Saturday, October 23, 2010

Syria: Among the World’s Oldest Civilizations

Azem Palace
Many historians maintain that Damascus is the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Indeed, not only Damascus, but the entire territory of modern-day Syria holds a history that dates back many thousands of years. Syria is thus a country that has been at the crossroads of countless civilizations, conquests, and cultures, and modern-day Syria reflects this homogeneity. It is a land where Muslims live together with Christians and other religious groups in a harmony that is in many ways a model for the Middle East.

1. Ancient History

It is often claimed that the first inhabitants of modern day Syria date as far back as 5000 B.C. Syria was occupied successively by Canaanites, Phoenicians, Hebrews, Arameans, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Nabataeans, Byzantines, and partially by Crusaders before coming under the control of the Ottoman Turks. In 1800 B.C., the Assyrian King Shamshi-Adad I established today's north-east city of Tell Leilan as his capital; in 333 B.C., Syria became part of Alexander the Great's empire; it then changed hands in 64 B.C., as a province of the Roman Empire, and again in 300 A.D., as a Byzantine province.

Deir Mar Mousa.
A monastary carved into the mountains
that focuses on Christian-Muslim dialogue.
Syria came under the Muslim conquest in 636 and it became the capital of the Omayyad Empire, which from 661 to 750 extended from Spain to India. Damascus became a provincial capital of the Mameluke Empire in the 13th Century and was largely destroyed in 1400 by the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane. It was rebuilt and continued to serve as capital until 1517, when it fell under the conquest of the Ottomans, who ruled for the next 400 years.

2. Modern Era

In 1920, the Arab Kingdom of Syria was established under the Hashemite King Faisal (later King of Iraq). A few months thereafter, a clash between his Syrian Arab forces and French forces at the battle of Maysalun ended his rule over Syria. In 1922, the League of Nations declared a French mandate over Syria, and French troops occupied Syria.

At the fall of France in 1940, Syria came under the control of the Vichy Government until the British and Free French occupied the country in July 1941. Pressures exerted by Syrian nationalist groups forced the French to evacuate their troops and on April 17, 1946, Syria declared its independence and was left to rule itself under a republican government formed during the French mandate. The country became a charter member of the United Nations.

From its independence through to the modern era, Syria experienced a series of upheavals and military coups, which culminated on March 8, 1963, with the takeover by the the Arab Socialist Resurrection Party (Ba'ath Party), which installed leftist Syrian Army officers of the National Council of the Revolutionary Command (NCRC) over the nation’s executive and legislative powers. On November 13, 1970, Defense Minister Hafez al-Assad succeeded in a bloodless military coup in what was known as the Correction Movement and assumed the role of prime minister.

In March 1973, a new Syrian constitution went into effect followed by parliamentary elections for the People's Council.

The secular socialist regime was challenged in the late 1970s and early 1980s by the Muslim Brother and other fundamentalist Sunni groups, who object to secular rule and to the Alawi minority in power. 1982 marked an uprising by these groups in the city of Hama, between Homs and Aleppo. The regime responded aggressively, effectively breaking the insurrection with a bombardment of the city that killed thousands of civilians. Since then, public protests against the regime have been limited.

President Hafez al-Assad died on June 10, 2000, and his son Bashar al-Assad was immediately proclaimed successor.

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