Ancient Syria: Are Syrians Really Arabs?

Mohanad Albaaly

Mohanad Albaaly

A trained lawyer since 1997 and licensed by Damascus University Council. Mohanad is a human rights activits and he's also an editor at the MPC Journal in Arabic.
Mohanad Albaaly

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Palmyra - MPC Journal - Ancient Syria: Are Syrians Really Arabs

Known as the ‘Venice of the Sands’, the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra – @ Image: Fernando Arias/Getty Images

There are several stories about the origin of the name of Syria. But the strongest historical explanation links the name to the Assyrian Kingdom, which stretched from Mesopotamia in the east to the Mediterranean in the west. While it wasn’t possible for Greek language to start words with vowels, they called the region Syria instead of Assyria. The name of this region remained Assyria in the English language.

The word Syria or Assyria referred to a region larger than the current political borders of Syria. In the past, it included the whole eastern coast of the Mediterranean reaching Mosul to the east, Al-Jouf desert (located in the north of current Saudi Arabia) and Sinai to the south and Cilicia to the north (located at the southern coast of Turkey).

It is believed that the name of Syria emerged when the Greek confused the Assyrian Empire, which ruled that region, with the Aramaeans (Aramaic people) who lived in that region. While Syriac is also derived from the word Syria, Europeans still confuse the words Syrian/Syriac when referring to the Christians of the east (Mashreq). While Syriac, also known as Syriac Aramaic, refers to an Aramaic ethnicity and dialect in ancient Syria before the Christ, this minority still lives in Syria today. Although Islam as a religion wasn’t limited to only Arabs and many of the indigenous people of the region converted into the new religion, the confusion persists. For instance, the Muslim and Christian inhabitants of Maaloula town and its surrounding villages such as Jubaadeen and Bakha’a in the countryside of Damascus still use the Aramaic language, while Syriac language is still used in the eastern and north-eastern parts of current Syria.

The history of Syrian civilisation dates back to about 8000 BC. Almost every region in Syria contains historical monuments dating back to thousands of years BC. The most prominent of these ruins are the cuneiform tablets of Ugarit Ras Shamra, which date back to 1500 BC, when humans invented the first alphabet.

Factors such as its strategic location, fertile soil, abundant water and mild climate made it become a centre of numerous and diverse ancient civilizations. Besides, its important geographical location made it a centre for interaction among human cultures and civilizations; therefore, it represents the birthplace of many early human populations, religions and arts. Its people discovered agriculture, animal husbandry and the first industries.

Aramaic was not the first civilization to arise in Syria, but it has the deepest civilizational impact on Syrian history. Although it was unable to establish a single state, but rather a group of city-kingdoms across Syria, Aramaic language spread to cover the geographical area of Syria region reaching Mesopotamia and Persia. Aramaic played the most prominent role in fusing Syrian cultures into one civilization, which is diverse in nature.

The Syrian people as presently constituted are nationally, ethnically, religiously and culturally diverse. They are the product of all civilizations swung by the region – starting from the Semitic migrations before Islam to the Pharaohs, Persians, Romans, Muslim Arabs, the Kurds, the Turks, the Mongols, the Tatars, the French to the modern migrations of the Circassians, Armenians and the Balkanite.

This diversity also represents multilingualism, which is still used by the society – Arabic, Kurdish, Circassian, Armenian, Syriac and Aramaic. The spread of the Arabic language cannot be considered, although local dialects still contain a lot of words and rules of Syriac language, a measurement to assume that Syrians hailed from “Arabs”. The prominence of Arab culture compared to other cultures of the region for many centuries, and the gradual embrace of Islam among indigenous people are the most important reasons for the spread of Arabic language in Syria.

The Syrian cultural inventory, compared to the number of population and geographical area, is absolutely the most varied society in terms of the immaterial heritage, customs and traditions, arts and local spoken dialects, which still use non-Arabic vocabulary (Syrians were able to integrate them into the Arabic dictionary later). However, Islam is the most widespread religion in Syrian society. Based on the diverse nature of Syrian people, Islam there represents the most diverse schools of thought, which constitute the Islamic spectrum in the orient. And so is it for Christian communities. Syrian Christians do not follow one church, but rather several. If we go further with our analysis, we find that many doctrines have branched out to different sub-sects.

This mixture in terms of ideas and rich heritage, witnessed several points of bloody conflicts between its constituents throughout hundreds of centuries, but peaceful coexistence remains the most basic human feature of Syrian Society.

Translated by Hakim Khatib


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