Latakia or Latakiyah (and often locally transliterated as Latakkia) (Arabic: اللَاذِقِيَّةAl-Ladhiqiyah) is the principal port city of Syria, as well as the capital of the Latakia Governorate. In addition to serving as a port, the city is a manufacturing center for surrounding agricultural towns and villages. Its population in 2002 was 402,000 and consisted of Sunnis, Alawites and Greek Orthodox Christians.[1]

Though the site has been inhabited since the second millennium BCE, the modern-day city was first founded in the 4th century BCE under the rule of the Seleucid empire. Latakia was subsequently ruled by the Romans, then the Ummayads and Abbasids in the 8th–10th centuries. Under their rule, the Byzantines frequently attacked the city, periodically capturing it before losing it again to the Arabs, particularly the Fatimids. Afterward, Latakia was ruled by the Seljuk Turks, Crusaders, Ayyubids, Mamluks, and Ottomans. Following World War I, Latakia was assigned to the French mandate of Syria, in which it served as the capital of the autonomous territory of the Alawites. This autonomous territory became the State of Alawites in 1922, proclaiming its independence a number of times until reintegrating into Syria in 1944.


Ancient settlement and founding

The location of Latakia, the Ras Ziyarah peninsula, has a long history of occupation. The Phoenician city of Ramitha was located here, known to the Greeks as Leukê Aktê 'white coast'. Ramitha dates at least to the second millennium BCE and was a part of the kingdom of Ugarit a few miles further north. As Ugarit declined at the end of the second millennium BCE, the better natural harbor facilities at Ramitha increased its importance.[3]

The settlement became part of the Assyrian Empire, later falling to the Persians, who incorporated it into their fifth satrapy, Abar-Nahara, beyond the river. It was taken by Alexander the Great in 333 BCE following his victory at Battle of Issus over the Persian army led by Darius III, beginning the era of Hellenism in Syria.[4]

After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, Northern Syria fell under the control of Seleucus I Nicator. He founded the city of Laodicea on the site, one of five cities named after his mother Laodice. Laodicea became a main center of Greek culture and one of the new satrapal headquarters. It was the main harbor for Apamea, linked with a road across the Nusayri mountains. Laodicaea became a major port, second only to Seleucia Pieria.[3] It formed a tetrapolis, with Antioch, Seleucia Pieria and Apamea linking the four main cities of Seleucid Syria into a union known as the Syrian tetrapolis.[4]

The city was described in Strabo's Geographica:[5]

It is a city most beautifully built, has a good harbour, and has territory which, besides its other good crops, abounds in wine. Now this city furnishes the most of the wine to the Alexandreians, since the whole of the mountain that lies above the city and is possessed by it is covered with vines almost as far as the summits. And while the summits are at a considerable distance from Laodicea, sloping up gently and gradually from it, they tower above Apameia, extending up to a perpendicular height.

In 64 BCE, the Roman legate Pompey formally abolished the Seleucid Empire, and created the new Roman province of Syria. During the struggle for power between Augustus Caesar and Marcus Antonius, the latter managed to win temporary support from Laodicea during his brief governorship of Syria through the remission of certain taxes and the promise of autonomy. Following the defeat of Marcus Antonius, the Romans modified Laodicea's name, changing it to Laodicea-ad-Mare and the city flourished again as an entrepôt for East-West trade, second only to Antioch. This commerce was systemized with the construction of the Via Maris, a coastal road that ran south from Antioch to Damascus and Beirut via Laodicea.[4] In the first century BCE, Herod the Great, king of Judaea, furnished the city with an aqueduct, the remains of which stand to the east of the town. Initially the Romans deployed four legions in Syria, one of which, the Legio VI Ferrata, was likely based in Laodicea.[6]

In AD 193, the city was sacked by the governor of Syria, Pescennius Niger in his revolt against the new emperor Septimius Severus. In 194, Septimius Severus reorganized Syria into five new provinces. One of these Coele-Syria, including all of northern Syria, briefly had its capital in Laodicea before reverting to Antioch. Septimius Severus considered Antioch to be more degenerate than Laodicea, and sought to punish Antioch for having supported the aspirations of his rival Pescennius Niger.[6]

Septimius Severus endowed Laodicea with four colonnaded streets which divided the city into a series of rectangles. Roman Laodicea, based on the foundations of the Seleucid grid, was laid out along a vertical axis stretching for 1.5-2 kilometers from north to south, linking the center of the town with the northern road to Antioch, and forming the cardus maximus (main commercial street). The east-west axis consisted of three main streets: the first linked the port to the citadel, the second linked the port to the Apamea road, and the third linked the port to a monumental four-way arch, or tetrapyle, which was erected at the point of intersection with the north-south colonnaded avenue.[6] Septimius also built baths, a theatre, a hippodrome, numerous sanctuaries and other public buildings in the city. Rome regarded Laodicea as a key strategic seaport in the prized province of Syria.[7]

Throughout the third and fourth centuries Laodicea remained dependent on Antioch. In 272, the city was seized by Zenobia, the queen of the Palmyrene Empire, following her abortive attempt to take Antioch from Emperor Aurelian. After the revolt of Antioch in 378, Laodicea returned to imperial favor and enjoyed prosperity under the Byzantine Empire, established in Constantinople following the split of the Roman Empire late in the fourth century. In 494, the town was damaged by the first of a long series of earthquakes. In 528, Emperor Justinian I created the new province of Theodorias out of the coastal belt around Laodicea, which was rebuilt and fortified against the increasing Persian threat.[7] In 555, another earthquake devastated Latakia.[8]

A sizable Jewish population lived in Laodicea during the first century.[9] The heretic Apollinarius was bishop of Laodicea in the 4th century. The city minted coins from an early date.

Early Islamic era

Laodicea fell to the Rashidun army in 638, under general Abu Ubaida, who reportedly had trenches dug around the town so that even horsemen could advance unobserved; they then pretended to retreat to Hims, only to return at night and surprise the inhabitants. Christians who had left the city were allowed to return and retain their church. Laodicea was known to the Muslims as "al-Ladhiqiyah" or "Latakia",[7] and Umar ibn al-Khattab, the reigning caliph during its capture, assigned it to the administration of Jund Hims.[10]

During its rule by the Umayyads, the town was devastated by a Byzantine raid in 705, and again in 719 when a Byzantine force supported by a fleet, burnt the town and took many of its inhabitants into captivity. Restorations and reconstruction of the buildings and fortifications was begun by Caliph Umar II, who also ransomed the inhabitants from the Byzantines. His successor Yazid II improved the fortifications and reinforced the Muslim garrison.[7]

In the late 10th century, the Byzantines, under Emperor Nikephoros II, began taking advantage of the confusion and instability in the late Abbasid era, seizing parts of the Islamic territory. In 970 Latakia fell, but in 980, the Fatimids captured the town and its Byzantine governor, Karmaruk, was later beheaded in Cairo. Finally, late in the century, it fell to the Turks under the suzerainty of Banu Munqidh of Shaizar who ceded it to the Seljuk sultan Malik Shah I in 1086. However, by then many of Latakia's great public buildings were already in ruins.[7]

The first crusades reached Syria in 1097, and on August 19, 1097, twenty-eight ships from Cyprus under Guynemer of Boulogne penetrated Latakia's harbor, sacking the town and making it part of the Principality of Antioch.[7] During the crusade, the southern ports of Latakia and Baniyas were handed over to Byzantine officials by Robert of Normandy and Raymond of St. Gills. However, a few years later, in August 1099, Bohemond laid siege to Latakia with the help of a Pisan fleet. Within a few months, though, Bohemond was taken prisoner by Danishmend. Seven months later, his nephew Tancred assumed the regency and laid embarked on to Latakia again. This time it fell to him in 1103 after an eighteen-month siege.[7][11] The following year, however, a Byzantine fleet under Admiral Cantacuzenus once more forced the Franks to capitulate, though the Byzantines were unable to take the citadel. It was not until 1108 that the Franks were able to consolidate their hold. With the aid of a Pisan fleet, Tancred seized Latakia after Bohemond had promised it to Emperor Alexios I Komnenos as part of the Treaty of Devol in 1108. For their services the Pisans and the Genoese were granted enclaves in the town, as well as the right to trade freely in the port and the principality.[7]

Under the Franks, Latakia became known as "La Liche", covering an area of 220 hectares (0.85 sq mi) and consisting of three separate parts. The port, originally an open bay with marble quay stones laid by the Romans, remained an important commercial center. The town proper, previously encircled by a continuous line of fortifications, now vanished. On two hills stood twin castles dominating the town. In Crusader times, the town had a French presence, a sizable Muslim population, and a large Greek Orthodox community, two of whose churches remain intact, the Church of the Virgin and the Church of St. Nicholas.[7]

In 1126, the cities of Latakia and Jableh formed part of the dowry of Princess Alice, daughter of King Baldwin II of Jerusalem, who made an unsuccessful bid to assume the regency of Antioch. Alice later donated a house in the town to the Christian Knights Hospitallers, who made it their principal base in the region.[7] In April 1126, Emir Sawar, governor of Aleppo, launched a raid and sacked the town, taking away many prisoners and large amounts of treasure. The town was further devastated by earthquakes in 1157 and 1170, in addition to attacks on the port.[7]

On July 21, 1188, Saladin arrived before the walls of Latakia and forced the capitulation of the Crusaders two days later. By then, it had become a well-fortified and wealthy city. Saladin appointed Emir Sunkur al-Kilati as governor and gave the town a strong Muslim garrison. Guy de Lusignan, the Jerusalem king captured in the Battle of Hattin, was reportedly imprisoned and held for ransom in Latakia.[12] In August 1190, Saladin had the port dismantled to prevent its capture by the advance of the Third Crusade. After a failed attempt, Bohemond II succeeded in briefly taking the city in 1197, but he retreated soon after. Again under Muslim control, the city was rebuilt and the citadel restored. The Franks of Tripoli and the Hospitallers unsuccessfully attacked the town several more times. In the early part of the thirteenth century a great mosque, Masjid al-Kabir, was constructed.[12]

In 1207, the city's sizable Venetian community received a trading concession from the Muslim governor. The agreement did not last long though; in December 1223, an army from Aleppo, fearing the onset of the Fifth Crusade, destroyed all the defenses and dismantled the citadel. Arab geographer, Yaqut al-Hamawi, wrote that Latakia under the Ayyubids was "an ancient Greek city, with many antique buildings, and has fine dependencies, also an excellently-built harbor." He also mentioned that the city was formerly a part of Jund Hims, but by 1225, it was counted under the Aleppo District.[13] With the first of the Mongol invasions and the coming to power of the Mamluks, Bohemond VI took possession of the town and rewarded the Knights Hospitallers for their support by allotting them half of the town and half of the surrounding areas. The Genoese were thus reestablished at the expense of the Venetians.[12]

Following the fall of the Principality of Antioch in 1268 to the Mamluks under Sultan Baibars, King Hugo III of Antioch signed a treaty with Baybars concerning Latakia. Under the treaty, concluded on July 4, 1275, the town obtained its freedom from the Muslims in return for an annual tribute. Remaining as a truncated Crusader enclave, Latakia had lost its prominence and was already declining as other ports such as Tripoli and Alexandria developed.[12]

Baybars was forced to surrender Latakia to Emir Sunkur of Damascus on July 24, 1281. Baibars regained control of the city after the fall of Sunkur. In 1287 an earthquake devastated the town and caused widespread damage to the fortifications, destroying the Pigeon Tower, the Pier Tower and the lighthouse. Taking advantage of this misfortune Sultan Qalawun, who had already captured the great Hospitallers fortress of Margat, immediately dispatched Emir Turuntay to attack the town. On April 20, 1287, Latakia fell to Turuntay.[12]

In circa 1300, Arab geographer al-Dimashqi noted that there was no running water in Latakia and that trees were scarce, but the city's port was "a wonderful harbor... full of large ships".[14] Latakia continued to suffer from constant wars and pillagers. It was attacked and burned again in 1366 by Peter I of Cyprus. Much of the town was in ruins and was less populated than the rival ports of Tripoli and Beirut and the port was in a serious state of decline by 1450.[12] In 1332, the Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta also visited Latakia in his journeys.[15]

Ottoman rule

Latakia came under Ottoman control after 1516, and was part of Ottoman Syria. The city continued to decline and by the middle of the sixteenth century the town had become a small dependent village. In Ottoman times, Latakia was noted for its cotton, olives, walnuts, mulberry trees and for its vineyards.[12]

In the early eighteenth century, Latakia was governed by Yasin Bey and subject to the Sanjak of Tripoli, but a major uprising in the town resulted in him and his family's removal from authority. A new mosque, Masjid al-Jadid, was erected by the Ottoman governor of Damascus between 1733-1743. In 1810 and 1823 two earthquakes caused major damage in the town and other coastal areas of Syria.[12]

Despite losing its prominence as an important town, the port itself continued to remain extremely active and economically valuable. The port was receiving more than 100 ships annually in 1835 but the harbor itself was silted up and could only contain between four or six small boats. By the end of the nineteenth century it received around 120 steamships and around 570 sail boats annually, most of which could only anchor outside of the harbor itself.[12] In 1888, when Wilayat Beirut was established, Latakia became its northernmost town.[16]

In the Ottoman period, the region of Latakia became predominantly Alawi. The city itself, however, contained significant numbers of Sunni and Christian inhabitants. The landlords in the countryside tended to be Sunni while the peasants were mostly Alawi. Like the Druzes who also had a special status before the end of World War I, the Alawis had a strained relationship with the Ottoman overlords. In fact, they were not even given the status of millet, although they enjoyed relative autonomy.[17]

French Mandate period

In the beginning of the twentieth century, Latakia was a small town with a population of 7,000, ruled from Beirut. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the town fell under the French mandate established on August 31, 1920. Latakia became the capital of the autonomous territory of the Alawites, with a government under the authority of the mandatory French administration. In 1922, this territory, composed of Latakia and Tartus, became the State of Alawites and was integrated into the Federations of States. The French quickly set about restoring the port facilities by rebuilding the north and south moles and deepening the harbor from two to six meters.[12]

In December 1924, French General Maxime Weygand announced the secession of the State of Alawites, which was proclaimed independent in 1925. In 1930, a fundamental law created a government of Latakia, and by 1931 the population of Latakia had grown to 20,000. In 1932, a plan for a new deep-water harbor was proposed.[12]

The government of Latakia was incorporated into Syria in 1936, but it benefited from a special administration under the authority of the Syrian government.[12] In the same year, the French were authorized to station troops in Latakia for five more years. With the loss of the ports of Alexandretta and Antioch to Turkey in 1939, Latakia became the main port in Syria, and there remained no alternative but to develop its port facilities.[18]

In 1939, Latakia again became the capital of the autonomous territory of the Alawites, once again separate from Syria, only to be integrated once more in June 1944 following the "Proclamation of Syrian Unity," which was confirmed in 1947 with the "Proclamation of Independence."[18]

Modern era

An extensive port project was proposed in 1948, and construction work began on the Port of Latakia in 1950, aided by a US$6 million loan from Saudi Arabia. By 1951, the first stage of the construction was completed and the port handled an increasing amount of Syria's overseas trade.

In August 1957, 4,000 Egyptian troops landed in Latakia under orders from Gamal Abdel Nasser, after Turkish troops massed along the border with Syria, accusing it of harboring Turkish Communists.[19]

A major highway linked Latakia with Aleppo and the Euphrates valley in 1968, and was supplemented by the completion of a railway line to Hims. The port became even more important after 1975, due to the troubled situation in Lebanon and the loss of Beirut and Tripoli as ports.[18] In 1971, the port handled 1,630,000 tons of cargo. During the 1970s, the port was expanded, and in 1981 it handled 3,593,000 tons of imported goods and 759,000 tons of exports.[20]

In 1973, during the October War (Yom Kippur War), the naval Battle of Latakia between Israel and Syria was fought just offshore from Latakia. The battle was the first to be fought using missiles and ECM (electronic countermeasures).[21] All but a few classical buildings have been destroyed, often by earthquakes; those remaining include a Roman triumphal arch and Corinthian columns known as the colonnade of Bacchus.[22]