Name of Syria

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The name Syria, has since the Seleucid Empire (323–150 BC) historically referred to the region of Syria and Assyria. It is the Latinized from the original Indo-Anatolian and later Greek Συρία. Etymologically and historically, the name is accepted by majority mainstream academic opinion as having derived from Ασσυρία, Assuria/Assyria, from the Akkadian Aššur or 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]

During the Neo Assyrian Empire (935-605 BC) and the succeeding Neo-Babylonian Empire (605-539 BC) and Achaemenid Empire (539-330 BC) the region which is modern Syria was known as Eber Nari and Aramea. The term Syria during these periods was only used by Indo-Anatolian and Greek speakers, and solely in reference to Assyria.

Writing in the 5th century BC, Herodotus stated that Syria was originally the Greek name for the distinct Mesopotamian land of Assyria, and that those called Syrians by the Greeks were called Assyrians in the East. Herodotus also states that the Persians called the northern reaches 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 in reference to Assyria, 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 as Assyrians.

The Seleucid Empire (323-150 BC) applied the term Syria not only to the original Assyria, but also to The Levant, what had until then been Aramea and Eber Nari. This caused both the Assyrians of northern Mesopotamia and the Arameans of The Levant to be collectively labelled Syrians/Syriacs in the Hellenic world. In the east however, Assyria was still known as Athura/Assyria.

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]

Various theories have been advanced as to the etymological connections between the two terms. Some scholars suggest that the term Assyria included a definite article, similar to the function of the Arabic language "Al-".[5] Theodor Nöldeke in 1881 gave philological support to the assumption that Syria and Assyria have the same etymology,[6] a suggestion going back to John Selden (1617) rooted in his own Hebrew tradition about the descent of Assyrians from Jokshan. Majority and mainstream current academic opinion strongly favours that Syria originates from Assyria. A Hieroglyphic Luwian and Phoenician bilingual monumental inscription found in Çineköy, Turkey, (the Çineköy inscription) belonging to Urikki, vassal king of Que (i.e. Cilicia), dating to the eighth century BC, reference is made to the relationship between his kingdom and his Assyrian overlords. The Luwian inscription reads su-ra/i whereas the Phoenician translation reads ʾšr, i.e. ašur, which according to Robert Rollinger (2006) and Richard Nelson Frye "settles the problem once and for all".[6]

In the past, some 19th-century historians such as Ernest Renan had dismissed the etymological identity of the two toponyms.[7] Various alternatives had been suggested, including derivation from Subartu (a term which most modern scholars in fact accept is itself an early name for Assyria, and which was located in northern Mesopotamia), the Hurrian toponym Śu-ri, or Ṣūr (the Phoenician name of Tyre). Syria is known as Ḫrw (Ḫuru, referring to the Hurrian occupants prior to the Aramaean invasion) in the Amarna Period Egypt, and as אֲרָם, ʾĂrām in Biblical Hebrew. J. A. Tvedtnes had suggested that the Greek Suria is loaned from Coptic, and due to a regular Coptic development of Ḫrw to *Šuri.[8] In this case, the name would directly derive from that of the Language Isolate speaking Hurrians, and be unrelated to the name Aššur. Tvedtnes' explanation was rejected as highly unlikely by Frye in 1992.

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. ^ 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."
  6. ^ a b Rollinger, Robert (2006). "The terms "Assyria" and "Syria" again". Assyriology. Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 65(4). pp. 284–287. 
  7. ^ "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.
  8. ^ 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]