Syria islamic architecture
001 Great Mosque, Damascus 002 Bimaristan (Hospital) of Nur al-Din, Damascus 003 Mausoleum of Nur al-Din, Damascus
 
004 Madrasa al-Firdaws, Aleppo 005 Artefacts 006
     
 
Syria

Syria (Arabic: سوريا Sūriyā or سورية Sūriyah), officially the Syrian Arab Republic (Arabic: الجمهورية العربية السورية ), is a country in Southwest Asia, bordering Lebanon, the Mediterranean Sea and the island of Cyprus to the west, Israel to the southwest, Jordan to the south, Iraq to the east, and Turkey to the north. The modern state of Syria was formerly a French mandate and attained independence in 1946, but can trace its roots to the fourth millennium BC; its capital city, Damascus, was the seat of the Umayyad Empire and a provincial capital of the Mamluk Empire.

Syria has a population of 19.3 million.[1] The majority are Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims (74% of the population). Other Muslim groups include Alawites (11%), Druze and other sects (5%). There are also various Christian sects constituting 10% of the total population.[2] Since 1963 the country has been governed by the Baath Party; the head of state since 1970 has been a member of the Assad family. Syria's current President is Bashar al-Assad, son of Hafez al-Assad, who held office from 1970 until his death in 2000.[3] Historically, Syria has often included the territories of Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank, Gaza Strip and parts of Jordan, but excluded the Jazira region in the north-east of the modern Syrian state.[citation needed] In this historic sense, the region is also known as Greater Syria or by the Arabic name Bilad al-Sham (بلاد الشام). The Syrian Government has relinquished its claim over the region of İskenderun, now part of the Turkish province of Hatay. The area used to be part of Syria, but Damascus agreed to recognise Turkish sovereignty as part of a peace deal within the last decade. Since the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel has controlled the disputed area of the Golan Heights.

History

Eblan civilization

Archaeologists have demonstrated that the civilization in Syria was one of the most ancient on earth.Around the excavated city of Ebla in northern Syria, discovered in 1975, a great Semitic empire spread from the Red Sea north to Turkey and east to Mesopotamia from 2500 to 2400 B.C. Ebla appears to have been founded around 3000 BC, and gradually built its empire through trade with the cities of Sumer and Akkad, as well as with peoples to the northwest.[7] Gifts from Pharaoh, found during excavations, confirm Ebla's contact with Egypt. Scholars believe the language of Ebla to be among the oldest known written Semitic languages, designated as Paleo-Canaanite.[7] The Eblan civilization was likely conquered by Sargon of Akkad around 2260 BC; the city was restored, as the nation of the Amorites, a few centuries later, and flourished through the early second millennium BC until conquered by the Hittites.[citation needed]

Syria in antiquity

Roman theatre in Bosra.


Phillippus Araps, Roman Emperor -detail of Syrian 100 pound note.

During the second millennium BC, Syria was occupied successively by Canaanites, Phoenicians, and Arameans as part of the general disruptions and exchanges associated with the Sea Peoples. The Hebrews eventually settled south of Damascus, in the areas later known as Israel and Judah; the Phoenicians settled along the coast of Israel, as well as in the west (Lebanon), which was already known for its cedars. Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians and Hittites variously occupied the strategic ground of Syria during this period; the land between their various empires being marsh. Eventually, the Persians took Syria as part of their hegemony of Southwest Asia; this dominion was transferred to the Ancient Macedonians after Alexander the Great's conquests and, thence, to the Romans and the Byzantines.[7]

In the Roman period, the great city of Antioch (called the Athens of the East at that time) was the capital of Syria and one of the largest cities in the world, with a total estimated population of 500,000. Antioch was one of the major centres of trade and industry in the ancient world.[citation needed] The population of Syria, during the Early Roman Empire, was only exceeded in the 19th century; this, along with its vast wealth, made Syria, in its heyday, one of the most important of the Roman provinces.[citation needed]

In the 3rd century Syria was home to Elagabalus, a Roman emperor of the Severan dynasty who reigned from 218 to 222. Elagabalus's family held hereditary rights to the priesthood of the sun god El-Gabal, of whom Elagabalus was the high priest at Emesa (modern Homs) in Syria.[citation needed]

Early Christian and Islamic history


St.Simon (Samaan) church in Aleppo is considered to be one of the oldest remaining churches in the world.


The Umayyad Mosque courtyard, Damascus.

Syria is significant in the history of Christianity; Saul of Tarsus was converted on the Road to Damascus, thereafter being known as the Apostle Paul, and established the first organized Christian Church at Antioch in ancient Syria, from which he left on many of his missionary journeys.[citation needed]

In the 7th century, Syria was conquered by the Arabs, so the area was part of the Islamic empire. In the mid 7th century, the Umayyad dynasty, then rulers of the empire, placed the capital in Damascus. However, rival factions within the empire disputed the Umayyad right to rule, based on their place in the line of succession from Mohammad, resulting in a civil war and their overthrow by the Abbasid dynasty, who moved the capital to Baghdad.

Sections of the coastline of Syria were briefly held by Frankish overlords during the Crusades in the 12th century, and were known as the Crusader state of the Principality of Antioch. The area was also threatened by the Shiite extremists known as the Assassins. In 1260, the Mongols arrived, led by Hulegu with an army 100,000 strong, destroying cities and irrigation works. Aleppo fell in January 1260, and Damascus in March, but then Hulegu needed to break off his attack to return to China to deal with a succession dispute. The command of the remaining Mongol troops was placed under Kitbugha, a Christian Mongol. A few months later, the Mamluks arrived with an army from Egypt, and defeated the Mongols in the Battle of Ayn Jalut, in Galilee. The Mamluk leader, Baybars, made his capitals in Cairo and Damascus, linked by a mail service that traveled by both horses and carrier pigeons. When Baybars died, his successor was overthrown, and power was taken by a Turk named Qalawun. In the meantime, an emir named Sunqur al-Ashqar had tried to declare himself ruler of Damascus, but he was defeated by Qalawun on June 21, 1280, and fled to northern Syria. Al-Ashqar, who had married a Mongol woman, appealed for help from the Mongols, and in 1281, they arrived with an army of 50,000 Mongols, and 30,000 Armenian, Georgian, and Turkish auxiliaries, along with Al-Ashqar's rebel force. The Mongols took the city, but Qalawun arrived with a Mamluk force, persuaded Al-Ashqar to switch sides and join him, and they fought against the Mongols on October 29, 1281, in the Battle of Homs, a close battle which resulted in the death of the majority of the combatants, but was finally won by the Mamluks.[8]


Saladin's grave in Damascus.

In 1400, Timur the Lame, or Tamerlane, invaded Syria, sacked Aleppo and captured Damascus after defeating the Mamluk army. The city's inhabitants were massacred, except for the artisans, who were deported to Samarkand.[9][10]

By the end of the 15th century, the discovery of a sea route from Europe to the Far East ended the need for an overland trade route through Syria. Shattered by the Mongols, Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire from the 16th through 20th centuries, and found itself largely apart from, and ignored by, world affairs.[citation needed]

Fighting along the side of Germany during World War I, plans to dissolve this great Ottoman territory could now begin. Two allied diplomats (Frenchman François Georges-Picot and Briton Mark Sykes) secretly agreed, long before the end of the war, how to split the Ottoman Empire into several zones of influence. The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 set the fate of modern Middle East for the coming century; providing France with the northern zone (Syria, with later the upcoming Lebanon), and the United Kingdom with the southern one (Jordan, Iraq and later, after renegotiations in 1917, Palestine - 'to secure daily transportation of troops from Haifa to Baghdad' - agreement n° 7). The two territories were only separated with a straight border line from Jordan to Iran. But early discoveries of oil in the region of Mosul just before to end of the war led to yet another negotiation with France in 1918 to cede this region to 'Zone B', or the British zone of influence. The borders between the 'Zone A' and 'Zone B' have not changed from 1918 to this date. In 1920, the two sides have been recognized internationally under mandate of the League of Nations by the two dominant countries; France and the United Kingdom.

Religion


Hama, Syria - a minaret of Al Nouri mosque.

Syria's population is approximately 90% Muslim and 10% Christian, though due to the high stream of refugees from Iraq the percentage of Christians has risen perhaps to almost just under 12% (Muslim refugees are numerous as well). Among Muslims, 74% are Sunni;[12] the rest are divided among other Muslim sects, mainly Alawis (accounting for 10% of the total population) and Druze (6%), but also a small number of non-Druze Isma'ili and Twelver Shi'a, which has increased dramatically due to the influx of Iraqi refugees.


Armenian Church in Kessab, near Latakia.


Shrine of Zaynab bint Ali at Damascus, Syria.

Christians, a sizable number of which are also found among Syrian Palestinians, are divided into several groups. Chalcedonian Antiochian Orthodox ("Greek Orthodox"; Arabic: الروم الارثوذكس, ar-Rūmu 'l-Urṯūḏuks) make up 50–55% of the Christian population; the Catholics (Latin, Armenian, Maronite, Chaldean Assyrians and Melkite) make up 18%; the Syriac Assyrians, Nestorian Assyrians and Armenian Orthodox and several smaller Christians groups account for the remainder. Many Christian Syrians belong to a high socio-economic class.

Syria also has a tiny population of Jews, confined mainly to Damascus, remnants of a formerly 40,000 strong community. After the 1947 UN Partition plan, pogroms against the Jews erupted in Damascus and Aleppo, and Jewish property was confiscated or burned. When the State of Israel was established in 1948, many Syrian Jews sought refuge there. Of the remaining 5,000 Jews, 4,000 left in the 1990s, in the wake of an agreement with the United States. As of 2007, the Jewish community has dwindled to less than 70 Jews, most of them elderly.

Culture


Eggelin Tomb Tower in Palmyra.

Syria offered the world the Ugarit cuneiform, the root for the Phoenician alphabet, which dates back to the fourteenth century BC. The alphabet was written in the familiar order we use today.

Archaeologists have discovered extensive writings and evidence of a culture rivaling those of Mesopotamia and Egypt in and around the ancient city of Ebla. Later Syrian scholars and artists contributed to Hellenistic and Roman thought and culture. Cicero was a pupil of Antiochus of Ascalon at Athens; and the writings of Posidonius of Apamea influenced Livy and Plutarch.

Philip Hitti claimed, "the scholars consider Syria as the teacher for the human characteristics," and Andrea Parrout writes, "each civilized person in the world should admit that he has two home countries: the one he was born in, and Syria."

Syria is a traditional society with a long cultural history. Importance is placed on family, religion, education and self discipline and respect. The Syrian's taste for the traditional arts is expressed in dances such as the al-Samah, the Dabkes in all their variations and the sword dance. Marriage ceremonies and the birth of children are occasions for the lively demonstration of folk customs.

Traditional Houses of the Old Cities in Damascus, Aleppo and the other Syrian cities are preserved and traditionally the living quarters are arranged around one or more courtyards, typically with a fountain in the middle supplied by spring water, and decorated with citrus trees, grape vines, and flowers.

Outside of larger city areas such as Damascus, Aleppo or Homs, residential areas are often clustered in smaller villages. The buildings themselves are often quite old (perhaps a few hundred years old), passed down to family members over several generations. Residential construction of rough concrete and blockwork is usually unpainted, and the palette of a Syrian village is therefore simple tones of greys and browns.

Syrians have contributed to Arabic literature and music and have a proud tradition of oral and written poetry. Syrian writers, many of whom immigrated to Egypt, played a crucial role in the nahda or Arab literary and cultural revival of the nineteenth century. Prominent contemporary Syrian writers include, among others, Adonis, Muhammad Maghout, Haidar Haidar, Ghada al-Samman, Nizar Qabbani and Zakariyya Tamer.

There was a private sector presence in the Syrian cinema industry until the end of the 1970s, but private investment has since preferred the more lucrative television serial business. Syrian soap operas, in a variety of styles (all melodramatic, however), have considerable market penetration throughout the eastern Arab world.

Although declining, Syria's world-famous handicraft industry still employs thousands.

Syrian food mostly consists of Southern Mediterranean, Greek, and Middle Eastern dishes. Some Syrian dishes also evolved from Turkish and French cooking. Dishes like shish kebab, stuffed zucchini, yabra' (stuffed grape leaves, the word yapra' derıves from the Turkish word 'yaprak' meaning leaf), shawarma, and falafel are very popular in Syria as the food there is diverse in taste and type. Restaurants are usually open (food is served outdoors).
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