Bilad al-Sham

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Bilad al-Sham
Province of the Rashidun, Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates


Location of Syria
Capital Damascus
Historical era Middle Ages
 •  Battle of Yarmouk 636
 •  First Fitna 656–661
 •  Tulunid control 878–904
 •  Partition between Hamdanids and Ikhshidids 940s

Bilad al-Sham (Arabic بلاد الشام, "the country of Syria") was a Rashidun, Umayyad and later Abbasid Caliphate province in the region of Syria. It incorporated former Byzantine territories of the Diocese of the East, organized soon after the Muslim conquest of Syria in the mid-7th century, which was completed at the decisive Battle of Yarmouk.


At the time of the Arab conquest under the Rashidun and the subsequent eviction of the region's Byzantine rulers, the Bilad al-Sham (Levant) region had been inhabited mainly by local Aramaic-speaking Monophysite Christian peasants (like the Mardaites) who constituted the bulk of the native population, by Ghassanid and Nabatean Arabs, as well as by non-Monophysite Greek Orthodox Christian minorities called Melchites or Rûm (which in that particular context means "Eastern Roman" or "Byzantine") and by non-Christian minorities of Jews, Samaritans and Ismaelite Itureans. The population of the region did not become predominantly Muslim and Arab in identity until nearly a millennium after the conquest.

Following the Muslim conquest, Muawiyah ibn Abu Sufyan (602–680) of the Banu Umayya governed Syria for twenty years (639– ) and developed the province as his family's powerbase. Relying on Syrian military support, Muawiyah emerged as the victor in the First Fitna (656–661) and established the Umayyad Caliphate (661). During Umayyad times, al-Sham was divided into five junds or military districts. The initial districts were Jund al-Urdunn (Jordan), Jund Dimashq, Jund Hims, Jund Filastin and. Later, Jund Qinnasrin was carved out of part of Jund Hims. Under the Umayyads, the city of Damascus was the capital of the Islamic Caliphate and Syria formed the Caliphate's "metropolitan" province; likewise, the elite Syrian army, the ahl al-Sham, formed the main pillar of the Umayyad regime.

Syria became much less important under the Abbasid Caliphate, which succeeded the Umayyads in 750. The Abbasids moved the capital first to Kufa and then to Baghdad and Samarra in Iraq, which now became the most important province. The mainly Arab Syrians were marginalized by Iranian and Turkish forces who rose to power under the Abbasids, a trend which also expressed itself on a cultural level. Under Harun al-Rashid (r. 786–809), the northern parts of the province were detached to form a new jund, called al-'Awasim, which served as a second line of defence against Byzantine attacks, behind the actual frontier zone of the Thughur.

From 878 until 905, Syria came under the effective control of the Tulunids of Egypt, but Abbasid control was re-established soon thereafter. It lasted until the 940s, when the province was partitioned between the Hamdanid Emirate of Aleppo in the north and Ikhshidid-controlled Egypt in the south. In the 960s the Byzantine Empire under Nikephoros II Phokas conquered much of northern Syria and Aleppo became a Byzantine tributary, while the southern provinces passed to the Fatimid Caliphate after its conquest of Egypt in 969. The division of Syria into northern and southern parts would persist, despite political changes, until the Mamluk conquest in the late 13th century.


The term etymologically means "land of the left hand", referring to the fact that for someone in the Hejaz facing east, north is to the left (so the name Yemen correspondingly means "land of the right hand").[1] Sham comes from the Arabic consonantal root shin-alif-mim ش ا م (referring to unluckiness, such as that traditionally associated with the left). There is no connection with the name of Shem son of Noah (which appears in Arabic as sam سام, with a different initial consonant, and without any internal glottal stop consonant), as is sometimes assumed.

Geographical/political meaning

Bilad al-Sham (also transliterated Bilad-ush-Sham, Cham under French influence etc.) can be used as a general name for the whole Levant or "Greater Syria" region (without special reference to the early historical caliphal province). The region is sometimes defined as the area that was dominated by Damascus,[citation needed] long an important regional centre—in fact, the Arabic word al-Sham الشام standing on its own can refer to the city of Damascus.

See also


  1. Article "AL-SHĀM" by C.E. Bosworth, Encyclopaedia of Islam, Volume 9 (1997), page 261.

Template:Districts of Islamic Syria