Human occupation of ancient or 'Greater' Syria (the lands that are now recognised as Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria) can be traced back at least 11 thousand years, to 9000 BCE. Evidence of the region's first cities dates to around 4000 BCE.
From 2500 to 2400 BCE, the northern city of Ebla is the seat of an empire spreading from the Red Sea in the south to Turkey in the north and Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) in the east. It is estimated that Ebla was home to a population of 260,000.
The region falls under Egyptian control in 1600 BCE, though influence from the neighbouring Assyrians and Hittites is also significant.
Greater Syria becomes an ethnic and religious melting pot. The Phoenicians develop a sophisticated culture and economy based on seafaring and trade. The Aramaeans establish Damascus as their capital and introduce Aramaic as the lingua franca. Jews migrate to the region around 1200 BCE.
In the 8th Century BCE, Greater Syria is invaded by the Assyrians. In the 7th Century BCE, the Babylonians take control. In the 6th Century BCE, the Babylonians are replaced by the Persians, who are in turn are replaced by the Greeks in 333 BCE. When Greek influence wanes the Roman Empire absorbs the region.
From the 4th Century CE, the Christian (Byzantine) Roman Empire rules Greater Syria from Constantinople (Istanbul). During this period many Syrian Arabs adopt Christianity.
At the start of the 7th Century, the Prophet Mohammed founds Islam. The religion quickly spreads from Mohammed's home at Mecca (in present-day Saudi Arabia) across the Middle East.
In 635 Damascus surrenders to Muslim invaders. The city will become the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate, an empire stretching along the North African coast to Spain in the west and to Afghanistan and India in the east. During Umayyad rule, most Syrians become Muslims and Arabic replaces Aramaic as the common tongue.
Meanwhile, a dispute over the rightful successor to Muhammad leads to a split in Islam and the establishment of two rival sects - the Shias and the Sunnis.
After the Umayyads are conquered in 750, control of Greater Syria shifts among various caliphates. At the end of the 11th Century, European Crusaders invade and capture Jerusalem, remaining there for almost 100 years before they are expelled by Saladin in 1187.
In 1260 Syria and Egypt are united under the Mamluk sultanate. Mamluk rule continues until 1516, when the Ottoman Turks invade and Syria becomes a province of the Ottoman Empire.
During Ottoman rule, Greater Syria steadily declines, more through benign neglect than direct policy. Inroads are also established by Europeans. Ottoman rule nears its end at the start of the First World War, a time which is also marked by the rise of the Syrian independence movement.
The British seize on this desire for independence to further their war effort. Arabs are encouraged to revolt against the Ottomans. In return, the British pledge support for the establishment of an independent Arab state following the war.
The Arabs, led by the Hashimite clan and advised by British officers like Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence ('Lawrence of Arabia'), prevail. The Arabs appear to have won their independence. However, the appearance is only fleeting.
The British renege on their pledge to the Arabs and, at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, Greater Syria is carved up among European powers. The French are given control over Lebanon and Syria. The British take Jordan and Palestine. Provision is made of the establishment of a Jewish state within Palestine.
In April 1920 the carve-up is made official and Syria becomes a French mandate. Lebanon is recognised as a separate country in 1926.
By 15 April 1946 the French are finally gone. Syria celebrates its independence on April 17.
Syria now enters a prolonged period of instability. Coup is followed by counter-coup and regional allegiances shift as secular, religious and military factions within the country via for influence.
- Syria - A Country Study - Library of Congress Country Studies Series