by Tan Wee Cheng, Singapore
Welcome to the Middle East ; Airport Tales ; Introduction to Syria ; Where is Syria and where is it ? ; Who are the Syrians ?

SYRIA,  SYRIAN ARAB REPUBLIC (SOURIYA Al-jamhouriya al Arabia as-Souriya)



"What a country this is ! I fear I shall spend the rest of my life travelling in it. Race after race, one on top of the other, the whole land strewn with the mighty relics of them."

        Gertrude Bell, Letter to Florence Lascelles, 9 April 1905

The Syrian tourism promotional slogan says, "every cultured man has two homelands : The first is his country of birth ; the second is Syria." This is hardly surprising, but indeed it is a little known fact that the ancient Syrians invented the first alphabets of the world. The cuneiform carvings of Ugarit in northern Syria were eventually adopted by the coastal Phoenicians and then by the Greeks, before the Romans spread it to Europe and the world beyond. The earliest organised settlements in the world began in Syria. Northern Syria was part of the Mesopotamian civilisation (- the bulk of it unfortunately lies in Iraq, which is inaccessible to tourism). And as the cross-roads of Europe, Asia and Africa, this land has always attracted invaders. The Egyptians came, and then came the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Islamic Army, the Turks, and the French. Civilisations came and went, leaving only ruins of their ancient glories. All of Syria is full of these. After years of struggle, Syria became independent in 1946, only to fall into a cycle of coups and counter-coups. This state of instability lasted till 1970 when General Hafiz al-Assad seized power and ever since, Syria was ruled with an iron arm. Despite defeat in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and heavy costs of sustaining its military and political intervention in Lebanon, Syria had undergone a period of relative peace and internal stability (apart from the 1982 Hama revolt).

But then, what exactly is Syria and where is it ?

"You do not represent Palestine more than we do. There is neither a Palestinian people, nor a Palestinian entity, there is only Syria, and you are an inseparable part of the Syrian people and Palestine is an inseparable part of Syria."  
                                President Assad to Yasser Arafat, Palestinian leader
This has always been a question in history, and it remains unresolved today. Historically, Syria was a geographical term which included not only the Syrian Arab Republic of today, but also Lebanon, Jordan and Israel and when the Turks lost the First World War, the Arab Kingdom of Greater Syria was declared over these four lands by Emir Faisal of the Hashemites, leader of the Arab Revolt (who had earlier co-operated with T.E.Lawrence of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom or Lawrence of Arabia fame). But the dreams of an united Syria was dashed when the French and British split Syria between them - Syria and Lebanon to the French, and Palestine and Transjordan to the British. The French turned the enlarged Mount Lebanon Province into the Lebanese Republic, and the British compensated the Hashemite family by making Abdullah ruler of Transjordan (which eventually became the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan). The Jews of Palestine later declared the State of Israel in 1948. The dismantling of Syria has never been accepted by many Syrians who still regarded the current boundaries as mere temporary. Indeed President Assad of Syria had once said to Yasser Arafat : "You do not represent Palestine more than we do. There is neither a Palestinian people, nor a Palestinian entity, there is only Syria, and you are an inseparable part of the Syrian people and Palestine is an inseparable part of Syria." (as quoted by Moshe Ma’oz, Assad, The Sphinx of Damascus, 1988). And many observers had said from time to time, that the corner-stone of Syrian policy and basis of intervention in Lebanon is the reunification of Greater Syria.

Who are the Syrians ?

"They hate one another. The Sunnites excommunicate the Shiahs and both hate the Druzes; all detest the Ansariyyehs (the Alawites) ; the Maronites do not love anybody but themselves and are duly abhorred by all ; the Greek Orthodox abominate the Greek Catholics and the Latins ; all despise the Jews."

    Isabel Burton, The Inner Life of Syria, 1875. This was written in the chaotic 19th century when
         Syria was torn apart by social-religious strife, and communal rioting was commonplace.

Syria has a population of 12 million and they are a diverse people. I have seen people with dark, brown and blond hair, as well as people with fair, brown and absolutely dark skin. Some say that the blond girls I saw in the mountains of northern Syria are the descendants of Crusaders and the black men in Damascus those of released African slaves. Not surprising considering the conquests, rapes and loots as plundering foreign armies marched across this land.

Arabic is the official language but the Syrians have a certain pride in Aramaic, the ancient language of the Syrians, and the lingua franca of the Middle East in Jesus’ days. Today, Aramaic is only spoken in the remote mountain villages northwest of Damascus. Armenian and Kurdish are spoken by members of their respective communities.

Islam is the predominant religion, practised by over 80% of the population. But Syria isn’t the usual homogenous Muslim country most people know about. Syria’s Muslims are divided into many religious sects - Sunnis, Shiites, Druzes and Alawite - many of which have deep-rooted historical hatred against each other. And the Christians, despite their already small population, are also divided into many rival denominations - the Encyclopaedia Britannica names 11 - Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Armenian (Orthodox) Apostolic, Syrian Catholic, Maronite, Protestant, Nestorian, Latin, Chaldean, and so on. I shall explain briefly what are meant by those terms as we come across them later on.

Next : Damascus -The paradise that the Prophet hesitates to visit


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