Special Commentary

India-Syria Linkages: Yesterday and Today

24 Aug, 2016    ·   5113

Ambassador (Retd) VP Haran writes about the oft forgotten historical linkages between India and Syria

Syria is a country that has been inhabited for over several thousand years. Aleppo, the commercial capital of Syria and its largest city, claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. With the destruction that has been ongoing there for the past three years, retention of this distinction for long is in question.

Syria and India have had historical contacts for at least over 4000 years. In addition to the commonly known linkages, there were some others, which are not so widely known. Details on those are minimally available, and have been elaborated upon, below. However, it must be noted that there are different narratives with respect to some of them.
Historical Linkages
Mari Civilisation
In the Aleppo museum, there exists a small intricately carved piece of ivory, which is said to date back to the days of the Mari Civilisation. From 2900 BC, this civilisation flourished intermittently for approximately 1100 years on the banks of the Euphrates in present day eastern Syria. This would make the carved ivory piece about 4000 years old. Reportedly, historical records indicate that the ivory was brought to Mari from India. This would make it the earliest evidence of contact between the two countries. However, the guide at the museum disputes these historical records. His theory is that approximately 5000 years ago, Syria and the Mesopotamian region were green areas full of forests and wild animals, including elephants, and that they have turned into a desert over several centuries due to climate change. If the guide is indeed correct, it would raise a question on the absence of evidence for the presence of wildlife during the days of the Mari civilisation.

Aleppo Museum, which houses a collection dating back over 5000 years and where the piece of ivory is a prized exhibit, has been attacked by the rebels a few times in the last four years; but the damage has been minimal. However, projectiles recently fired by the rebels caused serious damage to some sections of the museum and some artefacts were also damaged.

India and Syria as Neighbours
Interestingly, approximately 2200 years ago, India and Syria were ‘neighbours’. The Greek Seleucid Empire under Empreor Antiochus II Theos (261BC to 246BC) extended from Syria to Bactria province, in present day Afghanistan. Theos chose to rule from Syria. Meanwhile, the empire of the Indian Emperor Ashoka extended up to Bactria. Ashokan edicts mention Antiochus II Theos. Thus, for a brief period in history, the then Syrian empire and the then Indian empire shared a common boundary.
Emperor Ashoka sent Maharaskshit Sthavira, a prominent Buddhist monk, to ‘neighbouring’ Syria and other countries in the region in his efforts to spread Buddhism. There is no historical evidence to suggest that this effort was a success in Syria but there was limited success in Alexandria. None of the major museums in Syria have any Buddhist relic dating back to that period. This is surprising, because despite the Crusades, Syria had absorbed and allowed different religions and sects to coexist; that is, till about four years back, when religious/sectarian fault-lines were noticeable.

Trade Contacts
Records and evidence of trade linkages between India and Syria are aplenty. India has traded with this region for at least over 4000 years. Indian spice caravans used to come to Mari, Dura-Europus and Palmyrah in eastern Syria, and proceed to Aleppo, where spices used to be exchanged – mostly for gold – with European traders. In those days, Aleppo was a major entrepôt center that facilitated trade between the East and the West. According to the governor of Aleppo, spice was valued as much as gold in those days and a kilogram of spice used to be bartered for a kilogram of gold. The market where this exchange used to take place does not exist anymore; but Indian spices are still valued in Syria and can be found in the spice souks of Damascus and Aleppo. Particularly valued is saffron from Kashmir, which they say is the best in the world.

Damascus Sword
In the West Asian region, from the Iron Age to the Viking age, Damascus swords were the equivalent of the present day AK 47s. The secret of its success was the usage of high carbon steel ingots from South India. Reportedly, the Damascus sword could cut an enemy’s sword as easily as it can the enemy themselves without ever losing its edge or sharpness. The sword was also said to be capable of slicing a feather in flight. Reportedly, Aristotle had commented on the high quality of the Damascus swords' blades. Alexander the Great’s favoured weapon was the Damascene sword. There are references to steel from India in Mediterranean sources from that period. Arab sources indicate that from the 3rd to the 17th century, steel ingots were regularly imported from India and sent to Damascus. The swords became better known during the Crusades, when it was used widely.

Blades for the Damascus Swords were made from ‘wootz’ steel manufactured in South India. The term wootz is possibly an anglicised term for ukku, the word for steel in some South Indian languages. The sword industry in Damascus witnessed a steep decline from the early 18th century, probably because of the disruption of trade routes. Another reason cited for the disruption in the trade of steel ingots is the suppression of the industry in India by the East India Company. The sword industry revived in Damascus in the 1970s but is not dependent on steel from South India anymore.

With advancement in metallurgy, there is no use for ‘wootz’, which is now not common, even in the place of its manufacture. The Sword is more a collector’s item now, gifted to departing ambassadors. Its use was limited to cutting soft targets like cakes at weddings and national day receptions; that is, until the Islamic State (IS) entered the scene and began using swords for decapitating their enemies, or cadres who have fallen out with it.

Indian Number System
Severus Sebokht, a resident of Kennesrin Monastery on the banks of the Euphrates, is credited with introducing the Indian number system to the Arab World. He was from the Syrian Orthodox Church and was a well known Syrian personality in the 7th century AD, who popularised Greek philosophy and science in Syria. He is said to have remarked, “Indians are good in numbers.” Syrians call the numbers system they currently use as the Indian number system. In India, the same number system is called by some as the Arabic number system. Severus is, however, not well known in present day Syria.

Sacrifice for Syria
Indian soldiers contributed to the ‘Liberation’ of Syria’, as members of the Commonwealth forces during the Ist and IInd World Wars. Indian soldiers were part of the Commonwealth forces that entered Damascus and later Aleppo in October 1918 to drive out Turkish troops.  176 Indian soldiers made the supreme sacrifice in Syria during World War I. Of them, 49 died in Damascus; and were buried or their ashes interred in the Damascus Indian War Cemetery. In 1961, the remains were shifted to the cemetery in central Damascus, maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Every year, on 11 November, the Commonwealth Remembrance Day, Indian ambassadors pay respects to these Indian soldiers at the cemetery. The 127 Indian casualties in Aleppo during World War I were buried in two Indian cemeteries. These cemeteries do not exist anymore. The Aleppo War Cemetery, created in 1941, has a memorial with a dedicatory panel acknowledging the contribution and sacrifice of the 127 Indian soldiers. In World War II, Indian soldiers were part of the Commonwealth forces that were tasked with preventing the German and Vichy French troops from crossing Syria to reach and close the Suez Canal. In this effort, 67 Indian soldiers died in Syria, including 46 in Damascus; they are buried/their ashes interred in the aforementioned two cemeteries. That the contribution of Indian soldiers was valued by Syria is evident from the separate cemeteries that were established for the fallen Indian soldiers.

Present Day State-of-Affairs
While Indian soldiers participated in the efforts to drive out the Turks/Germans and Vichy French from Syria in the two World Wars, today, some Indians have joined efforts to drive out the present Syrian regime. The first such case was noticed in the summer of 2012 in Damascus. He was probably recruited in the Gulf and came along with the Salafists and Takfiris sent into Syria by some Gulf countries. Since then, there is growing evidence of Indians being enticed into joining the ranks of the armed opposition of different hues in Syria. Their numbers may not be many but the association of some Indians with the IS now is a matter of serious concern to us, for there is growing evidence of IS trying to establish a base in India.