(ssihr' ih uh) The region or nation directly north of Palestine in the northwest corner of the Mediterranean Sea.
Name and Geography Syria is most properly a geographical term for the northwestern Mediterranean region situated between Palestine and Mesopotamia, roughly equal to the modern states of Syria and Lebanon with small portions of Turkey and Iraq. The name may come from a Greek shortening of Assyria and was only accidentally applied to the area. There is no geographical connection between Assyria and Syria.
Syria, like Palestine, has four basic geographical features as one moves from the Mediterranean eastward: (1) a narrow coastal plain; (2) a line of mountains; (3) the rift valley; and (4) fertile steppe fading into desert. The two main rivers rise near one another in the rift valley. The Orontes flows north before abruptly turning west to the sea in the plain of Antioch, while the Leontes flows south then turns west through a narrow gorge and empties into the sea. See Palestine; Rivers.
Old Testament Early History During the Early Bronze Age (about 3200-2200 B.C.), Syria was home to large city states similar to those found in Mesopotamia. The latter part of this period has been illuminated by the recent discovery of cuneiform tablets in the state archive at Ebla, the capital of a small empire in northern Syria. Many of these tablets are in Eblaite, an ancient language similar to Hebrew and promise to aid in biblical study. See Ebla.
In the Middle Bronze Age (2200-1550 B.C.), the time of the Hebrew patriarchs, north Syria was home to the kingdoms of Yamhad, with its capital at Aleppo, and Qatna. The area south of Qatna was known as Amurru (the Akkadian word for Amorite). Further south, Damascus was probably in existence (Genesis 15:2), though it is unknown from contemporary records. In the Late Bronze Age (about 1550-1200 B.C.), Syria became the frontier and sometimes battlefield between the empires of the new kingdom Egypt in the south and initially Mitanni, then the Hittites to the north. Important cities in this period included Qadesh and Ugarit. The former led a number of rebellions against Egyptian authority. Excavations at the latter yielded alphabetic cuneiform tablets in Ugaritic (a language similar to Hebrew) which have shed much light on the nature of Canaanite religion. See Archaeology; Canaan; Ugarit.
Aramean Kingdoms In most English versions of the Old Testament (KJV, NRSV, NAS) “Syria” and “Syrian” (NIV, NRSV “Aram” or “Aramean”) translate the Hebrew word Aram, which refers to the nations or territories of the Arameans, a group akin to Israel (Deuteronomy 26:5). The Arameans began to settle in Syria and northern Mesopotamia around the beginning of the Iron Age (about 1200 B.C.), establishing a number of independent states. The Old Testament mentions the Aramean kingdoms of Beth-eden in north Syria, Zobah in south-central Syria, and Damascus in the south.
By the beginning of Israel's monarchy, the kingdom of Zobah held sway in Syria and was encountered by Saul (1 Samuel 14:47). David decisively defeated Aram-Zobah (2 Samuel 10:6-19) whose king, Hadadezer, had enlisted help from his Aramean subject states (2 Samuel 10:16,2 Samuel 10:19). As a result Zobah and its vassals, apparently including Damascus, became subject to David (2 Samuel 8:3-8;
2 Samuel 10:19). Hamath, a neo-Hittite state in north Syria which had been at war with Zobah, also established friendly relations with David (2 Samuel 8:9-10). Meanwhile, a certain Rezon broke from Hadadezer of Zobah following David's victory and became the leader of a marauding band. Late in Solomon's reign, he established himself as king in Damascus (1 Kings 11:23-25), taking southern Syria out of Israelite control. Subsequent occurrences of “Aram” or “Arameans” (“Syria” or “Syrians”) in the Old Testament refer to this Aramean kingdom of Damascus.
The rise of Aram-Damascus' power was facilitated by the division of Israel following the death of Solomon. When Baasha of Israel built a fort at Ramah threatening Jerusalem, Asa of Judah enticed the king of Damascus, “Ben-hadad the son of Tabrimmon, the son of Hezion,” to break his league with Israel and come to Judah's aid (1 Kings 15:18-19). Ben-hadad responded by conquering a number of cities and territory in the north of Israel (1 Kings 15:20). The genealogy given in this passage has been confirmed by a stele, found near Aleppo, dedicated to the god Melqart by Ben-hadad. Rezon is not mentioned, however, and it has been suggested that he is identical to Hezion. See Damascus.
Syrian Culture Aramean culture was essentially borrowed from their neighbors. Typical Semitic gods were worshiped, the most important of which was the storm god, Hadad, often called by the epithet Rimmon (2 Kings 5:18;
Zechariah 12:11), meaning “thunder.” See Canaan; Gods, Pagan. The most enduring contribution of the Arameans was their language which became the language of commerce and diplomacy by the Persian period. Portions of Daniel and Ezra are written in Aramaic, which is similar to Hebrew. By New Testament times, Aramaic was the language commonly spoken in Palestine and probably used by Jesus. The Aramaic script was adopted and slightly modified for writing Hebrew. See Aramaic.
The Intertestamental Period In 331 B.C. Syria, with the rest of the Persian Empire, fell to the advances of Alexander the Great. At his death, the area formed the nucleus of the Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom with its capital at Antioch. It is in this period that the term Syria became widespread. The Seleucid kingdom oppressed Judaism, causing the Maccabean Revolt in 167 B.C. which resulted in Jewish independence. Syria continued to decline until the arrival of the Romans who made it a province in 64 B.C. See Intertestamental History; Seleucids.
New Testament In New Testament times, Judea was made part of a procuratorship within the larger Roman province of Syria (Matthew 4:24), the latter being ruled by a governor (Luke 2:2). Syria played an important role in the early spread of Christianity. Paul was converted on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9) and subsequently evangelized in the province (Acts 15:41;
Galatians 1:21). Antioch, where believers were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:26), became the base for his missionary journeys (Acts 13:1-3).
Daniel C. Browning, Jr.