Adonis Diaries

Archive for November 2nd, 2011

Syria: A fractured central power since antiquity

Since antiquity, Syria stretched from south Turkey to actual Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Gaza.  Syria was called “Bilad el Sham” (North of Mecca region) during the Arab/Islam Empires. It was located between the Mediterranean Sea over a stretch of 700 km of coastal shore, starting from the northern mountain chain of Al Loukam (inside current Turkey) to the borders of the Sinai Desert.

The inland of Syria is divided by two parallel mountain chains from north to south. The western mountain chain is barely 100 km from the sea at its widest.

The fertile valley between the two mountain chains stretching for 1,000 km starts from the city of Meresh (Anatolia) to Aqaba on the Red Sea.

Syria had three distinct sets of City-States:

First set of cities along the sea-shore;

Second set of cities in the valley and along internal, non-navigable rivers such as Al Assy, Litany… studded by cities such as Hama, Homs, Baalbek, Anjar, Damascus… and

Third set of cities bordering the desert and the western part of the Euphrates River.

Syria, located between the sea and the desert, attracted land trades coming from rich Yemen (southern region of the Arabic Peninsula) with powerful centers in Moeen, Sabaa, Kotban, Awssan, Hadramout….  These centers of commerce sent forward land caravans toward Syria via strategic trade cities such as Mecca, Thoumud, Medina, all the way to desert City-States in the southern province of Syria.

Kingdoms such as Adomim, Mouabit, Ambat (Petra)…were located in the strategic southern Syrian province, where most land trade converged before heading north to Damascus, or going west to Gaza and Egypt.

For example, the Christian tribe of Ghassassina (originally from Yemen) had expanded over many desert City-States and became almost a prosperous empire during the 5th and 6th century AC.  This tribe paid allegiance to the Byzantium Empire.

By the 7th century, many “Arabic” tribes had transplanted branches or clans to the central Syrian province (Damascus).  These tribes were Tyme, Aamel, Bahrea, Thaalabat

Maritime and land routes converged from three continents.

This land was invaded by almost every war-like empires (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greek, Roman, Byzantium, Arab/Islamic, Ottoman, western mandated powers as France and England).

The main characteristic of Syria is that it is easy to conquer, but hardly any empire managed to administer it.  All these war-like empires relied on third-party tribes or alliance of tribes to collect taxes and maintain a semblance of central power.

When empires with navy powers were at war, such as Egypt and Byzantium, the port cities in Syria suffered trade “embargo” and gave way to higher prosperity to inland cities, and vice versa.

For example, during 11 centuries, the various Arab/Islam empires failed to effectively govern Syria, even the Umayyad Dynasty with Damascus as Capital.

The complex topography of the land inhibited the unification of the various tribes and communities, though it facilitate incursions of foreign powers.  Warrior empires could easily occupy Syria once they crossed the first mountain chains or desert, but they could not administer the land due to the multitude of local cultures and sense of retaining self-autonomy on mountain hills

The social structure of Syria resulted from two natural characteristics:

First, tribes living on mountain chains and hills, mostly labeled “heretics” by orthodox religious sects (both Christian and Moslem) and opposing any central power for administration of their communities. These tribes were armed, warrior, and could rely on support coming from their mother tribes in the Arabic Peninsula.

Second, sedentary peasant tribes, which settled in the fertile valley and along rivers, were mostly cooperative with central powers, regardless how far the Capital was located.

The first kinds of mountain settled tribes exhibited the major problems for any unification and centrally administered empire. They demanded their share from looting expeditions, since they were the warriors.  Consequently, the sedentary cities were frequently harassed and looted, vying for survival means and self-autonomy in customs and traditions. (Read note #1 for further details on various sects and how Syria was administered during the Arab/Islamic Empires).

Every city and its environs was governed by an Emir, the leader of tribe that participated in one of the countless expeditions against another Emir. More often than not, an Emir would bribe juvenile delinquents, seeking some action and food, and constitute his local militia to tame and harass recalcitrant tribes.

As soon as the Emir receive fresh troops from central government, his first decision is to eradicate the local militia, and restore law and order for trades. The “Shabab” militias in Syrian cities, hired by the regime are repeating Syria history: The fate of these militia is pretty gloomy…

During the reign of Mehemet Ali to Egypt (starting in 1805), his son Ibrahim led the army to within 200 km from Istanbul: The Ottoman Empire was ripe to fall to the army of Ibrahim.  The western nations wanted to let the Ottoman Empire survive for some period, and a deal was struck to allow Mehemet Ali rule Syria, in addition to Sudan and the Arabic Peninsula.

The empire of Egypt stretched from the region of Adana in Turkey to all Sudan. It is recorded that Ibrahim said: “I will lead my army as far as people speak Arabic...”  The region of Adana is the most strategic military area: Troops have to cross a tiny treacherous route in order to pass the high mountain chain toward the valley of Syria. Actually, historic Syria included the southern part of Anatolia, all the way to current Dyar Bakr…

Note 1: Ibrahim Mehemet Ali governed Syria for 8 years.  This was the best period of prosperity and security that the Syrian enjoyed in its history.  For the first time in its history, Syria had a central power and administered from Damascus. Still, the Syrian revolted several times because Ibrahim forced upon them military service and forced labor…

Note 2: https://adonis49.wordpress.com/2011/10/07/are-you-curious-how-syria-upheaval-will-unfold-must-know-history-of-syria-between-7th-and-11th-centuries/

Note 3:  This article was inspired by a chapter of “Syria under Islam, (1977)” by late history academics Kamal Salibi, and translated from English to Arabic by Kamal Khoury


adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

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