Friday, November 08, 2013

Syria- A Short History


By Phillip K. Hitti, Colier Books, New York 1961
This book is an abridgement of the author's previous work 'History of Syria Including Lebanon and Palestine' (1951). Before the present 'Arab Spring' and the subsequent civil war in Syria this country wasn't of great interest to the average person. This had not, however, always been the case. In the past Syria and its Lebanese gateway had at time been very much in the centre of events.
     The author opens with a brief synopsis of Syria's history, and continues with an overview of its climate and topology. There are five general zones in the land. Despite the general misconception Syria is far from being an unremitting desert.
     Hitti begins with the prehistory of the area and goes on to the Semitic origins of the population. This was shared by the Babylonian Empires and the Phoenicians. Syria from the beginning had the misfortune of being a crossroads for empires and migrations. On the other hand the country's position lent itself admirably to commerce. Its language, Aramaic, became a lingua franca of not just the area itself but also of the Persian Empire.
    A gradual infiltration of Hellenistic influences began shorty before the conquests of Alexander the Great and accelerated thereafter. This continued with Greek colonization and the Seleucid Empire, but crumbled under subsequent Roman, Partian and Arab pressure and the persistent rebellions of the Jews. Pressure developed from the Arab Nabateans with their capital at Petra south of the Dead Sea. Under Pompey in 64 BC all of Syria was organized into a single Roman province. The area was rapidly becoming an agricultural/horticultural centre. An important textile industry developed, and the area remained prominent in international trade. Syria's upper classes remained Hellenistic from the time of Alexander until the total victory of Islam in 633-640 AD.
     The Muslims fanned out in all directions from what they had made their Syrian base. They went southwest to Egypt and east to Mesopotamia and Persia. The newly conquered populations often welcomes the Arab armies as being an improvement on their previous rulers, and they certainly proved more tolerant than Byzantine Christianity. Soon, however, factions developed within Islam. Under the first caliph, Muawiyah (proclaimed in 661) Islam split between Shia and Sunni. The Sunni capital of Damascus was able to assert hegemony, but the split became a lasting source of conflict within the Islamic world.
     The caliphate pressed eastwards into Central Asia and westward across the North African littoral. The northern frontier, however, remained blocked as the Arabs and Byzantines fought back and forth across Asia Minor. The Arabs reached Constantinople twice, but were unsuccessful both times.
     Shortly before his death Muawiyah appointed his son Yazid as his successor thereby introducing the dynastic principle into the Caliphate. This became one of the reasons why Muawiyah has been unpopular amongst subsequent Muslim historians. Before this time Islamic traditions came to refer to his predecessors as the "righteous Caliphs".
Despite almost unrelenting internal conflict under this Umayyad dynasty the Muslim Empire reached its maximum united extent. Victory came in both the Indus Valley in the east and in the west where a Muslim army of only 7,000 defeated a Visigoth horde of 25,000 in Spain in 711. The conquest of half of Spain was accomplished in 6 months. The advance was halted more because of petty dynastic jealousies than for military reasons. The Sunni/Shia schism persisted, and the Shia developed an ideology that was possibly more totalitarian than the Sunni and certainly more bizarre.
     The end of the larger Umayyad caliphate came about because of this division. In 750 Damascus was captured by the Shiites, and the Abbasid caliphate was established. One of the heirs of the Umayyads escaped the inevitable slaughter and made his way to Spain where he established an independent caliphate in Cordova.
     Under the Abassids Damascus lost its central position in Islam, and the capital of the new dynasty was established in Iraq. The new caliphate was considerably more bloodthirsty and theocratic than the old. It was also more oriented to Persia as opposed to Arabia where Mecca and Medina sunk in importance along with Damascus. Syria and other Muslim provinces proved restive under the new caliphate in Baghdad, but the Abassids were successful in repressing this discontent.
     The rule of Baghdad is often represented as a "golden age" of the Islamic Empire, based upon the growth a an extensive literature in translation. Much of this translation was accomplished by Syrians. At the same time in Syria itself Aramaic was evolving into an unique dialect of Arabic.
     The Abassid dynasty died a slow death, undermined by Turkish conquests. In 877 Ahmad ibn-Tulun, a Turkish deputy governor of Egypt marched into Syria, and the area became a frontier for Egypt. After years of war the Caliph was forced to recognize both the independence of Egypt and its suzerainty over Arabia. Meanwhile the Fatamid dynasty arose in present day Tunisia and rapidly extended its rule eastward to include Syria. Just to emphasize the back and forth nature of the times the Fatimids were also Shiites, though of a much more tolerant strain than the Abassids.
     The subsequent history of Syria was once more a never ending succession of dynastic conflicts which ended with Turkish rule. By the time of the Crusades Syria was partitioned between the Egyptian Fatamids and several petty Turkish emirates. Meanwhile a storm was rising in the West. Following a Papal call in 1095 150,000 crusaders set out for Palestine in 1097. The force, once the Byzantines were (gratefully !) free of it fractured as various leaders hove off to establish their own states. The First crusading horde descended on the eastern Mediterranean littoral. The heart of Syria itself was never conquered, but divisions amongst the local Muslim statelets left the invaders free to sweep on to Jerusalem. There the "soldiers of the Cross" perpetrated a massacre that left a black mark on history.
     The history of Syria itself and the so-called 'Holy Land' was bound up with alternating periods of alliance and opposition between 'the Franks' and the local Muslims. This was ended with the growing power of Egypt's Saladin of the Ayyubid dynasty who rapidly became master of Syria as well. He then moved on to retake Palestine. Christian attempts to recover lost ground failed. Meanwhile in Egypt the Ayyubids were replaced by the Turkish (more or less) Mamluks. These rulers checked the Mongol invasion which had swallowed up the eastern area of Islam.
     A lasting effect of the Crusades was to shift the Middle Eastern balance of power from Shites to Sunnis. The political chaos of the era and Mamluk rule ended being disastrous for both Egypt and Syria. Despite the persistence of some commerce the population of Syria fell to 1/3rd of its previous level. The Mongol khan Tamerlane took both Damascus and Aleppo, and in 1402 he defeated the Ottaman Turks at Ankara.
     Internal strife ended Tamerlane's brief empire, and Syria became a bone of contention between the Ottamans and the Mamluks. Meanwhile in Persia the Safawid dynasty came to power. In 1516 the Ottomans defeated the Mamluks and in 1517 occupied Egypt itself. They were to remain in control of Syria for 400 years.
     The Ottoman Empire reached its height in the reign of Sulaymin I ('The Magnificent') when it stretched from Morocco in the west to Mesopotamia in the East. It also took in most of the Balkans. Syria failed to prosper under the corrupt rule of Ottoman pashas (deputy governors), and the central government in Istanbul cared little as long as tax farming gave sufficient loot.
     Trade withered as the 'age of exploration' allowed western commerce with the Orient to bypass the Middle East. What little trade there was was increasingly dominated by foreigners - Venetian, French and English. The western barbarians had returned. The French were most successful, and much later they went on to govern the area as a protectorate. Ottoman rule was punctuated by several rebellions, especially in Lebanon, and once more Istanbul paid little attention as long as taxes were collected. In 1860 France occupied the Levant.
     European ideas and culture gradually penetrated the area in the course of the 19th century. The economy began to expand. Western culture spread. Population grew. A worldwide pattern of emigration developed as the Lebanese sought their fortunes elsewhere. In the homeland ideas of democracy and nationalism took hold. Syrian nationalism developed as part of pan-Arabism. In the areas that it still held the Ottoman Empire became more and more repressive. The unpopularity of the Turks led to the dismemberment of the Empire after WW1. Non-Turkish areas were ceded by the Ottomans, but by the treaty of Serres (1926) Turkish rule was replaced by the French mandate over the entire Syrian area. Independence was put off to some unknown future. The French proved to be as unpopular rulers as the Turks had been. Pushed to the limit by the treachery the population rebelled in 1925-1927.
     World War 2 gradually eroded French control, and the French grudgingly ceded more power to the locals. In 1948, however, the state of Israel was created and was supported by western powers. This led Syria to a growing friendship with the USSR.
     This book ends with the creation of the short-lived United Arab Republic with Egypt's Nasser as head of state. The more recent history is very much the story of the Arab-Israeli wars and the coming to power of the Assad rulers. The present civil war in Syria is the stuff of current events, though the friendship of the regime and Russia continued through many vicissitudes.
     I found this book very interesting as it dealt with many subjects of which I had only a passing acquaintance. I don't know if others would also enjoy it. To some degree it clarified the matter of the various Muslim caliphates, something I have always found confusing. It helps that the author has constructed a good balance of government and social history, and such matters can be set in a firm basis of socioeconomic reality.
     The book lacks any attempt to draw "general lessons" from the history except for perhaps a highlighting of the persistence of custom and economic interest under the surface changes of politics. The writing is clear and coherent. There are, however, only two maps included, insufficient in my opinion, and there are no other illustrations. This makes for what some might find to be a rather dry narrative. Still the book has its attractions.

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