wood, and their alphabet to the far-flung regions of the known world.
The villages of Syria, whether they nestle in mountain valleys, or cluster along the coast, or border a great desert, are unique in their traditions and in the native costumes of their inhabitants. Maaloula, a village not far from Damascus where the houses are carved out of the mountain stone, still speaks Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ.
Syrian Is often described as the largest small country in the world because of its wealth of ancient civilizations. Modern man is indebted to this land for much of his thought and learning. Therefore it is properly said that every cultured man belongs to two nations -his own and Syria.