Syria: A Short History/2

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Syria: A Short History by Philip Khuri Hitti


The name Syria, until the end of the first World War, was primarily geographical, covering the lands between the Taurus and Sinai, the Mediterranean and the desert. The physical unity of this region has usually been reflected in a corresponding cultural unity—for it has constituted a roughly homogeneous area of civilization sharply distinguished from the adjacent areas—but not in ethnic or in political unity. Throughout its long history there have been only occasional brief interludes—notably the later Seleucid kingdom at Antioch from 301 to 141 b.c. and the Umayyad caliphate at Damascus from a.d. 661 to 750—during which Syria in its entirety stood as an independent sovereign state, and even then the rulers were of Greek or Arabian rather than native Syrian origin. All the rest of the time it was either submerged in a larger whole or partitioned among native or foreign states.

At present, geographical Syria is in a phase of political partition, after emerging four decades ago from a four-hundred-year phase of political submergence in the Ottoman empire. One of the five states now ruling Syrian territory was, until February 1958, called the Republic of Syria, so that at present the name 'Syrian', formerly applied to any inhabitant of the whole of Syria, is restricted, as a political term, to a citizen of that republic, though it is still applied as a linguistic term to any Syriac-speaking individual, or as a religious term to any follower of the old Christian church of Syria.

Other portions of geographical Syria currently form the states of Lebanon, Israel and Jordan (for a short time in 1958 part of the Arab Federation); the region around Antioch and Alexandretta is under Turkish rule. Due account will be taken of all these territories, but the principal focus of this short volume will be the land of Syria in its current narrow political sense. Excellent accounts of Palestine exist, while Lebanon deserves separate attention such as the present author has accorded it in Lebanon in History; both will therefore be treated here primarily as they participate in the general history of Syria as a whole.

The ruling feature of Syrian topography is an alternation of lowland and highland zones running roughly parallel to the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, in a generally north-south alignment. Five such longitudinal strips may be delineated.

On the west the first of these strips is the maritime plain stretching along the shore of the eastern Mediterranean from the Gulf of Alexandretta to the Sinai peninsula. Twenty miles wide in Palestine, the plain dwindles at the foot of Mount Lebanon to a mere ribbon less than four miles across. At the mouth of the Dog River (Nahr al-Kalb), north of Beirut, the mountain cliffs plunge straight into the sea, providing a strategic situation for ambushing invading armies. Again at Mount Carmel the promontory juts across the plain, leaving a passage barely a furlong wide. This obstacle deflected inland the great international highway of ancient times, which had its start in Egypt and followed the coast northward.

Most of the maritime plain originated in an uplifting of the old sea floor in the remote past. Its chalk deposits were later overlaid in places by alluvium dragged and spread by the running water from the mountainsides. Around Beirut an overlying sand deposit has been left by the waves of the Mediterranean, which in turn received it from the Nile. Thus formed of beaches and sea-beds and enriched by soil—as well as water—from the adjoining highlands, the plain is everywhere remarkably fertile. In the north it comprises the Nusayri littoral, in the middle the Sahil of Lebanon,
SASH D016 Topographical map of syria.jpg

Topographical map of Syria

and in the south the anciently renowned lowlands of Sharon and Philistia, from which the name Palestine is derived.

The entire coastline is one of the straightest in the world, with no deep estuary or gulf except at Alexandretta, at its northern end. From there to the Egyptian border, a distance of some 440 miles, there is hardly a natural harbour worthy of the name.

Overlooking the Syrian littoral, and often rising abruptly from it, is a line of mountains and plateaus which forms the second of the longitudinal strips. This barrier to communication between the sea and its eastern hinterland is breached at each end, east of Alexandretta and at the isthmus of Suez, and is pierced twice, by the valley of al-Nahr al-Kabir north-east of Tripoli and at the faulted plain of Esdraelon, east of Haifa.

From the Gulf of Alexandretta to the western bend of the Euphrates—a distance of about 100 miles—a grassy, elevated land forms a natural saddle between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean. On the west a single low pass separates the Taurus mountains of Asia Minor from their Amanus offshoot in Syria. Over this easy saddle have passed countless invasions and migrations, as well as continuous cultural and economic interchanges of major significance.

The Amanus range extends along the Gulf of Alexandretta to the gorge of the Orontes river (al-Asi), and is crossed by roads to Antioch and Aleppo, the chief pass being the celebrated Syrian Gates (Baylan). The range is continued south of the mouth of the Orontes by the bald Mount Casius (al-Aqra), which rises to a height of 4500 feet and stretches down to the vicinity of Latakia (al-Ladhiqiyah), where it becomes the Nusayri range and continues south to the valley of al-Nahr al-Kabir. This chain is of limestone, with basaltic intrusions. It encloses several deep valleys, rugged ravines and steep cliffs which provided the Syrian branch of the Assassins in the Middle Ages with their stronghold, and the schismatic Nusayri Moslems with their retreat. Some of its hills are still crowned with the imposing ruins of ancient Crusader castles. Al-Nahr al-Kabir marks the present political boundary between the republic of Lebanon and Syria.

The western range rises to alpine heights in the Lebanon massif, which extends more than 100 miles to the Litani river north of Tyre. The name Lebanon (Lubnan) comes from a Semitic root meaning 'to be white', and refers to the snow which now caps its peaks for about six months of every year. Mount Lebanon, of which the highest peak rises to over 11,000 feet, shelters the last surviving large grove of ancient cedars, resting in an amphitheatre representing the terminus of a prehistoric local glacier.

The rocks of Lebanon comprise an upper and a lower limestone series with an intermediate sandstone. The lower limestone forms the bottom of the deepest valleys, but elsewhere has been elevated by folding and reaches a height of about 9000 feet at Mount Hermon. On its surface are often found lumps of iron ore, the smelting of which has been carried on in rude furnaces up to recent times and has contributed to making Lebanon as bare of trees as it is. Mixed with clay and irrigated by water, this limestone provides fertile soil for the fruit and mulberry orchards on which much of the prosperity of the maritime plain around Beirut has been based.

The sandstone layers range in thickness from a few hundred to a thousand feet. They are devoid of fossils but have thin strata of lignite which has been mined in modern times to supply fuel for silk factories and for the railway during the first World War. This complex of sands and clays retains the rain water which seeps through the upper limestone and emerges in sparkling gushing springs that bestow their life-giving contents upon the slopes and valleys.

It is the limestone of the upper strata that has, through the ages, dominated the Lebanese scene, forming the summits and giving the landscape a greyish tone. Its erosion has yielded the soil for agriculture and rendered its roads dusty in summer. Its stones have provided building material. Its strata, being generally inclined, bent and twisted—often vertical and seldom horizontal—form a jumble of hills, cliffs and ravines that make communication difficult between one part of the country and another. This is further complicated by the fact that the whole region is broken by faults along which the different tracts of the country have pressed against and crumbled one another as the tormented crust was in ancient times being subjected to compression and folding.

This rugged terrain has, through the ages, provided refuge for communities and individuals with unpopular loyalties and peculiar beliefs, and has also afforded an unusually large proportion of high valleys and fertile tracts which have attracted the more enterprising and freedom-loving of the neighbouring peoples. Maronites, Druzes and Shiites (Matawilah) have taken shelter and maintained their identity in the fastnesses of Mount Lebanon. Armenians and Assyrians, fleeing from Ottoman misrule, were among the latest to find haven there. Christian hermits and anchorites preferred its caves to the pleasures of this world, and ancient robber tribes resorted to them for other reasons. A typical mountain home of lost causes, Mount Lebanon has always been the last part of Syria to succumb to foreign invaders.

Palestine is geologically a southward extension of Lebanon. The western Syrian range is continued, south of the Litani river, by the plateau and highlands of upper Galilee, virtually an outlier of Mount Lebanon; these reach a height of nearly 4000 feet, the highest in Palestine, before tapering off in the chain of low hills termed lower Galilee. The range then suffers its greatest interruption at the plain of Esdraelon, which intersects the whole of Palestine, dividing the hill country of Galilee in the north from the hill country of Samaria and the rugged limestone tableland of Judaea to the south. Jerusalem is 2550 feet above sea level. South of it the Judaean plateau rolls down in broad undulations to Beersheba and the barren southern region called the Negeb.

The widespread limestone formations which in Lebanon run out seaward in bold white promontories, hollowed in places by the surf into caves, are represented here by Mount Carmel, which rises 1742 feet above the sea. In its caves were discovered the earliest human skeletons yet found in the Near East. Such caves were inhabited by prehistoric men, who may have enlarged them, and, as in Lebanon, by later refugees from religious or political persecution; other grottoes served as burial places.

The third longitudinal strip in the structure of Syria is a long, narrow trough created by the subsidence of land in a rift between two great linear faults or fractures in the earth's crust in fairly recent geologic times. Starting north of the westward bend of the Orontes in a broad plain called al-Amq, the trough ascends at Hamah to more than 1000 feet above the sea, becomes the fertile Biqa valley between Mount Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon, and continues south through the Jordan to the Dead Sea and thence along Wadi al-Arabah to the Gulf of al-Aqabah, the north-east finger of the Red Sea.

This Biqa-Jordan-Arabah valley is one of the oddest features of the earth's surface. From 3770 feet above sea level near Baalbek, it drops to 685 feet below the sea at Lake Tiberias (the Sea of Galilee), and to 1292 feet below at the Dead Sea. Nowhere else in the world is such a depression visible.

From the Biqa, which varies in breadth from six to ten miles, the Orontes starts on its leisurely course northward and the Litani moves towards the south. Both at last turn abruptly westward, cutting through the western range to cross the maritime plain and reach the sea. The Biqa, drained by these twin streams, comprises the largest and best pastoral areas of all Syria. Blanketed with deposits of recent alluvium and loam, it also provides the most favourable soil for agriculture. Large irrigation works are planned for the Litani, but the Orontes' bed is so low that its water cannot readily be utilized. Therefore water wheels, for raising water to the level of the land, fill Hamah with their perpetual monotonous wailing.

The valley of the Jordan is some sixty-five miles in length and three to fourteen in width. This singular crevasse receives considerable streams from the west watershed—which makes Palestine the overdrained land that it is—and ultimately spreads its water into the bitterest lake in the world. The Dead Sea is unusually saline, with high concentrations of bromine, potash and magnesium chloride. Bituminous limestone and asphalt of excellent quality are found in and around the Dead Sea as well as south-west of Mount Hermon.

The faulted mountains of Lebanon and the long rift valley culminating in the Jordan-Dead Sea depression mark a zone of intense earthquake activity, which has not, however, been limited to the great fracture area. Part of the plateau east of Mount Hermon and south of Damascus is crossed by lines of extinct volcanoes and splotched by old lava fields, while thermal springs are scattered from Palmyra to the Dead Sea.

The history of Syria is more punctuated with earthquakes than its geography with volcanoes. At the northern extremity Antioch was scourged by earthquakes through the ages. In the first six centuries after Christ, they damaged it no less than ten times. The walls of the world-renowned temple of the sun at Baalbek bear scars of seismic disturbances, as do the extant Crusader castles. The sudden collapse of Jericho's walls on the occasion of the Israelite invasion as well as the spectacular destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, at the south-western extremity of the Dead Sea, point to earthquakes, coupled in the latter instance with fire from burning oil exudations and asphalt springs. The tidal waves which often accompany such disturbances have been especially destructive along the Phoenician coast, with Tyre and Sidon the principal victims. The last severe earthquake in northern Syria occurred in 1822 and converted Aleppo, among other cities, into a heap of ruins, destroying tens of thousands of human lives. The last in Palestine took place in 1837, utterly demolishing Safad.

The eastern range constitutes the fourth strip in the Syrian relief, but is absent north of Horns. The range called Anti-Lebanon rises opposite Mount Lebanon and almost equals it in length and height; it is divided by the plateau and gorge of the Barada river into a northern part, on the western flank of which there is hardly a village, and a southern part which includes Mount Hermon, one of the highest and most majestic peaks of Syria, with many flourishing villages on its western slope. Largely because its rainfall is lower and its vegetation sparser, Anti-Lebanon has a more scattered and less progressive population than that of Mount Lebanon.

Rising in a rich upland valley, the Barada flows east, reclaims for Syria a large portion of what otherwise would have been a desert, and creates Damascus, an oasis outpost of civilization. After irrigating the celebrated orchards called al-Ghutah, the river divides into five channels which serve the streets and homes of the ancient metropolis. The present Damascus water system derives from one installed at the behest of the Umayyad caliphs.

South and east of Damascus the eastern range is represented by the Hawran plateau, predominantly volcanic with basalt rocks and rich soil. To the South rises the mountain called Jabal al-Duruz, the occupation of which by the Druzes is a comparatively recent event, dating from the early eighteenth century. Although it has no trees and very few springs, the Hawran plateau bears abundant wheat and provides good pasture. The soil consists of disintegrated black lava and red loam, rich in plant food and retentive of moisture, overlying the limestone which elsewhere forms the surface rock. The archaeological remains range from great stones erected by primitive men to ruins of Roman and Byzantine roads, aqueducts, reservoirs, buildings and fortifications which testify to its once-thriving condition as a granary of the empire. Today it still provides Palestine and Lebanon with wheat as it did in the days of the Hebrews and the Phoenicians.

South of Hawran, in Transjordan proper, the eastern highlands continue through the hills of Gilead to the high tableland of Moab. East of Petra the sandstone strata attain a height of 4430 feet before merging with the stony desert of Arabia.

The great wasteland called the Syrian Desert is the fifth and last distinct zone in Syrian structure. The desert proper, which is separated from the highlands by a transition zone of steppes, volcanic tracts and sands, is a continuation of the great Arabian Desert, forming a huge triangular bay which separates settled Syria from the river valleys of Iraq. Its maximum width approximates 800 miles. Its nomadic denizens trade with the settled population on both sides, act as middlemen, guides and caravaneers, and in remote times built such cities as Palmyra, which lay on the trans-desert route between Syria and Mesopotamia. Their blood has always been a perennial reservoir of biological vitality to the urban population, supplying it with fresh infusion either through conquest or by peaceful penetration. But normally bedouins resist the temptation to settle down and, in quest of pasture for their flocks, they roam the desert plains, living off the grass which blankets it after every shower of rain. Bedouin hospitality to guests does not imply any corresponding hospitality to innovations. If the mainspring of progress in a settled community lies in the attempt to change and adapt the conditions of life and environment, the secret of survival in a nomadic community consists in accepting those conditions and adapting one's pursuits and attitudes to them.

Several of the streams which trickle down the eastern slopes of the Syrian eastern range are vanquished in the struggle with the desert and disappear into its barren soil. The struggle between the sown and the desert, old as time, is a central fact in the physical geography of that part of the country. The desert, which in many of its aspects resembles the sea, has in its movement through history behaved like a mighty one, endlessly repeating the pattern of ebb and flow. The struggle has its counterpart in the equally ancient conflict between the bedouins, the 'have-not' nomads of the desert, and the settled agriculturists, the 'haves' of the fertile plains. Centuries before and centuries after the Israelites, covetous eyes from the desert turned towards the neighbouring lands 'flowing with milk and honey'.

The ruling feature of Syrian climate is the alternation of a rainy season from mid-November to the end of March and a dry season covering the rest of the year. This is, in general, true of the whole Mediterranean region and is due to its location between two zones sharply contrasted in the amount of precipitation they receive: the dry trade-wind tract of Africa—largely desert—to the south, and Europe with its westerly winds on the north. It is these moisture-bearing westerlies which all the year round bring rain from the Atlantic to middle and northern Europe. They are in winter the prevailing winds in Syria; in summer the heat belt moves northward from the equator, and the country for months approaches the arid conditions of the Sahara. The variability of climate which characterizes the northern United States and is said to promote energy does not obtain anywhere there.

As the prevalent westerlies, at times associated with cyclonic storms, sweep over the Mediterranean they become more filled with moisture. They then encounter Mount Lebanon and the central hilly ridge of Palestine and rise. In rising the air expands and discharges some of its moisture in the form of rain. The result is that the western slopes of the Syrian highlands annually receive the largest amount of precipitation, which decreases as one goes from west to east and from north to south. Thus Beirut averages about 36 inches of rain a year, Jerusalem about 26 and Damascus only 10. On the whole the Palestine-Lebanon coast receives more than twice as much precipitation as the corresponding coast of southern California.

The mean annual temperature in Beirut is 68° F., but temperatures above 107° and below 30° have been recorded there. Humidity reaches its maximum, strangely enough, in July with an average of 75 per cent, its minimum in December with an average of 60 per cent. In winter the dense, cold, dry anticyclonic influences of Central Asia spread over the eastern plateau region of Syria, giving it frost and snow, a phenomenon hardly ever experienced along the coast. There the temperature is moderated by the influence of the sea, which is warmer in winter and cooler in summer than the land. The mountains prevent the cooling sea breezes from reaching the interior, while dust-laden desert winds cause the summer heat in such cities as Damascus and Aleppo to become intense. Most dreaded of the hot winds from the east or south-east is the simoom, or sirocco, which is particularly oppressive and dry, with a humidity at times under 10 per cent, making it difficult to breathe. It is frequent through spring and autumn, when it often reaches the coast and announces the coming of rain. On the fringe of the desert it is often laden with fine penetrating sand, increasing the discomfort of man and beast.

Much of the rain water percolates through large expanses of limestone rock and is thus lost. Some of it gathers in subterranean channels and gushes out in the form of springs. The prevalence of limestone in Lebanon and Palestine thus introduces another unfavourable factor in addition to the minor one of a shimmering dusty landscape, mentioned above. It restricts the water supply and thus limits human settlement, especially on the slopes of Anti-Lebanon.

Whatever rain-water does not soak through the calcareous layers flows into streams and rivers, which swell into torrents after every heavy downpour, but shrink in the drought of summer to mere trickles or disappear altogether. The rush of water down the highlands, with its concomitant processes of erosion and denudation, has resulted through the ages in rendering barren many once-flourishing tracts of land. The perseverance without major modification of ancient crops, the persistence of tillage methods, and the preservation through the ages of virtually the same seasonal dates for ploughing and harvesting militate against any theory of desiccation through climatic changes. The real causes of decline in land productivity have been the denudation of the hillsides by the running rain water and winds, the failure of certain springs, deforestation and over-grazing which have deprived the loose soil of roots to hold it together, neglect of irrigation works and their destruction by barbarian invaders or attacking nomads, and possibly exhaustion of the soil in some places.

Three contrasting zones of vegetation are found in the Syrian area, in which two distinct floral regions meet: that of the Mediterranean and that of the western Asian steppe-land. The position of Mount Lebanon introduces the complicating factor of altitude, making the transition from Mediterranean to continental influences unusually abrupt. Banana plantations, winter sports resorts and desert oases are therefore encountered within a mere sixty miles of the sea. But everywhere the contrast between the landscape in spring, when the foliage is at its best, and in summer, when the increased heat has burned up vegetation, is very striking.

The coastal plain and the lower levels of the western highlands have the ordinary vegetation of the Mediterranean littoral, characterized by evergreen shrubs and quickly flowering, strongly scented spring plants. The main food crops of Western man—wheat, barley and millet, all of which were first domesticated in or near Syria—still flourish, as do onions, garlic, cucumbers and other vegetables known from earliest times. Sugar cane was brought in from farther east by the Arab conquerors. Crops introduced from America in recent centuries include corn (maize), tomatoes, potatoes and tobacco, Latakia tobacco having become famous all over the world.

The ancient drought-resisting fruits—figs, olives, dates and grapes—have similarly been supplemented with banana and citrus trees, which in the absence of summer rains require irrigation. The baking Mediterranean sun, whose relentless rays strike the parched land almost daily throughout the dry season, ripens fruit to perfection. The olive tree in particular demands little and yields much. Its fruit was and is one of the main components in the diet of the lower classes. Olive oil was consumed in place of butter, which is more difficult to preserve, and was used for burning in lamps, for making ointments and perfumes, and for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. The pulpy residue of the fruit was fed to animals, and its stones were crushed and used for fuel. Ever since Noah's dove returned with an olive branch, its leaf has been a symbol of peace and happiness. To the south of Beirut one of the largest olive orchards in the world stretches for miles. Aside from fruit trees, the dominant trees in this littoral zone are the scrub oak, the Mediterranean pine, the beech and the mulberry, the leaves of which have been fed to imported silkworms, making silk manufacture possible. Since the first World War, however, the silk industry has been on the decline, and with it the mulberry orchards.

Along the crests of Mount Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon only such hardy trees as firs, cedars and other conifers are able to survive, constituting the second floral zone. The most magnificent and renowned of these is the cedar of Lebanon, noted for its majesty, strength, durability and suitability for carving. The cedar provided the Phoenicians with the finest of timber for constructing their ships, and was sought by kings from the treeless valleys of the Tigris, Euphrates and Nile. Unfortunately, after centuries of exploitation, culminating in use by the Ottoman Turks for railroad fuel from 1914 to 1918, the cedar survives only in small groves, the best known of which is that above Bisharri, where more than four hundred trees still grow. Some of these are perhaps a thousand years old, and eighty feet tall. One has been adopted as an emblem by the modern Republic of Lebanon.

The third floral zone comprises the canyon-like trough and the plateaus of eastern Syria, where intense heat and scanty rainfall combine to produce a steppe regime in which trees all but disappear, grasses tend to have a seasonal existence, and only coarse shrubs and thorny bushes survive. The Orontes and the Jordan flow in deep beds and are of little use for irrigation. The Hawran and Transjordan plateaus are sufficiently high to condense enough of the remaining westerly moisture to permit pasturage.

Goats and sheep, particularly goats, have furthered the process of erosion by eating up grass and young sprouts on the hillsides, leaving the soil loose and more exposed to the action of running water. Because of the relief of the Lebanon mountains and the over-drainage of the Palestinian highlands, Syria has always had scant natural grazing for cattle and horses, but sheep and goats can find enough forage.

Originally an American wild animal, the horse found its way into eastern Asia in remote prehistoric times and, while still in wild form, made its way as far as Palestine. It was domesticated in early antiquity somewhere east of the Caspian Sea by Indo-European nomads, and then imported into the Near East some two thousand years before Christ. The Hyksos introduced the horse into Syria and Egypt some eighteen centuries before the Christian era. From Syria it was also introduced before the beginning of our era into Arabia where, as the Arabian horse, it has succeeded more than anywhere else in keeping its blood free from admixture.

Like the horse the camel is of American origin and migrated to north-eastern Asia millions of years ago. It gradually made its way to north-western Arabia and on into southern Syria. The first known reference to the domesticated camel in literature is in Judges 6:5 (cf. Gen. 34:64—in Genesis the author was projecting backwards a condition then existing in his time), describing the Midianite invasion of Palestine in the eleventh century before Christ. Mesolithic drawings depict a small one-humped camel, still the typical Arabian camel of today.

Another animal introduced from arid Asia through Arabia is the ancient breed of broad fat-tailed, long-fleeced sheep, which is still the common type. Syrian draft animals include the donkey and mule, as well as the horse and camel, while domesticated animals comprise—in addition to goats and sheep—cows, dogs and cats.