PIIGSty History #2: SYRIA (MIDDLE EAST) – A Story of Religion, Treachery, Empire & War

August 12, 2013


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With the conflict in Syria hitting the headlines for the past number of years, PIIGSty History presents an ‘all you really need to know’ summary of Syrian history from ancient times to the modern day.



Syria has been at the heart of human civilisation for thousands of years; a relic of competing empires for centuries. The violence now raging across the country often seems random and inexplicable, but it isn’t. The key to understanding the current conflict lies in the history of Syria; a turbulent story of religion, treachery, empire and war. Historically, the Syrian border has changed significantly over time. Ancient ‘Greater Syria’ included the modern states of Israel, Lebanon, Jordon, Iraq and parts of Turkey.Map of Syria DARREN

Today, those fighting for control of Syria nurse grievances spanning centuries and are often misunderstood. The Middle East as a whole boasts more recorded human history than any other part of the world, containing the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth. The ancient ‘silk route’ ran through this vital region with the area today known as Syria being at a vital crossroads heavily frequented by transiting merchants plying their trade. Soon, the conquerors followed the merchants, beginning with the Romans.

The birth of Arab Islam, the Prophet Muhammad and the Umayyads

In the early 4th century, Roman Emperor Constantine the Great began encouraging Christianity. The Roman Empire became a Christian empire with inhabitants converted to Christianity by default. In the Middle East, Christianity was already the dominant religion, that being the region of its conception. As a result, for centuries, Syria was the centre of the Christian world.

By the 7th century, 300 years of Christian domination began to fracture. Arab tribesmen, united by their leader, the Prophet Muhammad, streamed north on an Arab conquest in search of Syrian riches. They brought with them the new religion of Islam which Muhammad had founded. Between 632AD and 642AD, they captured the old Roman province of Syria and set about building an Islamic civilisation – seeking to expand the frontiers of Islam with Syria as its commercial and religious engine.  These conquerors founded the first and greatest Arab-Islamic dynasty – the Umayyads – and soon deepened their control over greater Syria and beyond. Syria (and its capital Damascus) was chosen was the capital of the new Arab Empire, as a stable anchor for the fledgling entity. Syria became then the ‘beating heart’ of Arab-Islam. Hope and enthusiasm soon gave way to rancor and division. Not all Arabs venerated the Umayyads as their rule was seen to be widening divisions in Islam rather than uniting them.  The Prophet Muhammad died in 632AD, just before the Syrian conquest. The issue of division centred around the successor as leader of Islam. Some believed the Prophet Muhammad named his cousin Imam Ali as his successor and Imam Ali’s descendants after him in a hereditary line of succession from which leaders of Islam would be extracted for ever more. Adherents of this view (Shia Islam) were known as Shia or Shi’ites. Today Shia Islam is the second largest denomination of Islam in the world.

Other Muslims rejected the hereditary succession (Sunni Islam) and were known as Sunnis. Prominent among them were the Umayyads themselves – who cemented their power (and began centuries of religious conflict) by killing Imam Ali’s son in 680AD, the Prophet’s grandson Imam Hussein.  Today, Sunni Islam is the largest denomination of Islam in the world, with 80% of all Muslims adhering to this denomination.

Sunni-Shi'a_mapMore information on the differences between Sunni and Shia is available from The Economist

By the late 11th century, a new era of Syrian history began when waves of Christian crusaders from Europe invaded the Holy Land, now Arab Islamic lands. The violent conflict left deep scars in the Middle East and implacable opposition to Western intervention in the region which continues to this day. In response, the violence and necessity for protection produced one of the great Syrian leaders – Saladin, the first Sultan (King) of Egypt and Syria. Saladin remains a venerated hero to the Syrians as, through his actions, he united Greater Syria and took back Jerusalem from the Christian crusaders. Saladin was also a strict Sunni and reduced Shia influence, which had become a repressed minority.

The end of empire – the Sykes-Picot agreement

From the 13th century to the modern day – Syria fell under control of two great Islamic Empires in succession. One, based in Egypt, The other, under the Ottoman Turks. Story of modern Syria begins with a great global conflagration. World War 1 (1914-1918) cost hundreds of thousands of lives in the Middle East. Syria was then part of the Ottoman Empire and had sided with Germany. To fight the Ottoman Turks (and the Germans), the British joined forces with rebel Arab nationalists – one of their leaders was Prince Faisal – who dreamed of liberating Syria from the Ottoman Empire through a form of secular, pan-Arab nationalism. The ‘Arab Revolt’ under Faisal and his British military advisor T.E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) was hugely successful. In 1918, they captured Damascus. To Faisal, this was the beginning of the Arab Kingdom that the British had promised him, his family and followers. But the British had to admit they had also promised Syria to the French, earlier in 1916. As allies in the Great War, France, Britain and Russia (the tripartite ‘Triple Entente’) had already agreed a secret carve up of former Ottoman Empire territory up victory in the Middle East. Sir Mark Sykes (for Britain) and François Georges-Picot (for France) signed the 1916 Sykes–Picot Agreement.

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