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What was Historical Syria and Phoenicia? Is there confusion?

Geography and Ancient Divisions of the Eastern Mediterranean especially during the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab and Ottoman Turkish Rule

The name Suriyya (Syria) was derived and employed by the Greeks from the famous Phoenician city of Tyre or Sur (Tsyrus -- Tyrus)

The claim propagated by anti-Lebanese and anti-Phoenician demagogues is a blatant lie that ignores history that predates the Arab Conquest and the subjugation of the Levant to that sword. And, "No Virginia history did not start in the 7th century."


The eastern Mediterranean was for millennia, an intersection of cultures, civilizations and invaders. Its unenviable position kept it fluid and undetermined as far as boundaries, divisions and government. Nevertheless, due its geography, that part of the world became a haven for various communities despite the changing faces of invaders. What is called Syria today was never the same in antiquity and the name did not mean the same location over the ages.

Over the ages various kingdoms existed in the eastern Mediterranean. Often, the area between Taurus and Asia Minor, the Arabian desert, Mesopotamia, and the Mediterranean sea was never really a single state or a single political entity. Further, the ethnic groups, that occupied that part of the world, were never of the same race or under single rule. Foreign invaders; however, forced artificial unions on the people of the region under single rule of non-homogenous ethnic groups, under the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Macedonians, Romans...etc

The Levant in c. 300 A.D.
The Levant in c. 300 A.D.

Saint Jerome's Testimony Regarding Phoenicia

Saint Jerome clearly wrote c. 380 A.D. that Phoenicia existed in 231-232 A.D. (Saint Jerome, cp. xxx. 4 who ): "Damnatur Origenes a Demetrio episeopo exceptis Phoenicis atque Achaiae sacerdotibus." For further information on the history of the early Christian Church and the division of the region of the Eastern Mediterranean, please see "Church of Phoenicia and Antioch" in t his site.

The Names: Syria, the Region, and Sur (Tyre), the City

The name "Syria" was employed by the Greeks to designate the eastern Mediterranean though it was not a nation, body of nations or country such as Egypt. The name Syria was derived from the famous Phoenician city of Sur (Tyre/Tyrus) -- hence Surya, or Tsurya from the Greek Tsyrus. Tyre, along with Sidon, were established in ancient antiquity, at the very dawn well before 3000 BC. It is, therefore, understandable that the region came to be referred to after the most famous city of Sur or Tyre in the Greeks' mind. This is analogous to the empire of Byzantines being called after the city of Byzantium which, unlike Tyre, was of no importance compared to the great city of Tyre.

Names of the Same Geographical Area Varied

Formerly, Syria was erroneously believed to have been an abbreviation of "Assyria." The suggestion that the name came from old Babylonian is questionable since Assyria is actually Ashur or Athur. The only reference worth mentioning is the unknown term in old Babylonian of Suri applied to the north-eastern corner of the eastern Mediterranean. However, the Babylonians and the Assyrians used completely different names to refer to the said area: "Amurru" (the Land of the Amorites) and "Martu" (the West-Land). Further, the extreme northern part of eastern Mediterranean also known as "Khatti", or the Land of the Hittites. The most southern region was known as "Kena'nu" or "Kanaan." In the Old Testament, the whole are was called "Aram", and its inhabitant "Arameans." But there were several Biblical "Arams": "Aram-naharaim" or "Aram of the Two Rivers" -- Mesopotamia; "Paddon-Aram" (the region of Haran), in the extreme north of Mesopotamia; "Aram-Ma'rak" to the north of Palestine; "Aram-beth Rehob", "Aram-Sobah", and "Aram of Damascus." This confusion of terms and names goes to prove what was mentioned in the beginning of this essay that the area which is known today as Syria was always a fluid cluster of places and peoples that meant very little. Finally, what must be mentioned is the fact that in ancient history city-states were the norm that denoted "nations" and not geographical boundary as we understand them today.

Rulers of the Levant before the Arab Conquest
Rulers of the Levant before the Arab/Islamic Conquest

Political Divisions, Sub-divisions and Changes

During the Greek and Roman dominations the political divisions of area were indefinite and almost unintelligible. However, the Greeks were to blame for giving the name Syria to the whole area of the eastern Mediterranean. Thereafter, Syria and Syrians became frequently used to refer erroneously to the region and the ethnic groups that inhabited that part of the world. The impact of this misnomer continued till the early 20th century. Strabo mentions five great provinces: (1) Commagen; (2) Seleucia; (3) Coelle-Syria; (4) Phoenicia; and (5) Judaea. Pliny's divisions were more numerous than those of Strabo. It appears that each city on rising to importance gave its name to a surrounding territory, larger or smaller, and this in time assumed the rank of a province. Ptolemy mentioned thirteen provinces: Cammagene, Pieria, Cyrrhestica, Seleucia, Casiotis, Chalibonitis, Chalcis, Apamene, Laodicea, Phoenicia, Coele-Syria, Palmyrene, and Batanea, and he gave a long list of the cities contained in them.

Under the Romans, the area became a province of the empire. Some portions of it were permitted to remain for a time under the rule of petty princes, dependent on the imperial government. Gradually, however, all these were incorporated, and Antioch was the capital. Under Hadrian the province was divided into two parts: Syria-Major, in the north, and Syrio-Phoenicia, in the south. The New Testament refereed to the woman who had an encounter with Christ near Sidon, as the Syrio-Phoenician woman; and, yet, referred to the same woman as the Canaanite woman, also. Towards the close of the fourth century another partition of region was made. It formed the basis of its ecclesiastical government: (1) Coele Syria; (2) Syria Secunda or Phoenicia Secunda; (3) Phoenicia Prima.

The main divisions that relate to the study of Phoenicia during the Roman and Byzantine era are the following:

  • Phoenicia Prima: Maritima & Libanesis
  • Phoenicia Secunda or Syria Secunda & Palmyra (see map)
  • Coele Syria
  • Mosul
  • Bostra
  • Araba
  • Palastina Iudadea
  • Palastina Salutaris

The Makeup of Phoenicia

Phoenicia was incorporated into the Roman cluster of regions, though Aradus, Sidon, and Tyre retained self-government. Berytus (Beirut), relatively obscure to this point, rose to prominence by virtue of Augustus' grant of Roman colonial status and by the lavish building program. Under the Severan dynasty (AD 193–235) Sidon, Tyre, and probably Heliopolis (Baalbek) also received colonial status. Under this dynasty the Eastern Mediterranean of the Romans was partitioned into two parts: Syria Coele (“Hollow Syria”), comprising a large region loosely defined as the north and east; and Canaan or Syrio-Phoenicia (both referred to in the New Testament, as indicated above) in the southwestern region, which included not only coastal Phoenicia but also the territory beyond the mountains and into the desert. Under the provincial reorganization of the Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II in the early 5th century AD, the southwestern region was divided into two provinces: Phoenicia Prima (Maritima), basically ancient Phoenicia (and sometimes including ad Libanum-Libanesis); and Phoenicia Secunda ad Libanum-Libanesis, an area extending from Mt. Lebanon on the west and deep into the desert in the east to include the cities of Emesa (its capital -- Homs), Heliopolis (Baalbek), Damascus, and Palmyra. The confusion of territorial divisions mentioned herewith is just another example of the muddled state of being of the political division of the area.

During the period of the Roman Empire the native Phoenician language died out in the whole area and was replaced by Aramaic as the vernacular, as the case with most Semitic languages of the region. Latin, the language of the soldiers and administrators, in turn fell before Greek, the language of literature, philosophy and science.

During this time, also, Heliopolis (Baalbek) and Berytus became prominent cities. At Heliopolis the Roman emperors, particularly the Severans, constructed a monumental temple complex, the most spectacular elements of which were the Temple of Jupiter Heliopolitanus and the Temple of Bacchus. Berytus, on the other hand, became the seat of the most famous provincial school of Roman law. The school, which probably was founded by Septimius Severus, a Roman Emperor of Phoenician Punic blood, lasted until the destruction of Berytus itself by a sequence of earthquakes, tidal wave, and fire in the mid-6th century.

In 608–609 the Persian king Khosrow II pillaged region and reorganized the area again into a new satrapy, excluding only Phoenicia Maritima. Between 622 and 629 the Byzantine emperor Heraclius mounted an offensive and restored the region to his empire. That was the last time in history that the territorial integrity and name of Phoenicia had a politically recognized presence. This success was short-lived; in the 630s Muslim Arabs conquered the east, and the old Phoenician cities offered only token resistance to the invader.

Finally, following is a short verbatim quote from the Ecumenical Council of Sardica for those who misinform that the name Phoenicia was lost, forgotten and never used again, long before the time of Christ (T. Kjeilen LexicOrient's Encyclopedia of the Orient writes "64 BC: Phoenicia becomes part of the Roman province of Syria, and the name Phoenicia is no longer used." ) while Phoenicia continued to be for another 700 years.

The Ecumenical Council of Sardica, 343 to 344 A.D.

34. "We, the holy synod met in Sardica from different provinces of the East, namely, Thebais, Egypt, Palestine, Arabia, Phoenicia, Coele Syria, Mesopotamia, Cilicia, Cappadocia, Pontus, Paphlagonia, Galatia, Bithynia and Hellespont, from Asia, namely, the two provinces of Phrygia, Pisidia, the islands of the Cyclades, Pamphylia, Caria, Lydia, from Europe, namely, Thrace, Haemimontus, Moesia, and the two provinces of Pannonia, have set forth this creed. "We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Creator and Maker of all things, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and earth is named: "And we believe in His Only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ, who before all ages was begotten of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, through whom were made all things which are in heaven and earth, visible and invisible: who is the Word and Wisdom and Might and Life and true Light: and who in the last days for our sake was incarnate, and Was born of the holy Virgin, who was crucified and dead and buried, And rose from the dead on the third day, And was received into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of the Father, And shall come to judge the quick and the dead and to give to every man according to his works: Whose kingdom remaineth without end for ever and ever. For He sitteth on the right hand of the Father not only in this age, but also in the age to come. "We believe also in the Holy Ghost, that is, the Paraclete, whom according to His promise He sent to His apostles after His return into the heavens to teach them and to bring all things to their remembrance, through whom also the souls of them that believe sincerely in Him are sanctified. "But those who say that the Son of God is sprung from things non-existent or from another substance and not from God, and that there was a time or age when He was not, the holy Catholic Church holds them as aliens. Likewise also those who say that there are three Gods, or that Christ is not God and that before the ages He was neither Christ nor Son of God, or that He Himself is the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, or that the Son is incapable of birth; or that the Father begat the Son without purpose or will: the holy Catholic Church anathematizes."

Beginning with the Arab Muslim occupation in the 7th century, the Arabs typically considered the country merely an undifferentiated part of Bilad ash-Sham which eventually translated into Greater Syria. During that period the confusion over the name received its most devastating blow. What was across the ages a mish-mash of kingdoms, ethnic groups, regions and territories now became an artificial entity that spread across various races and regions to include everything that bordering the Byzantine dominions in Asia Minor in the north to Arabia in the South.

Seljuk OttomanTurk
Under the Ottoman Turkish occupation, the "confusion" was reinforced with the new hegemony that subdivided the region into less ethnically or geographically coherent regions, separating cities into quasi-city states again. Consequently, Ottoman Turkish excellence at lack of organization and mismanagement aggravated the blunders of previous invaders with a political jigsaw that pitted ethnic groups against each other and left the region a much sicker entity than before. That was a reflection of the sick state of the Ottoman empire around the Mediterranean.


The mix of races that inhabited the eastern Mediterranean embraced various religions and spoke different languages depending on the lingua franca of the ages. With the advent of Christ, most embraced Christianity after paganism and spoke Aramaic until about the seventh century, when Arab invasion forced the Arabic language to become the vernacular tongue of the country. Aramaic, however, held its ground for a considerable time and traces of it are still to be found in the spoken languages (as opposed to classical Arabic) of the peoples of the region. Further, Aramaic survives in the liturgy of the Syriac, Chaldean, Assyrian and Maronite Churches, as well as in some villages the most notable of which is Maalula. The latter is Western Aramaic which is the language used by Christ.

In 527 A.D., the Melkites translated the Greek scriptures and other writings into their local Aramaic dialect — Western Aramaic — which the people of the area were still speaking in the 6th century. In fact, even later in 969 A.D. when Antioch became a centre for the Melkite Christians, Aramaic continued to be their language.


  1. Burckhardt, Travels in Syria and the Holy Land (1822), 1-309.
  2. Wortabet, The Syrians (London, 1896).
  3. Chesnet, Euphrates Expedition, (London, 1838).
  4. Ritter, Erkunden von Asien, XVII, pts. 1 and 2 (Berlin, 1854-65).
  5. Von Kremer, Mittelsyrien und Damascus (Vienna, 1853).
  6. Burton and Drake, Unexplored Syria (London, 1852).
  7. Reclus, Nouv. géog. univers. d'Asie Antérieure (1884).
  8. Porter, Five Years in Damascus (London, 1855).
  9. Blunt, Bedouins of the Euphrates (London, 1870).
  10. de Vogue, Syrie Centrale (Paris, 1865-77).
  11. Idem, Syrie, Palestine, Mont Athos (Paris, 1879).
  12. Sachau, Reise in Syrien u. Mesopotamien (Leipzig, 1883).
  13. Miller, Alone through Syria (London, 1891).
  14. Charmes, Voyage en Syrie (Paris, 1891).
  15. Lady Burton, Inner Life of Syria (London, 1875).
  16. Post, Flora of Syria, Palestine, and Sinai (Beirut, 1896).
  17. Humann and Puckstein, Reisen in Nord-Syrien (1890).
  18. Post, Essays on the Sects and Nationalities of Syria, etc. (London, 1890).
  19. Goodrich-Freer, In a Syrian Saddle (London, 1905).
  20. Bell, The Desert and the Sown (London, 1907).
  21. Lortet, La Syrie d'aujord'hui (Paris, 1884).
  22. Curtis, To-day in Syria and Palestine (New York, 1903).
  23. Libby and Hoskins, The Jordan Valley and Petra (New York, 1905).
  24. Inchbold, Under the Syrian Sun (Philadelphia, 1907).
  25. Kelman and Thomas, From Damascus to Palmyra (London, 1908).
  26. Margoliouth, Cairo, Jerusalem, and Damascus (London, 1907).
  27. Quinet, Syrie, Lebon, et Palestine (Paris, 1896).
  28. Baedeker, Palestine and Syria (Leipsic, 1906).
  29. Dupont, Cours Géographique dé l'Empire Ottoman (Paris, 1907).
  30. G. Smith, Historical Geography of the Holy Land (London, 1900).
  31. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIV, 1909
  32. Hefele, Hist. Councils. Vol. II., pp. 172 et seqq.

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year 4758 after the foundation of Tyre