Archaeologists have demonstrated that civilization in Syria was one of the most ancient on earth. Around the excavated city of Ebla in northern Syria, an Italian mission leaded by Prof. Paolo Matthiae discovered in 1975, a great Semitic empire spread from the Red Sea north to Turkey and east to Mesopotamia from 2500 to 2400 B.C. Ebla appears to have been founded around 3000 BC and gradually built its empire through trade with the cities of Sumer and Akkad, as well as with peoples to the northwest. Gifts from Pharoah found during excavations confirm Ebla's contact with Egypt. Scholars believe the language of Ebla to be among the oldest known written Semitic languages. The Eblan civilization was likely conquered by Sargon of Akkad around 2260 BC; the city was restored as the nation of the Amorites a few centuries later and flourished through the early second millennium BC until conquered by the Hittites.
Syria in antiquity
During the second millennium BC, Syria was occupied successively by Canaanites, Phoenicians, and Arameans as part of the general disruptions associated with the Sea Peoples. The Hebrews eventually settled south of Damascus, in the areas later known as Palestine; the Phoenicians settled along the coastline of these areas as well as in the west, in the area (Lebanon) already known for its cedars. Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Hittites variously occupied the strategic ground of Syria during this period, as it was a marchland between their various empires. Eventually the Persians took control of Syria as part of their general control of Southwest Asia; this control transferred to the Greeks after Alexander the Great's conquests and thence to the Romans and the Byzantines.
Syria was an important Roman province from 64 BC.
In the Roman period, the great city of Antioch (called "the Athens of the east" at that time) was the capital of Syria. It was one of the largest cities in the ancient world, with a total estimated population of 500,000, as well as one of the largest centers of trade and industry. As one of the wealthiest and more populous provinces of the Roman Empire, it is estimated that the population of Syria in the early Roman Empire was only exceeded in the 19th century.
In the 3rd century Syria was home to Elagabalus, a Roman emperor of the Severan dynasty who reigned from 218 to 222. Elagabalus' family held hereditary rights to the priesthood of the sun god El-Gabal, of whom Elagabalus was the high priest at Emesa (modern Homs) in Syria.