Book Review: Syria: An Outline History

Syria: An Outline History by John D. Granger

4/5

This is a well-written book about a large swath of land in what is now known as the Middle East. Even though there is a modern-day equivalent of Syria, it is a small portion of what had been Syria until roughly the 20th century. The borders of Syria have changed frequently through various waves of invasion and conquest. It seems that the borders have been contested so much over history, that Grainger felt the need to defend where he placed the borders and the complications that arose from that decision. Syria has never been united either politically, ethnically, or religiously, making it a potentially unwieldy and overwhelming topic to write on or study. Grainger shows himself to be a master historian by knowing exactly how much detail is needed without overwhelming anyone. He also knows how to take incredibly complicated scenarios and bring an amazing sense of clarity.

The first two chapters are dry as they focus on the very origins of humankind. I’d recommend jumping to chapter three or four, where civilization begins to flourish and Grainger spends a balanced and fascinating look at Syria’s long struggle to resist invaders such as the Egyptians, Babylonians, and Romans. From there, it is just one tragedy after another with Grainger spending most of the book’s length focusing on ancient history and the Crusades. After that, Grainger speeds through history, covering the Ottoman Empire’s conquest of Syria for only ¼ of a capture and covering  the 20th and 21st century in only one chapter.

Because of the complexity that is the Syrian region, Grainger had to be selective about what he could and could not include. This means that he had to focus on the various invasions and conquerors and not so much the people of Syria. We know more about the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Romans, and Mamluks who invaded than the people they invaded. Grainger also had to shift focus from native Syrians to the Jewish people to the Amorites, to the various kinds of Christians that converted at one point in time or another. He perfectly captures the chaos that this poor region has known for centuries, but the focus jumps around, and I would have almost preferred that he focus on the history of one ethnicity within Syria without trying to cover everything. At the same time, by covering everything, Grainger was able to capture the vital importance of Syria is to the entire region.

I think this book may have benefited from being split into two books, so he could spend enough time on the period before the 17th century (which he seems to prefer or believes that enough people don’t study enough) and the second book could have focused on the period after the 17th century. He does admit that one of the reasons he didn’t focus on the 20th and 21st century is because many books have covered that time period ad nauseum, but I was still hoping to see an in-depth analysis of the rise of Assad, especially given what is currently happening in Syria. I also would have liked to see Grainger spend more time on the cultural and scientific development that occurred in Syria during its long history.

However, despite these minor complaints, this is a fascinating and important book on a vital territory that many people still fail to properly understand.

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