Home of Damascus, The World's Oldest Continuously
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
The Ghutah oasis produces fruits including olives, grapes,
cereals and vegetables. Livestock include cows, goats and
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.
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.