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SYRIA (Heb. ’ărām, Gr. Syria). An abbreviation of Assyria or possibly from the Babylonian Suri, the name of a district in northern Mesopotamia. Herodotus first applied the name Syria to the territory occupied by the Arameans, but this name was not popularized until the Hellenistic period. In the Hebrew Bible it is called Aram, after the Arameans, nomads from the Syro-Arabian desert who occupied the area in the twelfth century b.c.

I. Location and Area. The territory of Syria varied considerably, often had vague boundaries, and really never constituted a political unit. Generally speaking, it included the area south of the Taurus Mountains, north of Galilee and Bashan, west of the Arabian Desert, and east of the Mediterranean. This was a territory approximately 300 miles (500 km.) north to south and 50 to 150 miles (82 to 250 km.) east to west. The chief cities were Damascus, Antioch, Hama, Biblos, Aleppo, Palmyra, and Carchemish.

II. Topography. Two mountain ranges, both running north and south, constitute the most prominent topographical features. The eastern range includes Mount Hermon (over 9,000 ft. [2,813 m.] high); the western, Mount Casius and the Lebanon. Between these two ranges is the high plain called Coele Syria watered by the Jordan, Leontes, and Orontes rivers. To the east of Hermon flow the Abana and the Pharpar, while in the north of Syria there are tributaries of the Euphrates. The many rivers and good soil made Syria generally more prosperous than her neighbor to the south.

III. History. In the earliest period of its history Syria was dominated by Amorites, Hittites, Mitanni, and especially Egyptians. When, however, the sea peoples invaded Syria from the north in the twelfth century b.c., an opportunity was afforded the Semitic Aramean tribesmen of the desert to abandon their nomadic way of life and settle in the best areas of Syria. They had actually begun to infiltrate this area before the twelfth century, but had not had the chance to establish themselves.

The Arameans at the time of David and Solomon were divided into a number of small kingdoms, the principal ones being Aram of Damascus, Aram of Zobah, Aram Maacah, Aram of Beth Rehob, and Aram Naharaim. The strongest of these was Zobah, whose king Hadadezer David defeated in battle along with the Syrians of Damascus who came to Hadadezer’s aid (2Sam.8.3-2Sam.8.7). David also subdued Aram Maacah (1Chr.19.6-1Chr.19.19), Aram of Beth Rehob (2Sam.10.6), and Aram Naharaim (“Aram of the two rivers,” translated “Mesopotamia” in rsv and “Northwest Mesopotamia” in the niv footnote, 1Chr.19.6).

Solomon was unable to hold David’s gains in Syria, and the political and military weakness in Israel caused by the disruption afforded the Syrian kingdoms, particularly Damascus, opportunity to further strengthen themselves.

Asa king of Judah (911-876 b.c.) appealed to Syria for help against Baasha king of Israel (909-886). This resulted in an invasion of the northern kingdom by Ben-Hadad I king of Damascus (1Kgs.15.16-1Kgs.15.21).

Omri (885-874 b.c.) of Israel, being faced with the growing power of Syria, strategically consummated an alliance with the Phoenicians by the marriage of his son Ahab to Jezebel, daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians (1Kgs.16.31). Twice during Ahab’s reign (874-853) the Syrians under Ben-Hadad I tried to invade Israel but were put to flight first at Samaria (1Kgs.20.1-1Kgs.20.21) and the following year at Aphek (1Kgs.20.26-1Kgs.20.34). Three years of peace with Syria followed. Then Ahab, in alliance with Jehoshaphat of Judah, made an attempt to recover Ramoth Gilead but was killed on the field of battle.

Jehoram of Israel (852-841 b.c.) allied himself with Ahaziah of Judah (852) to war against Ben-Hadad’s successor, Hazael, and was wounded in battle at Ramoth Gilead (2Kgs.8.28-2Kgs.8.29).

During Jehu’s reign (841-814 b.c.) Hazael captured the area east of the Jordan (2Kgs.10.32-2Kgs.10.33), and during the reign of Jehu’s son Jehoahaz (814-798) he completely overran Israel and took numbers of its cities. These were retaken by Jehoash (798-782) from Hazael’s successor, Ben-Hadad II (2Kgs.13.25). The successes of Jehoash were continued by his son Jeroboam II (782-753), who recovered all of the cities that had been taken by the Syrians from Israel over the years. He even successfully reduced Damascus (2Kgs.14.25-2Kgs.14.28).

Nothing is known of Syria from about 773 b.c. until the accession of Rezin in 750. During this time the Assyrian threat, which had been present already for a considerable time, was becoming progressively more real. To meet it, Rezin of Damascus and Pekah of Israel (740-732) formed a military alliance. In 735 or 736 they attacked Jerusalem (2Kgs.16.5; Isa.7.1), either to eliminate Judah as a possible foe or to force her into their coalition. Judah’s king, Ahaz (735-715), had just come to the throne. He panicked and, despite the prophet Isaiah’s warnings, sent for help from Assyria (Isa.7.1, Isa.7.25). This apparently was just the excuse Tiglath-Pileser III needed to invade Syria-Palestine. He captured the Israelite cities in the territories of Dan and Naphtali (2Kgs.15.29) and took the people captive to Assyria. He then turned his attention to Damascus and in 732 subdued the city and brought an end to the Aramean state, something his predecessors had tried vainly to accomplish for over fifty years.

In subsequent years the Chaldeans and Egyptians fought over Syria and with the rise of the Persians it passed into their hands. The Battle of Issus (331 b.c.) brought Syria under the control of Alexander the Great. At his death it became the most important part of the Seleucid kingdom, which included large areas to the east, including Babylon. By the close of the second century, Syria, with Antioch as its capital, was all that was left of the kingdom of the Seleucids. In 64 the Romans made it a province and increased its area to include all the territory from Egypt to the Taurus Mountains, and from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates.

Syria played a prominent part in the early church. It was at Antioch that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians (Acts.11.26). Paul was converted in Syria on the road to Damascus (Acts.9.1-Acts.9.9) and was commissioned with Barnabas by the Antioch church to take the gospel to the Gentiles.

Bibliography: R. T. O'Callaghan, Aram Naharaim, 1948; M. F. Unger, Israel and the Arameans of Damascus, 1957.——WWW

See also

  • Aram