Southern Syria during the Classical and Byzantine Periods
by Zbigniew T. Fiema

The area concerned here can be described as a rough rectangular, ca 5,500 sq. miles., situated in the SW corner of Syria, facing Israel on the west and Jordan on south. Due to the considerable volcanic activity in the past, this area is also referred to as the lava lands of southern Syria. Little is known about the prehistory of the lava lands. In the first millenium B.C., the presence of the Aramean population is well attested around Damascus. The Macedonian conquest of the Persian Empire (second half of the 4th century B.C.) opened new trade routes connecting the Eastern Mediterranean with the Far East. The caravans loaded with spices from India and the Far East travelled across the desert from Gerrha (on the Persian Gulf), through el-Jawf, to Syria, using the Wadi Sirhan, the northern outlet of which is located in the lava lands of southern Syria. Other caravans brought myrrh and frankincense from Arabia Felix, through Transjordan, up to the centers of the Hellenistic kingdoms in Syria, which later became wealthy cities of the Roman provinces.

The strategic position of the lava lands and the suitable conditions for dry farming encouraged settled life in the regions of southern Syria: Nuqra (Lat. Batanaea), Auranitis (Hauran) and Jaulan (Gaulanitis). Their important location, and the benefits coming from the trade and agricultural production  soon attracted the Nabataeans who in the 2nd century B.C. created a state based on the international commerce. Auranitis was under the Nabataean control as early as the 2nd century B.C., and the prosperous cities of Canatha (modern Kanawat), Bostra (Bosra), Salkhad or Soada Dionysias (Suweida) feature remains associated with the Nabataean development. Only the region of Trachonitis (Leja) retained an unfavorable opinion as the refuge for the local bandits harassing the caravans.  In the 1st century A.D., Auranitis, Batanaea and Trachonitis were partially controlled by the rulers of the Herodian dynasty, while the Nabataean influence weakened. Nevertheless, Bostra retained an important position in the Nabataean Kingdom. The importance of the lava lands was not overlooked by the Romans, who annexed the kingdom in A.D. 106, incorporating its northern part into the province of Syria, and creating a province of Arabia from the central and southern lands of the former kingdom.The entire region flourished under the Roman rule. One of the Roman emperors, Philippus (A.D. 245-49) was born in Philippopolis (Shuhba) in the Hauran. Ancient claims that his father prospered as the notorous chief of bandits from Trachonitis cannot be substantiated. To protect the vulnerable area of western Syria against the nomads, the Parthians, and later, the Persians, the Romans had created a sophisticated system of connecting roads, forts and military outposts, the part of which run through the lava lands. The Byzantine period witnessed a considerable expansion of farmlands and village life. Nevertheless, certain negative phenomena associated with the over-exploitation of the area, such as land deforestration, exhaustion of soil, erosion, and slow advance of desert into fertile lands, apparently developed already at the end of the Byzantine period. The entire area was conquered by the Muslim forces in the first half of the 7th century A.D.

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