Latakia, from Ugarit to the Assads

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Latakia, a city capable of changing its name and identity many times, remaining forever the hidden heart of Syria

The words of Ibn Battuta

So I went to Latakia, an ancient city by the sea, which they say was that of the king who took all the ships by force.

From Ugarit to Latakia

Modern Latakia is located just 14 km from the ruins of Ugarit, an ancient city that dominated the north of present-day Syria for centuries; for this reason, before talking about the city itself, it is necessary to take a step back, also because the name and the present settlement date back only to the Hellenistic Age. Ugarit was founded around 6000 B.C., emerging as a center of trade between East and West and between North and South of the world, exploiting its being overlooking the Mediterranean Sea to widen its trade basin and rival Tyre and Sidon. The main trading partners of the time were Hittites and Egyptians, with the former being physically closer to them, while the latter profoundly influenced their culture and, above all, the arts.

Latakia
The ruins of Ugarit

Like Mycenae, the Egyptian and Hittite kingdoms, between the 11th and 13th centuries BC, the city underwent the so-called “Bronze Age collapse”, in which most of the great Mediterranean empires were invaded by the mysterious ” Peoples of the Sea “, which brought the whole Mediterranean to a sort of new Middle Ages. From here on the name “Ugarit” ceased to exist and, just 14 km from its ruins, a city arose that changed its name 3 times: first Ramitha, then Leuke Akte and finally Laodicea; this name was assigned to her by Seleucus I who assigned it to commemorate her mother Laodice. Once conquered by the Romans it will first become “free polis” with Giulio Cesare and, with Septimio Severo, “metropolis”; decidedly important degrees and which allowed her to emerge with the “first Syrian port”. The city was then heavily damaged by an earthquake in 494 and then passed to the Arabs in 637.

Arabs and ottomans

Due to its position, on the exact border with the Byzantine Empire, the city was unable to develop particularly in the Middle Ages; this also thanks to the arrival of two earthquakes and the crusaders, who contributed decisively to making the area around Latakia one of the hottest in the world. Saladin will regain the city in 1180, which will be taken over by the Crusaders in 1260 and definitively brought back to the Islamic world in 1288. After the battle of Marj Dabiq in 1516, he followed the fate of Syria becoming part of the Ottoman Empire, under to which the region around the city became mostly Alawite.

Latakia

This current will acquire an increasingly central role within contemporary Syria and on which we must pause for a moment (waiting to dedicate a real article to it).

Alawites, a brief introduction

Basically the Alawites would be a branch of the Shiites, separated from the majority at the death of Imam Hasan al Askari, considered “the Eleventh Shiite imam”. While the Duodecimans (the majority current of the Shiite world) believe that the “Twelfth imam” is “hidden”, the Alawites believe that it should be sought in Muhammad ibn Nasiri, his favorite pupil who would have gone from Kufa to Aleppo to make known the own faith. Being then persecuted by the Ottomans, this group would then move to the mountains near Latakia, where the creed managed to develop, absorbing, according to scholars, also many of the local beliefs.

Latakia

With regard to faith in itself, it is very difficult to express oneself because, like Druze belief, Alawite belief is esoteric and, consequently, only discernible to a few initiates. This measure was taken by virtue of the hostilities that they had to suffer from all over the Muslim world, which, due to some of the few known characteristics (such as: the divine nature of Ali, the reincarnation, the consecration of wine and the celebration of various holidays including Christmas), has only recently stopped considering them heretics. Under the Ottoman Empire such persecutions saw their peak, definitively pushing them to close their belief outside. In reality, the relationship was a little more complex than that, so much so that there were many contacts between the government itself and the Alawites, to the point that the community managed to obtain even a certain autonomy in the region; however it was never recognized as a “millet“, which instead happened, for example, to the Armenians and the Chaldeans.

From the Alawite state to Assad Syria

With these premises it will certainly be easier to understand the importance that this community assumed in the eyes of the French, who, as soon as they arrived here, immediately formed the first Alawite state in history. The transalpines wanted to openly exercise the policy of divide and rule over the region, the strenuous love of the inhabitants for their country, however, led to a rapid abortion of the project, so much so that, at the specific request of the Arab nationalists, in 1930 the name “State Alawite “disappeared in favor of” Latakia Governorate “. This also led to a sort of confederations of Syrian states in a way very similar to the American model, which found support from much of the Alawite world, but not from the rest of Syria which, starting in 1946, became united, autonomous and independent.

Latakia

From 1963 to 1970 the whole of Syria experienced the most difficult years of its history, with 3 different coups that led the Alawites to become the true ruling class of the country. The pan-Arab Ba’ath party, in fact, composed much of its leadership elite of officers from Alawite families (many of whom originated from the surroundings of Latakia), making sure that once it gained power, it concentrated in its own hands. Among the various Alawite clans to dominate the scene, the one of the Kalbiyya, which includes the Assad family, currently in power in Syria, must certainly be mentioned.

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