In Arabic, Bilaad al-Shaam means “the land of Shaam” or possibly “the towns of Shaam”, but in its literal sense it means “the land to the left”. It acquired this name because an Arab who stands in the middle of Arabia facing north has Shaam to his left. Shaam stretches along the eastern shore of the White Sea, as the Arabs call the Mediterranean, for some 500 miles from the deserts of the Sinai Peninsula until the ground rises to the plateaux of what is now southern Turkey. It is also considered to extend into Anatolia until it meets a natural frontier in the Taurus Mountains. Today, Shaam (or Greater Syria, as it used to be called in the West – and that is the name we will use in this book) is divided between Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan, and includes part of southern Turkey. The lines on the map which give these modern states their rather rigid political frontiers were only drawn in the twentieth century.
Rain from the White Sea waters Greater Syria’s green coastal plain and the belt of mountains behind. Every winter, the mountains turn white. In spring and summer, they slowly disgorge their snow melt into rivers, some of which flow eastwards into the arid lands beyond. Several millennia ago, one of these gave life to the city of Shaam itself, which is better known as Damascus, and enabled its inhabitants to surround it with orchards and farms. Damascus was a beautiful city, so beautiful in fact that when the Prophet of Islam beheld it at around the end of the sixth century, he is said to have gasped in amazement and turned back. No one, he said, can enter Paradise twice. Slightly over half a millennium earlier still, Paul, the apostle of Christianity to the Gentiles, experienced his conversion “as he neared Damascus”:1 an experience which temporarily blinded him. He was baptised while staying in the city. By then, it was already ancient. It claims to be the oldest known continually inhabited city in the world, but Greater Syria also contains other cities that make this claim: Aleppo in the north and Jericho in the south, near the Dead Sea.
Damascus itself is mentioned by name about thirty-five times in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible and twenty in the New Testament. It lies at the centre of Greater Syria. More than anywhere else Damascus has been its political and cultural centre, but its preeminence has never been guaranteed. Nor has the unity of the land itself, although south of Anatolia most of its people today speak closely related Arabic dialects (save, of course, in Israel where Hebrew is now the majority language). If in the past they described themselves as Shaamis, by and large they were only making a statement about where they happened to come from; and it might indicate either Damascus or the wider land of Greater Syria. This did not mean they had no sense of identity. On the contrary, they identified themselves by their family, their tribe (many, but by no means all, Shaamis had a tribe) and their religion (everyone in Greater Syria without exception had a religion). These identities were very strong. Even today, it is common for ordinary people to be able to trace their ancestry back several hundred years.
Throughout history, Greater Syria has been vulnerable to invasion from all points of the compass, while its geography makes central control extremely difficult. As a cursory glance at a map will show, it contains the land route between Africa and Eurasia. It has constantly been ruled and occupied (and sometimes partitioned) by strong rulers who came from elsewhere. The Pharoahs had a strategic interest in it, and their people depended on its food if the Nile flood failed – as did later rulers of Egypt, who followed the Pharoahs in invading it on many occasions. There were also invaders from the North and East: Hittites, Assyrians, the Achaemenid Persians, and then Alexander the Great of Hellenic Macedonia, who came overland across Anatolia and took over the Achaemenid Empire in the fourth century BC. Following his death in 323 BC, Greater Syria was partitioned between two successor states established by his generals, but fell under the sway of Rome in 64–3 BC. Later Persian empires, the Parthians and the Sasanians, invaded in their turn. Then, in the 630s and 640s, the Arab conquerors came from the south. This ended a thousand years of Greek cultural domination, and led to the overwhelming majority of the population adopting the Arabic language and a sizeable majority of them converting to Islam. These were processes which took hundreds of years.
After the Arab conquest, Greater Syria became the centre of the great Arab empire of the Umayyad Caliphate, which was based in Damascus and lasted from 661 to 750. It left posterity the first two stunning examples of Islamic architecture that endure to this day: the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.
Later, there was a series of invaders from the West. These were the Crusaders who arrived in Greater Syria in 1098 and were only finally driven out in 1291. They were warriors from Western Europe who were inspired by an ideal of Holy War approved by the Pope, and hoped to reconquer lands which had once been part of Christendom from their Muslim rulers. Today, they have left few visible traces save for vast fortifications. But even these are indistinguishable to the non-specialist eye from those built by the Crusaders’ opponents, and many were extensions or refurbishments of earlier castles. They have also often been transformed beyond recognition by subsequent rulers. There are even a few localities where people remember today that they have Crusader blood, although they have long since abandoned their Frankish language in favour of Arabic, and sometimes converted to Islam.
The Crusaders were finally crushed by the ruthless Mamluks, a cast of slave warriors which ruled Egypt and perennially replenished itself with recruits purchased as boys in the Caucasus and elsewhere. The Mamluks also fought off another invasion from the East, the Mongols of Hulagu who briefly took Aleppo and Damascus after sacking Baghdad in 1258 and executing the last true caliph.
Another scourge from the East was Tamerlane, whose armies reached Damascus in 1400–1. He massacred the population and kidnapped its craftsmen to decorate his capital in far-off Samarkand. The Mamluks reasserted themselves and won Damascus back, but eventually they, too, had to bow the knee after they were defeated by a fresh invader from the north, the Ottoman Turks. Their sultan, Selim the Grim, conquered Greater Syria and Egypt in 1516. This conquest occurred when the Ottoman Empire was at its height. It had already taken most of the Balkans, including Hungary, and wrestled with the European powers for the control of the Mediterranean. It dreamed of scaling the walls of Vienna (which it besieged in 1529 and 1683) and of planting the flag of Islam in Rome itself. However, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the empire decayed until Greater Syria was one of its last remaining possessions outside its Anatolian heartland. The Ottomans still retained it when the Great War began in 1914.
Although interest in the modern state of Syria has not been widespread in the West, Europeans and Westerners generally have had an intense fascination with Greater Syria. Until quite recent times, memories of the Crusades were generally stronger in Europe than among Arabs. But above all else for Westerners, Greater Syria was the land of the Bible. Christian pilgrims from Europe had been going there since the early centuries of Christianity to visit Palestine where Jesus had lived, died and, his followers believe, risen from the dead. Another major connection with Greater Syria for Europeans was its importance in the history of Classical times. It was a rich part of the empire that was much more significant to the Romans than the lands inhabited by the uncouth Celts who painted themselves with blue woad. As the steamship, telegraph and railway made Greater Syria more accessible in the nineteenth century, visitors from across the Mediterranean came to gape at the splendours of its ruined temples, amphitheatres, colonnades and tombs. These often seemed eerily familiar, particularly when giant Latin inscriptions on granite porticoes or tablets by the side of the road recorded the deeds of gods, emperors and other eminent personages in letters which were still so clear that they might have been carved yesterday.
Europeans also came for trade, particularly to the ports and the great inland entrepôt of Aleppo, a wealthier, more cosmopolitan and, at various periods, larger city than Damascus. Greater Syria had been the western end of the old silk route, and goods from the east were still transported to Europe via the valley of the Euphrates before they were taken by camel and mule to Aleppo and its port of Alexandretta next to Antioch. This route was a rival to the southern one which came up the Red Sea to Egypt. In addition, as the nineteenth century wore on, silk, cotton, tobacco and grain were cultivated for export to Europe. European powers jostled for position, and were helped by the divisions among the peoples of Greater Syria: divisions they were not above fostering for their own ends.
The late nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth were the age of European imperialism. Europe burned bright with nationalism, and pride and prestige were important for every European nation state that sought to project its influence overseas. Elements of genuine altruism were blended somewhere into this heady brew, giving the European nations a strong self-belief and what would transpire to be a very dangerous sense of their own righteousness. They became envious of each other as they competed to acquire colonies in Africa and Asia. This rivalry could drift into mutual demonisation and was an important part of the run-up to the Great War. The clock was ticking towards a European conflict that would become global.
Ottoman Turkey was a natural focus for European ambition, but its lands in Asia – including Greater Syria – were saved from dismemberment. This was not because of the Ottomans’ now faded military might but the constraints of the European balance of power. The Europeans stalked each other, always anxious to prevent their rivals from stealing a march on them. They had also extracted trade privileges which the Ottomans were too weak to resist. These included tax and customs rates which were more favourable than those paid by native merchants. Local Christian and Jewish traders were generally the ones who benefited by establishing links with the foreigners. It was often more advantageous for a merchant in Aleppo, Beirut or Damascus to become the agent of a French or British company than to trade on his own account.
The four powers with the greatest interest in the Ottoman Empire (and therefore in Greater Syria) were Britain, France, Germany and Russia. The last two need only be mentioned briefly. Russia proclaimed itself the protector of the Orthodox Christians in the empire. It also had territorial ambitions in the empire, but not in Greater Syria itself although it established strong links with the sizeable Orthodox communities there. After the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, it renounced these interests. Russia then becomes largely absent from our story until it re-enters it in the form of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, which lasted from the late 1940s to the end of the 1980s. Germany had no territorial ambitions in the Ottoman Empire, and for that reason was able to pose as the Ottomans’ ally and friend with some degree of conviction. It would be this friendship, and the links Germany had established with the Ottoman military, that led to the disastrous Ottoman decision to enter the Great War as Germany’s partner in November 1914.
The ambitions and policies of Britain and France require more attention. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Britain took Egypt and Cyprus from Ottoman control and was already the paramount power in the Persian Gulf. Britain’s policy now was generally to prop up the Ottoman Empire so as to prevent France, Russia or another rival acquiring its territories and threatening the Suez Canal, which opened in 1869, or Britain’s other strategic interests. However, if war eventually came and the Ottoman Empire was dismembered, Britain would have its own objectives to pursue: to control the southern parts of Greater Syria and Iraq as part of a land bridge from Egypt to India, as well as the Iraqi oil wells near Basra. It was vital to British interests that no other power should acquire these areas.
France’s interests in Greater Syria were more extensive than those of Britain. It was the main market for the raw materials exported from the area and it had invested more money in Syria’s railways, urban utilities and other infrastructure. France saw itself as the protector of the Catholics in the Ottoman Empire, and had done so for much longer than the Russians had deemed themselves the guardians of the Orthodox. The powerful Maronite Christians centred on Mount Lebanon, whose Catholicism can be traced back to the Crusades, were France’s most significant Catholic clients, but they were by no means the only ones. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries large numbers of other Christians in Greater Syria had converted to Catholicism while maintaining their own self-governing churches. This was what the Maronites had done centuries earlier. These self-governing Catholic communities were known as Uniates. In the Greater Syria of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Uniates were prosperous and self-confident.
They were particularly important in Aleppo. In 1849, crosses were carried publicly in processions in the city and traditional Arab celebratory gunfire was heard when the authorities recognised the Melkites, one of the largest Uniate groups, as a separate millet or religious community.2 Uniates frequently engaged in trade between Greater Syria and the West. They represented Western companies and could often speak European languages, especially French. French was also the lingua franca of merchants engaged in international trade throughout the area, and the primary language in which European technical knowledge and the thought of the modern world were disseminated to the elite of Greater Syria and the Ottoman Empire as a whole. Many of that elite could speak and read French, and write well in it too.
These religious, cultural and commercial interests fitted in neatly with the French belief in the uniqueness of the values of France’s civilisation, and the desire to spread these values through its self-appointed mission civilisatrice or “civilising mission”. In Greater Syria, the mission civilisatrice was linked in many French minds with the idealised memories of the Crusades which swept France in the nineteenth century. During the French Second Empire (1852–70) Partant pour la Syrie, “Setting off for Syria”, was used more frequently than the Marseillaise as the national anthem. It was a song about the wish of a Crusader to be the bravest knight and to marry the most beautiful girl in the world, a wish God grants him as a reward for his valour.
It may seem trite to mention this song, but it illustrates an important point. Although there were Western scholars, traders, diplomats, soldiers, clergymen and travellers who had genuine knowledge of Greater Syria, the images Western minds had of the area were also formed by reimagined memories of the past. These were frequently seen through rose-tinted spectacles, and were tinged with both a nostalgic romanticism and the harder edge which the rather intense nationalism of the era added to European perceptions.
The mountainous spine which runs parallel to the coast of Greater S...