Syria History – From the Origins to Hellenistic Period

By | December 17, 2021

From the origins to the Persian age

During the 3rd millennium BC there are the beginnings of a properly Syrian culture with autonomous characters, both in the Giazira (Tell Khuwēra), already since then perhaps with a predominantly Khurritic population, and in the northern Syria (Tell Mardīkh), with a majority population cananaica. From the discovery of the state archive of Tell Mardīkh, consisting of about 15,000 documents in ancient Sumerian and ancient Canaanic, written in syllabic cuneiform script on clay tablets, it appears that Ebla, the ancient name of Tell Mardīkh, was between 2400 and 2250 BC the center of an important empire that first opposed the expansion towards the Mediterranean of the Mesopotamian kings of Akkad and was finally destroyed around 2250 BC. Despite the demolition of Ebla, that immediately resurrected, until 2000 BC the Canaanites were protagonists of a great urban culture of the northern and central Syria, whose major centers were Armi (Aleppo), Urahu, Carchemish and Byblos. For Syria 1996, please check

● Around 1500 BC the penetration of the Hittite ‘mountain peoples’ began in the northand Urriti; above all the Hittites pressed on the region, clashing with the Egyptians who controlled the center-south: following the pitched battle in Qadesh (1296), the pharaoh Ramesses II signed a treaty with the Hittite king Khattushilish II that marked peace between the two powers. Around 1200 BC the invasion of the ‘ peoples of the sea ‘ altered the balance reached, destroying the Hittite Empire and forcing the Egyptian one within the borders: a historical vacuum was created in Syria from the desert, the Arameans. Divided into small states, among which Soba emerged, Damascus, Ḥamān, Aleppo, Sam’al, took over the region. In the 9th century. however, the Assyrian Empire began its expansion towards the west, and in the following century one by one the Syrian statelets fell into its dominion. With the conquest of Carchemish, in 717 BC, the Syria passed entirely under the Assyrian dominion, which exercised a direct administration intolerant of any form of autonomy. Under these conditions, the Syria passed from the Assyrians to the Babylonians: in 605 the king of Babylon Nebuchadnezzar II defeated the troops of Pharaoh Nekao II in Carchemish, pushed east in a last attempt at conquest. When the Persians of Cyrus, in 538 BC, took possession of Babylon, the Syria became a satrapy of the new Empire.

Hellenistic period

Conquered by Alexander the Great (332 BC), the Syria became a satrapy of the Greek-Macedonian Empire; at the end of the 4th century, the process of fusion between oriental and Greek elements, which had been going on for some time on the Mediterranean shores of the region, had its impetus. After the death of Alexander (323), the Syria was permanently dominated by Seleucus, progenitor of the Seleucid dynasty (➔ # 10132;) who reigned until 64 BC, and the administrative center of the Seleucid Empire (here was Antioch, the capital, founded by Seleuco after 301) and also the region militarily, politically and culturally more sensitive, bordering to the south with Egypt, to the north originally with the domains of Lysimachus, then with the kingdom of Pergamum; the Mediterranean, which the Syria faced with excellent ports, offered the opportunity for contacts, and not just political ones, with the Hellenic peninsula. The history of the Syria, under the Seleucids, is initially characterized by a strong territorial affirmation: at first Seleucus was lord of the only oriental satrapies of Alexander’s empire (excluding the Syria itself), from Sogdiana, Bactriana, Aracosia, Gedrosia, up to Mesopotamia; after the victory of Ipso (301) over Antigono Monoftalmo, took possession of the Syria and a small area of ​​Asia Minor; in 281, after the battle of Corupedio, the kingdom of Seleucus extended to a large part of Asia Minor. The decline was equally rapid: around 240, at the time of Seleucus II, Sogdiana and Bactriana had long since been lost, while the Parthian kingdom was established in the west of these regions; other regions had or conquered autonomy: Media Atropatene, Armenia, Galatia, Bithynia, Paphlagonia, Cappadocia ; the kingdom of Pergamum was consolidated, while Egypt conquered Cilicia, Lycia and various strongholds in Ionia. Antiochus III attempted a revival, but at his death the kingdom was still restricted to include only Syria, Cilicia, Mesopotamia, Media, Babylon and Susiana; the last three regions were already lost in 133, and in 62, when Pompeo established the province of Syria, of the ancient Seleucus Empire there was only a very limited territory around the capital Antioch.

● To the progressive weakening of the Seleucid Empire contributed on the one hand by the excessive extension and the impossibility for the sovereigns to oppose centrifugal escapes and autonomous attempts by regions and cities; on the other hand the grueling dispute with Egypt for the dominion of Celesiria (➔ siriache,guerre), and, subsequently, the struggle against Romans and Parthians who ended up dividing the vast kingdom of Seleuco. Even the Hellenization of the subjugated territories, in which the Seleucids were more enlightened than the other Hellenistic rulers, did not always achieve the ends that the promoters had promised themselves and the resistance of the Jews to the attempts of Antiochus IV (➔ Maccabees) was the cause of the weakening of the kingdom.

● In the internal organization, of the two pillars of each Hellenistic kingdom, the army (mostly mercenary) and the bureaucracy, the latter was less efficient than the Egyptian model. The territory consisted of ‘royal land’ and cities, the former administered and exploited by the sovereign with the system of large estates, the latter with particular statutes and obligations. The territory was divided into satrapies and these into eparchies (provinces). The power of the king, to whom his subjects owed divine worship, was absolute, only tempered by the council composed of the sovereign’s ‘friends’.

Syria History - From the Origins to Hellenistic Period