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Syria - History

Muslim Emprires

During the first decades of the seventh century, Muhammad, a merchant from Mecca, converted many of his fellow Arabs to a new religion, Islam, which was conceived as the continuation and fulfillment of the Judeo-Christian tradition. By 629 the religious fervor and pressures of an expanding population impelled Muslim Arab tribes to invade lands to the north of the Arabian Peninsula. They called these lands bilad al sham, the country or land of Sham--the name Arabs often used to designate Damascus. The word sham derives from the Arabic word for dignity, indicating the high regard most Arabs have had for Damascus. Arabs, including Syrians, have referred to Syria by this name ever since, and call Syrians Shammis.

In 635 Damascus surrendered to the great Muslim general, Khalid ibn al Walid. Undermined by Persian incursions, religious schisms, and rebellions in the provinces caused by harsh rule, Byzantium could offer little resistance to Islam.

In succeeding centuries, Muslims extended and consolidated their rule in many areas, and by 1200 they controlled lands from the Atlantic to the Bay of Bengal, from central Russia to the Gulf of Aden. Wherever they went, they built mosques, tombs, forts, and beautiful cities. The ruins of such structures are found widely in Greater Syria, a heartland of Islamic and Arab culture.

Muhammad made Medina his first capital, and it was here that he died. Leadership of the faithful fell to Abu Bakr (632-634), Muhammad's father-in-law and the first of the four orthodox caliphs, or temporal leaders of the Muslims. Umar followed him (634-644) and organized the government of captured provinces. The third caliph was Uthman (644-656) under whose administration the compilation of the Quran was accomplished. Among the aspirants to the caliphate was Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, whose supporters felt he should be the Prophet's successor (see fig. 3). Upon the murder of Uthman, Ali became caliph (656-661). After a civil war with other aspirants to the caliphate, Ali moved his capital to Mesopotamia and was later assassinated at Al Kufah. Ali's early followers established the first of Islam's dissident sects, the Shia (from Shiat Ali, party of Ali). Those who had accepted the before and after Ali successions remained the orthodox of Islam; they are called Sunnis--from the word sunnia meaning orthodox.

Umayyad Caliphate

After Ali's murder in 661, Muawiyah--the governor of Syria during the early Arab conquests, a kinsman of Uthman, and a member of the Quraysh lineage of the Prophet--proclaimed himself caliph and established his capital in Damascus. From there he conquered Muslim enemies to the east, south, and west and fought the Byzantines to the north. Muawiyah is considered the architect of the Islamic empire and a political genius. Under his governorship Syria became the most prosperous province of the caliphate. Muawiyah created a professional army and, although rigorous in training them, won the undying loyalty of his troops for his generous and regularly paid salaries. Heir to Syrian shipyards built by the Byzantines, he established the caliphate's first navy. He also conceived and established an efficient government, including a comptroller of finance and a postal system.

Muawiyah cultivated the goodwill of Christian Syrians by recruiting them for the army at double pay, by appointing Christians to many high offices, and by appointing his son by his Christian wife as his successor. His sensitivity to human behavior accounted in great part for his political success. The modern Syrian image of Muawiyah is that of a man with enormous amounts of hilm, a combination of magnanimity, tolerance, and self-discipline, and of duha, political expertise-- qualities Syrians continue to expect of their leaders. By 732 the dynasty he founded had conquered Spain and Tours in France and stretched east to Samarkand and Kabul, far exceeding the greatest boundaries of the Roman Empire. Thus, Damascus achieved a glory unrivaled among cities of the eighth century.

The Umayyad Muslims established a military government in Syria and used the country primarily as a base of operations. They lived aloof from the people and at first made little effort to convert Christians to Islam. The Umayyads administered the lands in the manner of the Byzantines, giving complete authority to provincial governors.

In the administration of law, the Umayyads followed the traditions set by the Hellenistic monarchies and the Roman Empire. The conqueror's law--in this case Muslim law (sharia)-- applied only to those of the same faith or nationality as the conquerors. For non-Muslims, civil law was the law of their particular millet (separate religious community, also called milla); religious leaders administered the law of the millet. This system prevailed throughout Islam and has survived in Syria's legal codes.

During the 89 years of Umayyad rule, most Syrians became Muslims, and the Arabic language replaced Aramaic. The Umayyads minted coins, built hospitals, and constructed underground canals to bring water to the towns. The country prospered both economically and intellectually. Foreign trade expanded, and educated Jews and Christians, many of them Greek, found employment in the caliphal courts, where they studied and practiced medicine, alchemy, and philosophy.

Other Caliphates

Under later dissolute caliphs, the Umayyad dynasty began to decline at a time when both Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iran began to press against Umayyad borders. By 750 the Abbasids, whose forces originated in Khorasan (in northeast Iran), had conquered the Umayyads and established the caliphate in Baghdad. As a result, Syria became a province of an empire.

Abbasid rule over Syria, however, was precarious and often challenged by independent Muslim princes. The greatest of these was Abu Ali Hasan, who founded a kingdom known as the Hamdani. A Shia, he established his capital at Aleppo, and the Abbasids recognized him as Sayf ad Dawlah (sword of the state). The Hamdanid dynasty ruled throughout the tenth century and became famous for its achievements in science and letters. In Europe it was known for its persistent attacks against Byzantium. The Hamdanid kingdom fell in 1094 to Muslim Seljuk Turks invading from the northeast.

During the same period, the Shia Fatimids established themselves in Egypt and drove north against Syria. The Fatimids were less tolerant of subject peoples than their predecessors. Intolerance reached its height under caliph Abu Ali Mansur al Hakim (966-1021), who destroyed churches and caused Christians to flee to the mountains. When he announced his divinity, his mother murdered him. In the secluded valleys of Mount Hermon in Syria, his followers found tribesmen to adopt his religion, the ancestors of Syria's present-day Druzes.

Muslim rule of Christian holy places, overpopulation, and constant warfare in Europe prompted the Crusades, the first major Western colonial venture in the Middle East. Between 1097 and 1144 Crusaders established the principalities of Edessa (in northeast modern Syria), Antioch, Tripoli, and the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. The politically fragmented area was an easy conquest for the Europeans. The first Muslim threat to European entrenchment came not from within Greater Syria but from Zangi, the amir of Mosul (in modern Iraq). Zangi took Edessa in 1144 and his son, Nur ad Din (light of the faith), secured Damascus, extending the realm from Aleppo to Mosul. When the last Shia Fatimid caliph died, Nur ad Din secured Egypt as well. Eliminating Sunni-Shia sectarianism, the political rivalry that had so aided the European venture, he invoked jihad, holy war, as a unifying force for Arabs in Greater Syria and Egypt.

The jihad was to liberate Jerusalem, the third holiest city to Muslims, who call it Bayt Quds (the house of holiness) in memory of Muhammad's stopping there on his night journey to heaven. It fell to Nur ad Din's lieutenant, Saladin (Salah ad Din al Ayubbi--rectitude of the faith), to recapture Jerusalem. Saladin, a Kurd, unified Syria and Egypt, a necessary preliminary, and after many setbacks, captured Mosul, Aleppo, and the string of cities from Edessa to Nasihin. In 1187 Saladin took Al Karak, a Crusader fort on the route between Homs and Tripoli held by the infamous Reginald of Chatillon, who had broken treaties, molested Saladin's sister, and attacked Mecca with the aim of obtaining the Prophet's body and exhibiting it at Al Karak for a fee. Saladin besieged Jerusalem on September 20, 1187, and 9 days later Jerusalem surrendered. Saladin's behavior and complete control of his troops earned him the respect of all Jerusalemites and the epithet, "flower of Islamic chivalry."

Saladin inflicted Islam's mightiest blows against the Crusaders, raised Muslim pride and self-respect, and founded the Ayyubid dynasty, which governed Egypt until 1260. During his lifetime, he created harmony among Muslims in the Middle East and gained a position of affection and honor among them that remains strong to the present, particularly in Syria.

When Saladin died of malaria in 1192, his rule extended from the Tigris River to North Africa and south to the Sudan. Saladin's death brought this unity to an end. His Ayyubid successors quarreled among themselves, and Syria broke into small dynasties centered in Aleppo, Hamah, Homs, and Damascus. By the fourteenth century, after repelling repeated invasions by Mongols from the north, the Mamluk sultans of Egypt, successors to the Ayyubids, ruled from the Nile to the Euphrates. Their great citadels and monuments still stand. In 1516 the Ottoman sultan in Turkey defeated the Mamluks at Aleppo and made Syria a province of a new Muslim empire.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:29:02 ZULU