Name of Syria

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The name Syria, since the Seleucid Empire (323–150 BC) historically referring to the region of Syria, is the Latinized from the Indo-Anatolian and Greek Συρία. Etymologically and historically, the name is often connected to Ασσυρία, Assuria/Assyria, from the Akkadian 𒀸𒋗𒁺 Aššur or 𒀸𒋗𒁺 𐎹 Aššūrāyu, which is in fact located in Upper Mesopotamia (modern northern Iraq southeast Turkey and northeast Syria).

The term Syria in its Indo-Anatolian form was first recorded during the Neo Assyrian Empire (935-605 BC), and in its original sense applied specifically to the land of Assyria and its people, which apart from the Al-Hasakah region and its surrounds, does not correspond geographically to modern Syria, but rather to northern Iraq and southeast Turkey.[1]

Herodotus stated that this was originally the Greek name for the distinct land of Assyria, and that the Persians called it Cappadocia.[2] The region which became known as Cappadocia in the Roman Empire was a northern outpost of the Old Assyrian Empire(circa. 2050–1750 BC).[3]

In Greek usage, Syria and Assyria were used almost interchangeably, although Herodotus' clarifications were a notable exception.[4] Herodotus points out that the people the Greeks call Syrians, were called by themselves and the barbarians Assyrians.

In the Roman Empire, Syria and Assyria came to be used as distinct geographical terms. "Syria" in the Roman Empire period referred to "those parts of the Empire situated between Asia Minor and Egypt", i.e. the western Levant, while "Assyria" in northern Iraq was part of the Persian Empire as Athura, and only very briefly came under Roman control (116–118 AD, marking the historical peak of Roman expansion), where it was known as Assyria Provincia.

Connection between the names of Syria and Assyria[edit]

The earliest names for what is modern Syria are found in Sumerian, Akkadian and Assyrian annals from Mesopotamia between the 25th and 20th centuries BC. During this period the dominant peoples in the region were Northwest Semitic speaking Amorites, hence Syria was referred to as The land of the Amurru in Mesopotamian records, and by the derivative Amar in early Egyptian records.[5]

From the 13th century BC, during the Middle Assyrian Empire (1365–1020 BC), the Arameans began to supplant the earlier Amorites and Ugarites in Syria, and the land became known as Aramea, the Biblical Aram.

During the Neo Assyrian Empire (935–605 BC), and succeeding Neo-Babylonian Empire (605-539 BC) and Achaemenid Empire (539–323 BC), the Assyrian imperial term Eber Nari was used to describe what was to become Syria, alongside Aram, while the Mediterranean coast was known as Phoenicia from the 13th century BC.

Meanwhile, from perhaps as far back as the 25th century BC, and certainly since the mid 21st century BC, the term 𒀸𒋗𒁺 𐎹 Aššūrāyu (together with variants of this name) had continually existed for Assyria in Upper Mesopotamia.

The Indo-Anatolian term Surai first appears in historical record in the 8th century BC in the Çineköy inscription, during the Neo Assyrian Empire. This inscription was only unearthed and translated in the early 21st century AD, and clearly refers not to modern Syria, but to Assyria to the east.

Various theories had been advanced as to the etymological connections between the two terms. Some scholars suggested that the term Assyria included a definite article, similar to the function of the Arabic language "Al-".[6] Theodor Nöldeke in 1881 gave philological support to the assumption that Syria and Assyria have the same etymology,[7] a suggestion going back to John Selden (1617) rooted in his own Hebrew tradition about the descent of Assyrians from Jokshan.

Some 19th-century historians such as Ernest Renan dismissed the etymological identity of the two toponyms.[8] Various alternatives have been suggested, including derivation from Subartu (which most scholars in fact accept is an early Sumerian and later Hurrian, name for Assyria), the Hurrian toponym Śu-ri, or Ṣūr (the Phoenician name of Tyre). J. A. Tvedtnes had suggested that the Greek Suria is loaned from Coptic, and due to a regular Coptic development of Ḫrw to *Šuri.[9] In this case, the name would directly derive from that of the Hurrians, and be unrelated to the name Aššur. Syria had come to be known as Ḫrw (Ḫuru, referring to the Hurrian-Mitanni rulers of Amorite Syria prior to the Aramaean invasion of the 13th century BC) in Amarna Period Egypt (replacing the much earlier Egyptian term of Amar which referred to the Amorite ruled period), and as אֲרָם, ʾĂrām in Biblical Hebrew.

These explanations have since been rejected as highly unlikely by many, including Frye in 1992, and overwhelming modern majority mainstream opinion is that Syria derives from Assyria, and until the Seleucid period meant only Assyria and the Assyrians, after which it was applied to The Levant and its largely Aramean and Phoenician inhabitants also, causing the later Assyrian Vs Syrian naming controversy.

The recent discovery of the the Çineköy inscription seems to clearly confirm that Syria does indeed derive from Assyria. The inscription is a Hieroglyphic Luwian and Phoenician bilingual monumental inscription found in Çineköy, Turkey in 2001, belonging to Urikki, vassal king of Que (i.e. Cilicia), dating to the eighth century BC. Reference is made to the relationship between his subject kingdom and his Assyrian overlords in northern Mesopotamia.

The Luwian inscription reads su-ra/i whereas the Phoenician translation reads ʾšr, i.e. ašur, which according to Robert Rollinger (2006) "settles the problem once and for all".[7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Rollinger, Robert (2006). "The terms "Assyria" and "Syria" again" (PDF). Journal of Near Eastern Studies 65 (4): 284–287. doi:10.1086/511103.
  2. ^ (Pipes 1992), s:History of Herodotus/Book 7
    Herodotus. "Herodotus VII.63". "VII.63: The Assyrians went to war with helmets upon their heads made of brass, and plaited in a strange fashion which is not easy to describe. They carried shields, lances, and daggers very like the Egyptian; but in addition they had wooden clubs knotted with iron, and linen corselets. This people, whom the Hellenes call Syrians, are called Assyrians by the barbarians. The Chaldeans served in their ranks, and they had for commander Otaspes, the son of Artachaeus." 
    Herodotus. "Herodotus VII.72". "VII.72: In the same fashion were equipped the Ligyans, the Matienians, the Mariandynians, and the Syrians (or Cappadocians, as they are called by the Persians)." 
  3. ^ Assyria and Syria: Synonyms, Richard N. Frye, PhD., Harvard University
  4. ^ The legacy of Mesopotamia, Stephanie Dalley, p94
  5. ^ William H. Stiebing Jr. Ancient Near Eastern History And Culture Longman: New York, 2003: 79 Chiera 1934: 58 and 112
  6. ^ A New Classical Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography, Mythology and Geography, Sir William Smith, Charles Anthon, Harper & Brothers, 1862 "Even when the name of Syria is used in its ordinary narrower sense, it is often confounded with Assyria, which only differs from Syria by having the definite article prefixed."
  7. ^ a b Rollinger, Robert (2006). "The terms "Assyria" and "Syria" again". Assyriology. Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 65(4). pp. 284–287. 
  8. ^ "Syria is not but a contraction of Assyria or Assyrian; this according to the Greek pronunciation. The Greeks applied this name to all of Asia Minor." cited after Sa Grandeur Mgr. David, Archevêque Syrien De Damas, Grammair De La Langue Araméenne Selon Les Deux Dialects Syriaque Et Chaldaique Vol. 1,, (Imprimerie Des Péres Dominicains, Mossoul, 1896), 12.
  9. ^ Tvedtnes, John A. (1981). "The Origin of the Name "Syria"". Journal of Near Eastern Studies 40 (2): 139. doi:10.1086/372868. 

Additional Reading[edit]