“Shi’ites and Shi’ism in Medieval Syria,” by Stephennie Mulder

Shi’ites and Shi’ism in Medieval Syria Sayida Zaynab Mosque Damascus
By Stephennie Mulder 
for "Syria Comment"
December 2006

Ibn Jubayr was not pleased.  Traveling through Syria at the turn of the thirteenth century, the Spaniard paused in his narrative to grumble.  “In these lands, the Shi’ites are an astonishing phenomenon.  They are more numerous than the Sunnis, and they have disseminated their doctrines everywhere.  They are divided into different sects, (including) the Rafidis…the Imamis (Twelvers), the Zaydis…the Isma’ilis, the Nusayris (Alawites) – these last are infidels because they attribute divinity to ‘Ali, may God be pleased with him – the Ghurabiyya, who claim that ‘Ali resembles the Prophet PBUH…as well as other sects one shrinks from enumerating. God has misled them and has misled many of his creations. We beg of God to protect us in (true) religion and seek refuge in Him from the deviations of the heretics!” Could it be true that there was a time when the land of Syria was dominated by Shi’is? 

Although we are used to thinking of this area as predominantly Sunni, during the Middle Ages, from about the tenth to the thirteenth centuries, Shi’ism was widespread. Despite Ibn Jubayr’s concerns, the various Shi’ite sects probably never achieved numerical majority in Syria.  But in this period, they were a highly visible and influential element of Syrian political and cultural life. The story of Shi’ism in medieval Syria is a fascinating, and little-known, tale.   In some areas, Shi’ism appears to have established itself at an early stage: al-Muqaddasi (d. ca.1000) reports that “…regarding allegiance to theological schools, the people of Syria are rightly guided, and upholders of authority and tradition (i.e., Sunni). The people of Tiberias, however, and half the population of Nablus and Qadas, and most of the people of ‘Amman, are Shi’a.”  In fact, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, the lands of Syria were controlled by a series of Shi’ite dynasties, among them the Fatimids, the Hamdanids, and the Mirdasids.  Unlike Egypt, where Shi’ite Fatimids ruled for a time, but where Shi’ties remained far smaller in numbers to Christians and Sunnis, in Syria the Shi’ite dynasties not only build powerful communities, but in many cities also ran things.

In southern Syria, Shi’ite control did not have the same outcome as it did in the area of north-central Syria and the Jazira (Mesopotamia).  Although the Isma’ili Fatimids controlled southern Syria until the mid-twelfth century, Shi’ism remained a marginal presence with few exceptions. Damascus had a community of Imamis (Twelvers); the Druze became entrenched in southern Lebanon and Syria in eleventh century; a split among Isma’ilis led to the creation of the Nizari Isma’ilis or Assassins, who settled in Syria and Iran.  But this was the extent of Shi’i success in southern Syria. In particular, large cities such as Damascus maintained a strong commitment to Sunnism and sheltered only a small minority of Shi’i inhabitants.   Nevertheless, because Damascus is the burial place of many members of the ahl al-bayt or family of the Prophet Muhammad, the city retained an important role in Shi’ite devotional practice; pilgrims both local and from distant lands traveled to Damascus to visit its shrines.  Still today, the graves of Sayyida Zaynab and Sayyida Ruqayya, the Shrine of al-Husayn in the Umayyad Mosque, and the cemetery of Bab al-Saghir in Damascus are the most venerated places of Shi’ite ziyara (visitation) in Syria, with an estimated one million visitors each year making the often-arduous journey from across the Islamic world. 

https://joshualandis.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/Hezbollah Pilgrims Bab al-Saghir Cemetery
Hezbollah Pilgrims at Bab al-Saghir Cemetery

Many of these sites are revered by Sunnis and Shi’is alike and are unique spaces of inter-confessional exchange and interaction.     

'Ashura_Shrine of al-Husayn_UmayyadMosque 

Procession of 'Ashura at Shrine of al-Husayn, Umayyad Mosque

In the Jazira and north-central Syria, the strength of Shi’ism was much more pronounced. In medieval Aleppo, the Shi’is were able to practice their religion freely, even after the return of the city to Sunni hands in the twelfth century.  When the Shi’i Hamdanids captured Aleppo in the mid-tenth century, prince Sayf al-Dawla made Aleppo his capital and built a glittering court, which included the most famous poets, philosophers, and litterateurs of the day.  He attracted the most illustrious Shi’i ulama to Aleppo from the Shi’i centers of Harran, Qum, Kufa, and Karbala’. In 977, the mosques of Aleppo used the Shi’ite formulas “Come to the best of works” and “Muhammad and ‘Ali are the best of men” as part of the call to prayer.  Sayf al-Dawla also founded one of medieval Aleppo’s most important Shi’i shrines, the Mashhad al-Muhassin (Mashhad al-Dakka), devoted to the stillborn son of al-Husayn.  It was destined to become one of the most beloved of Syrian pilgrimage sites. It has been enlarged and beautified repeatedly by Aleppo’s rulers and is still revered today. 

Two other Shi’ite dynasties succeeded the Hamdanids: the Mirdasids and the ‘Uqaylids. They ruled Aleppo until the Seljuks returned it to Sunnism in the twelfth century. In 1069, the Mirdasid prince Mahmud, sensing the political winds shifting in favor of Sunnism, ordered that the invocation of the khutba (Friday sermon) in Aleppo cease to honor the Fatimid Caliph; instead he name the Sunni Abbasid Caliph. The response of the attendees at Friday prayer was outrage: they snatched up their prayer mats and declared defiantly, “These are the mats of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib.  If you want the people to pray, let Abu Bakr bring mats!” The Shi’ites were numerous in Aleppo and dominated positions of rank; By the second half of the eleventh century, Aleppo was among the most celebrated centers of Shi’i scholarship and culture throughout the Islamic world. 

The return of northern Syria to Sunni orthodoxy was slow and marked by a number of extraordinary statesmen who sought compromise between the sects. They struggled to find a middle way to preserve the prosperity and social concord of their city. The archetypal Sunni ruler Nur al-Din hesitated to enforce official Sunnism on the city. According to the twelfth-century Shi’ite chronicler Ibn Abi Tayyi’, Nur al-Din initially “conformed to the attitude of his father (‘Imad al-Din Zangi), showing great respect for the Aleppine Shi’ites, encouraging them to practice their prayer openly according to their rite in the eastern section of the great mosque. Their muezzins continued to call the faithful to prayer from the minarets of Aleppo, using the Shi’ite formula: ‘Come to the best of works!’”  The chronicler claims that in his father’s day, even the mosque of Aleppo’s famous citadel (the residence of the Sunni ruler) used the Shi’ite formula. To win the confidence of Shi’ites and demonstrate his respect for their ways, Nur al-Din made ziyara to the Shi’i shrine of al-Muhassin and inscribed verses on the wall in his own hand. The day that Sunni pressure forced him to prohibit the Shi’ite call to prayer, riots broke out in the city and threatened civil war. Only by restoring most Shi’ite privileges was civic peace restored.  

Al-Malik al-Zahir (ruled 1186–1216), the son of the great Sunni leader Saladin, also sought to establish a delicate middle ground between Sunni and Shi’ite in Aleppo. Despite his father’s strong commitment to Sunnism, al-Zahir understood that the welfare of Aleppo’s Shi’ite community was central to Aleppo’s greatness. To this end, he built one of the Ayyubid epoch’s architectural gems, the shrine to al-Husayn. Not only was it built at great expense, but it was also a monument with a message. Over the magnificent entrance portal two inscriptions call for conciliation between Syria’s diverse sects; the first praises the twelve Shi’i Imams and the second lauds the four Rightly Guided Caliphs of the Sunnis. 

Aleppo: Husayn Portal Inscription Praising Twelve Imams

Aleppo: Husayn Portal Inscription Praising the Twelve Imams

Remarkably, by investing so lavishly in an architectural project that clearly benefited Syria’s Shi’i population, al-Zahir was not acting alone. In fact, he was following the precedent set by the Sunni Abbasid caliph al-Nasir li-Din Allah. This caliph had patronized at least seven Shi’ite shrines, chief among them the tomb of the twelfth Imam at Samarra, which al-Nasir renovated and enlarged in 1209. Al-Nasir’s policies had an overtly political goal: to unify the Islamic community under the single banner of the Caliph in Baghdad, and thereby to strengthen the caliphate, which by the twelfth century had long been in decline.  To that end, he seems to have advocated a “politically correct” Sunnism that tolerated moderate sectarian differences.  To Syria’s and Islam’s great misfortune, al-Zahir and al-Nasir’s policies were not continued by their successors.

The Shi’is of Syria were persecute relentlessly in later ages. The Mongols slaughtered thousands of Shiites after sacking Aleppo in 1260. Egyptian Mamluks repeated the Mongol depredations some forty years later when they drove the Crusaders from Syria and sought to impose their own form of orthodoxy on the Syrian mosaic. Under the Mamluk Sultan al-Ashraf, the Shi’is were pursued with singular determination; the Druze and Nusayris (Alawis) were forced to conform to Sunnism; Masyaf Castle: Ismailithe Isma’ili fortresses were besieged and captured; the Twelvers were driven from Kisrawan in northwest Lebanon and settled in the Bekaa valley.  Many Shi’is, including scholars such as Muhammad ibn Makki al-‘Amili, known as Shahid al-Awwal, were forced to live in takiyya (dissimulation) because of the periodic intolerance of the Mamluk regime.   In later ages, despite occasional periods of greater openness, the Shi’is of Syria would never again achieve the prominence they knew from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries.  But for a time in the medieval era – much to the Spanish pilgrim Ibn Jubayr’s annoyance – Shi’ism seemed ascendant.  

Stephennie Mulder received her Masters degree in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University in 2001.  She is a PhD candidate studying Islamic architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is completing her dissertation on Sunni patronage of Shi’i shrines in medieval Syria.  She has traveled extensively in Syria for the past nine years while working as excavation ceramicist at the Islamic site of Balis on the Euphrates.  In 2005, she received a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship for her dissertation research and had the pleasure of living in Syria for a very happy year.  She still misses Qaimariyya street.      

Addendum (a bit taken from a Landis article): The Ottoman Turks, on conquering Syria in the 16th century, revived Ibn Taymiyya’s anti-Alawite injunctions in an effort to cleanse the region of Alawites and Shiites.  According to Muhammad Ghalib al‑Tawil, the first Alawite to write a history of his community, Selim I, the Ottoman Sultan who conquered Aleppo in 1516, demanded a fatwa from the Sunni religious men of the city to fight the "infidel Alawites" and Shiites. He then brought 9,400 Shiite leaders to Aleppo under the pretext of carrying out peaceful negotiations, but instead detained and murdered them. As word of the massacre spread through the Shi’a community, thousands fled into the Alawite Mountains seeking safe haven. But Sultan Selim was not content merely to exterminate the religious leadership of the heterodox, he bent on their total destruction and led his army to the city of Latakia, where he slaughtered any Alawites he could find. According to al‑Tawil’s mournful account of the period, "no traces of the Nusayris were left in Latakia except the graves of their ancestors."[1] Though Sultan Salim did not succeed in wiping out the Alawites, he did succeed in corralling them into the mountain regions along the Syrian coast and emptying the cities and principle towns of heterodox Muslims. Stories of Alawite suffering at the hands of the Ottomans are repeated among the Alawites to this day and provide the bedrock for continuing distrust between Alawites and Sunnis.[2]

    [1]Muhammad Ghalib al‑Tawil, Tarikh al‑`Alawiyyin, Beirut: Dar al‑Nahas, 2nd ed., 1966, pp. 394‑99 & 434‑36. This book was originally published in 1925.
    [2]Moosa, Extremist Shiites, p. 269; Munir al‑Sharif, al‑Muslimun al‑`Alawiyyun, Man Hum? Wa Ayna Hum? Damascus: al‑Matba`a al‑`Umumiyya, 2nd ed., 1966, p. 149.
postscript: I asked Stephennie for this short article last month when the National Salvation Front had raised the scare of massive conversions taking place from Sunni to Shi'i Islam. It was said at the time that this "Iranian influence" would "destroy the unity of Syrian society." A little history is always a good tonic for such anxieties.

Comments (47)

Gibran said:

Thanks to Sultan Selim. He was great indeed.

December 12th, 2006, 6:40 am


Karim said:

Iran was also a Sunni country 450 years ago.
Most of the Iranian thinkers and scientists from the middle age were sunnis.

December 12th, 2006, 7:25 am


Dubai Jazz said:

Dr. Landis, thanks for posting this interesting piece of history. It used to be very dull subject in high school. (you know that history subjects are usually edited for politically correct reasons!).
What about the timing of posting this article; beside what you have mentioned in the P.S., anything else of importance?

December 12th, 2006, 8:20 am


Karim said:

Btw a lot of alevis-bekteshi-hurufi were member of the elitist janissary corp.

December 12th, 2006, 8:21 am


ivanka said:

Hello, I am betting the Brammertz report will contain accusations against Syria. A way of slowing down the action of the Lebanese opposition. Very interesting article here and the comments are even more interesting.

December 12th, 2006, 9:16 am


ivanka said:

Karim most of the Iranian scientists and thinkers from the middle ages were atheist, in fact.

December 12th, 2006, 9:17 am


Yasser said:

Actually, if u know the facts and the real secrets in Alawites u will find why alhusain killed and why alhallaj killed and why 40ths people were killed by abn tayimia fatwa killed also, the fact those people have grate approach to understande the relegion ,the nature and the wisdom.

December 12th, 2006, 9:55 am


MSK said:

Dear Josh,

while the article in itself is interesting (apart from some silly mistakes like “The Mongols slaughtered thousands of Shiites after sacking Aleppo in 1260.” — No, the Mongols didn’t give a s*** about the religious identity of the people in a besieged city, they just killed enemy populations, and in Aleppo at the time the majority of inhabitants happened to be Shi’ites.) there are a few issues with it & your posting it in the context that you did.

First of all, nobody – incl. the above article by S. Mulder – would assert any kind of “unity of Syrian society” during the Middle (or any other pre-modern) ages. There was no “Syria” or any other unified socio-political entity spanning the region, and there was certainly no “Syrian” or otherwise regionally-unified society. (On that note, what term did Al-Muqaddasi use that Mulder translated as “people of Syria”?)

Josh, you of all people on this site know very well that we cannot use examples of the Middle Ages to bolster our arguments of today.

Sectarianism, nationalism, Islamism, etc. are modern phenomena. And thus religious identity today is something very different from religious identity in 935 or 1123 or even 1721.

And you know that.

For example, the lands that are now Iraq have always hosted a multitude of groups with different linguistic/religious/tribal/etc. identities, but there had never been a civil war of the ethno-sectarianist type we see right now. But today, where essentialist politics (be they of the nationalist or religionist variety – and often a combination of both) are THE main currents, they are at the basis of group decisions and dynamics.

And Syria isn’t so different from Iraq.

It MATTERS that the ruling elite is decidedly and self-consciously Alawi (and whether that is a religious or ethnic identity is quite irrelevant).

The Christians in Damascus DO feel like they are under pressure from Islamists (just talk to people in Bab Touma, and they will tell you that Christians are moving from mixed neighborhoods back into “their own ones” and that they view with concern the building of one big mosque after another around their quarter).

And because of the example given by HA in neighboring Lebanon as well as the fact that pretty much the only obvious (i.e. those unmistakenly recognizable) Shi’ites that Syrians usually see are the pilgrims to the shrines in Damascus & environs, the Shi’ites in general ARE being seen as “Iranians” and “loyal to Iran”.

There is a reason why the regime’s argument “If we fall, then Syria will turn into the next Iraq” works among Syrians. If Syrians were so sure about “national unity” … then there would be no fear of a civil war, of Iraq’s tensions and strife spilling over into Syria, or any talk of “better a dictator who keeps things calm than a freedom that results in chaos.”


December 12th, 2006, 10:44 am


Taj Abu Jawad said:

Thanks to Dr Landis. I’ve been followed about the political affairs and comments on Syria from you website. Finally this article enlighten in my studies about the shi’ism and shi’ites in Syria in relation to the Sunni in Syria at present.

December 12th, 2006, 11:10 am


Mo said:

MSK, please cite your sources. You are analyzing and coming out with a number of unfounded ideas and conclusions as if they were facts:

your history lesson is wrong, “Syria” & “Syrians” have been around for a very long time to define the geographical area and name its inhabitants. And note that “Syria” and “al-Sham” have been used interchangeably in different langugages. Please revisit your history books.

Again, the Damascene Christians’ relocation and anxiety because “they view with concern the building of one big mosque after another around their quarter” is absurd. Just tell me where this is happening!

How can you generalize and say that “the Shi’ites in general ARE being seen as “Iranians” and “loyal to Iran”?

Please, when you want to present your personal views, use “I think”, “I believe that”, “I assume”… Otherwise cite relevant sources to support your case!

December 12th, 2006, 11:54 am


Karim Douglas Crow said:

Yes, an interesting piece of history, particularly for the architectural testimony of Shi’ite presence in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine (medieval Sham). One major source which provides generous details about the various Shi’ah groups and their populations & places not mentioned is the Andalusian Qadi Abu Bakr Ibn al-‘Arabi (d.543/1148), al-‘Awasim min al-Qawasim /Protective Safeguards from Shattering Accusations, ed. ‘Ammar Talibi (Algeria, 1974; rpr. Cairo, Dar al-Turath, 1997). This is a bitter polemic against philosophers, Ghazali, batinis and Shi’ah by a diehard Maliki, and should not be overlooked. I am convinced that Ibn Taymiyyah, that inveterate Hanbali polemicist, mined this work for his own vituperative deformations, but without acknowledgement.
also, there are important details to be gleaned from the writings of the 5th cent. Allepine 12er scholar Muhammad b. ‘Ali al-Karajuki (d.449 H), eg. his Kanz al-Fawa’id, ed. ‘Abdallah Na’mah (Beirut, Dar al-Adwa’, 1985), and of course the works of Shahid al-Awwal himself. Modern 12er scholars have paid attention to this aspect of the history of their own community, including of course the important Jabal `Amil area.

As for assessment of the relative strength of the Shi’ah communities in Sham over these centuries, it is difficult to say, but the architectural remains may help clarify this.

20th century events have tended to obscure the Arab nature of these communities, both in the Levant and Iraq. With so many Iranian pilgrims and tourists coming to Syria nowadays, there is a tendency to dub Shiites altogether as Iranian. Don’t forget as well that under the Baath in Iraq, all citizens had inscribed in their identity cards one of two “identities”: either ‘Uthmani (= Arab Sunni & Kurdish) or Irani (= Arab Shi’i). This pejorative labelling of the majority of Iraqis as potential fifth columnists has colored contemporary Sunni attitudes, who tend to label all Shiites in Iraq as Iranian.

A Valuable piece of research, and of course we await the publication of her work to learn more details. Thank you for the posting, Josh, and give my best regards to your family from Laure and Ralph who remain in good health.

Professor Karim Douglas Crow
Institute of Defence & Strategic Studies

December 12th, 2006, 12:21 pm


MSK said:

Dear Mo,

why did I just know that this particular issue would generate the predictable “Syria has been around forever” reply?

Just off the my bookshelf (and Josh can probably cite more):

– Picard, Elizabeth: Lebanon. A Shattered Country. (Revised Ed.) p. 24-25 — She cites B. Abu-Manneh’s IJMES (2/1980) article on Butros al-Bustani “The Christians between Ottomanism and Syrian Nationalism: the Ideas of Butros al-Bustani” It was B. al-Bustani who re-introduced the term “suriya” as a label to be used interchangably with “bilad al-sham”.

As for your assertion that “‘Syria’ and ‘al-Sham’ have been used interchangeably in different langugages.” … how about you cite YOUR source(s)? I am very interested in pre-1850/60 sources that use the term “suriya” and would like to know just what exactly that means & to which territory it refers in each respective text.

On the Damascene Christians – I lived in Bab Touma and talked to people there. That was in Summer of 2002 and then again visits in 2002/03 and late 2005. Sorry, I didn’t write down the names and addresses of the Christians I spoke with. And the new mosques being built around Bab Touma (on the ring road outside the Old City as well as the “Straight Street” and other neighborhoods west of Bab Touma) … well, just take a stroll around you’ll see & hear them. Also please note that I was talking about how Christians feel, not that there is an objectively measurable anti-Christian movement or the like. But perception matters.

On the Shi’ites, HA’s Iranian connection is quite public. And the Shi’ite pilgrims are quite visible as well. And that many (if not most) are from Iran isn’t a secret either – Syrians do know the difference between Arabic and Persian. There aren’t that many indigenous Shi’ites in Syria – I am not counting Alawis as Shi’ites, as Syrians themselves would not do it. The association of “Shi’ites” with “Iran” isn’t particularly new. So what’s your issue here?


December 12th, 2006, 12:39 pm


t_desco said:

Regarding the new Brammertz report:

“A Lebanese judicial source said Monday that this week’s report, like the two before it, “will be purely technical.”

“This isn’t the final report and Brammertz’ mission has already been extended until mid-2007, so there will be nothing flashy in this report,” the source added.”
The Daily Star

“Al Hayat quoted sources as saying that the report deals mainly with criminal evidence and the linkage between the series of assassinations related to ex-Premier Rafik Hariri’s Feb. 2005 murder.

The newspaper also quoted the sources as saying the Brammertz report does not include names of suspects, witnesses and countries involved in the murders, which started with the attempt to assassinate Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh on Oct. 1, 2004.”
Naharnet; Al-Hayat

However, the new twist in the Fatah Intifada/Fatah Islam story could have some interesting repercussions. If the arrest of Abu Khalid Al-`Amlah is linked to the Fatah Islam case this could be very embarrasing for Syria because nobody is going to believe that he acted without the knowledge of the Syrian mukhabarat. Fatah Islam or a similar organization would be a potential source for highly motivated suicide bombers, one of the remaining puzzles in the Hariri case…

December 12th, 2006, 1:18 pm


majedkhaldoun said:

I do not think that the lebanese crisis will resolve till we see Brammertz report,if nothing in it,as far as accusation, then the demonstrations will disband,till june.

December 12th, 2006, 2:23 pm


Karim said:

Ivanka,some were free thinkers like Omar Khayyam ,but Omar before his death went on piligrimage to Mecca.As for Ghazali,Nizam Mulk,Saadi,Hafez,Attar,Tabari,Khawarizmi,Biruni,Rumi… most were pious muslim.

December 12th, 2006, 3:13 pm


Karim said:

Btw ,it’s known that after the king Nouredin ,the big majority of Syria was sunni,Nouredin asked to Iranian Sunni Sheikh to propagate sunnism in the medresseh that were build by him,his father,the ayyoubis resumed this policy.Many of these medresseh are still preserved in aleppo and damascus.Even before the Mameluks,the shia were a small minority,only few remained in Sarmin until 13 century.

December 12th, 2006, 3:23 pm


Mo said:


I NEVER claimed that modern-state Syria has existed forever, I NEVER specified borders either, so please don’t misquote me and say you expected the “predictable “Syria has been around forever” reply”.

What I don’t understand is how you come to assertions like “There was no “Syria” or any other unified socio-political entity spanning the region”. SPECIFY region! I will give you the historical background:

– The Greeks used the term “Syria” to denote the “East of the Mediterranean”. How far East do you want to go? Well nobody knows where they set the borders. Perhaps they just referred to Phoenicia, but that was a region including present-day Lebanon, Palestine/Israel, and the Western part of Syria, which happens to be the most populated area today. Doesn’t this mean a “unified socio-political entity spanning the region”?

– Some other historians say the word “Syria” comes from the ancient “Assyria”. If you want to accept this definition rather, then you probably know where the Kingdom of Assyria was located (NE present Syria + N of Iraq + SE Turkey).

I agree that both interpretations of the origins of the name “Syria” are a bit contradictory, but they clearly denote a “unified socio-political entity spanning the region”. Pick the theory you prefer, this is not the issue.

But what we KNOW for a fact, is that the Arabs used the word “Bilad al-Sham” to name the region. And as you probably know, the Arabian Peninsula had in ancient times 3 regional neighbours in the North: “Bilad al-Sham” (or Greater Syria), “al-Iraq” (Irak), and “Bilad Fares” (Persia). Note: I am not referring to Kingdoms, but pure geography! If you had done your homework in Islamic history, you would know that during the Omeyyad Dynasty, “Bilad al-Sham” was a “unified socio-political entity spanning the region”, much larger than today’s Syria; and this was long before “1850/60” indeed!

I don’t know if you consider governorates or provinces separate entities. However, “Bilad al-Sham” or “Greater Syria” (= the Western translation) referred, for centuries, at least since the beginning of the Islamic era, to a region with a common language, predominant religion, and the derived political system.

Don’t use your references out of context, you said “B. al-Bustani who re-introduced the term “suriya” as a label to be used interchangably with “bilad al-sham”.” pay attention to “RE-introduced”. For a quick reference, use the net & google “term Syria”. If you are more patient, refer to the Arabic & Islamic library, and to the Prophet’s hadiths about “al-Sham” (not for a religious study). He lived before “1850/60”. Refer to the Crusaders’ accounts of their time.

I would like to invite Josh into this, but I really look with a lot of suspicion at modern claims that this region is made up of a mix of ethnic & religious groups, with nothing in common, who never formed a unity, who battled throughout history, and who were forced together into modern European-drawn states!

I am happy with your other reply about Damascene Christians, now you are clearly saying this is what you personally experienced, heard and saw. This is all I am asking for, don’t forget you initially said “The Christians in Damascus DO feel like…”, you used “The”..

On the Shi’ites, your initial post was misleading. It sounded as if you were questioning the loyalty of Syrian Shi’ites. I have no problem with Iranian Shi’ites being loyal to Iran!

I respect your personal opinion, as long as you clearly present it as such!

December 12th, 2006, 4:36 pm


Alex said:

MSK, of course Surya has been there forever


An “enlightened” Canadian historian told me.

He also noted that the “Sun Salutation” Yoga exercise (or Surya Namaskar) is possibly the original way Muslim prayers were supposed to be, but lazy people with time made it much easier physically.

December 12th, 2006, 5:03 pm


MSK said:

Dear Mo,

you have given proof to the same argument that I made:

There was a term “Syria” used in Antiquity. And only the Greeks and others called the whole Eastern Med coast by one name doesn’t mean that it was one socio-political entity. They also called the whole continent of Africa by one name … Please don’t confuse labels for geographical regions with socio-policial entities.

Anyway, after Antiquity the term “Syria” was not used and instead replaced by the term “Bilad al-Sham”, used from around the time of the spread of Islam onwards. As you well know (but others might not), “Bilaad al-Sham” is the opposite of “Bilad al-Yaman” – one is left & the other right, with the point of view being from someone standing in the Hijaz (Mecca/Medina) and looking eastward.

Then there was (from ca. the mid-19th century on) the re-use of the term “Syria”, now also Arabized as “Suriya” (sometimes spelled سورية , sometimes سوريا), and it was Butros al-Bustani who re-introduced this term into the region.

I am still waiting for you to show proof for the use of “suriya” during the time referred to in the article posted by Josh, i.e. between the 7th and 18th centuries.

“Bilaad al-Sham”, just as “Al-Iraq” or “Bilad al-Fars” are regions, just like “Sahil” and “Maghrib” and “Yaman” and “Hind”. Those labels do not determine socio-political unity.

And I wasn’t talking about whether or not there were political states that, at some point or other, spanned across the “Bilaad al-Sham” (btw, note that it’s “bilaad” & not “balad”?). I was talking about the fact that Josh referred to a “unity of Syrian society”. In pre-modern times the inhabitants of large regions did not have any “unity of society”.

That doesn’t mean that, as you seem to imply I insinuated, they were warring with each other all the time, had nothing in common, or were “forced together into modern European-drawn states”.

It just means that geographical identity was rather short-distance (the inhabitants of a town, or a valley, or a mountain range, and such), and only in modern times (19th century upwards), with the development of modern means of long-distance communication (railroad, telegraph, etc.) did that change. And then you get notions of geographic identity over larger regions, like “Syria” or “Egypt” or “Iraq” and all that.

It’s really not that different from the development of nationalisms in other parts of the world.

If you want sources, do let me know.


PS: Yes, I would also like to ask Josh to comment on this issue.

December 12th, 2006, 5:19 pm


Alex said:


And I would also like Joshua to comment on my suggested most ancient origin of surya’s name!

Why was Syria “Arabized” as surya?

December 12th, 2006, 5:49 pm


MSK said:

Dear Alex,

ha – that’s a great one. Love it! We should put it in the same file as the “Turks are the descendants of the ancient Hittites” theory.

As for “Syria -> suriya/suriyah”, crazy Arabs don’t have a “y” in their alphabet! Weird, I know. And I’m sure if Bernard Lewis lives long enough, he’ll cite that as yet another reason why Arabs just can’t seem to be able to “modernize”.

Ohhh … NOW I know why Turkey managed to join “civilization”! They changed from the Arabic to the Latin alphabet!!! It’s all about the “Y”! Going further, can a people that doesn’t have a “y” conceptualize the question “why”?


December 12th, 2006, 6:15 pm


MSK said:

If this works then the comments won’t all show in italics anymore. “Someone” forgot to close a tag …


December 12th, 2006, 7:08 pm


Alex said:

That’s right. which idiot forgot to close that tag?!


December 12th, 2006, 7:32 pm


MSK said:

Dear Alex,

I blame Josh. If only he’d installed a “preview” function in his comment section like “fii Urubba wa al-duwwal al-mutaqaddumah”, then such a mistake would never have happened.


December 12th, 2006, 7:42 pm


Alex said:

Here is an example of the on/off use of “Syria”.

The Address is Jerusalem Syria, but the tour covers “Palestine, Syria, Egypt and the Nile”!

Syrian women from Mardin (South East Turkey)

And Chaldeans from Mardin mesopotamia

So at the eastern end, Syria becomes Mesopotamia.

But then again, go more east and you can find Syrians from Sena, Persia

December 12th, 2006, 7:43 pm


ivanka said:

Karim you are right and I am glad to see we have a commentator who knows all these things. I was referring to Khayyam and Ibn Sina actually. I think Khayyam lived in doubt, not atheism, all his life. The fact that he visited Mecca doesn’t mean he returned to faith before dieing, since people would visit mecca for many reasons. I think Khayyam said: “In the deepest faith (yaqeen) there is doubt (shak) and in the deepest doubt there is faith.” He is my favourite zindiq anyway.

December 12th, 2006, 8:05 pm


MSK said:

Dear Alex,

all those pictures are from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The re-introduction of the term “Syria” (Al-Bustani et.al.) happened in the middle of the 19th century.

Palestine was often also “filed” under Syria, up to the 1920s/1930s. Ditto for what is now Lebanon.

The label “Syrian Christians” for Assyrian or Syriac ones was quite common back then as well.

Not getting the local and actual names of groups by strangers is normal, no? How many people know the difference between Alawites in Syria and Alevis in Turkey? Or that Armenians come in 3 different versions of Christianity?

Love your photo collection, btw.


December 12th, 2006, 8:37 pm


Karim said:

There is no or few vestige of the hamdanis in aleppo or fatimis in damascus and tripoli.
The internal policy of the hamdanis was not as glorious than sayf dawla’s court.
Mashhad al Husain and Muhasin were completly rebuild by the sons of Salahudin Al Ayyoubi.

December 13th, 2006, 12:17 am


Enlightened said:

Bravo, what an interesting article! As a avid historian it was good to get a refresher course! Josh it would be good to see her final piece when it is published, it would make good reading!

Just a quick note, to the readers I studied Greco/Roman history the first official use of the term Syria as a province came into being in the texts if i can recall correctly when Pompey conquered the east! The term Syria/Palestina was then used after the destruction of the Jewsih temple and the administration of the governor of the province was moved to Antioch.

I can also recall reading when the Byzantine empire lost Syria to the Arabs, the Emperor before leaving back to Constantinople ” Farewell my beloved Syria, you were a good province” Hence the term Syria then was in common use to describe the area. ( much larger than present day Syria )

Anyway, we need more of these atricles rather than the often depressing news we get out of the levant!

December 13th, 2006, 12:45 am


Alex said:

MSK, thanks! … I will be adding some funny ones for Christmas. You will like them.

And I agree about the classic confusion between Assyrians and Syrians.

Enlightened, can you try to remember if it was at the time “Syria”, “Surya” … or any other version?

I would like to find out more about the base for Arabic name “suriah” … it could also be because of “Ashouryiah” or Assyrian.

December 13th, 2006, 2:47 am


Enlightened said:

Alex firstly, the pictures are excellent , I have never travelled to the mid east so it is a cultural lesson!

The name was syria, not surya as i can recall, the governate of Judea was abolished, and the official Roman delineation for the area became Syria/Palestina! I dont know why or the reasons the ancient texts never brought up the issue!

The name Africa, was derived from Scipio Africanus’ name, there might be a hint in that! But i dont believe so in the Syrian case! The case is best solved if we talk to an aramaic speaker, and ask, if and what syria is represented in the aramaic language!

The arabic name or base as you described it, linked to assyria might have some merit! If assyria was located on the opposite banks to the Tigris Euphrates!, then the land on the other side would have to been syria! ( sounds simple ) Assyria ( base name mountains to Ashur ) ie towards the mountains ) Syria opposite the banks and to the plains of Syria.

I might be mad but that is my theory!

December 13th, 2006, 4:42 am


Joshua said:

Etymology of Syria from Wikipedia

The name Syria comes from the ancient Greek name for the land of Aram at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea between Egypt and Arabia to the south and Cilicia to the north, stretching inland to include Mesopotamia, and having an uncertain border to the northeast that Pliny the Elder describes as including from west to east Commagene, Sophene, and Adiabene, “formerly known as Assyria” (N.H. 5.66). By Pliny’s time, however, this larger Syria had been divided into a number of provinces under the Roman Empire (but politically independent from each other): Judaea (or “Judea” and later renamed Palestina in AD 135—the region corresponding to the modern states of Israel and Jordan and the Palestinian territories) in the extreme southwest, Phoenicia corresponding to Lebanon, with Damascena to the inland side of Phoenicia, Coele-Syria (or “Hollow Syria”) south of the Eleutheris river, and Mesopotamia.

December 13th, 2006, 5:31 am


Stephennie said:

Dear readers, I must thank you for the lively and fascinating discussion in response to my article. Just a note re. the term “Syria”: As far as I am aware, Syria is a term of uncertain etymology, but it is ancient in origin. One theory is that it derives from the Old Babylonian term “Suri” which referred to the area of northeastern Syria. Another posits its origins in the ancient Egyptian name HRW, which designated the lands north of Egypt. This became in Bohairic (Coptic) “Shairi” via phonological substitution of H for Sh. But I believe most of this is just educated speculation by various smart people and cannot be proven. What is sure is that the Greeks took this term and made it Syria, using it to refer to the area of the eastern Mediterranean.

As MSK and MO have so ably informed us, the term “al-Sham” is an Arabic one only in use following the Islamic conquest, to define the region to the left or north of the Hijaz. Medieval Bilad al-Sham was delineated by Arab geographers as the lands stretching from the Mediterranean in the West, the Taurus in the North, the Euphrates in the East and Egypt in the South. Thus it essentially corresponds to the early twentieth-century term “Greater Syria.” al-Sham can also be used to refer to the city of Damascus, just as “Misr” can mean either Cairo, or Egypt as a whole.

I considered defining the term al-Sham and discussing its medieval geographical boundaries when I wrote the article, but decided against it for fear of seeming pedantic! So I opted for the term Syria for simplicity’s sake. Clearly I underestimated Joshua’s readership.

December 13th, 2006, 7:00 am


Joshua said:

Here is Richard Frye solving our problem about the proper use of the word Syria. In contrast to MSK, he argues it is the legitimate word used by people of the Levant to designate the Syrian people who spoke Aramaic or Assyrian. Here are some quotes from his short article which is worth reading in its entirety. Alex, I think you had it right.

Assyria and Syria: Synonyms
Richard N. Frye, Ph.D., Harvard University

Recent research has shown that the Greeks first used the term Syria/Assyria at the beginning of the seventh century B.C., and their first contacts with the interior of the Near East were with the people of Cilicia and Cappadocia, whom they called Syrians.4 At that time, the whole area was under Assyrian control and the lingua franca of the entire area was Aramaic. The spoken language of the Assyrian court and bureaucracy was also Aramaic.5 Consequently, the Greeks equated the political empire with the Aramaic speaking population living in it, which was quite logical to the Greeks.

The reasons for the spread of the Aramaic language were not only the expansion of the Aramaeans themselves into the Fertile Crescent, as early as the second millennium B.C., but also the policies of transfer of populations by the Assyrian state, especially in the eight century B.C. under Sargon II and Tiglath- Pileser III. Large numbers of people were moved, and inhabitants of ancient Assyria (present-day northern Iraq) were also settled all over the Fertile Crescent.6 The spread of the use of Aramaic coincided with the political expansion of the Assyrian Empire, with the consequent mixture of the political term “Assyrian” and the linguistic term “Aramaic speaker”.7 The use of the term “Assyrian” for the Aramaic language and alphabet is even found as late as the sixth century of our era when the rabbis of the Talmudic period speak of their Aramaic (modern Hebrew) alphabet as “Ashuri.”

At some point, however, the Greeks began to distinguish between Syria=the Levant and Assyria=Mesopotamia,

It seems clear that the general terms “Assyrian” and “Syrian” were regarded as synonyms not only in early times but late into the medieval period by at least some people in the East. The Arab conquests brought a new term into the Near East, for the Arabs called the land of present-day Syria Bilad al-Sham. In western writings, however, the terms “Syria” and “Syriac language” continued in use.

What did the Neo-Syrian Aramaic-speaking Christians in the Near East call themselves in the Middle Ages? Michael the Jacobite patriarch of Antioch (1166-99) wrote that inhabitants of the land to the west of the Euphrates River were properly called Syrians, and by analogy, all those who speak the same language, which he calls Aramaic (]rmy]), both east and west of the Euphrates to the bordeers of Persia, are called Syrians.13 He continues that the basis of the Syriac language, i.e., Aramaic, is from Edessa (Urfa). Even more interesting is his remark (vol. 1, p. 32) giving the names of peoples who possessed writing, among them are ]twry] d hywn swryy], “Assyrians,” i.e., “Syrians,” by which presumably he means the ancient Assyrians, whom he identifies with his contemporary speakers of Syriac. This book by a learned native speaker shows the continuous equating of the terms “Syrian” and “Assyrian” for many Eastern Christians.

The Carmelites in Iran, much later in the seventeenth century, were also not consistent in their usage of the terms “Syrian” and “Assyrian.” We find in their writings the terms “Jacobite Syrian,” “Eastern Assyrian,” “Chaldaean,” “Syrian,” and “Assyrian.” One may say that the words were used almost interchangeably, and the assertion by some that the word “Assyrian” was a creation of Westerners in the eighteenth or nineteenth century is surely incorrect.15

The connection of the word “Assyrian” with the empires of ancient Assyria, on the other hand, probably was emphasized by Western missionaries and was then eagerly accepted by many eastern Neo-Syriac speaking Christians.

The discoveries of ancient Assyrian sites and cuneiform records about the rulers of ancient Assyria stimulated interest among local Christians who had only heard about Assyrian kings from the Bible. This modern history of the usage of “Assyrian,” however is not our concern here.

The early historical record of the usage of “Assyrian/Syrian” shows two facts clearly, first, confusion in Western usage between Syria for the western part of the Fertile Crescent, and Assyria for the ancient land east of the Euphrates, and, second, the Eastern usage, which did not differentiate between the two except under Western influence or for other external reasons. The Easterners retained historical usage of their own until the modern period.

Archaeological discoveries of the end of the nineteenth century together with the adoption of Western terms, particularly from the period of post- World War I colonial mandates, when terminology was fixed according to Western usage, changed the old Eastern usage.

December 13th, 2006, 7:28 am


Mo said:

Stephennie, Josh,

Many thanks for your valuable feedback

December 13th, 2006, 8:37 am


youngSyria said:

suriya is used in bahasa malayu (Malay language) too, and it means sun . I think they got it from Indians, since Malay language is a cocktail of chines ,Arabic ,English and Indian languages .

so when u go to KL twin towers, you can read suriya KLCC.
yes our country’s name is every where in this world…. lol

December 13th, 2006, 9:15 am


MSK said:

Dear Stephennie,

well … the whole “nation/country X has been here forever” debate is pervasive throughout the world, and in the context of of colonialist borders in the MidEast particularly so.

Dear Josh,

the big issue at hand here is, of course, not the etymology of the term “Syria/Suriya” but that you implied that one can use pre-modern situations to prove contemporary argument when it comes to issues like religious (or other) identity.

So, thanks for the quote from Wiki & the other article, but … I had hoped you’d say something on the conversation that Mo and I had.


December 13th, 2006, 9:31 am


Alex said:

Young Syria

When I was studying Engineering, I was approached by an Indian student who told me: “I heard you are Syrian”, and I said “yes”, so he replied with a clearly Indian accent: “I’m Syrian too… there are many Syrians in India”.

At the time I did not know what to say to this crazy Indian claiming he is Syrian.

My father explained to me that he meant “Assyrian” Ashuri. It seems there are tens of thousands of Assyrians in India.

Richard Frye says that the Greeks first used “Syria/Assyria” in the 7th century B.C. … I am still interested in why that term (possibly surya or ashuria?) was there at the time. I think it really could be related to the sun or the Sun God. Sun worshipers were all over the eastern Mediterranean (Syria, Mesopotamia) at that time:

In Urfa

Emesa or Homs

Zoroastrians … see these Zoroastrian students wearing the sun on their school uniforms

Mandeans, Sabians in Amara (iraq)

MSK, going back to your “big issue”, I always wondered to what extent does Syria’s rich mix of Sunnis, shia, Ismailis, Druze, Assyrians, Sufis, Christians, AND the pre-chrisianity religions (although indirectly) affect what is “Syria” today.

I believe it does. I think it can sometimes explain why Syria is often the odd man out among the leading Arab nations.

Syria is the transition area between the mainstream Arab world, and Asia/Europe. I think Syria’s decision to open up to Turkey and Iran is an admission/realization that Syria’s natural position is not purely at the center of the Arab world, but at its peripheral.

December 13th, 2006, 1:02 pm


Alex said:

Besides, which way does information flow?

Look at the address of Toyota’s Indian website

So if to us Bharat(spices in Arabic)=India, then maybe to them the sunny eastern Mediterraneans = the sun (surya)? *

* Not too serious, I just woke up

December 13th, 2006, 1:21 pm


norman said:

Alex , the Indians who are Syrians are not Assyrian they are Syrian orthodox ,the Syrian orthodox chuch have many followers in India and we call ourselves Syrian orthodox.

December 13th, 2006, 3:45 pm


Alex said:


True! … I am losing it.

Syrian Orthodox (Syriac), not Assyrians.

And their population is supposedly two and half millions!

December 13th, 2006, 3:53 pm


Joshua said:

The following is a note I received on the al-Sham controversy from Tayeb al-Hibry, a specialist in 8-9 century Islamic literature and historiography. See his book.

Dear Josh,

The problem as usual is the lack of work on medieval cultural history. Had there been a Cambridge history of Syria (such as the one for Egypt) with contributions by different specialists, it would have been a reference for such an occasion. It so happens that my current book manuscript deals a lot with the centrality for Syria in Tabari’s narrative. Let me suggest a few clarifications from the historiographical analysis, and if you find some things useful, I’ll try to put a paragraph together. Usually the interests of blog groups is more factual and traditional.

The appreciation for the term Syria (al-Sham) should not be sought just from travellers accounts and geographical treatises (10th-12th c.). These often only preserved a remnant of what was the high culture belief of 8th and 9th c. chronicles and hadith literature. It has nothing to do with administrative designations of one dynasty or another in the 10th c. The main revisionist point that I would introduce is that Syria was in fact viewed in Sunni Islam of the 8th and 9th c. as the anchor of Islamic orthodoxy, cultural definition, etc. This is unusual because this is a time period that we usually associate with the Abbasids in Iraq and the Iranian Sunni dynasties of the 9th c. (Tahirids, Samanids, etc.).

It is often overlooked that hadith literature actually represents Syria (ahl al-Sham) as the keeper of orthodoxy and as the land of messianic renewal (ard al-abdaal) – the forty wisemen of Judaism and Islamic tradition.

This was no doubt developed to counter sectarian Shi’i movements that were always developing in Iraq and Iran from Uthman’s reign and till the early Abbasid period. As a polemical view, it contributed to the rehabilitation of the Umayyads as legitimate rulers, but all the same it became a central cultural perception for the coherence of a region known as “al-Sham” in the 8th-9th c. onwards.

A major reason why the concept of “al-Sham” also took hold in Islam (and actually appealed to Christianity and Judaism) has to do with the inclusion of the Holy Land (Jerusalem and environs) in this medieval messianic/ revivalist view in Sunni Islam. Al-Sham was not only important as a term for Damascus and its environs but also because it implicitly referred to Jerusalem and the whole landscape in Palestine were the story of Jesus’ second coming was going to unfold.

In summary, there is no anachronism in using the term “al-Sham”, only different spheres of usage that confirmed the term in the Middle Eastern cultural perception. I’ll leave it there for now, and try to research some other aspects about the usage of the term and the controversy.

Tayeb El-Hibri
Dept. of Near Eastern Studies
Univ. of Massachusetts

December 13th, 2006, 8:23 pm


MSK said:

Dear Josh,

you keep piling up articles on the medieval name question. That is really not the issue here. (And it has also already been settled above.)

The ISSUE, as wonderfully demonstrated in the e-mail by Tayeb el-Hilbri, is the seemingly automatic conflagration of “al-sham” with “Syria” thus insinuating a continuity of the pre-modern “bilaad al-sham” & “ahl al-sham” into the modern Syria and Syrians.

By saying “because the situation in region X was suchandsuch in 843 or 1047 or 1489, in the year 2006 it is STILL that way” you are joining the Bernard Lewis & friends crowd who keep talking about an “unchanging Islamic world”.

The funny thing is, I actually know that you are not part of that crowd.


December 13th, 2006, 8:38 pm


Enlightened said:

Josh was my hunch, correct then about he terms?

December 14th, 2006, 1:21 am


John said:

The thinkers and scientists were so not because of being Suni or Shiit, but because they were Persians.

“Karim said:

Iran was also a Sunni country 450 years ago.
Most of the Iranian thinkers and scientists from the middle age were sunnis.”

April 24th, 2007, 1:38 am


Ismaili said:

Ismaili Shiats are the most progressive Muslims. The Aga Khan the spritual leader of the Ismailis is possibly the biggest philanthropist and he the Aga Khan not only works for Ismails but for every one be Muslim or Non Muslim

October 5th, 2008, 7:22 am


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