|Syria Table of Contents
Under later dissolute caliphs, the Umayyad dynasty began to decline at a time when both Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iran began to press against Umayyad borders. By 750 the Abbasids, whose forces originated in Khorasan (in northeast Iran), had conquered the Umayyads and established the caliphate in Baghdad. As a result, Syria became a province of an empire.
Abbasid rule over Syria, however, was precarious and often challenged by independent Muslim princes. The greatest of these was Abu Ali Hasan, who founded a kingdom known as the Hamdani. A Shia, he established his capital at Aleppo, and the Abbasids recognized him as Sayf ad Dawlah (sword of the state). The Hamdanid dynasty ruled throughout the tenth century and became famous for its achievements in science and letters. In Europe it was known for its persistent attacks against Byzantium. The Hamdanid kingdom fell in 1094 to Muslim Seljuk Turks invading from the northeast.
During the same period, the Shia Fatimids established themselves in Egypt and drove north against Syria. The Fatimids were less tolerant of subject peoples than their predecessors. Intolerance reached its height under caliph Abu Ali Mansur al Hakim (966-1021), who destroyed churches and caused Christians to flee to the mountains. When he announced his divinity, his mother murdered him. In the secluded valleys of Mount Hermon in Syria, his followers found tribesmen to adopt his religion, the ancestors of Syria's present-day Druzes.
Muslim rule of Christian holy places, overpopulation, and constant warfare in Europe prompted the Crusades, the first major Western colonial venture in the Middle East. Between 1097 and 1144 Crusaders established the principalities of Edessa (in northeast modern Syria), Antioch, Tripoli, and the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. The politically fragmented area was an easy conquest for the Europeans. The first Muslim threat to European entrenchment came not from within Greater Syria but from Zangi, the amir of Mosul (in modern Iraq). Zangi took Edessa in 1144 and his son, Nur ad Din (light of the faith), secured Damascus, extending the realm from Aleppo to Mosul. When the last Shia Fatimid caliph died, Nur ad Din secured Egypt as well. Eliminating Sunni-Shia sectarianism, the political rivalry that had so aided the European venture, he invoked jihad, holy war, as a unifying force for Arabs in Greater Syria and Egypt.
The jihad was to liberate Jerusalem, the third holiest city to Muslims, who call it Bayt Quds (the house of holiness) in memory of Muhammad's stopping there on his night journey to heaven. It fell to Nur ad Din's lieutenant, Saladin (Salah ad Din al Ayubbi--rectitude of the faith), to recapture Jerusalem. Saladin, a Kurd, unified Syria and Egypt, a necessary preliminary, and after many setbacks, captured Mosul, Aleppo, and the string of cities from Edessa to Nasihin. In 1187 Saladin took Al Karak, a Crusader fort on the route between Homs and Tripoli held by the infamous Reginald of Chatillon, who had broken treaties, molested Saladin's sister, and attacked Mecca with the aim of obtaining the Prophet's body and exhibiting it at Al Karak for a fee. Saladin besieged Jerusalem on September 20, 1187, and 9 days later Jerusalem surrendered. Saladin's behavior and complete control of his troops earned him the respect of all Jerusalemites and the epithet, "flower of Islamic chivalry."
Saladin inflicted Islam's mightiest blows against the Crusaders, raised Muslim pride and self-respect, and founded the Ayyubid dynasty, which governed Egypt until 1260. During his lifetime, he created harmony among Muslims in the Middle East and gained a position of affection and honor among them that remains strong to the present, particularly in Syria.
When Saladin died of malaria in 1192, his rule extended from the Tigris River to North Africa and south to the Sudan. Saladin's death brought this unity to an end. His Ayyubid successors quarreled among themselves, and Syria broke into small dynasties centered in Aleppo, Hamah, Homs, and Damascus. By the fourteenth century, after repelling repeated invasions by Mongols from the north, the Mamluk sultans of Egypt, successors to the Ayyubids, ruled from the Nile to the Euphrates. Their great citadels and monuments still stand. In 1516 the Ottoman sultan in Turkey defeated the Mamluks at Aleppo and made Syria a province of a new Muslim empire.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress