Syrian-Western Relations in Antiquity: The Antun Sa'adah Perspective
Simon Strong
Antun Sa'adah, the Syrian nationalist author, was able to develop a flexible, if often an historical, understanding of his nation's past, which met the needs of Syria's present in a manner which was lacking in the works of particularist authors of other middle-Eastern nations. Sa'adah's thought will be seen to have been based on the need to draw from the past what was useful for the present and further develop a program for the future. It will, however, be seen that Sa'adah's expansive particularism was moulded from the possibilities which actually existed in a broad understanding of the history of the Syrian nation; in other words, Sa'adah was able to incorporate all the described links and aims of modern Syria, to an extent which Egyptian Pharaonic particularists were not able to reach, because Syria, as a definition taken to its absolute limit, had a history which was less confined than that of Pharaonic Egypt.

This expansive nationalism is particularly evident from an analysis of Sa'adah's thought on Syrian-Western relations in antiquity. While generally attempting to highlight Syrian priority of major features which were essential for the development of civilisation, particularly in the development of agriculture, urbanism, religion, law and trade, Sa'adah was careful to limit the degree to which these achievements directly influenced developments elsewhere; Syrian developments were then presented mainly as examples of what the Syrian nation had achieved in antiquity. Sa'adah therefore was able to satisfy his nationalistic purpose while continuing to recognise the contribution of the West in antiquity. This mutual relationship is highlighted by Sa'adah's recognition of the importance of the legal codes of Caracalla and Justinian, which granted an extension of the Roman citizenship to indigenous peoples in the Syrian province, and the contribution of western law was central to Sa'adah's concept of an evolution towards his ideal society. At the same time Sa'adah was eager to point to the Syrian origin of the earliest (Iraqi) legal code of Hammurabi.

Incorporating the ancient Lebanese region into the natural Syrian homeland, Sa'adah was able to utilise aspects of ancient Phoenician history as examples of Syrian-Western interaction which served to highlight both Syria's contribution to civilisation and demonstrate Western exploitation of the region so as to draw an analogy with negative aspects of French colonialisation.

By bypassing evidence of Myeenaen inspired trade with Syria, and later Greek trading posts on the Syrian coastal region, Sa'adah's concentration on the trading exploits of the Phoenicians argued for a Syrian contribution to Western civilisation:

Take the Greeks for instance. Their circumstances, which compared with the culture the Phoenicians had attained, were described by Homer like the condition of the Barbarians of Africa when they encounter the modern commercial peoples.

Running through Sa'adah's argument for a mutual relationship with the West is his belief in a Euro-Syrian race, as expounded in the Syrian Social Nationalist Party's Fourth Principle, which shows a clear Western rather than Semitic orientation:

This principle would redeem Syria from the blood-tie bigotries which are apt to cause the people to neglect the national interests and to direct their energies towards internal strife, corruption and apathy. For those Syrians who believe or feel within the country or nation that they are of Aramaic extraction would no longer be actuated to from Aramaic blood-loyalty, so long as the principle of Social Nationalist unity and the equality of civic, political and social rights and duties are guaranteed, and no discrimination between one blood or race in Syria is made. In the same way, those Syrians who claim to descend from a Phoenician (Canaanite), Arab, or Crusader stock, would no longer care also for any other than the cause of their descendants, their hopes and their ideals. Thus would genuine national consciousness arise. For, of Phoenician (Christian) loyalty were thesis and Arab (Mohammedan) loyalty to antithesis, or reversed, if these two religion-racial loyalties entails two contradictory theses, then the synthesis, which would furnish the solution of the conflict, would be the principle of the national unity of the Syrian nation, which consists of two fundamental races, Mediterranean and Aryan.

Sa'adah confronts two problems here: first, there is the adoption of a racial proto-type which could effectively incorporate ethnics in all of Syria's territory, including projected reclaimed areas of Syrian land, which at the same time would inhibit national orientation towards the West through narrow racial exclusivity; secondly the problem of Arabism, where it isn't glossed over, is overcome by one's pride in the history of the Nation. Here Sa'adah has to deal with a similar problem to that facing Egyptian particularist authors and is parallel to Haykal in an attempt to incorporate all immigration into the nationalist concept. Where Sa'adah differed from Haykal on this matter was in the idealisation of the state as the prime expression of nationalism. This meant that the nation's achievements in history had to be recognised but remain secondary to the goals of the modern state which would draw inspiration from the great, if unevolved, past. This more expansive concept cut across the difficulties with which Haykal had to deal - that of a state, idealised, version of Egypt's ancient history which inspired Egyptians to an attempt at similar greatness. From this point of high achievement, Haykal had been left with no alternative but to attempt to prove that Muslim history and  culture was able to show some continuity with the Pharaonic past. The solution to the problem of the integration of Copt and Muslim into one homogenous unit had been to show that both Copt and Muslim derived from the same racial stock and left open the problem of treating Islamic/Arab invaders as anything but alien. Haykal's solution came closer to Sa'adah by theorising that other factors, not race alone, determined ones Egyptianism - such as language adaptation to the environment etc. There was still no concept of a progressive state in a process of perpetual development, and where Haykal did argue for continuity, it was through highlighting the history which could only alienate Coptic Egyptians from his concept. Sa'adah followed Coptic particularists in failing to see any relevance with the Arab conquests in themselves. Because he confined all religions to a secondary role in the Nation's history and future, he was able to still incorporate what he saw as alien influences into the Nation's past, present and future. Thus Syria's history did not end at a particular point in time, and if there was, in actuality, a conflict between Arabism and Syrianism, Sa'adah was able to get around the difficulty by ignoring it, in a philosophy of an eternal state, rather than just race, which had the strength to integrate all potentially hostile elements.

This conceived State was of course the subject of imperialist ambition. There was a danger that Lebanese Catholic intellectuals, who developed a similar Mediterrianist ideology and viewed the colonial rule of the French as positive westernisation, would be able to effectively present "Latin" French rule as a re-establishment of an idealised concept of ancient Roman rule of the Syrian province.
Both Sa'adah and Lubnani Munsif were eager to contrast their version of the nature of Roman rule with that of the idealising Lebanese Catholics. Lubnani Munsif depicted the ancient Greeks and Romans as imperialistic in their relations with the ancient Lebanese-Syrians, and contrasted their motivation in cultural exchanges with the non-aggressive trading of the Phoenicians, who were presented as the originators of civilisation:

Who can deny that civilisation first dawned on the world from these shores on which we live today?  Or that no ages in any other lands can rival the services, inventions, and discoveries that the golden age of Lebanon's coast and mountain contributed to the world and which raised humanity up from its impenetrable darknessā€¦inspiring in the peoples of the Mediterranean the greater part of their forms of worship, their spiritual convictions, their culture and, thus, their civilisation?

Lubnani Munsif went further by arguing that the Phoenician's pride in their civilising trade, especially their interaction with Black Africans, established a moral superiority over the imperialistically motivated Westerners. Munsif held, from a Lebanese, particularist perspective, a unique opinion of Phoenician interaction with the West which was both idealistic and pacific. Sa'adah was more critical of ancient Phoenician civilisation and recognised the fact that the Phoenicians employed slave labour:

The Romans had first learnt the usefulness of slaves in agricultural labour from the Phoenicians in Africa, although the form of enslavement the Phoenicians practiced thus was more merciful since they directed a widespread trade and to utilise slaves in commercial matters is less demanding (on them) than in agricultural pursuits.

Sa'adah conveniently ignored the colonising, imperialistic aspects of the Phoenician Carthaginians based in Africa, Sicily and Spain, where to native populations were all too often ruthlessly exploited. Sa'adah was, however, a master at drawing what was useful from the past, and he further benefited from having a specific target, in the contemporary political unrest in Lebanon, at which to direct his thought. This was done by highlighting what was positive and detrimental in Western-Syrian relations in antiquity, which was in marked contrast to the manoeuvres of Egyptian particularists who in attempting to throw off sentiments of national inferiority only offered the example of an idealised Pharaonic superiority over the West as a means of re-asserting national awareness. Sa'adah was instead able to present elements which would be useful in the building of a modern Syrian State which would depend on the impetuous of secularisation and industrialisation borrowed from the West.

Sa'adah therefore was able to focus elements of the past onto the political condition of regions, which in his thought, formed part of the ultimate Syrian nation. One of the most useful aspects of (extended) Syrian history was the potential for drawing on the military exploits of leaders and generals who had won victories over the ancient Romans. The Carthaginian general, Hannibal, was, according to Sa'adah the greatest military thinker the world had seen, and Sa'adah was eager to point out the enormity of the victories which he gained over the Romans at the Terbia, Lake Trasimone and Cannae. At the battle Cannae, Sa'adah held, Hannibal had initiated the art of true military science through his envelopment and almost complete destruction of the Roman Army. The use of past victories against the West as a means of highlighting the possibilities of armed struggle against modern colonialists, was, however, probably only a secondary factor in Sa'adah's interest on military history. There is an underlying principle of militarism in Sa'adah's thought as expounded in the Party's seventh principle:

And indeed one of the major factors in the absence of Syrian national consciousness or its weakness is the overlooking of the genuine character of the Syrian nation, as manifested in the intellectual and practical contributions of its people and their cultural achievements, such as the enactment of the first civilised code of Law and the invention of the alphabet, the greatest cultural-intellectual revolution in history; let alone the material-spiritual effects of Syrian colonisation and culture and the civilising influence which Syria exercised over the whole of the Syrian Sea (known in geography books as the Mediterranean) and the immortal achievements of such great Syrians as Zeno, Bar Salibi, St. John Chrysaston, Ephraim,  Al-Ma'arri, Deek-el-Jin of Emessa, Al-kawakibi, Jebran and other great figures of ancient and modern times. To this list may be added the names of Syria's great generals and its immortal warriors from Sargon the Great to Asserhaddon, Sennecharib, Nebuchadnasser, Ashurbanipal, Tiglat-pelasear; from Hanno the Great to Hannibal (the greatest military genius of all times) and Yusuf Azmeh, the hero of Meysalun.

The purpose of Sa'adah's conjuring of the images of conquerors from the past went further than utilising them for inspiration against colonialism; further even than its direct utilisation in the armed struggle against Israel. It did, in fact, always have the potential of providing the means by which "Geographical" Syria could be recovered:

Competition for essential raw materials among nations leads often to struggle among national interests. The vital interests of a nation in this struggle cannot be protected except by force, in its material and intellectual aspects. Intellectual power, no matter how close to perfection it may be, is always in need of material power. In fact, material power is often the sign of superior intellectual power. Hence, it follows that an army and the military virtues it promotes, are essential mainstays of the state.
In international strife, national struggle is recognised as a right only to the extent it is supported by the power of the nation. Force is thus the decisive factor in affirming or denying national rights. By the armed forces, we understand the army, the navy and the air force. The art of war has reached such an advanced level that it is incumbent upon us to always be in a state of complete military preparedness. We have witnessed with distress parts of our country taken away and annexed to foreign countries, because we have lost our military power. We are resolved not to let this state of helplessness endure. We are determined rather to turn the tide, so that we may regain all our territory and recover the sources of our strength and vitality.
It is on our own strength that we wish to depend on securing our rights and protecting our interests. We are mobilising and preparing for our survival and pre-eminence in the struggle for existence. Survival and victory shall inevitably be our lot.


We can see then, how Sa'adah's use of history was forward looking and the use of historical material always met the criteria of what was required for his vision of the future Syrian nation. This careful use of selective material was thus easily incorporated into the aims of a party with a definite aim of re-establishing what was seen as the true geographical boundary of the State. Concepts of race, religion, and national character were moulded to fit the requirements of re-building that State. The use of history for examples of personal characteristics which would be useful in the re-construction of the Syrian Nation to Sa'adah's plan is clear form a comparison of Sa'adah's historical work with the principles of the party.

Sa'adah highlighted the personal sacrifice of the captain of one of the ships forming the Phoenician Commercial Fleet who seeing Greek ships overtaking him, sank himself in his own ship rather than, through its capture, give the Greeks access to certain markets or minerals that would harm Phoenicia's commerce. The purpose of Sa'adah in bringing this personal sacrifice to the reader's attention is again clear from the principles of the Party:

From the spiritual point of view, this principle (the second) entails that the will of the Syrian nation, which represents its highest interests, is a general will, and that the Lefty ideals which the Syrians seek to realise emanate from their own character, temperament and talents. The Syrian nation cannot tolerate the disintegration of these ideals, or its disassociation from them or their mingling of other aims in which they may be forfeited. These ideals are Freedom, Duty, Discipline and Power, abounding with truth, goodness, and beauty in the most sublime form to which the Syrian spirit can rise, and which the Syrians must attain through their own endeavours, since no one else but themselves represent or realise these ideals for them.

Sa'adah's concept of the nation as a state dictated his anti-Jewishness, which went beyond anti-Zionism. It was unique in that it did not see the Jewish threat as being one which would intrude on a pure Syrian bloodline, but rather resented the Jewish maintenance of their own racial stock. To further illustrate this point at is necessary to return to the fourth principle:

This principle cannot be said to imply that the Jew is equal in rights and duties to the Syrian. Such an interpretation is incompatible with this principle which excludes the integration of elements with alien and exclusive racial loyalties in the Syrian nation. Such elements cannot fit into any homogeneous nation.
There are several large settlements of immigrants in Syria, such as the Armenians, Kurds and Circassians which are of similar stock as the original Syrian composite, and whose assimilation is possible, given sufficient time. These elements may dissolve in the nation and lose their special loyalties. But there is one large settlement which cannot in any respect be reconciled to the principle of Syrian nationalism, and that is the Jewish settlement. It is a dangerous settlement which can never be assimilated because it consists of a people which, although it has mixed with many other peoples, has remained a heterogenous mixture, not a nation, with strange stagnant beliefs and aims of its own, essentially incompatible with Syrian rights and sovereignty ideals. It is the duty of the Syrian Nationalists to repulse the immigration of this people with all its might.

Here then the natural synthesis between Sa'adah's concept of race and the state leave no doubt as to the fate of the Jewish settlement at the hands of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. Sa'adah obviously did not come to terms with Hellenistic civilisation, probably because it was so dominate over what sufficed for an indigenous culture, and because its civilising traits were clearly Western inspired (with whatever original Syrian influence Sa'adah may have cared to argue for), the Hellenistic period was of limited use in Sa'adah's expression of Syrian history except for, rather predictably his noting of the military power and territorial extent of the Seleucid "Syrian" Empire. The Seleucids were of little use in supporting his theory of military power as the kingdom was clearly based on the employment of Greek soldiers in an aristocracy which dominated the native population. Sa'adah was therefore unable to use the one clear example of Syria's attempt at the Hellenisation and assimilation of the Jewish population in the kingdom's long Judean wars.

So, other than the use of military figures from the past who had little real connection to the actual modern Syrian nation, there was nothing which could be readily used in the struggle against Zionism which contrasted the very real and relevant example of the struggle against colonialism.

An underlying theory of racial superiority and the importance of sacrifice for the welfare of the State can also be discerned through an analysis of Sa'adah's confinement of religion to a role dependant on sacrifice for the community of the nation, and his thoughts on the Arabs and their religion.

Sa'adah argued that Judaism and Islam originated outside of the mainstream of Syrian pagan religious but held that Syrian values influenced the development of Christianity and Islam:

The Syrian moral view manifested in the teachings of the Messiah and the more developed of the teachings of Muhammad. So it is that most Muhammadean Syrians do not incline to polygamy or immersion in "sensual lusts" in contrast to the Muslims, for instance, in Africa where the mixture of peoples and nature of the land contributes to the habits.

Again, Sa'adah is able to take what is positive from alien influences and point out that there was an undeveloped Syrian precedent. Sa'adah therefore endorsed the universal, humanistic thrusts of Christianity and Islam - essential because both were part of the modern Syrian nation and here again he at least partly follows Haykal's approach.

There was, however, an emphasis on personal religious sacrifice which Sa'adah claimed was a form of Martyrdom for the State and an expression of Jesus' clash with the Mosaic code which represented theocratic law. This argument again had its origin in Sa'adah's conception of a secularised state to which all individuals and institutions were obedient.

Sa'adah's thought was then primarily intellectual and programmed to exploit the past as a means of fulfilling the future and different from the immediate idealised confrontation with the Pharaonic past expressed by Pharaonic particularists. Both had a different starting point and Sa'adah refused to be limited by historical fact in the achievement of his goals.