Due to unfortunate political circumstances and a devastating civil war that has resulted in over 100,000 deaths, Syria has come to the world’s attention in recent years. However, Syria has also been a melting pot of culture and religion for many millennia. This article traces the story of the ebb and flow of religion in Syria.
Syria has been a hub of cultural flow for over 10,000 years, sitting at the epicentre of Persia, Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Greece and Rome. Over thousands of years, not only was Syria exposed to and occupied by the great cultures and empires of the region, but it also saw a flow of religious ideas and theologies. Waves of new influences brought new advances such as the Muslim development of Damascus. This article explores the history of the cultures and religions that influenced Syria.
Ancient Syria sat at the crossroads of many great civilisations and on numerous trade routes (Silk Route and Persian Royal Road) that led to Persia, Central Asia, India and China. It is therefore unsurprising that several great ancient cities sprang up in Syria. From around 2000 B.C.E., as the great empires emerged, Syria was inhabited by the Canaanites, the Phoenician traders of Lebanon, the Arameans of Syria, the Egyptians, Sumerians and Assyrians of Iraq and the Babylonians and Hittites of Turkey. The language of the region was Aramaic; the same language that Jesusas would speak to his early followers. Centuries later, Alexander the Great took Syria around 334 B.C.E. and made it part of his Seleucid (Greek-influenced) empire.
The Jewish Hasmoneans tried to exert control, but the Romans took Antioch in 64 B.C.E. and made Syria a Roman Province. The Byzantine Christians held sway as Syria became a key province. Over this period, Syria held prominence in providing two of the Roman Emperors of the time.
Some notable examples of Ancient Syrian cities include the following:
Aleppo: people began living here from the 6th century B.C.E., and during the Ottoman empire, it was the third largest Muslim city after Istanbul and Cairo. Aleppo was at the start of the Silk Route to China. Aleppo is still the largest city in Syria.
Antioch: ancient city near modern Antakya on the Syria-Turkish border founded in the 4th century B.C.E. At its height, it had a population of half a million people and was known as the “Cradle of Christianity.” It is also the place where the first Jewish converts were called “Christians.”
Damascus: the second largest city in Syria, and was known as Ash-Shaam. It has been a settlement for around 4,000 years. There were many Jews living there and many synagogues built after the diaspora. Damascus served as the capital of the Islamic Empire under the Umayyads from 661-750 C.E. while ruling an area that stretched from Spain to India.
Ebla (Idlib): city founded around 3,000 B.C.E. which flourished through trade with Egypt, Sumer and Akkad until around 240 B.C.E.
Homs: this city emerged under Greek rule in the 1st century B.C.E. under the name Emesa. It was originally a centre for the worship of the sun god El-Gabal, but later took on significance for Christians and Muslims.
Palmyra: known as the “Bride of the Desert,” this oasis city was a caravan trading stop for desert traders. Palmyra featured a huge temple to Ba’al. It is thought be have been linked to King Solomonas of Judea. It was captured by Hazrat Khalid ibn al-Walidra in 634 C.E. The city thrived until the Ottoman period.
Due to the various empires that had an influence in Syria, many early temples were dedicated to deities from all sides, such as Zeus and Artemis. Adonis, also known as Baal and Tammuz, was also exported to Arabia as the deity Hubal. Al-Lat was another deity worshipped in Arabia and Syria, and which had temples showing Al-Lat as a lion in Palmyra.1
Jews in Syria
The Jews had been in Syria for a long time, and the Jewish historian Josephus recorded that the most significant Jewish diaspora communities were in Syria, specifically mentioning Antioch.2
As subsequent empires came to Syria, some sought to control Jews as the theologian Hipploytus writes around 200 B.C.E.:
“In this manner too, Antiochus Epiphanes, the king of Syria, the descendant of Alexander of Macedonia, devised measures against the Jews… And if one desires to inquire into it more accurately, he will find it recorded in the books of the Maccabees.”3
Epiphanes (215–163 B.C.E.) was a Seleucid king who wanted to make Syria and Palestine into Hellenistic (Greek) gentile secular provinces by suppressing religious practices such as circumcision. He evoked the anger of the Jews by placing a pagan altar in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, and this eventually led to a revolt by the Jewish Maccabees. The tension between secular empires and religious communities would continue in many other settings in Syria and throughout the Middle East.
In the Christian Era, Syria played a very prominent role. Many of the early Christian philosophers and thinkers were from Syria, as Antioch became one of the hubs of Christian leadership alongside Jerusalem, Alexandria, Constantinople (Istanbul) and Rome. St. Paul, who shaped modern Christianity, was based at Antioch and undertook many of his missionary journeys from there. Paul, according to the Bible, became converted on the way to Damascus where he was planning to visit the synagogues and capture any Jews who had accepted Christianity.4
The Bible describes the Christians in Syria:
“Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul (Paul), and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians.’”
Peter and Barnabas were actively preaching to the Jews in Syria. The Church of Antioch gained strength over the next few centuries, and was a centre of Christian learning and debate on topics such as the nature of Jesusas and the Trinity.
Greek Orthodox Church in Hama
Christianity went through various trials and councils as various sects debated new issues such as the nature and divinity of Jesusas and his mother, the Trinity, the growth of Gnosticism and the relationships between the clergy and the ordinary people. The strong Church of Antioch played a vibrant role in this debate.
Islam emerged in Arabia at the start of the 7th century C.E. As a boy before his ministry, Muhammadsa went on many trade caravans with his Uncle Abu Talib to Syria, visiting towns such as Bosra, Damascus, Homs and Antioch on the way.
Islam came to Syria in 634 C.E. through Hazrat Khalid ibn al-Walidra. There had been rivalry between the Banu Hashim and the Banu Umayyah, the former of Hazrat Alira and the latter of Hazrat Uthmanra. After the death of Hazrat Alira in 661 C.E., Hazrat Mu’awiyah (the Governor of Syria) was proclaimed the new Khalifah. He soon moved the administrative centre from Madinah to Damascus. It was only in 750 C.E. when the Abbasid dynasty came to power that the capital of the Islamic Empire moved to Baghdad. By now, Arabic had become the official language, replacing Greek and Aramaic.
Great Umayyad Mosque of Damascus
Damascus had been a Roman and Christian city, but now in 706 C.E., the Great Mosque was built under Caliph al-Walid. Indeed before the Great Mosque was built, in the Cathedral of St. John in Damascus, Muslims and Christians both used the Cathedral for worship in toleration of each other5
just as was witnessed in Spain. This was just one example of the cooperation between faiths in Syria, as the traveller Ibn Jubayr recounts from his visits to Damascus around 1184 C.E.:
“It is strange how the Christians round Mount Lebanon, when they see any Muslim hermits, bring them food and treat them kindly, saying that these men are dedicated to Great and Glorious God and that they should therefore share with them.”6
He goes on to recount of free trade between areas of Syria controlled by the Frankish Christians and the Muslims:
“In the same way the Muslims continuously journeyed from Damascus to Acre (through Frankish territory), and likewise not one of the Christian merchants was stopped or hindered (in Muslim territory).”7
Many schools and libraries were opened which attracted scholars from across the Muslim world such as the library of Banu Jaradah in Aleppo. The “house of hadith” in Damascus attracted scholars such as Ibn Kathir, al-Nawawi, Taqiyuddin Subki and Ibn al-Salah.8
Hospitals were built including the famous Nuri Hospital built by Sultan Malik Nuruddin for the poor and helpless. In the 12th century, a school of illumination, Al-Ishraq, was established by Yahya Suhrawardi in Aleppo, based on Iranian mysticism. He believed that a combination of mysticism and reasoning was needed to define true philosophy, and set up his school to teach both aspects.9
During this period, Islam expanded into Cyprus (690), Turkistan (705), Spain (711) and modern Pakistan (712). All the while, Damascus was gaining prominence worldwide at the centre of the growing Islamic Empire, and scholars and artisans from across the empire were meeting in Syria to share ideas.
Centuries of Turmoil
The 12th Century saw the start of centuries of turmoil starting with the Crusades from Europe. The French created the Principality of Antioch and for centuries, Crusader forces would pass through Syria on their way to Jerusalem. Aleppo and Damascus fell to the Mongol hordes in 1260, but as they were stretched, the Mongols were soon pushed back by the Mamluks of Egypt. There was an ongoing struggle in the years that followed between the Mamluks and the Mongols. In 1400, the Mongols led by Timur Lenk retook Aleppo and Damascus, and massacred most of the inhabitants; only those of value to them were taken to Samarkand in central Asia. The pressure was only released at the end of the 15th century when the emergence of the sea route to China via Africa lessened the need for a land trade route.
Ottoman and Modern Syria
The Turkish Ottoman Muslim Empire wrestled control of Syria in 1516, and suddenly Damascus came to prominence again as a key centre for pilgrims heading to Makkah from elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire. This remained the case until 1916 when the French and British took control and divided the region according to political needs.
At the same time, another new force emerged that would impact Syria in the centuries to come. At the time that the Ottoman Empire was growing, Shia Islam was a sect amongst Arabs, but wielded no political power. The Safavids led by Ismail led his troops from Azerbaijan into Iran, and first conquered Tabriz in 1501, then over a decade took control of the rest of Iran. He then imposed Twelver Shia Islam by force on the local majority Iranian Sunnis, and suddenly the Shia Iranian power was established.10
Iran would play a key role in Syria and the Middle East hundreds of years later.
Between the great wars, France tried to maintain control despite growing nationalism, but eventually Syria gained independence in 1946. Since then, Syria has been constantly involved in struggles with Israel and Lebanon.
Ignatius (35-98) was an early Church Father and third Bishop of Antioch who wrote many letters, but was eventually taken to Rome and was martyred at the orders of Emperor Trajan.
Theodoret of Cyrrhus (393-458) was a moderate Bishop in Cyrrhus near Antioch. He was involved in the monophysite debate with the Alexandrians about the nature and person of Jesusas. This was at a time when some Christians began to attribute divine characteristics to Jesusas, whilst Theodoret focused on his human consciousness.
Ibn al-Nafis (1213-1288) studied medicine at the Nuri Hospital in Damascus and wrote a famous book of 300 volumes on the art of medicine. He was a leader in pulmonary circulation, building on the work of Ibn Sina.
Abhdisho bar Berikha (unknown-1318) was a Syrian Christian theologian and poet from the Nestorian tradition in Antioch.
Ismail ibn Kathir (1301–1373) was a historian born on the outskirts of Bosra. He took on many positions in Damascus including on a commission to resolve questions of heresy. He wrote a famous commentary on the Qur’an called the Tafsir al-Qur’an al-‘Adhim.
Ibn al-Shatir (1305–1375) was born and raised in Damascus. He was a profound astronomer and came up with a new planetary theory which would later be emulated by Copernicus in Europe.
Religion in Modern Syria
Modern Syria is a melting pot of many religious sects. 70% are Sunni Muslims. 12% are Shia Muslims including the Alawite sect of the Assad leading family. 5% of Syrians are Christians, and of the remaining 13%, 3% are Druze and there is a Jewish minority.11
The Christians themselves, who number 2.5 million, consist of many sects such as the Chalcedonian Antiochans, Melkites, Armenians, Syriac Catholics, Chaldean Catholics, Roman Catholics, Maronites, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church and many others.
This reflects the historical flow of religions through Syria over many millennia. Some of the interesting sects are:
Alawites revere Hazrat Alira and follow the Twelver Shia tradition, although some sources suggest that they assign divine attributes to Hazrat Alira, possibly even corresponding to the Christian Trinity.12
Many of their beliefs are kept secret from outsiders, perhaps due to centuries of isolation from mainstream society, and their beliefs are said to include reincarnation. They are considered to be heavily influenced by Ismailis, and may have been absorbed in Syria from the Qarmatians and the Ismaili Assassin sect after the Crusades. They have a holy book called the Kitab al-Majmu which is said to include writings from Aristotle. There are differing accounts about their beliefs including claims that they believe that women do not have souls13, that they permit the drinking of alcohol, and celebrate other festivals such as Christmas and the Zoroastrian new year. Due to the ongoing secrecy, it is hard to confirm their precise beliefs.
The other notable sect is the Druze Community, which exists in Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan and who class themselves as the people of Monotheism (al-Muwahhidun). Their name is said to derive from an early preacher Ad-Darazi from 1016 C.E. who had promoted the idea that Khalifah Al-Hakim in Cairo was divine.14
The Druze began as an Ismaili Shia tradition, influenced by Greek and various mystic tendencies including the Gnostics and Jewish mysticism. There have been theological disputes amongst the Druze over whether God was incarnated into humans, especially Hazrat Alira and his descendants. The Druze often conceal their beliefs just as the Alawites do in a custom known as Taqiyya, although they do have a text called Rasa’il Al-Hakim. The Druze believe that Al-Hakim will return as the Mahdi (Guided One). The Druze maintain their secrecy through the purity of their community. They do not allow conversion or intermarriage.15
Syria has always held a strategic location for at least the last 4,000 years as a crossroad between Europe and Asia, Persia, Egypt and Arabia. Syria has witnessed the trade of cultures and also theologies. It is noticeable that many sects have grown up through a melding of ideas from different faiths, and in particular an interest in mystical strands such as Christian Gnosticism and Islamic Sufism with a focus on hidden beliefs.
The main point for this current age is to reflect on the brotherhood between people of all faiths when Syria was at its zenith as recorded by travellers such as Ibn Jubayr. This goodwill in society was possible because people were attuned to their spirituality, whatever their faith or sect. Syria needs to reflect on this now, when people of the same faith are at war with each other and innocent women and children are losing their lives.
1. Nicolle David, Historical Atlas of the Islamic World (London: Mercury Books, 2004) 27.
2. Erich Gruen, Diaspora: Jews Amidst Greeks and Romans (London: Harvard University Press, 2002) 106.
3. David Bercot, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs: A Reference Guide to More Than 700 Topics Discussed by the Early Church Fathers (Massachusetts, USA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998) 25.
4. Bible, The Holy Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments, New Revised Standard Version, (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989) Acts 9:1-6.
5. Dr. Mustafa Siba’i, The Islamic Civilization (Swansea, UK: Awakening Publications, 2002) 82-83.
6. Ronald Broadhurst, The Travels of Ibn Jubayr (New Dehli, India: Goodword Books 2011) 300.
7. Ronald Broadhurst, The Travels of Ibn Jubayr (New Dehli, India: Goodword Books 2011) 301.
8. Dr. Mustafa Siba’i, The Islamic Civilization (Swansea, UK: Awakening Publications, 2002) 147.
9. Karen Armstrong, Islam: A Short History (London, UK: Phoenix Press, 2001) 78.
10. Karen Armstrong, Islam: A Short History (London, UK: Phoenix Press, 2001) 99-101.
11. Mushtaqur Rahman and Guljan Mushtaqur Rahman, Geography of the Muslim World (Chicago, USA: IQRA International Education Foundation, 1997) 269.
12. “Alawite (Shi’ite Sect).” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed October 20th, 2013. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/12399/Alawite.
13. Cyrill Glassé, The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, Second Edition (London, UK: Harper San Francisco, 1991) 30-31.
14. Cyrill Glassé, The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, Second Edition (London, UK: Harper San Francisco, 1991) 103.
15. “Druze (religion).” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed October 22, 2013. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/172195/Druze.