The Syrian coast consists of long stretches of beach and green mountains. These mountains are mostly covered with pine and trees oak. This landscape covers an area from Iskanderun in the north to Gaza in occupied Palestine.
The Syrian coast is home to several important historical towns and sites. There is Antioch, right up there in the north, followed by Ras Al-Bassit, (about 40km to the north of Latakia), one of the most beautiful spots on the Mediterranean. Then of course there is Lattakia, a major town that has retained its importance since ancient times. Lattakia was one of the five cities built by Saluqos Nikator in the 2nd century B.C. He named it after his mother, Laudetia.
Not many ancient remains have survived in Latakia, but there are four columns and a Roman arch from the time of Septimus Severus (circa 200 A.D.), in addition to a beautiful Ottoman construction, which is now a museum.
Mention should also be made of the historically important Ras Sharma, only 16 km to the north of Latakia. This is the site of Ugarit, the kingdom that had golden past in administration, education, diplomacy, law, religion and economics between the 16th and 13th centuries B.C. It is the kingdom that gave humanity the first alphabet in the world. This alphabet is still preserved on a clay tablet at the National Museum in Damascus.
Banyas is located on the Syrian coast, 55 km to the south of Lattakia. It was an ancient Phoenician seaport. The Greeks called it Balemia. It was famous for its orchards and exporting of wood. Today it is better known for its oil refinery. It still boosts citrus fruit orchards surrounded by green hills. On one of the hills is the imposing al-Marqab Citadel, a huge fortress of black basalt stone. ?
Tartous is the second most important Syrian seaport on the Mediterranean (90 km to the south of Lattakia). It was called Antaradus by the Phoenicians and Tartusa by the Byzantines.
Arwad is the only island off the Syrian coast, and it is located 3 km from Tartus. It was an independent kingdom named Aradus in the days of the Canaanites. It was often mentioned in inscriptions because of its importance in commerce and seafaring. Arwad provided shelter for those escaping from foreign invasions in ancient times, especially for the people of Amrit in the south of Tartus.
Further south we find Tripoli (Tarablos). Thanks to its historical wealth, relaxed lifestyle and thriving business climate, this is a city where modern and medieval blend easily into a lively and hospitable metropolis. Forty-five buildings in the city, many dating from the 14th century, have been registered as historical sites
To the south of Tripoli is Byblos. The ruins of many successive civilizations are found at Byblos, one of the oldest Phoenician cities. Inhabited since Neolithic times, it has been closely linked to the legends and history of the Mediterranean region for thousands of years. Byblos is also directly associated with the history and diffusion of the Phoenician alphabet.
The list endless: Beirut, Sidon, Tyre, Haifa, Gaza... The civilizational network that developed between these towns testifies to the grandeur of the Syrian coast.
Gateway to Greater Syria
The first recorded mention of Greater Syria is in Egyptian annals detailing expeditions to the Syrian coastland to log the cedar, pine, and cypress of the Ammanus and Lebanon mountain ranges in the fourth millennium. Sumer, a kingdom of non-Semitic peoples that formed the southern boundary of ancient Babylonia, also sent expeditions in the third millennium, chiefly in pursuit of cedar from the Ammanus and gold and silver from Cilicia. The Sumerians most probably traded with the Syrian port city of Byblos, which was also negotiating with Egypt for exportation of timber and the resin necessary for mummification.
An enormous commercial network linking Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Aegean, and the Syrian coast was developed. The network was perhaps under the aegis of the kingdom of Ebla ("city of the white stones"), the chief site of which was discovered in 1975 at Tall Mardikh, 64 kilometers south of Aleppo (see fig. 2). Numerous tablets give evidence of a sophisticated and powerful indigenous Syrian empire, which dominated northern Syria and portions of lower Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Iran. Its chief rival was Akkad in southern Mesopotamia, which flourished circa 2300 B.C. In addition to identifying another great cultural and political power for the period--and an independent Syrian kingdom at that--the discovery of Ebla has had other important ramifications. The oldest Semitic language was thought to have been Amorite, but the newly found language of Ebla, a variant of Paleo-Canaanite, is considerably older. Ebla twice conquered the city of Mari, the capital of Amurru, the kingdom of the Semitic- speaking Amorites. After protracted tension between Akkad and Ebla, the great king of Akkad, Naram Sin, destroyed Ebla by fire in either 2300 or 2250. Naram Sin also destroyed Arman, which may have been an ancient name for Aleppo.
Amorite power was effectively eclipsed in 1600 when Egypt mounted a full attack on Greater Syria and brought the entire region under its suzerainty. During the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries, the area was in tremendous political upheaval because of the growing Assyrian power pressing from the east and invasions from the north of Hittites who eventually settled in north and central Syria.
Another Semitic-speaking people, the Canaanites, may have been part of the same migration that brought the Amorites into Syria from northern Arabia in approximately 2400. The Amorites came under the influence of Mesopotamia, whereas the Canaanites, who had intermarried with indigenous Syrians of the coast, were probably under the initial influence of Egypt.
The descendants of the intermarriages between Canaanites and coastal Syrians were the Phoenicians, the greatest seafaring merchants of the ancient world. The Phoenicians improved and developed iron tools and significantly advanced the art of shipbuilding. Their mastery of the seas allowed them to establish a network of independent city-states; however, these entities were never united politically, partially because of the continual harassment from Hittites to the north and Egyptians to the south. The name given to their land--Canaan in Hurrian, Phoenicia in Greek--refers to the fabulously valued purple dye extracted from mollusks found at that time only on the Syrian coast. From this period purple became the color of the robes of kings because only they and other small groups of the ancient Middle Eastern elite could afford to purchase the rare dye. The wealth derived in part from the dye trade sparked the economic flame that made it possible for Greater Syrian city-states to enjoy a wide measure of prosperity.
Many of Greater Syria's major contributions to civilization were developed during the ancient period. Syria's greatest legacy, the alphabet, was developed by Phoenicians during the second millennium. The Phoenicians introduced their 30-letter alphabet to the Aramaeans, among other Semitic-speaking people, and to the Greeks, who added vowel letters not used in Semitic grammatical construction.
The Phoenicians, somewhat pressed for space for their growing population, founded major colonies on the North African littoral, the most notable of which was Carthage. In the process of founding new city-states, they discovered the Atlantic Ocean.
The Aramaeans had settled in Greater Syria at approximately the end of the thirteenth century B.C., the same time at which the Jews, or Israelites, migrated to the area. The Aramaeans settled in the Mesopotamian-Syrian corridor to the north and established the kingdom of Aram, biblical Syria. As overland merchants, they opened trade to Southwest Asia, and their capital Damascus became a city of immense wealth and influence. At Aleppo they built a huge fortress, still standing. The Aramaeans simplified the Phoenician alphabet and carried their language, Aramaic, to their chief areas of commerce. Aramaic displaced Hebrew in Greater Syria as the vernacular (Jesus spoke Aramaic), and it became the language of commerce and the official language of the Persian Empire. Aramaic continued to be spoken in the Syrian countryside for almost 1,000 years, and in the 1980s remained in daily use in a handful of villages on the Syrian-Lebanese border. A dialect of Aramaic continues to be the language of worship in the Syrian Orthodox Church.
The plethora of city-states in Greater Syria could not withstand the repeated attacks from the north by the powerful Assyrian Empire, which under the leadership of Nebuchadnezzar finally overwhelmed them in the eighth century. Assyrian aggressors were replaced by the conquering Babylonians in the seventh century, and the then mighty Persian Empire in the sixth century. Under Persian aegis, Syria had a measure of self-rule, as it was to have under a succession of foreign rulers from that time until independence in the twentieth century. When Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire in 333, local political powers--which probably would have continued to contest for control of Greater Syria--were effectively shattered, and the area came into the strong cultural orbit of Western ideas and institutions.
At Alexander's death, the empire was divided among five of his generals. General Seleucus became heir to the lands formerly under Persian control, which included Greater Syria. The Seleucids ruled for three centuries and founded a kingdom with the capital at Damascus, which later became referred to as the Kingdom of Syria. Seleucus named many cities after his mother, Laodicea; the greatest became Latakia, Syria's major port.
Enormous numbers of Greek immigrants flocked to the Kingdom of Syria. Syrian trade was vastly expanded as a result of the newcomers' efforts, reaching into India, the Far East, and Europe. The Greeks built new cities in Syria and colonized existing ones. Syrian and Greek cultures synthesized to create Near Eastern Hellenism, noted for remarkable developments in jurisprudence, philosophy, and science.
Replacing the Greeks and the Seleucids, Roman emperors inherited already thriving cities--Damascus, Tadmur (once called Palmyra), and Busra ash Sham in the fertile Hawran Plateau south of Damascus. Under the emperor Hadrian, Syria was prosperous and its cities, major trading centers; Hawran was a well-watered breadbasket. After making a survey of the country, the Romans established a tax system based on the potential harvest of farmlands; it remained the key to the land tax structure until 1945. They bequeathed Syria some of the grandest buildings in the world, as well as aqueducts, wells, and roads that were still in use in modern times.
Neither the Seleucids nor the Romans ruled the area without conflict. The Seleucids had to deal with powerful Arab peoples, the Nabataeans, who had established an empire at Petra (in present-day Jordan) and at Busra ash Sham. The Romans had to face the Palmyrenes, who had built Palmyra, a city even more magnificent than Damascus and the principal stop on the caravan route from Homs to the Euphrates.
By the time the Romans arrived, Greater Syrians had developed irrigation techniques, the alphabet, and astronomy. In A.D. 324 the Emperor Constantine moved his capital from Rome to Byzantium, renaming it Constantinople (modern Istanbul). From there the Byzantines ruled Greater Syria, dividing it into two provinces: Syria Prima, with Antioch as the capital and Aleppo the major city; and Syria Secunda, ruled frequently from Hamah. Syria Secunda was divided into two districts: Phoenicia Prima, with Tyre as the capital; and Phoenicia Secunda, ruled from Damascus. (Most of Phoenicia Prima is now Lebanon.) The ruling families of Syria during this period were the Ghassanids, Christian Arabs loyal to Byzantium, from whom many Syrians now trace descent.
Byzantine rule in Syria was marked by constant warfare with the Persian Sassanian Empire to the east. In these struggles, Syria often became a battleground. In 611 the Persians succeeded in invading Syria and Palestine, capturing Jerusalem in 614. Shortly thereafter, the Byzantines counterattacked and retook their former possessions. During the campaign the Byzantines tried to force Greek orthodoxy on the Syrian inhabitants, but were unsuccessful. Beset by financial problems, largely as a result of their costly campaigns against the Persians, the Byzantines stopped subsidizing the Christian Arab tribes guarding the Syrian steppe. Some scholars believe this was a fatal mistake, for these tribes were then susceptible to a new force emanating from the south--Islam.
The Byzantine heritage remains in Syria's Christian sects and great monastic ruins. In the fourth century A.D., Roman Emperor Theodosius destroyed the temple to Jupiter in Damascus and built a cathedral in honor of John the Baptist. The huge monastery at Dayr Siman near Aleppo, erected by Simeon Stylites in the fifth century, is perhaps the greatest Christian monument built before the tenth century.
Almost 75 years ago, in 1924, virtually nothing was known about the Canaanite civilization which thrived on the coast of Present Syria and Lebanon.
Then excavations began in 1929 at Raas Shamra (Ugarit) some 10 Km north of Lattakia, and tablets recovered there which were subsequently deciphered brought to light information on these seafaring traders also referred to as Phoenicians.
Archaeologists have since been excavating at Ugarit and more recently at Raas Ibn Hani, the latter Ugaritic settlement was accidentally discovered five years ago when ground was broken for the erection of the Lattakia Meridian Hotel.
Dr. Bordevil explained that both sites are 2nd Millennium BC. Late Bronze Age in which there were two scripts: The earlier syllabic cuneiform Akkadian script and the simpler Ugaritic alphabetic script containing 30 letters.
Dr. Bordrevil translates the alphabetic Ugaritic script and another specialist deciphers the Akkadian tablets recovered at both sites, which are about 5 Km apart. "Whereas Ugarit ( Raas Shamra) was a very ancient city that developed haphazardly during generations of expansion, Raas Ibn Hani is neatly laid out, on a promontory of the coast," he said.
"We reason that Raas Ibn Hani was built as a lookout point for the Ugaritic inhabitants of the coast. The walls and structures are carefully laid out on a north-west- southeast orientation." The late bronze age city of Ugarit was totally devastated during the invasions of the Sea people around 1200 BC.. but Raas Shamra appears to have been populated for another 30 or 40 years after that judging by pottery recovered there. The ceramics date to the Mycenean period.
The West Semitic Ugaritic texts discovered at Ugarit in 1929 were deciphered a year later. Alphabetic tablets of this west Semitic language have been found in eight other regions including Raas Ibn Hani.
During the period between 1977 and 1978 only 60 tablets had been recovered from Raas Ibn Hani. Dr. Bordrevil said that there were discovered from the southern palace which was destroyed by fire. The tablets were broken by fire and scattered when the roof of the building caved in. But more fragments were discovered later and fitted together."
The texts deal with mythology, rituals, political letters and lists of place names. In regard to the latter, Dr. Bordrevil has determined the names of the first King of Ugarit, Yagaru and the first letter in the name of the last King of Ugarit, Hammurabi.
In terms of rituals, we have found a tablet that mentions the King's sacrifices of an animal to a God. The deity Rashaf, is mentioned and, after two strokes, the same type of sacrifices is offered to the Goddess Anat: "When the King sees Rashaf A nose and a throat... silver and gold..
Of the 70 proper names deciphered from he Raas Ibn Hani tablets, 60 are well known at Ugarit.
Dr. Bordrevil, who has been associated with the Raas Shamra excavations since 1971, says women clearly enjoyed important positions in both cities. "The tablets record transactions in which women were selling and buying houses and fields," he said.
"Texts report sacrifices performed by a Queen and there are two letters that were sent to "the Queen, my Mother." "At Raas Shamra, a man often bore the family name of his mother. He probably took her name if her family ranked higher than his father's family," he added. One of the texts signifies a rather tragic circumstances for a queen, however.
Dr. Bordrevil says the expert on Akkadian script has also translated texts which refer to a powerful queen in Raas Ibn Hani.
"At Raas Shamra, we often found official texts in very modest homes.
The only explanation for finding portions of the royal archives in simple dwellings is that much like businessmen of today, the scribes took their work home at night." "Unfortunately for us, during he first Millennium BC, the Canaanites switched to the much easier medium of writing on papyrus and leather.
These documents have not been preserved and so we know the late Bronze Age much better than we do later periods because the clay tablets ate indestructible." Additional information on the Ugarit texts was offered b Prof. Dennis Pardee, almost 20 years ago, of the University of Chicago who was completing a year of research in Syria as a Full-bright fellow. In Damascus he was preparing an edition of all the letters in the Ugaritic Language recovered from Raas Shamra and Raas Ibn Hani.
The letters inscribed on clay tablets, represent personal, royal and business correspondence." A specialist in such languages as Ugaritic, Phoenician and Aramaic, Dr Pardee explained that "Ugaritic is the earliest of this family group and Aramaic stands apart from the others '.
"As more tablets are recovered, we have been able to get a better picture of the politics at Ugarit."
He added."We have discovered letters sent from the King of Ugarit to the King of Hatti (to whom he was subservient) and to the Pharos of Egypt. It is clear he was playing one ruler off against the other, since the Ugarit monarch referred to both as "master", "great lord" and the "Sun." Obviously, the Ugarit leader had a stronger relationship with the Egyptian ruler it was presumed earlier." Many tablets are by a son writing to his mother the queen.
"The Queen mother definitely occupied an important role and there were evidences for three such women," he said. "These texts definitely prove the queen owned land in their own right."
Vestiges of architectural buildings, diverse kinds of clay pieces, statues, variety of tools in addition to clay tablets- which were written, dried and concealed since thousands of years - were brought back to life again after long oblivion and deciphered to enlighten the eastern world for more than three thousand years BC.
The Syrian coast did not draw the attention of the world by its importance in the old history. The only thing known about it before the 3rd millennium BC, that the Canaanite settlements were scattered there till they were invaded by the Persian, then the Greek and the Romans thereafter whose vestiges are still preserved. Later they were annexed to the Byzantine Empire till the Islamic conquest.
That was the image known earlier about Syria and its coast. In 1968, Ebla was discovered to be the other new kingdom that flourished in the third Millennium BC. Besides many hills were also discovered dating back to the 3rd and 4th Millennium BC even some were dating back to the 8th Millennium BC.
In 1595 BC after the fall of the first Babylonian state, small kingdoms and scattered towns flourished in Syria without being subsidized to any supreme power. Each city was representing and independent kingdom of its own with a king managing its affairs, signing its agreements and bids with whoever he found appropriate and these kingdoms are: Damascus, Aleppo, Qatana, Qadesh and in the coast were the Kingdoms of Ugarit and Simirra.
As to the most recent history of the Syrian coast, the crusaders controlled a big part of the Syrian coast and the chain of the coastal mountains. They did not live in villages but they adopted the policy of controlling the regions from the castles they occupied, mostly in the Krack des Chevaliers, Salah eddine Castle and besides built new castles like Yahmur, Safita and many others.
The Syrian coast remained under the control of the crusaders till 1188 AD when Salah eddine al-Ayoubi attacked to regain the coast. He successively managed to retake the castles of Safita and Yahmur and many others. Then he headed towards the coast and reached Tartous, Banias and Jebleh, then towards lattakia and al-Marqeb castle.
By the coming of the Ottomans who put an end to the rule of the Memlukes in Syria in the battle of Marj Dabeq on the 24th of August, 1516, the Syrian coast become part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1831 an Egyptian expedition went to Syria under the leadership of Ibrahim Pasha, who occupied Lattakia in 1832. In 1849, an accord was signed between the Ottoman Sultan and some foreign countries to expel the Egyptians from Syria. And for this goal a British warship reached the port of Lattakia and its artilleries fired warning shots to terrify the Egyptians who consequently left the city.
The end of the Ottoman era was characterized by its administrative divisions. The coastal region of Syria in the end of the 19th century was annexed to Beirut dependency that consisted of five Sanjaks. They were Beirut, Akka, Tripoli, Lattakia and Naplis. The sanjak of Lattakia consisted of: Lattakia, Saone, Jebleh, and al-Marqab, while the Sanjak of Tripoli consisted of Husn al-Akrad, Safita and the areas of Tartous and Arwad Island.
Later with the French and British secret accord known by Sykes-Picot signed in May in 1916, the French army officer Guy de La Roche was assigned to come to the region. In 1919 a revolution in the coastal mountains had started under the leadership of Sheikh Saleh al-Ali and lasted till 1921. Sheikh al-Ali was in contact with the revolution of Hanano in al-Zawiya Mountain. However, the French made several strong attacks, which as a result succeeded in suppressing the revolution.
After 1920 the French considered Lattakia as a province that includes several Qada' and moudiriya (directorates). On the 28th June 1922 General Gouraud created a confederation between the independent Syrian states: Aleppo, Damascus, the Independent Coastal territories and al-Arab Mountain. General Weygand, Gouraud's successor, abolished this confederation in April 1923.
The Grandeur of Syria's Coastline