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Syria - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

Syria - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

by Sarah Standish

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After years of diplomatic isolation Syria is emerging from the cold. Its government is a key Middle Eastern player, and will be a major element of any possible comprehensive Middle Eastern peace deal. To visit Syria is to become acquainted with one of the most rewarding destinations in the Middle East. Its historic attractions are stunning, and the Syrians are


After years of diplomatic isolation Syria is emerging from the cold. Its government is a key Middle Eastern player, and will be a major element of any possible comprehensive Middle Eastern peace deal. To visit Syria is to become acquainted with one of the most rewarding destinations in the Middle East. Its historic attractions are stunning, and the Syrians are proud and gracious hosts; you can expect to be treated like a person and not just a tourist.  Of course, there are always thorns with the roses: Syria’s economy is inefficient, and its youth are frustrated; the strong-man political system that has held the country together does not encourage public intellectual life, but nor does it prevent young Syrians from debating with passion in private. The Syrian sense of tradition has preserved some of the bad along with the good, and society remains highly patriarchal. Despite such drawbacks, this is a country that’s rich not only in resources, but also, and especially, in its people. American author Sarah Standish looks at Syria’s long history and its present-day political realities. She describes the many subgroups that make up the population as well as what unites all Syrians. She offers practical tips for traveling and on what to expect when conducting business. You’ll learn how people communicate with each other, and how you can communicate with them. The Syrians will never stop surprising you: get to know a few, and they will turn the stereotypes inside out several times over.

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Culture Smart! Series
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4.30(w) x 6.60(h) x 0.50(d)

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By Sarah Standish

Bravo Ltd

Copyright © 2010 Kuperard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-85733-563-7



Syria has the dubious distinction of nestling between some of the biggest names in the news headlines: Iraq to the east, Lebanon and the Mediterranean to the west, Turkey to the north, and Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to the south. But rather than let the turmoil of some of these hot spots spill over its borders, Syria's leaders have tried to make lemonade out of the lemons of a tricky geographical location, positioning the country as a major player in any possible attempt to reshape the Middle East. Henry Kissinger once said of the situation with Israel: "There will be no war without Egypt and no peace without Syria." Syria seems to agree, and will use its position in the region to its best advantage. Syria, however, is also patient: with more than five thousand years of history and a leader who serves for life, it can afford to wait for the best time to act.


Syria's geographical location has long made it a place of regional and even worldwide significance: its historical status as a nexus between Mediterranean ports and Asian trade routes made it a meeting place of merchants, goods, and cultures, and its capital city, Damascus, is the oldest continually inhabited urban center in the world. Historically, the area known as "Syria" once encompassed modern-day Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, and southern Turkey, but grand schemes and strokes of colonial pens after the First World War shaved the country down to its current 71,498 square miles (185,180 sq. km). Today, its twenty million inhabitants are mostly distributed in a wide crescent that arcs from the southern right-hand border with Jordan, then reaches up to the western border with Lebanon, before curving eastward along the northern border with Turkey. This crescent enjoys the most temperate climate and the best arable lands, while the remaining triangle to the east is an unwelcoming desert whose temperatures are much more extreme.

Contrary to the stereotypical picture of Middle Eastern geography, only about one-fifth of Syria is actually classified as desert. Another portion is semiarid, and other regions can be positively verdant — particularly the plain along the Mediterranean coast, which includes the regionally important port city of Latakia. The lush vegetation that covers this plain continues into the Jabal an-Nusayriyah mountain range that parallels the coast. A pass called the Homs Gap separates this range from the Anti-Lebanon mountains along the Syria-Lebanon border to the south; as the easiest way from the interior to the coast, the pass was historically a focal point of both trade routes and invasions. Just east of the Jabal an-Nusayriyah, the Orontes River flows north through the al-Ghab plain, separating the first mountain range from another, Jabal az-Zawiya. The moderately sized cities of Hama and Homs both lie near the Orontes.

The southernmost region of Syria, including the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, is known as the Hawran. It's a plateau, edged in the east by the dormant volcanoes that form the Jabal al-Arab range (also known as Jabal ad-Druz), and its regionally important cities include as-Suwayda and Dara'a. This fertile region, fed by rainfall and the springs that give rise to the Yarmuk River, is sometimes called "the breadbasket of Syria."

Inland and to the north of these mountain ranges is a semiarid steppe, intersected by a small mountain chain. Here, the Barada River that flows from the Anti-Lebanon mountains gave rise to the al-Ghuta Oasis upon which Damascus is built. This oasis once surrounded the city with a ring of greenery, but in the past few decades this has mostly been obliterated by urban sprawl.

To the east lies the expansive desert region, relatively unpopulated but bordered in the north by the Euphrates, the largest and most important river in Syria, which provides some 80 percent of the country's water resources. In 1973, the Syrian government completed the ath-Thawra dam on the river, creating a large reservoir known as Lake Asad. The dam and reservoir provide electricity and water reserves for the country, but use and misuse of the Euphrates's waters has been a continuing point of contention with Turkey — where the river originates, fed by springs and snowmelt — and Iraq — into which it subsequently flows. The triangle to the northeast of the Euphrates is known as the Jazeerah, or Island, and is an area of great agricultural significance. The Jazeerah's regionally important cities include Deir az-Zor, Hasake, and Qamishli. To the west of Lake Asad lies the city of Aleppo, an ancient trading center almost as old as Damascus — some say even older.

Its diverse geography means that Syria is home to an equally diverse people: something that can lead to division, but is also a source of cultural wealth.


Weather patterns vary across the country, ranging from the hot, dry summers inland to warm, humid summers on the coast; winters can be chilly and dry on the coast, and more biting inland, with ferocious though infrequent rains. Luckily for Syrians and their guests, summers can even be cool in the mountains, making these popular escapes for day trips. In Damascus, temperatures range from an average of 64–99°F (18–37°C) in August to an average of 36–57°F (2–12°C) in January. The coast tends to enjoy milder weather, while the desert climate is more extreme, in addition to being struck by sandstorms in the spring. Syria has suffered from a severe drought over the past several years that endangers the livelihoods of its farmers.


Historically Syria's population has been mainly rural, but the past few decades have witnessed a degree of urbanization that now places more than half the country's people in cities. The population is also young, with more than one-third under fourteen years old, and fairly well educated, as four-fifths of the country is literate — a number that's higher for the younger generation.

Its mountainous topography has made Syria the adopted home of a number of minorities who, in the past, took refuge in higher elevations — most notably, the Alawites in the coastal mountains and the Druze in the Jabal al-Arab to the south. While primarily Sunni Muslim, Syria is also home to numerous other religious minorities, including Shi'a Muslim Isma'ilis, Yazidis, some thirteen Christian sects, and the elderly remnants of a once-vibrant Jewish community. Most Syrians are Arab, but ethnic minorities include Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, and Syrian Turkmen.

A word of caution about categorizing Syrians primarily by religion or ethnicity: identity in Syria is multifaceted and may incorporate allegiance not only to sect or ethnic group but also to town or city of birth, region within Syria, Syria as a nation-state, pan-Arabism, social class, gender, political ideology, and more. Nonetheless, religious identity and the specter of sectarianism remains such a touchy subject for the government that precise statistics on the country's faith composition are nonexistent; most are merely informed estimates. Roughly speaking, about 74 percent of the population are Sunni Muslims; 16 percent are Muslim minority sects; and 10 percent are Christian. Ethnically, 90 percent are Arab, and most of the remaining 10 percent are Kurds.


Ancient Civilizations

Syria has been home to a succession of ancient civilizations reaching back thousands of years: agriculture was practiced there as early as 12,000 years ago by the Mesolithic Natufian culture, and archaeological discoveries indicate that the port city of Ugarit (today Ras ash-Shamra, near Latakia) was flourishing in 6000 BCE. In the east, the city of Mari was inhabited from 5000 BCE by the Sumerians and Amorites, and dating to around 3000 BCE was the city-state Ebla to the west, part of an ancient Semitic empire that was subsequently overrun by the Akkadians. During the first two millennia BCE, parts of Syria were conquered by the Canaanites, Phoenicians, Aramaeans, Ancient Egyptians, Mitannians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, and Persians.

In 333 BCE Alexander the Great conquered Syria, which then became subject to dynastic rule by the descendants of Alexander's general Seleucus. In 64 BCE, Rome annexed Syria as a province which prospered under her rule, connecting the rest of the empire to key eastern trade routes; several Roman emperors, such as Elagabalus and Philip the Arab, could boast of Syrian origins. This period also gave rise to an enduring historical icon: Queen Zenobia, the wife of the ruler of the Roman protectorate of Palmyra (in present-day Syria's eastern desert), who assumed leadership of the state in 267 CE after her husband's murder. Zenobia's army conquered Syria before she invaded Egypt and proclaimed her son emperor — although his young age at the time meant that she herself stood to gain the most. Rome quickly struck back, recapturing the territory and carting off Zenobia in chains to Rome; multiple competing theories about the nature of her death have not prevented her being immortalized as a symbol of beauty, independence, and strength. Syria continued to be an outlying province of the empire after its capital moved to Constantinople. The waning strength of the Byzantine Empire (as it became known) made it possible for foreign incursions — particularly by the Persians — to nibble at Syria's edges, and the area changed hands decisively in the Arab invasion of 640.

Islamic Era and Caliphates: 640–1516

Islam was born in the Arabian Peninsula, at Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia, and quickly overcame resistance by the local polytheistic tribes before expanding across the rest of the Peninsula and then moving beyond. Syria was the young Arab army's first conquest outside its native environment. The Arabs easily routed the Byzantine army, then relocated their capital from Mecca to Damascus, where the Christian population welcomed them as a relief from the heavy hand of Constantinople's intervention in religious disputes. The Umayyad state established there in 661 was the second Muslim caliphate in history and the first to be established on a dynastic principle. With Syria as its most central and wealthiest province, the caliphate oversaw such an enormous territorial expansion that, by its end in 750 CE, it reached across North Africa and into the Iberian Peninsula to the west, while touching the edges of India in the east. The Umayyad caliphs built an effective professional army, a navy, and a government bureaucracy, including a working postal service, and several buildings of lasting architectural significance, but they did not interfere in the day-to-day governance of Syria, instead delegating authority to their provincial governors; nor did they attempt to convert Syrians to Islam. The Islamic law under which they ruled applied only to Muslim subjects, while adherents of other Abrahamic faiths — Christians and Jews — paid a special tax in exchange for the freedom to continue following their own customary law and traditions.

Syria was relegated to the status of an outlying province under the subsequent Abbasid caliphate, which overthrew the Umayyads in 750 and recentered itself in Baghdad; Syria suffered a consequent period of decline and neglect, punctuated by the occasional invasion and rebellion. Some local Syrian principalities asserted their independence from the Abbasids, beginning with the Aleppo-based Hamdani dynasty that gained control over northern Syria in the ninth century and excelled in scientific achievement. From the west, the Isma'ili Fatimid caliphate moved out of Egypt to conquer Damascus in 970 and exercised a tenuous domination interspersed with Byzantine forays that reconquered parts of Syria in the tenth century, before being forced back by the invading Seljuk Turks in the middle of the twelfth century.

The First Crusade in 1097 also touched Syria, with the Crusaders establishing principalities at Tripoli (in modern-day Lebanon and historical Syria), Antioch, and Edessa (in today's southern Turkey). While some local leaders initially formed alliances with them, elite and popular resentment against the Crusaders gradually grew and such opportunism was rejected. The Second Crusade suffered a serious defeat when it attempted to take Damascus in 1148. Nur ad-Din, a Seljuk prince in Aleppo, came to Damascus's aid during the siege and then annexed the city in 1154. Under his rule, the city began to enjoy a revival. Not long afterward, in 1187, Saladin recaptured Jerusalem, drove the Europeans from most of their holdings, and then unified Syria and Egypt under the dynasty that he founded, the Ayyubids. The Crusaders, however, were not completely banished from Syria until the Mamluk Sultan Baybars' military campaign of 1261–77. This eradicated all but a memory of what had occasionally been a relationship of cooperation between entrenched Crusaders and local peoples, but had more often been the occasion for great brutality.

As Ayyubid rule declined and fell, in the mid-thirteenth century Syria suffered even greater violence at the hands of Mongol invaders: they slaughtered fifty thousand people when they sacked Aleppo. However, the Mongols progressed only a little farther into Syria before being defeated in 1260 at the hands of the Mamluks, the ruling military elite that had only recently replaced the Ayyubids in Egypt and would govern Syria for the next two and a half centuries. The Mamluks were unique in that they drew their rulers only from slave-soldiers of Turkish and Circassian origin; membership of this military slave corps was a prerequisite for gaining power (to prevent any ruler establishing a hereditary dynasty). After so many centuries of destabilizing invasions and counterinvasions, Syria once again prospered under the regime of this class of ascendant slaves, which patronized the arts and Islamic scholarship.

Ottoman Rule 1516–1918

Syria next fell under the control of a vast empire whose capital was close by at Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). Impressive in its extent and its longevity, the Ottoman Empire lasted from 1300 until just past the end of the First World War, and at its zenith stretched across three continents — North Africa, southeastern Europe, and western Asia. The Ottoman Turks wrested control of Syria from the Mamluks in 1516 and appointed deputies to rule its districts, or vilayets, but on the whole life changed very little; Syria was accustomed to being ruled by foreigners, and in any case the Ottomans left much of the previous administrative structure intact. The connection between ruler and ruled was loose: Constantinople's primary interest was in exacting sometimes crippling taxation from its holdings.

For the Ottomans, Syria was an important gateway to other conquests and to the pilgrimage to Mecca (the hajj) — no small matter since organizing pilgrimage caravans and guaranteeing their safety was a major source of the Ottoman sultans' legitimacy as rulers. Damascus was the point of departure for one of the two great Ottoman hajj caravans, and twenty to thirty thousand pilgrims might gather there at the outset. The most important centers of learning were now elsewhere, however, so intellectual and cultural life suffered.

As Ottoman strength waned from the eighteenth century on, European powers pressed their advantage through increasing interventions in the Middle East: sending missionaries, winning trade concessions, and increasing trade. In Syria, the mercantile relationships they formed with Christians, and to some extent Jews, elevated the fortunes of these communities. Despite this fact, in the nineteenth century the overall economic situation declined due to competition from cheap European imported goods. General economic straits and the visibly increased wealth of minority groups combined to produce a few explosive episodes of violence along sectarian lines, first in 1840 and then in 1860, which only gave the European powers a further excuse to intervene in order to protect the scapegoated minorities. It would be only a few decades before the First World War dealt a deathblow to the Ottoman Empire and provided the European countries with an opportunity to take over, almost in one fell swoop.

Brief Independence 1918–20 and French Mandate 1920–46

When the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War on Germany's side, the British responded by backing the Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule that began in the Arabian Peninsula and reached Damascus in 1918. It was led by Prince Faisal, son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, who had engineered the alliance with the British. Faisal assumed control of Syria, with the exception of the French-controlled coastal areas, and was proclaimed king of the Syrian Arab Kingdom. Great Power politics were too much for him, however, since the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France of 1916 had already carved the region into spheres of influence for the colonial powers. Syria had been promised to France, which refused to recognize the country's declared independence. Instead, just one month after Faisal's coronation in March 1920, France obtained a League of Nations mandate over Greater Syria, then by July had invaded and conquered the territory. Within the space of a few months, Syria had gone from being ruled by Arabs for the first time in centuries to being administered by yet another foreign power.


Excerpted from Syria by Sarah Standish. Copyright © 2010 Kuperard. Excerpted by permission of Bravo Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Sarah Standish is an Arabic teacher and writer who graduated with a B.A. in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies from Barnard College before spending a year in Syria studying Arabic language and literature on a fellowship from the Center for Arabic Study Abroad. She has also spent time in Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, and Lebanon. She is particularly interested in Arab cinema, television, and literature, as well as the impact of new information technologies on the Middle East. She currently teaches Arabic her hometown of Portland, Oregon.

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