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Syria

History & Architecture

WARNING: Syria is currently in civil war, please read this travel warning before going!

History

People have been living in modern day Syria for tens of thousands of years. The first large civilized people were the Ebla who lived in the region in about 3000 BC when they had contact with the Egyptians. In the 1000s BC the people were taken over by numerous people, including the Canaanites and Phoenicians. The Phoenicians took control of the coast, while the other groups settled inland. Shortly after the Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Sumerians, and Hittites also arrived and took lands in the region.

Eventually the Persian Acheamids took most of the land and in the 300s BC the Greeks, under Alexander the Great took the region. Under Greek rule, the people generally fell under Seleucid rule and remained under this influence until the 83 BC when the Armenian king, Tigranes the Great took the land. This rule was short lived and in 64 BC the Romans conquered the territory.

Under Roman rule the region prospered greatly as they established the city of Antioch, one of the most powerful cities in the eastern Mediterranean. Under Roman rule the region also became a religious center as Christianity developed. Saint Paul was converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus and later became one of the church's greatest prophesiers and leaders. From this point on the people slowly converted to Christianity, most particularly after the region shifted from Roman rule to Byzantium rule in the 300s AD. From this point until the 600s AD the region remained under Byzantium rule and Christianity continued to spread and flourish.

In the 600s the region of Syria fell under Persian, then Muslim rule in 636. The ruling Arab people came from the Arabian Peninsula and the leadership moved to the Umayyad Caliphs, who established their capital in Damascus. Due to this the region began a substantial change in culture, ethnicity, and religion as many people converted to Islam and intermarried the Arabs. However this wasn't the majority and most of the people remained Christian.

In the mid-700s the region was taken over by the Abbasid dynasty, who shifted the capital east to Baghdad. They ruled the region for nearly 200 years when the Byzantine Empire again entered the region and gained some lands, but the Muslims fought back and the region shifted hands for some time. This warring only ended in the 1000s when the Seljuk Turks took much of the eastern Byzantine Empire and solidified control over the region.

In the 1100s the Crusaders from Europe entered the region in order to retake the "Holy Land." These wars led to the essential fall of the Seljuks in the region as the Turkmen took pieces of land (primarily inland) and the crusader Europeans took much of the coast. The Crusaders established forts along the coast and, although many Christians welcomed their arrival, many Muslims fought this, creating a divide between the two groups.

After ultimately failing in the Crusades, the Europeans withdrew and parts of the region were overrun by the invading Mongols in the 1200s. The Mongol destroyed numerous cities and killed thousands of people in their campaign, however didn't hold on to the lands for long.

In the 1500s the Ottoman Empire rose in power and took the region of modern day Syria. Under Ottoman rule the country slowly developed, grew, and gained a larger and larger Arab Muslim population. For most of this time Syria was somewhat isolated as they focused on domestic growth; their biggest outside influences coming from Lebanon, who they at the time controlled.

In 1623 the Syrians attacked the rebellious Lebanese who sought independence, but the Lebanese won the decisive battle, giving Lebanon full control over its border, answering directly to the Ottoman rulers, ending this relationship.

Through the 1700s and 1800s, Syria was mostly stable and remained so until the Ottoman Empire was overthrown by the "Young Turks" who sought a more liberal country after World War I. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire led to the League of Nations putting modern day Syria fully under French control. This agreement also led to losses of land in Syria, giving these areas to Lebanon in the southwest, while in the south, territory was lost to Jordan and Palestine.

Syria fought French rule though and in the 1920s numerous fights and battles occurred between the two groups. These arguments continued until 1936 when Syria gained nominal independence once certain issues were finalized. This was brief though as the Turks and Arab fought over power until the Republic of Hatay, a primarily Turkish area, shifted hands and became a part of Turkey in 1939, leaving the modern borders of Syria and a primarily Arab population.

In 1940 France fell to Nazi Germany in World War II and Syria was left wanting independence, instead of waiting for France to regroup from the war. This led to Syria supporting Germany in the war and in 1944 legal independence. With French and British support to this action, the Syrians switched sides and supported France for the remainder of WWII.

By 1946 the French had left Syria and the country was on its own. Since this time Syria has struggled in numerous ways. In 1948 Israel was formed and Syria strongly opposed this, partaking in wars with Israel on a number of occasions, beginning in 1948. These wars have led to a large number of Palestinian refugees to flood southern Syria.

In the 1960s another Arab-Israeli war broke out as Lebanon's economy collapsed and in the 1970s Lebanon fell into civil war. This led to more refuges flooding the country, both from Palestine and Lebanon. In 1970 though the political instability in Syria ended to a great degree as yet another coup took place in 1970, putting Hafez al-Assad in power, which he held until 2000, at which time he died and passed power on to this son, Bashar al-Assad.

In the 2000s Syria has fallen substantially as Lebanon demilitarized their Palestinian groups who were fighting Israel. This led a flood of Palestinians into Syria, including many Hezbollah forces. This has led to Israel attacks coming from Syria instead of Lebanon, leading to tensions in Syria and hostility with Israel and a number of western countries. The government has struggled to control these groups, or simply chose not to as many people disagree with Israel and sympathize with Hezbollah and other groups.

In 2011 the people began to protest the government and the ruling family, leading to a large number of protests. These protests have escalated into violence on a number of occasions and by early 2012 the country was in the middle of a civil war, with a still undecided future.

Architecture

Syria has few early architectural monuments still standing outside of a couple Roman ruins. The most important, and still the most interesting to a tourist, is the city of Palmyra, which was an important trading center and is one of the best preserved Roman cities. Another impressive Roman city is Baalbek.

The next great influence came with the introduction of Islam in the 600s and 700s. The first great Islamic rulers were the Umayyad Dynasty, who was centered in Damascus, Syria, giving the city and the region as a whole a vast array of Islamic architecture.

It seems that in Damascus old buildings of worship were converted to mosques and empty lands had mosques built, however none of these structures stand today in their original form if at all. More important, and more impressive, was the mosque of Damascus, which was one of the earliest still standing mosques. This mosque is in the "hypostyle," which consists of columns to support the roof, a style still made in most mosques. This mosque was also one of the first to have a mihrab, a feature all later mosques incorporated. This was also perhaps the first place a minaret existed in order to make the call to prayers and to announce the presence of Islam; later this was incorporated into nearly all mosques, although its initial creation was only intended to be used in areas that were not predominantly Muslim.

Among the mosques, local palaces, and other buildings from this time, mosaics and wall paintings became more common, although the designs remained fairly stable and simple in the region that is today Syria. Later, due to Persian influence, stucco was added.

In the 1100s the style and use of buildings began to develop and change as Seljuk architecture brought in the madrasah, or Islamic school. Among the first of these were a couple in Damascus, including al Adiliyah and az Zahiriyah. The Seljuks also began to build with more stone than brick, like the predecessor rulers.

The next great influence came from the Mamluk rulers. They changed little in regards to style, but began to group buildings together as mosques, madrasahs, and other buildings were generally linked together or sat side by side; more of an urban planning change than an architectural one. The Mamluks were great builders though and left behind thousands of structures. There are dozens of Mamluk buildings still standing from this rule in Damascus and throughout Syria.

From this point until the 1900s Syria fell under foreign rulers, primarily the Ottoman Turks. Under this rule construction continued, but few monumental buildings were erected. Of the structures built most were similar in style to both previous and latter buildings.

In the 1900s, Syria received modern buildings, which are much easier to build due to the materials and machines created by the Industrial Revolution, including concrete, steel, and cranes. There are numerous modern buildings in the country, most particularly in the capital city of Damascus, however war in the country threatens to destroy many of these, and older monuments.

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This page was last updated: July, 2012