Syria occupies a unique place in the annals of the world. Especially because of the inclusion of Palestine and Lebanon in its ancient boundaries, it has made a more significant contribution to the progress of mankind intellectually and spiritually than any other land. It is perhaps the largest small country on the map, microscopic in size but cosmic in influence.
As the cradle of Judaism and the birthplace of Christianity it provided the civilized world with two monotheistic religions and held close relationship with the rise and development of the third - the only other there is - Islam. The eye of the Christian, the Moslem and the Jew - no matter where the Christian, the Moslem or the Jew may be - may always be turned to some sacred spot in Syria for religious inspiration, and the foot turned there for guidance. Almost any civilized man can claim two countries: his own and Syria.
Closely associated with its religious contribution was the ethical message southern Syria conveyed. Its people were the first to promulgate the doctrine that man is created in the image of God and that each is the brother of every other man under God's fatherhood, thereby they laid the basis of the democratic way of life. They were the first to emphasize the supremacy of spiritual values and to believe in the ultimate triumph of the forces of righteousness, and thereby they became the moral teachers of mankind.
Not only did those early Syrians provide the world with its finest and highest thought but they implemented it with the provision of those simple-looking magic-working signs, called alphabet, through which most of the major literatures of the world are enshrined. No invention compares in importance with that of the alphabet, developed and disseminated by the ancient Lebanese. It was from the Phoenicians, or Canaanites as they called themselves, that the Greeks, to the west, derived their characters and passed them on to the Romans and hence to the modern peoples of Europe, and the Aramaeans, to the east, borrowed theirs and passed them on to the Arabs, the Persians and Indians and other peoples of Asia and Africa. Had those people of Syria rendered no other service, this would have been enough to mark them out among the greatest benefactors of humanity.
But their contribution did not cease therewith. Into their narrow land more historical and cultural events, colourful and dynamic, were squeezed than perhaps into any land of equal size - events that made the history of Syria-Palestine the history of the civilized world in a miniature form. In the Hellenistic and Roman periods the sons of this land furnished the classical world with some of its leading thinkers, teachers and historians. Some of the founders of the Stoic and Neo-Platonic philosophies were Syrians. One of the greatest schools of Roman law flourished in Beirut, Lebanon, and certain of its professors had their legal opinions embedded in the Justinian Code, rightly considered the greatest gift of the Roman genius to later generations.
Shortly after the spread of Islam, the Syrian capital Damascus became the seat of the illustrious Umayyad empire, whose caliphs pushed their conquests into Spain and France at one end and into India and the confines of China at the other end - an empire greater than that of Rome at its zenith. Throughout that vast domain the word of the Damascene caliph was law. With the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, which ensued, the Arab world entered upon a period of intellectual activity, involving translation from Greek, that had hardly a parallel in its history. Greek philosophy and thought was then the most important legacy that the classical world had bequeathed to the medieval. In this process of transmitting Greek science and philosophy, the Christian Syrians took a leading part; their language Syriac served as a stepping-stone over which Greek learning found its way into the Arabic tongue.
In the Middle Ages Syria was the scene of one of the most sensational dramas in the annals of contact between the Moslem East and the Christian West. From France, England, Italy and Germany crusading hordes poured into the maritime plain of Syria and the highlands of Palestine, seeking the dead Christ whom they did not possess as a living reality. Thus was started a movement of far-reaching consequences in both Europe and Asia. The Crusades, however, were but an episode in the long and chequered military history of this land which, because of its position at the gateway of Asia on the crossroads of the nations, has acted as an international battlefield in time of war and a thoroughfare of trade in time of peace. What land other than Syria could claim to have witnessed such a galaxy of warriors and world conquerors, beginning with Thutmose, Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander and Julius Caesar and continuing through Khalid ibn-al-Walid, Saladin and Baybars down to Napoleon?
In recent years the people of this country, after an eclipse of centuries under Turks and Mamluks, have provided the Arab East with its intellectual leadership. Syrians, more particularly Lebanese, were the first to establish in the last century vital contacts with the West through education, emigration and travel and thus to act as the medium through which European and American influences seeped into the Near East. Their modern colonies in Cairo, Paris, New York, Sao Paulo and Sydney are living monuments to their industry and adventure.
The historical importance of Syria does not arise solely from its original contributions to the higher life of man. It results partly from its strategic position between the three historic continents, Europe, Asia and Africa, and its functioning as a bridge for transmitting cultural influences from its neighbouring foci of civilization as well as commercial wares. This function is well illustrated in the career of the Phoenicians, who became the earliest international traders. Lying at the core of the Near East, which in itself lay at the centre of the ancient world, Syria early became the culture carrier of antiquity. On one side stretched the valley of the two rivers, on the other the valley of the one river. No other region can vie in antiquity, activity and continuity with these three. It was here that the dawn of continuous history broke. In it we can observe more or less the same peoples for fifty or sixty centuries of uninterrupted history. Their civilization has been a going concern since the fourth millennium before Christ. The early culture of Europe, we now know, was for long but a pale, reflection of this civilization of the Eastern Mediterranean. Certain fundamental elements of the ancient Chinese civilization, we are beginning to learn, seem to have penetrated from the eastern horn of the Fertile Crescent.
Even in pre-history Syria has, in recent years and as a result of archaeological investigation, loomed high in significance as the probable scene of the first domestication of wheat, the discovery of copper, the invention of local pottery, which resulted in changing the pattern of life from a hunting, nomadic way to an agricultural sedentary one. This region, therefore, may have experienced settled life in villages and towns before any other place we know. Earlier still, as we shall learn in the next chapter, it may have served as the nursery of one of our direct ancestors, the emerging Homo sapiens.
SYRIA'S PLACE IN HISTORY