Bilad al-Sham

The traditional Arabic term Bilad al-Sham (Arabic: بلاد الشام , also transliterated bilad-ush-sham etc.) is a name for the whole Levant or "Greater Syria" region that today contains Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and the Palestinian territories (sometimes excluding the Jazira region in the north-east of modern Syria). 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"). The region is sometimes defined as the area that was dominated by Damascus, long an important regional centre — in fact, the Arabic word al-Sham الشام standing on its own can refer to the city of Damascus.

Bilad al-Sham is not always precisely synonymous with "Greater Syria" or "Levant", since Greater Syria can refer to a smaller region, while the Levant can refer to a larger region. Today, the term is most commonly used by historians to describe the area in earlier times. For much of the history of the Middle East, Bilad al-Sham was closely integrated and shared a common culture and economy. The colonialism of the post-WWI years and the rise of a number of states in the region has ended this unity. It is still useful, however, for historians looking at pre-twentieth century history to consider it as a region.

"Sham" can also be transcribed as "Cham" under French influence. The adjective shami شامي means someone coming from this region. Note that the name Sham has no valid etymological connection with the Biblical figure Shem son of Noah — Sham comes from the Arabic consonantal root shin-hamza-mim ش ء م (referring to unluckiness, such as that traditionally associated with the left), as seen in alternative Arabic spellings such as شأم and شآم, while Shem son of Noah appears in Arabic as sam سام (with a different initial consonant, and without any internal glottal stop consonant). There is also no connection with the word shams "sun" (as in Majdal Shams or ash-Shams).

Syria vs. Sham

The Arabic word suriyya (سوريا, "official" spelling سورية) was not widely used among Arabic-speaking Muslims before about 1870, though it had been used by Arabic-speaking Christians earlier. According to the Syrian Orthodox Church, "Syrian" used to mean "Christian" in early Christianity, and the special Arabic word suryani سرياني (singular) / suryan سريان (plural) means one who belongs to the Syrian Orthodox Church, as opposed to the general Arabic adjective for "Syrian" suri سوري (singular) / suriyun سوريون (plural).

Currently, the Arabic term suriyya is used to refer to the modern state of Syria (as opposed to the whole Greater Syria region referred to as Bilad al-Sham), but this distinction was not as clear before the mid 20th-century (following the frustration of the Hashemite dream of a Greater Syrian Arab kingdom after WW1 due to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the uniting of the separate French mandates in Syria into one unified entity in 1936).


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