Greater Syria

Greater Syria
History of the Levant
Stone Age
Kebaran culture · Natufian culture
Halafian culture · Ghassulian culture  · Jericho
Ancient history
Sumerians · Ebla · Akkadian Empire
Canaan · Phoenicians · Amorites
Aramaeans · Edomites · Hittites
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Israel and Judah
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Hasmonean kingdom
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Middle Ages
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Modern history
Ottoman Empire
British Mandate of Palestine
Syria · Lebanon · Jordan · Iraq
Israel · Palestinian territories

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Greater Syria (Arabic: سوريّة الكبرى‎), also known simply as Syria, is a term that denotes a region in the Near East bordering the Eastern Mediterranean Sea or the Levant.

The classical Arabic name for Syria is Sham (Arabic: الشامash-Shām), which in later ages came to refer only to Damascus in Levantine Arabic, while the pre-Islamic name of the territory, Syria, was used again until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918.


Historic Syria

The extent of the area known as Syria has changed over time. In the most common historical sense, it refers to the entire northern Levant, including Alexandretta and the ancient city of Antioch, the pre-Islamic capital of Syria), or in an extended sense the entire Levant as far south as Egypt, but not including Mesopotamia.

The uncertainty in the definition of the extent of "Syria" is aggravated with the etymological confusion of the similar-sounding names Syria and Assyria. The question of the ultimate etymological identity of the two names remains open today, but regardless of etymology, the two names have often been taken as exchangeable or synonym from the time of Herodotus[1] (even though in the Roman Empire they referred to two separate entities, Roman Syria vs. Roman Assyria). A "Greater Syria" in this wider sense would correspond to "Greater Assyria" and include all of the Levant and Mesopotamia.[dubious ]


Herodotus uses Συρία loosely to refer to Cappadocia (Pipes 1992).[1] In Greek usage, Syria and Assyria were used almost interchangeably, but in the Roman Empire, Syria and Assyria came to be used as distinct geographical terms. "Syria" in the Roman Empire period referred to "those parts of the Empire situated between Asia Minor and Egypt", i.e. the western Levant, while "Assyria" was part of the Persian Empire, and only very briefly came under Roman control (116-118 AD, marking the historical peak of Roman expansion).

In the Roman era, the term Syria is used to comprise the entire northern Levant and has an uncertain border to the northeast that Pliny the Elder describes as including, from west to east, Commagene, Sophene, and Adiabene, "formerly known as Assyria".[2]

In 64 BC, Syria became a province of the Roman Empire. Roman Syria borders on Judaea to the south (later renamed Palaestina in AD 135 , the region corresponding to modern day Palestine and Israel, and Jordan) and Phoenicia corresponding to Lebanon.

In AD 193, the province was divided into Syria proper and Syria Coele along the western bank of the Euphrates. Sometime between 330 and 350 (likely ca. 341), the province of Euphratensis was created out of the territory of Syria Coele and the former realm of Commagene, with Hierapolis as its capital.[3] After ca. 415 Syria Coele was further subdivided into Syria I, with the capital remaining at Antioch, and Syria II or Salutaris, with capital at Apamea on the Orontes. In 528, Justinian I carved out the small coastal province Theodorias out of territory from both provinces.[4]


The region was annexed to the Islamic Caliphate after the Muslim Rashidun victory over the Byzantine Empire at the Battle of Yarmouk, and became known afterwards by its Arabic name, ash-Shām. During Umayyad times, Shām was divided into five junds or military districts. They were Jund Dimashq, Jund Hims, Jund Filastin and Jund al-Urdunn. Later Jund Qinnasrin was created out of part of Jund Hims. The city of Damascus was the capital of the Islamic Caliphate until the rise of the Abassid Dynasty.


Ottoman subdivisions in 1918
The States of the French Mandate

In the later ages of the Ottoman times, it was divided into wilayahs or sub-provinces the borders of which and the choice of cities as seats of government within them varied over time. The vilayets or sub-provinces of Aleppo, Damascus, and Beirut, in addition to the two special districts of Mount Lebanon and Jerusalem. Aleppo consisted of northern modern-day Syria plus parts of southern Turkey, Damascus covered southern Syria and modern-day Jordan, Beirut covered Lebanon and the Syrian coast from the port-city of Latakia southward to the Galilee, while Jerusalem consisted of the land south of the Galilee and west of the Jordan River and the Wadi Arabah.

Although the region's population was dominated by Sunni Muslims, it also contained sizable populations of Shi'a, Alawite and Ismaili Muslims, Syriac Orthodox, Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Melkite Christians, Mizrahi Jews, and Druzes.

Following the San Remo conference and the defeat of King Faisal's short-lived monarchy in Syria at the Battle of Maysalun, the French general Henri Gouraud, in breach of the conditions of the mandate, subdivided the French Mandate of Syria into six states. They were the states of Damascus (1920), Aleppo (1920), Alawite State (1920), Jabal Druze (1921), the autonomous Sanjak of Alexandretta (1921) (modern-day Hatay,Turkey), and Greater Lebanon (1920) which later became the modern country of Lebanon.

Syrian nationalism

Antun Saadeh's and the SSNP's vision of a unified "natural Syria", corresponding closely to the maximum extent of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (with the exception of Egypt).

In the nationalist ideology developed by the founder of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, Antun Saadeh, Syria is seen as the geocultural environment in which the Syrian nation state evolved, an area Sa'adeh called the Syrian Fertile Crescent.

Sa'adah rejected both language and religion as defining characteristics of a nation, and instead argued that nations develop through the common development of a people inhabiting a specific geographical region. He pointed to what he considered to be the region's distinct natural boundaries, and described it as extending from the Taurus range in the northwest and the Zagros Mountains in the northeast, to the Suez Canal and the Red Sea -including the Sinai Peninsula and the Gulf of Aqaba in the south, and from the eastern Mediterranean Sea including the island of Cyprus in the west, to the arch of the Arabian Desert and the Persian Gulf in the east.

In the 1940s, Britain secretly advocated the creation of a Greater Syrian state that would secure Britain preferential status in military, economic and cultural matters, in return for putting a complete halt to Jewish ambition in Palestine. France and the United States opposed British hegemony in the region, which led to the creation of Israel.[5]

Names for Syria

"Greater Syria" is not always precisely synonymous with Levant, since Greater Syria can refer to a smaller region, while the Levant can refer to a larger region. Today the term is most commonly used by historians to describe the area in earlier times. For much of the history of the Middle East, Syria was closely integrated and shared a common culture and economy. The colonialism of the post-World War I years and the rise of a number of states in the region has ended this unity. It is still useful for historians looking at pre-twentieth century history to consider it as a region, however.

The name Syria derives from the ancient Greek name for Syrians, Σύριοι Syrioi, which the Greeks applied without distinction to various Assyrian people. Modern scholarship confirms the Greek word traces back to the cognate Ἀσσυρία, Assyria, ultimately derived from the Akkadian Aššur,[6]

Syria was known to Arabian Arabs as Shām, which comes from the root SH-ʔ-M, meaning "sublime" and "victorious" a well known Arabic name comes from is hisham whereas Yemen comes from the root Y-M-N meaning "fortune" and "right direction"). Note that the name Sham has no valid etymological connection with the Biblical figure Shem son of Noah, which appears in Arabic as Sām سام (with a different initial consonant, and without any internal glottal stop consonant). There is also a connection with the word shams "sun" (as in Majdal Shams or ash-Shams).

The classical Arabic pronunciation of Syria is Sūriyya (as opposed to the MSA common pronunciation "Sūrya"). This name was not widely used among Muslims before about 1870, though it had been used by Christians earlier. According to the Syrian Orthodox Church, "Syrian" (sūriy سوري) used to mean "Christian" in early Christianity. In English, "Syrian" historically meant a Syrian Christian (as in, e.g., Ephraim the Syrian). Following the declaration of the Syrian Arab Republic in 1936, the term "Syrian" became to designate citizens of that state regardless of ethnicity. The adjective "Syriac" (suryāni سرياني) has come into common use since as a demonym to avoid the ambiguity of "Syrian."

Currently, the Arabic term Suriyya refers to the modern state of Syria (as opposed to the whole Greater Syria region), but this distinction was not as clear before the mid 20th-century. The Hashemite dream of a Greater Syrian Arab kingdom was frustrated after World War I due to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the uniting of the separate French mandates in Syria into one unified entity in 1936.

See also


  1. ^ a b "Herodotus VII.63". "VII.63: The Assyrians went to war with helmets upon their heads made of brass, and plaited in a strange fashion which is not easy to describe. They carried shields, lances, and daggers very like the Egyptian; but in addition they had wooden clubs knotted with iron, and linen corselets. This people, whom the Hellenes call Syrians, are called Assyrians by the barbarians. The Chaldeans served in their ranks, and they had for commander Otaspes, the son of Artachaeus." 
  2. ^ Pliny (AD 77). "Book 5 Section 66". Natural History. University of Chicago Website. ISBN 8424919017.*.html. 
  3. ^ Kazhdan, Alexander (Ed.) (1991). Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Oxford University Press. p. 748. ISBN 978-0-19-504652-6. 
  4. ^ Kazhdan, Alexander (Ed.) (1991). Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Oxford University Press. p. 1999. ISBN 978-0-19-504652-6. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ First proposed by Theodor Nöldeke in 1881; cf. Harper, Douglas (November 2001). "Syria". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 2007-06-13. .


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