SHORT OVERVIEW OF THE HISTORY
OF ANCIENT PRE-HELLENISTIC SYRIA
Palaeolithic and first occupation
Earliest evidence of hominid presence in Syria dates back to about c. 700,000 years ago,
when the first crude stone tools are being found. Neanderthal occupation is suggested by bones found at sites
such as Dederiyeh Cave near Aleppo. Around 100,000 years, the great migrations of Anatomically Modern Humans
replace Neanderthals in Levantine area. Climatic changes c. 15,000 years ago pushed humans in the Near East to
the adoption of new occupation and food-procuring strategies.
Neolithic developments and Uruk presence in Syria
Around 10,000 years ago, the adoption of agriculture marks the all-important transition into Neolithic.
Syria witnesses the emergence of the first Pre-Pottery Neolithic cultures in the Near East, including famous sites such as
Mureybet and Abu Hureyra, created by sedentary populations with increasing dependence on food-producing systems.
The advent of pottery c. 6,500 years ago, visible at sites such as Mureybet, is then (c. 4,500) follwed by the appearance of large,
urban sites adhering to the traditions of Mesopotamian ‘Ubaid and Uruk cltures. Early urban sites in Syria include
Tell Brak and Tell Mashnaqa.
Early Bronze Age polities
In the mid-3rd millenium BC, Syria witnesses the appearance of large urban sites and whole state systems.
At first believed to be an extension of the Mesopotamian culture, the most prominent sites of Ebla and Mari rather suggest an
indigenous process of formation of a state governed by a literate elite. Mesopotamian and Egyptian influences are visible in art,
writing and religoious iconography. Syria can be thus considered as a cradle of one of the earliest known human civilisations.
Akkadian Occupation and Amorite kingdoms
Syrian kingdoms fall prey to the newly-fromed Akkadian empire in the late 3rd millenium BC.
Although foreign administration and Akkadian writing system are imposed on Syrian cities, local artistic styles as well
as religious traditions and dialects continue to thrive. The waning power of the Sargonic dynasty made way to the rise
of Amorites, a Semitic people who occupied, from the begining of the 2nd millennium BC, large parts of Syria,
including cities such as Mari. After a brief breakdown in urban tradition, the glory of cities such as Brak and Ebla was
rejuvenated by the rise, first of the Hurrian-speaking Mittanian Empire (1500-1300 BC), then of the
Middle Assyrian Empire (1350-1000 BC).
Iron Age and the Great Empires
At the beginning of the 12th century BC, the balance of power in the eastern
Mediterranean is upset by the advent of the Sea Peoples. This series of migrations causes some states
(e.g. Hittite and Mittanian Empires, Mycenean Greece) to collapse, while others (e.g. Egypt Middle Assyrian Empire)
significantly dwindle in power. Syria then experiences the emergence of competing principalities,
sometimes described as Neo- or Syro-Hittite. Neo-Hittite kings, speaking either Luwian or Aramaic languages,
draw heavily from the artistic and architectural traditions of the fallen Hittite empire, which is visible in the Early Iron Age
levels of sites like Aleppo and Carchemish. A majority of the independent Luwian-Aramaean polities is then subdued by the
Neo-Assyrian Empire (900-609 BC), which later falls prey to Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and finally Cyrus of Achaemenid Persia.
Partially adapted from P.M.M.G. Akkermans & G.M. Schwartz 2003 The archaeology of Syria : from complex hunter-gatherers to early urban societies (c. 16,000-300 BC), Cambridge: CUP