The area designated by the word has changed over time. Classically, Syria lies at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, between Egypt and Arabia to the south and Cilicia to the north, stretching inland to include Mesopotamia, and having an uncertain border to the northeast that Pliny the Elder describes as including, from west to east, Commagene, Sophene, and Adiabene. By Pliny's time, however, this larger Syria had been divided into a number of provinces under the Roman Empire (but politically independent from each other): Judaea, later renamed Palaestina in AD 135 (the region corresponding to modern day Israel and Jordan) in the extreme southwest, Phoenicia corresponding to Lebanon, with Damascena to the inland side of Phoenicia, Coele-Syria (or "Hollow Syria") south of the Eleutheris river, and Mesopotamia.
The name Syria derives from ancient Greek name for Syrians, Syrioi (Σύριοι), which the Greeks applied without distinction to the Assyrians. A number of modern scholars argue that the Greek word is traced back to the cognate "Assyria" (Ἀσσυρία), ultimately derived from the Akkadian Aššur. Others believe that it was derived from "Siryon", the name that the Sidonians gave to Mount Hermon.
Civilization in Syria was one of the most ancient on earth, centred on the city of Ebla (founded in 3000 BC). Between 2500 BC and 2400 BC the city controlled a Semitic kingdom in Syria. The Eblan civilization was likely conquered by Sargon of Akkad around 2260 BC; the city was restored as the nation of the Amorites a few centuries later and flourished through the early second millennium BC until it was conquered by the Hittites.
During the second millennium BC, Syria was occupied successively by Canaanites, Phoenicians, and Arameans as part of the general disruptions associated with the Sea Peoples; the Phoenicians settled along the coastline of these area as well as in the west (Now Lebanon & The current Syrian coast), in the area already known for its cedars. Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Hittites variously occupied the strategic ground of Syria during this period, as it was situated in between their various empires. Eventually the Persians took control of Syria as part of their general control of Southwest Asia; this control transferred to the Greeks after Alexander the Great's conquests and thence to the Romans and the Byzantines.
Syria was Roman (Byzantine) province from 64 BC to 636 AD. In this period the great city of Antioch was the capital of Syria. It was one of the largest cities in the ancient world, with a total estimated population of 500,000, as well as one of the largest centres of trade and industry. In the 3rd century Syria was home to Elagabalus, a Roman emperor of the Severan dynasty who reigned from 218 to 222. Elagabalus' family held hereditary rights to the priesthood of the sun god El-Gabal, of whom Elagabalus was the high priest at Emesa (modern Hims) in Syria.
Syria is also significant in the history of Christianity: Paul was converted on the Road to Damascus and established the first organized Christian Church at Antioch in ancient Syria, from which he left on many of his missionary journeys.
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Lidewijde de Jong, Stanford University
published on 07 November 2011
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c. 2240 BCE