Syria is a country located in the Middle East on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea and bordered, from the north down to the west, by Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon. It is one of the oldest inhabited regions in the world with archaeological finds dating the first human habitation at c. 700,000 years ago. The Dederiyeh Cave near Aleppo has produced a number of significant finds, such as bones, placing Neanderthals in the region at that time and shows continual occupation of the site over a substantial period.
The first evidence of modern humans appears c. 100,000 years ago as evidenced by finds of human skeletons, ceramics, and crude tools. There seem to have been mass migrations throughout the region that impacted the various communities but, as there is no written record of the period, it is unknown why they happened if they did occur. These migrations are suggested by archaeological finds throughout the region showing significant changes in the manufacture of ceramics and tools found at various sites. These developments, however, could be just as easily explained by cultural exchange between tribes in a region or simply similar developments in the manufacturing process rather than large-scale migration. The historian Soden notes that,
Scholars have sought to deduce especially important developments, for example, folk migrations, from cultural changes which can be read in archaeological remains, particularly in ceramic materials…Yet there can be frequent and substantial changes in the ceramic style, even if no other people has come onto the scene.
It is thought that climate change in the area c. 15,000 years ago may have influenced humans to abandon the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and initiate an agricultural one or that migrating tribes introduced agriculture to different regions. Soden writes, “We term ‘prehistoric’ those epochs in which nothing had yet been written down, without thereby assuming that events of great significance had not yet taken place” (13). The significance of the mass migration theory is that it explains how agriculture became so widespread in the region when it did but, again, this theory is far from proven. It is clear, however, that an agrarian civilization was already thriving in the region prior to the domestication of animals c. 10,000 BCE. Syria was an important trade region with ports on the Mediterranean, prized by a succession of Mesopotamian empires.
The Name & Early History
In its early written history, the region was known as Eber Nari (‘across the river’) by the Mesopotamians and included modern-day Syria, Lebanon, and Israel (collectively known as The Levant). Eber Nari is referenced in the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah as well as in reports by the scribes of Assyrian and Persian kings. The modern name of Syria is claimed by some scholars to have derived from Herodotus’ habit of referring to the whole of Mesopotamia as ‘Assyria’ and, after the Assyrian Empire fell in 612 BCE, the western part continued to be called ‘Assyria’ until after the Seleucid Empire when it became known as ‘Syria’. This theory has been contested by the claim that the name comes from Hebrew, and the people of the land were referred to as ‘Siryons’ by the Hebrews because of their soldiers’ metal armor (‘Siryon’ meaning armor, specifically chain mail, in Hebrew). There is also the theory that `Syria’ derives from the Siddonian name for Mount Hermon – `Siryon’ – which separated the regions of northern Eber Nari and southern Phoenicia (modern Lebanon, which Sidon was a part of), and it has also been suggested that the name comes from the Sumerian, `Saria’ which was their name for Mount Hermon. As the designations `Siryon’ and `Saria’ would not have been known to Herodotus, and as his Histories had such an enormous impact on later writers in antiquity, it is most likely that the modern name `Syria’ derives from `Assyria’ (which comes from the Akkadian `Ashur’ and designated the Assyrian’s chief deity) and not from the Hebrew, Siddonian, or Sumerian words.
Early settlements in the area, such as Tell Brak, date back to at least 6000 BCE. It has long been understood that civilization began in southern Mesopotamia in the region of Sumer and then spread north. Excavations at Tell Brak, however, have challenged this view, and scholars are divided as to whether civilization actually began in the north or if there could have been simultaneous developments in both areas of Mesopotamia. The claim that, in the words of the scholar Samuel Noah Kramer, “history begins at Sumer” is still most widely accepted, however, owing to the certainty of the presence of the so-called Ubaid people in southern Mesopotamia prior to the rise of communities in the north such as Tell Brak. This debate will continue until more conclusive evidence of earlier development in the north is unearthed and, presently, both sides in the argument offer what seems to be conclusive proof for their respective claims. Until the discovery of Tell Brak (first excavated by Max Mallowan in 1937/1938 CE), there was no doubt regarding the origins of civilization in Mesopotamia, and it is certainly possible that future finds in the modern countries which were once Mesopotamia will help decide this point, although evidence for civilization beginning in Sumer seems far more conclusive at this point.
The two most important cities in ancient Syria were Mari and Ebla, both founded after the cities of Sumer (Mari in the 5th and Ebla in the 3rd millennium BCE) and both of which used Sumerian script, worshipped Sumerian deities, and dressed in Sumerian fashion. Both of these urban centers were repositories of vast cuneiform tablet collections, written in Akkadian and Sumerian, which recorded the history, daily life, and business transactions of the people and included personal letters. When Ebla was excavated in 1974 CE the palace was found to have been burned and, as with Ashurbanipal’s famous library at Nineveh, the fire baked the clay tablets and preserved them. At Mari, following its destruction by Hammurabi of Babylon in 1759 BCE, the tablets were buried under the rubble and remained intact until their discovery in 1930 CE. Together, the tablets of Mari and Ebla provided archaeologists with a relatively complete understanding of life in Mesopotamia in the 3rd millennium BCE.