Syria (/ˈsɪriə/ ( listen) SIRR-ee-ə ; Arabic: سوريا / ALA-LC: Sūriyā, or سورية / Sūrīyah; Syriac: ܣܘܪܝܐ; Kurdish: سوریه), officially the Syrian Arab Republic (Arabic: الجمهورية العربية السورية / al-Jumhūrīyah al-‘Arabīyah as-Sūrīyah About this sound Arabic pronunciation), is a country in Western Asia, bordering Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to the West, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south and Israel to the southwest. A country of fertile plains, high mountains and deserts, it is home to diverse ethnic and religious groups, including Turkmen, Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Christians, Druze, Alawite Shias and Arab Sunnis. The latter make up the majority of the Muslim population.
In English, the name Syria was formerly synonymous with the Levant, known in Arabic as al-Sham, while the modern state encompasses the sites of several ancient kingdoms and empires, including the Eblan civilization of the third millennium BC. In the Islamic era, its capital city, Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, was the seat of the Umayyad Caliphate, and a provincial capital of the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt.
The modern Syrian state was established after the First World War as a French mandate, and represented the largest Arab state to emerge from the formerly Ottoman-ruled Arab Levant. It gained independence in April 1946, as a parliamentary republic. The post-independence period was tumultuous, and a large number of military coups and coup attempts shook the country in the period 1949–1971. Between 1958 and 1961, Syria entered a brief union with Egypt, which was terminated by a military coup. Syria was under Emergency Law from 1963 to 2011, effectively suspending most constitutional protections for citizens, and its system of government is considered to be non-democratic. Bashar al-Assad has been president since 2000 and was preceded by his father Hafez al-Assad, who was in office from 1971.
Syria is a member of one International organization other than the United Nations, the Non-Aligned Movement; it is currently suspended from the Arab League, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and self suspended from the Union for the Mediterranean.
Since March 2011, Syria has been embroiled in civil war in the wake of uprisings (considered an extension of the Arab Spring, the mass movement of revolutions and protests in the Arab world) against Assad and the neo-Ba'athist government.
The name Syria is derived from the ancient Greek name for Syrians: Σύριοι, Sýrioi, or Σύροι, Sýroi, which the Greeks applied without distinction to the Assyrians. A number of modern scholars argued that the Greek word related to the cognate Ἀσσυρία, Assyria, ultimately derived from the Akkadian Aššur. Others believed that it was derived from Siryon, the name that the Sidonians gave to Mount Hermon. However, the discovery of the Çineköy inscription in 2000 seems to support the theory that the term Syria derives from Assyria.
The area designated by the word has changed over time. Classically, Syria lies at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, between Egypt and Arabia to the south and Cilicia to the north, stretching inland to include parts of Iraq, and having an uncertain border to the northeast that Pliny the Elder describes as including, from west to east, Commagene, Sophene, and Adiabene.
By Pliny's time, however, this larger Syria had been divided into a number of provinces under the Roman Empire (but politically independent from each other): Judaea, later renamed Palaestina in AD 135 (the region corresponding to modern day Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and Jordan) in the extreme southwest, Phoenicia corresponding to Lebanon, with Damascena to the inland side of Phoenicia, Coele-Syria (or "Hollow Syria") south of the Eleutheris river, and Iraq.
Since approximately 10,000 BC Syria was one of centers of Neolithic culture (PPNA) where agriculture and cattle breeding appeared for the first time in the world. The following Neolithic period (PPNB) is represented by rectangular houses of Mureybet culture. At the time of the pre-pottery Neolithic people used vessels made of stone, gyps and burnt lime (Vaiselles blanches). Finds of obsidian tools from Anatolia are evidences of early trade relations. Cities of Hamoukar and Emar played an important role during the late Neolithic and Bronze Age. Archaeologists have demonstrated that civilization in Syria was one of the most ancient on earth.
Around the excavated city of Ebla near Idlib in northern Syria, discovered in 1975, a great Semitic empire spread from the Red Sea north to Anatolia and east to Iraq from 2500 to 2400 BC. Ebla appears to have been founded around 3000 BC, and gradually built its empire through trade with the cities of Sumer and Akkad, as well as with peoples to the northwest. Gifts from Pharaohs, found during excavations, confirm Ebla's contact with Egypt. Scholars believe the language of Ebla to be among the oldest known written Semitic languages, designated as Paleo-Canaanite.
However, more recent classifications of the Eblaite language has shown that it was an East Semitic language, closely related to the Akkadian language. The Eblan civilization was likely conquered by Sargon of Akkad around 2260 BC; the city was restored, as the nation of the Amorites, a few centuries later, and flourished through the early second millennium BC until conquered by the Hittites.
During the second millennium BC, Syria was occupied successively by Canaanites, Phoenicians, and Arameans as part of the general disruptions and exchanges associated with the Sea Peoples. The Phoenicians settled along the coast of Northern Canaan (Lebanon), which was already known for its towering cedars. Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians and Hittites variously occupied the strategic ground of Syria during this period; the land between their various empires being marsh.
Eventually, the Persians took Syria as part of their hegemony of Southwest Asia; this dominion was transferred to the Ancient Macedonians and Greeks after Alexander the Great's conquests and the Seleucid Empire. The capital of this Empire (founded in 312 BC) was situated at Antioch, part of historical Syria, but just inside the Turkish border today. Pompey the Great captured Antioch in 64 BC, turning Syria into a Roman province. Thus control of this region passed to the Romans and then the Byzantines.
In the Roman Empire period, the city of Antioch was the third largest city in the empire after Rome and Alexandria. With an estimated population of 500,000 at its peak, Antioch was one of the major centers of trade and industry in the ancient world. The population of Syria during the heyday of the empire was probably not exceeded again until the 19th century. Syria's large and prosperous population made Syria one of the most important of the Roman provinces, particularly during the 2nd and 3rd centuries (AD).
The Roman Emperor Alexander Severus, who was emperor from 222 to 235, was Syrian. His cousin Elagabalus, who was emperor from 218 to 222, was also Syrian and his family held hereditary rights to the high priesthood of the sun god El-Gabal at Emesa (modern Homs) in Syria. Another Roman emperor who was a Syrian was Philip the Arab (Marcus Julius Philippus), emperor from 244 to 249.
Syria is significant in the history of Christianity; Saulus of Tarsus, better known as the Apostle Paul, was converted on the Road to Damascus and emerged as a significant figure in the Christian Church at Antioch in ancient Syria, from which he left on many of his missionary journeys.
By AD 640, Syria was conquered by the Rashidun army led by Khalid ibn al-Walid, resulting in the area's becoming part of the Islamic empire. In the mid-7th century, the Umayyad dynasty, then rulers of the empire, placed the capital of the empire in Damascus. Syria was divided into four districts: Damascus, Homs, Palestine and Jordan. Early Ummayad rulers such as Abd al-Malik and Al-Walid I constructed several splendid palaces and mosques throughout Syria, particularly in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs.
The country's power dramatically declined during later Ummayad rule; mainly due to the totalitarianism and corruption spread among the empire's leaderships, conflict between its general staff, and the successive revolutions by the oppressed and miserable groups. The Ummayad dynasty was then overthrown by the Abbasid dynasty in 750, who moved the capital of empire to Baghdad. Arabic — made official under Ummayad rule — became the dominant language, replacing Greek and Aramaic in the Abbasid era. In 887, the Egypt-based Tulunids annexed Syria from the Abbasids, and were later replaced by once the Egypt-based Ikhshidids and later by the Hamdanids originating in Aleppo founded by Sayf al-Dawla.
Sections of the coastline of Syria were briefly held by Frankish overlords during the Crusades of the 12th century, and were known as the Crusader state of the Principality of Antioch. The area was also threatened by Shi'a extremists known as Assassins (Hassassin). In 1260, the Mongols arrived, led by Hulegu with an army 100,000 strong, destroying cities and irrigation works. Aleppo fell in January 1260, and Damascus in March, but then Hulegu needed to break off his attack to return to China to deal with a succession dispute.
The command of the remaining Mongol troops was placed under Kitbuqa, a Christian Mongol. A few months later, the Mamluks arrived with an army from Egypt, and defeated the Mongols in the Battle of Ain Jalut, in Galilee. In addition to the sultanate's capital in Cairo, the Mamluk leader, Baibars, made Damascus a provincial capital, with the cities linked by a mail service that traveled by both horses and carrier pigeons. When Baibars died, his successor was overthrown, and power was taken by Qalawun. In the meantime, an emir named Sunqur al-Ashqar had tried to declare himself ruler of Damascus, but he was defeated by Qalawun on 21 June 1280, and fled to northern Syria.
Al-Ashqar, who had married a Mongol woman, appealed for help from the Mongols, and in 1281, they arrived with an army of 50,000 Mongols, and 30,000 Armenian, Georgian, and Turkish auxiliaries, along with Al-Ashqar's rebel force. The Mongols of the Ilkhanate took the city, but Qalawun arrived with a Mamluk force, persuaded Al-Ashqar to switch sides and join him, and they fought against the Mongols on 29 October 1281, in the Second Battle of Homs, a close battle that resulted in the death of the majority of the combatants but was finally won by the Mamluks.
In 1400, Timur Lenk, invaded Syria, sacked Aleppo and captured Damascus after defeating the Mamluk army. The city's inhabitants were massacred, except for the artisans, who were deported to Samarkand. By the end of the 15th century, the discovery of a sea route from Europe to the Far East ended the need for an overland trade route through Syria.
In 1516, the Ottoman Empire invaded the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt, conquering Syria, and incorporating it into its empire. The Ottoman system was not burdensome to Syrians because the Turks respected Arabic as the language of the Koran, and accepted the mantle of defenders of the faith. Damascus was made the major entrepot for Mecca, and as such it acquired a holy character to Muslims, because of the baraka (spiritual force or blessing) of the countless pilgrims who passed through on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Ottoman administration followed a unique system that lead to a peaceful coexistence for centuries. Each religious minority — Shia Muslim, Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Armenian, and Jewish—constituted a millet. The religious heads of each community administered all personal status law and performed certain civil functions as well.
In the midst of World War I two Allied diplomats (Frenchman François Georges-Picot and Briton Mark Sykes) secretly agreed on the post war division of the Ottoman Empire into respective zones of influence in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. Initially, the two territories were separated by a border that ran in an almost straight line from Jordan to Iran. However, the discovery of oil in the region of Mosul just before the end of the war led to yet another negotiation with France in 1918 to cede this region to 'Zone B', or the British zone of influence. This border was later recognized internationally when Syria became a League of Nations mandate in 1920 and has not changed to this date.