Global Politics

You say Levant, I say Sham. Let's call the whole thing Greater Syria

The Levant.jpg


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Names matter. So we thought we would step back to explain one of the names in the news this week. It's the name of the al-Qaeda-linked group that just seized Fallujah in Iraq and is also fighting in Syria. It's called the ISIS, or the ISIL. 

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The difference has to do with the historic name of the region. 

The group's members are primarily Arabic speakers. They call their group ad-Dawla al-Islāmiyya fi al-'Irāq wa-sh-Shām — the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham. So that's the letter 'S' in ISIS.

Sham is the historic Arab name for what you might call Greater Syria. In English and French, the old name for that region is the Levant, which is where the letter 'L' comes from in ISIL.

The term Levant first appeared in medieval French. It literally means "the rising," referring to the land where the sun rises. If you're in France, in the western Mediterranean, that would make sense as a way to describe the eastern Mediterranean.

Levant was also used in English from at least 1497. It's kind of archaic, but still used by scholars in English, though more widely in French. The Germans have a similar term for the same region: Morgenland, or "the land of the morning." It's even more archaic in German and kind of implies an imaginary, romantic, never-never land.

Scholars today largely agree on the bounds of the Levant, extending from the Antakya region of Turkey, through Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Jordan, and round to the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. Some include Cyprus, as well. This coincides exactly with the classical Arab region of Sham.

The origin of the term Sham is commonly misunderstood. Many in the Middle East believe it comes from 'shams', the Arabic word for sun. That would fit nicely with the origin of the word Levant, as the land of the rising sun. But the true meaning is more interesting. 

It literally means "the left hand." If you stand in Mecca, facing east, then the land to your left is the "Bilad as-Sham." The land to your right is the "Bilad al-Yamin," from which the nation of Yemen gets its name. 

The use of Sham by the ISIS may indicate the scale of its ambitions, in terms of the boundaries of the Islamic state it is trying to set up. So it makes sense that the ISIS, or ISIL, is fighting simultaneously in Iraq and Syria.