Home of Damascus, The World's Oldest Continuously Inhabited City

By Liz Goldner

Syria is frequently in the international news, located as it in the heart of the Middle East, bordered by Lebanon and Israel on the west, Turkey on the north, Iraq on the east, and Jordan on the south. To the east is the Syrian Desert and to the south is the Jebel Druze Range.

Syria consists mostly of arid plateau, while the northwest part of the country bordering the Mediterranean is fairly green. The climate is dry and hot, and winters are mild. The Euphrates, Syria's most important river, crosses the country in the east. The highest point is Mount Hermon (9,232 ft; 2,814 m) on the Lebanese border.

Syria has a population of 19.3 million. Seventy-four percent are Arabic speaking Sunni Muslims. Other Muslim groups include Alawites, Druze and Christians. The country has a tiny population of Jews, confined mainly to the capital, Damascus, remnants of 40,000 strong community. After the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan, pogroms against the Jews erupted in Damascus in the southwest and Aleppo in the north; Jewish property was confiscated or burned. When the State of Israel was established in 1948, many Syrian Jews sought refuge there. Four thousand Jews left in the 1990’s. As of 2007, the Jewish community has dwindled to less than 70 Jews, most of them elderly.

Arabic is the official and most widely spoken language in Syria. Kurdish is also widely spoken. The Arabic word for “Peace” is “Salaam.” Many educated Syrians also speak English or French.

Petroleum in commercial quantities was first discovered in the northeast in 1956. The most important oil fields are those of Suwaydiyah, Qaratshui, Rumayian, and Tayyem, near Dayr az–Zawr. The fields are a natural extension of the Iraqi fields of Mosul and Kirkuk. Petroleum became Syria's leading natural resource and chief export after 1974. Natural gas was discovered at the field of Jbessa in 1940.

News reports about Syria often center on the country’s volatile political situation. Syria is a parliamentary republic, meaning that the power is in the hands of the country’s President and of the ruling Ba’ath Party, and that it is an authoritarian regime with only the superficial structures of a democracy.

Although Syrian citizens vote for the President and members of Parliament, they do not have the right to change their government. For example, the late President Hafiz al-Asad was confirmed by unopposed plebiscites five times. (A plebiscite is a direct vote in which an electorate is asked to either accept or reject a particular proposal.) Hafiz al-Asad’s son, Bashar al-Asad, was also confirmed by an unopposed referendum in July 2000.

In Syria, the President and his senior aides make most basic decisions in political and economic life, with a limited degree of public accountability. The government has held the country under a state of emergency since 1963, and justifies this state by the ongoing war with Israel and by continuing threats posed by terrorist groups.

The Asad regime has held power for many years, second in the Arab world after Muammar al-Qaddafi’s 's 36-year dictatorship. The President's continuing strength is due in part to the army's loyalty and to the effectiveness of the country’s large internal security apparatus, both comprised of members of Asad's own Alawi sect. The main branches of the security services operate outside of the legal system, while continuing to engage in human rights violations.

After Bashar al-Asad assumed power in 2000, human rights activists, other civil society advocates and some Parliamentarians became outspoken; July 2000-February 2001 became known as “Damascus Spring.” During that time, Asad appointed reform-minded advisors to various positions, including Cabinet positions. Then, Ma’mun al-Humsy and Riad Seif, two reformist Parliamentarians, were arrested in August and September 2001, while other reformist advisors have since been marginalized.

The Syrian constitution of 1973 requires that the President be Muslim, yet does not make Islam the state religion. The judicial system is an amalgam of Ottoman, French and Islamic laws, while the Ba'ath Party emphasizes socialism and secular Arabism. Although Ba'ath Party doctrine seeks to build national rather than ethnic identity, ethnic, religious, and regional allegiances remain important.

Syria’s history going back to prehistoric times is a tale of turmoil. Ancient Syria was conquered by Egypt about 1500 B.C., and after that by Hebrews, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Persians, and Alexander the Great of Macedonia. From 64 B.C. until the Arab conquest in A.D. 636, it was most often part of the Roman Empire, as a trade center for their extensive empire. But the country suffered severely from the Mongol invasion in 1260. In 1516, the country fell to the Ottoman Turks, and remained a Turkish province until World War I.

A secret Anglo-French pact of 1916 put Syria in the French zone. After World War I, the League of Nations gave France a mandate over Syria. During most of World War II, Syria was an Allied base. But in 1945, nationalist demonstrations broke into actual fighting, and British troops came in to restore order. Syrian forces met several reverses while participating in the Arab invasion of Palestine in 1948. In 1958, Egypt and Syria formed the United Arab Republic, with Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt as president. However, Syria became independent again on Sept. 29, 1961.

In the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, Israel quickly vanquished the Syrian army. But before acceding to the UN cease-fire, the Israeli forces took control of the fortified Golan Heights. Syria joined Egypt in attacking Israel in October 1973 in the fourth Arab-Israeli War, but ended up losing more land. In the settlement worked out by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1974, the Syrians recovered all the territory lost in 1973.

In the mid-1970’s, Syria sent 20,000 troops to support Muslim Lebanese in their armed conflict with Christian militants, also supported by Israel. Syrian troops frequently clashed with Israeli troops during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

In 1990, President Assad ruled out the possibility of legalizing opposition political parties. In December 1991, voters approved a fourth term for Assad, giving him 99.98% of the vote.

In the 1990s, the slowdown in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was echoed in the lack of progress in Israeli-Syrian relations. Confronted with a steadily strengthening strategic partnership between Israel and Turkey, Syria constructed an alliance with Iraq, strengthened ties with Iran, and collaborated closely with Saudi Arabia. In December 1999, Israeli-Syrian talks resumed after a nearly four-year hiatus, but they soon broke down over discussions about the Golan Heights.

On June 10, 2000, President Hafez al-Assad died, having ruled with an iron fist since taking power in 1970. His son, Bashar al-Assad, succeeded him, emulating his father's autocratic rule. In summer 2001, Syria withdrew nearly 25,000 troops from Beirut, while soldiers remained in the Lebanese countryside. The U.S. subsequently imposed economic sanctions on the country, accusing it of support of terrorism.

In Sept. 2004, a UN Security Council resolution asked Syria to withdraw its 15,000 remaining troops from Lebanon. Syria moved about 3,000 troops from the vicinity of Beirut to eastern Lebanon.

On Feb. 14, 2004, Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated, and Syria was implicated in the death of the popular leader who staunchly opposed Syrian involvement in Lebanon. Huge numbers of Lebanese citizens protested calling for Syria's withdrawal from the country. This demand was backed by the United States, the European Union and the United Nations. In addition to the anti-Syrian demonstrations, there were numerous pro-Syrian rallies in Lebanon, sponsored by the Shiite militant group, Hezbollah. By the end of April, Syria had withdrawn all of its troops from Lebanon, ending a 29-year occupation. In October, the United Nations released a damning report on Hariri's slaying, concluding that the assassination was carefully organized by Syrian and Lebanese intelligence officials, including Syria's military intelligence chief, Asef Shawkat, the brother-in-law of President Assad. Syria vehemently denied the charges.

In July 2006, during the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict in Lebanon, Syria was strongly suspected of aiding Hezbollah. Israeli jets fired on targets deep inside Syria in September 2007. American and Israeli intelligence analysts later said that Israel had attacked a partially built nuclear reactor. Several officials wondered if North Korea had played a role in the development of the nuclear plant. Syria denied that such facilities exist and protested to the United Nations, calling the attack a "violation of sovereignty."

The capital of the country, Damascus, is considered by many scholars to be the world's oldest continuously inhabited city, with historical reports going back 3,500 years. It was famous for centuries, and often referred to as the "Pearl of the East.” It is a large old city, divided into the market area, Muslim area, Christian area and the Jewish area. The city has a university, many museums, and embassies.

The economy of Damascus is based upon governmental administrative activities, processed food, clothing, and printed material. The city is also known for traditional handicrafts up, such as high quality textiles, silk cloth, leather goods, filigreed gold, silver objects, inlaid wooden, copper, and brass articles.
The Ghutah oasis produces fruits including olives, grapes, cereals and vegetables. Livestock include cows, goats and sheep.

From 661 to 750, Damascus was the centre of Islam in the Middle East. During this period, many mosques were built, and today more than 200 are still standing, but only 70 are in use. In addition to the Grand Mosque, the mosques of Sinani-yah and Tekkeyah are well known. Three daily newspapers are published from Damascus, and all are closely controlled by the Syrian state.

Kristin Westphal who works for the American Embassy in Damascus wrote in an email, “The soil [for Common Ground 191] was collected in the courtyard of an old Damascene house just off of Straight Street in the old city. Mentioned in the bible as "the street called Straight," this is one of the oldest thoroughfares in recorded history (and is indeed very very straight, especially compared to every other street here!). It is still an active marketplace.

“The house has been converted into a restaurant, and is in the "Bab Sharki" (east gate) area, which is also home to the historical Ananias church and an original Roman era archway. Bab Sharki is one of the seven gates of Damascus, the original entries when it was a walled city, and though the gates themselves are in disrepair you can still see some of the original structures. The area between Bab Sharki and Bab Touma (named for St. Thomas) is the main Christian quarter of Damascus.

“Finding dirt anywhere in Syria is hard because of all the desert, but many old houses (and when I say old, we're talking built between 1200-1600) have central courtyards with small fountains and fruit trees. I took advantage of a small stand of lemon trees for the soil collection.”

Syrians revere the traditional arts that have flourished in the country for centuries. The citizens express themselves in dances such as the famous al-Samah, the Dabkes the sword dance and many others. Marriage ceremonies and the birth of children are occasions for lively demonstrations of folk dances.

Traditional Houses flourish in the old cities, including Damascus and Aleppo. In these homes, the living quarters are arranged around one or more courtyards, typically with a fountain in the middle, adorned with citrus trees, grape vines, and flowers.

Many crafts in Syria are made the way they were thousands of years ago. Embroidery, Ceramic, Pottery, Jewelry and Basketry skills are all passed down from generation to generation. Embroidery, an important traditional craft, has, in recent years, been incorporated into elegant gowns and jackets that also incorporating rich, Middle Eastern fabrics. Embroidery is also used for cushions in reds, maroons, purples and pinks, with additions of greens, oranges and golds.

Syria has many natural clay deposits, which have been used for centuries to make pottery. Early pottery consisted of vessels for food storage. Large coil-and-slab pots, known as jarra, were originally used to store water or olive oil.

Jewelry also has a long history in Syria. Stores of gold and silver jewelry dating from Roman times have been unearthed on various archaeological sites. Today, gold and silver jewelry is worn by all strata of society.





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