Syria and Palestine formed the west side of the Fertile Crescent, a rim around the Syrian Desert in which early civilizations flourished. On its east side was Mesopotamia, from which aggressive, powerful kingdoms subjected Syria to repeated invasions. From very early times, trade routes between Egypt and Arabia to the south and Asia Minor to the north ran both along the Syrian coast and inland along the edge of the desert. They served also as invasion routes. From the east Syria was open to attack or occupation by the Semitic peoples of the desert.
Along the coastal route were ports. Ugarit, north of modern Latakia at Ras Shamra, dated from about 5000 B.C. and was the first great port in the world. Europeans traded there and at other early ports.
About 2500 B.C. the Amorites, a Semitic desert people, moved into Syria, where they established kingdoms at Carchemish (on the upper Euphrates River), Aleppo, and Damascus. Along the coast the Amorites merged with the older population to form the people known as Canaanites. Byblos (Biblical Gebal), north of modern Beirut, became a major port.
Successive waves of conquerors in Syria included the Akkadians from Mesopotamia, the Hittites and Hurrians from the north, the Hyksos from Egypt, and again the Hittites, who struggled intermittently with the Egyptians for control of the region. About the 14th century B.C. the coastal strip west of the Lebanon Mountains came to be known as Phoenicia, which for some 1,000 years had an identity separate from Syria. (
Hittite power was destroyed late in the 13th century by sea raiders, who in southern Canaan became known as Philistines. The Aramaeans, another Semitic desert people, became dominant by 1000 B.C. Although they ruled less than 200 years, their language and alphabet spread over the entire region. The Aramaic dialect spoken in Syria (then called Aram) became known as Syriac. The Assyrians conquered Syria three times, in the 11th and 9th centuries and finally in the 8th century B.C., under Tiglath-pileser III.
Shortly before 600 B.C. Syria fell to the Babylonians (Chaldeans) under Nebuchadnezzar. In 539 Cyrus, king of the Persians, extended his rule to the Mediterranean. Three centuries later the Persian Empire was conquered by Alexander the Great. After his death, Syria was won by Seleucus, one of Alexander's successors, who founded Antioch (Antakya, Turkey) about 300 B.C. as one of his capitals. Syria enjoyed a period of brilliance under the Seleucids. However, the empire shrank to a small area around Antioch and in the first century B.C. was conquered by Armenia (83 B.C.) and then by Rome (64 B.C.).
Syria prospered again in the Roman Empire, with Antioch as a western terminus of the Silk Route from China and as military capital for the eastern provinces. In the third century A.D. Syria was invaded by Persia and Palmyra, but Rome regained control within a few years. When the empire was divided in the fourth century, Syria became part of the Eastern, or Byzantine, part.