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.
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 Palaestinae...et 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.
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.
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
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
- Palastina Iudadea
- Palastina Salutaris
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
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.
Council of Sardica, 343 to 344 A.D.
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.
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.