Legend has it that when the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH -- "Peace be upon Him") approached the gates of Damascus, he refused to enter the city for fear of being so ravished by its beauty that he would forget the heavenly paradise his faith had promised him. Modern visitors to Syria’s capital might find this a little hard to believe, but anyone willing to look beyond the urban chaos will find an abundance of historical and cultural treasures. Most of these, including the Umayyad Mosque, Souk al-Hamidiyah and the Azem Palace, are situated within the old town walls. On the road north to Aleppo, you can stop off on Syria’s Mediterranean coast and pamper yourself at the seaside resorts that surround Latakia. Alcohol and beachwear are tolerated in this overwhelmingly Muslim country, but western tourists should exercise discretion in both areas to avoid offending local sensibilities. Those looking to explore more of the region’s diverse history will also enjoy Palmyra, Bosra, and Ma'loula.
Footprint Travel Guides, first published in 1924, are highly regarded for their in-depth coverage and intimate knowledge of the regions they cover, and therefore a perfect fit for the tripwolf travel community.
Many international students come to Syria to learn Arabic due to the quality and relative low cost of the courses available. The main centre of language teaching is Damascus, although there are some language schools in Aleppo as well. There’s a variety of courses on offer for students of all levels and many locals also offer private tuition.
Palmyra is the base for camel and 4WD safaris out into the desert though, despite the ample potential, this has yet to be properly developed as an activity. However, if you are interested in making a trip into the desert, many small tour operators (who mostly work out of the hotels rather than have their own shops) in Palmyra can arrange this for you. A typical trip usually involves an overnight stay at a Bedouin encampment but most tour operators can organize longer or shorter itineraries.
The ultimate bathing experience, a hammam, or Turkish bath, is a communal bathing house that is very much part of the culture in Syria. Hammams are about more than getting clean, though you will definitely do that. Going to a hammam is a social occasion that can extend for hours as neighbours and friends gather in the marble confines of the bathhouse to gossip, exchange news and relax together.
Hammams are segregated in Syria, either being purely male or female or with separate times set aside for women and men. The typical hammam experience consists of a sauna, wash, exfoliation and then a massage, although you can pay for each service separately. Most hammams use the locally made olive oil soap for washing, but it is perfectly acceptable to bring your own shampoo and soap along if you prefer.
Damascus has the best selection of hammams, some of which are housed in beautifully restored buildings that have been running for 400 years.
There are certainly plenty of opportunities for hiking, most notably in the coastal Jebel Ansariye mountains and the limestone hills around Aleppo, though this is not really recognized as an activity in Syria. If you want to do it you will have to bring all your own equipment for camping, etc, and be prepared for the fact that there are no maps of a sufficiently small scale for hiking, nor any official guides.
There is a wealth of books on all aspects of the Middle East, in fact probably enough to fill a few libraries and keep you going for a lifetime. The following is a small selection. Many contain more detailed bibliographies for those who wish to explore further.
Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East, Harper Collins, 2006. Highly readable history of the Middle East since the First World War combined with Fisk’s stories from the frontline as a reporter.
;Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War, OUP, 1997. Moving account based on Fisk’s reporting of Lebanon’s civil war, internationally acclaimed and compelling reading.
Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, Faber and Faber, 1991. Comprehensive and highly regarded work which focuses as much on the social as the political history of the Arabs.
Bernard Lewis, From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East, OUP, 2004. Selection of the author’s writings on the Middle East; covering politics, history and religion in the region.
Amin Maalouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, Al Saqi, 1984. Original account of the Crusades from the Arab perspective.
Peter Mansfield, The Arabs, Penguin, 1992. Thorough overview of the history of the region.
Though Syria only came into existence as a nation during the 20th century, the region it occupies has a history dating right back to the dawn of civilization, and indeed beyond. Traces of human activity here stretch back as far as the Old Stone Age or Palaeolithic era (as much as one million years ago). Moreover, this region has witnessed the evolution of the three great monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – as well as playing a central role in the birth of civilization in terms of the development of settled agriculture, cities and writing.
The Late Bronze Age (1550-1200 BC) saw further upheavals in the region. The expulsion of the Hyskos from Egypt by the pharaohs of New Kingdom Egypt in around 1550 BC was soon followed by a far greater Egyptian involvement in the region, particularly along the Mediterranean coast in centres such as Ugarit. Around the same time, a new people of Indo-European origin, the Hittites, were advancing into the region from the northwest. These were complemented by the Hurrians and later the Mittanites who arrived from the northeast. The latter two blended into a federation known as the Mittani kingdom. For a time, the Egyptian, Hittite and Mittani Empires formed a triangle of ‘super-powers’ fighting for control of the region. Eventually the Mittani kingdom was absorbed into that of the Hittites, the struggle for supremacy becoming a straight battle between the Egyptians and Hittites. The armies of the two powers finally met head on at Kadesh, though the outcome of the battle was inconclusive, with both sides claiming victory.
Despite these upheavals, it was during the Late Bronze Age that the first alphabets were developed, offering a massive improvement on the hugely complex cuneiform system first developed by the Sumerians, and the equally complex hieroglyphic system of the Egyptians. This momentous development occurred initially at Ugarit during the 14th century BC, and later at Byblos (in present-day Lebanon) towards the end of the 13th century BC, the latter being considered by many experts to represent the forerunner of our own alphabet. It was also probably towards the very end of the Late Bronze Age that the famous Exodus took place, when Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and back to the ‘Promised Land’, his successor Joshua leading the 12 tribes across the Jordan River into Palestine.
In AD 312 Constantine had converted to Christianity, which was already spreading throughout the empire, despite the attempts of Diocletian to suppress it. A year later, the Edict of Milan officially gave Christians the right to practise their religion and by AD 380, Christianity had been adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Although the Byzantine period can be said to have effectively started earlier (according to some interpretations, with the rise of Constantine to the position of sole emperor in AD 324), most historians date the Byzantine period from the official division of the Roman Empire into East and West in AD 395, with the Eastern Roman Empire becoming known as the Byzantine Empire.
Many of the former pagan temples of the Romans were converted into great churches during this era, for example at Damascus. In addition, numerous Christian communities flourished, particularly in the so called ‘Dead City’ region around Aleppo (and most famously at the pilgrimage site of St Simeon), but also throughout the rest of the empire. The Byzantine period in the Middle East spawned many fundamentally important innovations in religious architecture, the influence of which can still be seen today.
Under the reign of Theodosius II (AD 408-450), the ‘100 Year Peace’ was established with the Sassanids, and the region was able to prosper as it had done under the Romans. During the reign of Justinian (AD 527-565), the Byzantine Empire again came under repeated attacks from the Sassanids, who on several occasions made deep incursions into Byzantine territory. Nevertheless, Justinian’s rule was also marked by a flowering of Byzantine culture and architecture.
In AD 602, under the leadership of Chosroes II, the Sassanids launched a massive invasion. By AD 614 they had reached right down into the southern part of the empire and captured Jerusalem. In addition, Antioch, Aleppo, Damascus and Jerash were all occupied. In AD 616 they simultaneously conquered most of Egypt and Asia Minor, laying siege even to Constantinople. In AD 622 the Byzantine emperor Heraclius led a counter attack. His six-year campaign against the Sassanids drove them from most of the empire, but his success was short lived. The Byzantine Empire was on its knees, and in no position to resist the onslaught of the new power emerging from the deserts of Arabia, that of the Muslim Arabs.
All around the peripheries of the Middle East, the Fertile Crescent provided the ideal conditions for the development of settled agriculture. This occurred towards the end of the Mesolithic period and during the early stages of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic period (8500-6000 BC). Wheat and barley appear to have been first cultivated around 10,000 years ago, while 8000 to 9000 years ago sheep and goats began to be fully domesticated. Hunting and gathering still played an important role, while the domestication of sheep and goats still required a semi-nomadic lifestyle in order to find suitable grazing. Gradually, however, small permanent settlements became more widely established.
During the Pottery Neolithic period (6000-4500 BC), baked clay (ceramic) wares made their first appearance. This period witnessed a marked reduction in levels of rainfall, and settlement tended to shift to riverside and coastal sites. In northern Mesopotamia and Syria, centred around the Kabur Triangle, the Halaf Culture developed (named after pottery finds dating from this period at Tell Halaf), overlapping with the Samarra culture of southern Mesopotamia. At sites such as Ras Shamra (Ugarit) on the Mediterranean coast, small settlements were being established.
The Chalcolithic period (4500-3300 BC) heralded the appearance of copper (first used in eastern Anatolia and central Iran). Village settlements based on agriculture spread throughout the whole of the region. Agriculture and animal husbandry both became more sophisticated. Wheat and barley began to be complemented by pulses, olives and flax, while further south, dates and grapes were being cultivated. As well as sheep and goats, cattle and pigs were kept, and the remains of dogs, donkeys, gazelle and foxes have also been found. Styles of pottery became more varied, while basalt was also being used for many utensils. By now there was a thriving trade in obsidian with Anatolia.
The triumphant entry of the Allies and the Arab nationalist forces into Damascus on 1 October 1918 signalled the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire and defeat of the Central Powers. The end of the First World War saw Sharif Hussein’s third son, Feisal, established in Damascus as the head of an Arab government that recognized the suzerainty of his father, the ruler of the Hejaz. Feisal, however, only controlled one of three Occupied Enemy Territory Administrations (this consisted of present-day Jordan, Syria and the inland areas of Lebanon, while the British controlled Palestine and the French the coastal areas as far north as present-day Turkey). Each of these OETAs was under the overall control of the British commander General Allenby who, while recognizing Feisal’s government, described it as ‘purely provisional’.
Feisal attended the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and secured the promise of an International Commission of Inquiry to look into the question of Syrian unity. The King-Crane Commission, as it became known, recommended that, “the unity of Syria be preserved, in accordance with the earnest petition of the great majority of the Syrian people”. However, in response to increasing French pressure, Britain agreed in September 1919 to withdraw its troops from Syria and Lebanon. In January 1920 Feisal managed to negotiate an agreement with the French Premier, Georges Clemenceau, which allowed a temporary French military presence along the coast in return for French acknowledgement of Syrian unity and Feisal’s rule over the interior. The end of Clemenceau’s term in office saw the agreement repudiated and in response the General Syrian Congress proclaimed Feisal king of all Syria. A month later, however, at the San Remo Conference in April 1920, Britain and France formally divided historic Syria between them, the French Mandate covering present-day Syria and Lebanon, while the British Mandate covered Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq. On 24 July 1920 Fesial was forced out of Damascus by the French, and later installed instead as the king of Iraq by the British.
The San Remo Conference had put into effect the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. Despite this secret wartime agreement to carve the region up between the British and French, the British had also entered into the so called ‘Hussein-McMahon Correspondence’ that had appeared (albeit vaguely) to commit Britain to assist the Arabs in attaining independence. In addition, in 1917, in a letter addressed to Lord Rothschild (and subsequently known as the Balfour Declaration), the British government appeared to commit herself to the establishment of a ‘nation home for the Jewish people in Palestine’. Thus the Arabs were denied their own government, the region was divided along artificial lines, and the seeds of the bitter dispute over ‘Palestine’, still so fundamental to Middle Eastern politics today, were sown.
Although the Persians were at first successful in their battles with the Greeks, ultimately it was the latter who triumphed, Alexander the Great of Macedon defeating the forces of Darius III at the battle of Issus in 333 BC. When he died at Babylon in 323 BC, Alexander was only 33 years old, but in the space of just 10 years he had succeeded in creating an empire larger even than that of the Persians.
After his death, Alexander’s Empire was partitioned between his generals. Ptolemy I Soter gained control of Egypt, southern Lebanon and southern Syria (including Damascus), founding what became known as the Ptolemid Empire. Seleucus I Nicator, meanwhile, gained control of Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and northern Syria, establishing what became known as the Seleucid Empire. Over the next century, the Seleucids extended their control southwards, driving the Ptolemids back into Egypt, though at the same time they lost Asia Minor to the Romans and Mesopotamia to the Parthians (who arose from the ashes of the Persian Empire). Thus much of present-day Syria came to be controlled by the Seleucids.
The Seleucids continued the process, begun under Alexander, of Hellenization, ‘founding’ new cities such as Antioch (now called Antakya and in present-day Turkey), Apamea and Dura Europos. In addition the Seleucids made their mark on the great cities of the region, including Aleppo, Damascus, and many others. They laid out a distinctive grid pattern of streets and erected civic buildings and monuments, bringing with them Greek political and legal institutions, and indeed the Greek language. All the same, many of these cities were able to establish a high degree of autonomy within the empire, often amounting to near independence. The Seleucids, being relatively small in number, had no choice but to let them run their own affairs, albeit in a Hellenistic way. In the countryside, they made little or no impression.
By the second century BC, the Seleucid Empire was beginning to crumble. At the same time, the Nabateans, who had already established themselves as a powerful, semi-independent trading state in Petra, began to push northwards. Under King Aretas III (84-56 BC), they briefly succeed in extending their empire to include Bosra and Damascus. Similarly, the Itureans, a local tribal dynasty from the Bekaa Valley, began making raids on the coastal cities and inland centres. In the northern part of the empire, the Seleucids faced more serious threats from the Romans to the west, the Armenians to the north and the Parthians to the east.
The start of the Iron Age saw two major migrations, which brought with them fundamental changes to the region. The first was the violent invasion of the Sea Peoples, about which remarkably little is known. As JD Muhly points out: “While the Egyptian texts refer to massed invasions by land and by sea of various groups collectively known as the ‘Peoples of the Sea’, it has been notoriously difficult to find any trace of such people in the archaeological record. Only the Phillistines, who gave their name to what was thereafter known as Palestine, subsequent to their settlement in the area as Egyptian garrison troops, can be identified in the archaeological context by their distinctive painted pottery” (JD Muhly in Ebla to Damascus). What is known, however, is that these Sea Peoples overthrew the Hittite Empire and largely destroyed Ugarit.
In the wake of the Sea Peoples came the Aramaeans, a semi-nomadic Semitic people who arrived from the deserts of Arabia and settled in central and northern Syria, blending with the small neo-Hittite kingdoms which had arisen in the wake of the destruction of the Hittite Empire. The Aramaeans also established themselves in Damascus, where they checked the expansion of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel to the south.
From the ninth century BC a new empire, that of the Assyrians, arose in northern Mesopotamia and gradually extended its control over most of the region. The Assyrians were in turn overthrown by the Chaldeans, who captured their capital, Nineveh, in 612 BC.
Chaldean dominance of the region was short lived, with the Achaemenid Persians, led by Cyrus, capturing their capital Babylon in 539 BC, taking over control of their empire and extending it to include all of the Middle East, Egypt and Asia Minor. Persian rule was on the whole very well organized, with an excellent network of roads encouraging trade and communications within the empire. The coastal cities of the Phoenicians in particular flourished and Sidon (in present-day Lebanon), was made the capital of the fifth satrapy, encompassing both Syria-Palestine and Cyprus. The Sidonian fleet aided the Persians in their defeat of the Egyptians in 525 BC, and played a crucial role in their wars with the Greeks. Ultimately, however, the Sidonians overstepped the mark by establishing close trading relations with the Athenians and leading a coalition of Phoenician city-states in a rebellion against Persian rule, prompting the Persian king Ataxerxes III Ochus to lead a massive army against them in 350 BC.
The final fall of the Seleucid Empire came with the conquest of Antioch by the Roman general Pompey in 64 BC. The Romans created the province of Syria in their newly acquired territory and adopted Antioch as its capital. Initially, the Romans were much more concerned with their own internal power struggles, and at one stage the Parthians even succeeded in occupying much of Syria. Rome’s bloody intrigues finally drew to an end with the abolition of the Roman Republic and the appointment of Octavian (Augustus Caesar) as the first Roman emperor in 29 BC.
Thus at first the Romans were only able to exercise loose political control, declaring the former city-states of the Seleucid Empire ‘free cities’. In the south, the Nabatean kingdom continued to exist as an independent entity, keeping Damascus until as late as AD 54. After that it was pushed back into its former confines of Petra, though in AD 70 it pushed northwards again and briefly made Bosra the capital of its empire
Octavian’s rise to the position of emperor in 29 BC heralded a gradual improvement in the overall state of affairs in the province of Syria. Though there were many areas over which they still had only nominal control, Roman rule brought with it peace and an orderly, efficient administration – the so called Pax Romana – which allowed the region to flourish economically. The loose federation known as the Decapolis, or ‘Ten Cities’, emerged, straddling the borders of present-day southern Syria and northern Jordan, with cities such as Bosra and Jerash (in present-day Jordan) benefiting from the north-south trade between Damascus and the Red Sea. In Damascus, the former temple of Haddad was gradually expanded and converted into a temple dedicated to the Roman god Jupiter, and the principal Via Recta (the Straight Street of the Bible) was widened and colonnaded. In the Syrian desert, Palmyra began to emerge as a major trading post on the route between Dura Europos and Emesa (Homs). Ironically, in the case of Palmyra, it was actually its position in the no man’s land between Parthian and Roman power that helped it to flourish.
The Romans also developed their new province agriculturally and the area around Bosra became a major grain producing region, the ‘bread basket’ of the Roman Empire), while in the rocky limestone hills around Aleppo, richer landowners were able to embark on the long-term project of developing olive groves. Throughout Syria, it is the monuments of the Roman era which have survived, the ubiquitous building projects of the Romans having overlain those of the Greeks whom they replaced. Socially and culturally, however, the region’s Hellenistic influences continued to be felt long afterwards. Greek remained the official language, and the Romans relied heavily on pre-existing Hellenistic administrative structures.
In AD 106, during the reign of Trajan, the empire was substantially reorganized. The Nabatean kingdom of Petra was incorporated into the empire and a new province of Arabia created alongside that of Syria, with Bosra as its capital. As a result of this, Palmyra entered its golden age, surpassing Petra in significance as a centre of trade.
The marriage in AD 187 of Septimus Severus to the daughter of the High Priest of Homs, Julia Domna, heralded a ‘Syrian’ line of Roman emperors, ensuring a greater direct Syrian influence in the affairs of Imperial Rome. However, during the rule of Caracalla (AD 211-217) and his successor Elagabalus (AD 217-222), the empire began to descend into degeneracy. The reigns of Alexander Severus (AD 222-235) and Philip the Arab (AD 244-249) provided brief respites, but by that time Rome’s Empire in the Middle East was under serious threat.
Since the late second century, the advances of the Parthians from the east had become a major preoccupation. In the early part of the third century the Parthians were replaced by the Sassanid Persians, who posed an even more pressing threat. In 256 Dura Europos fell to the Sassanids. Four years later, the emperor Valerian was captured by the Sassanids and disaster was only averted when the king of Palmyra, Odainat, defeated them the same year. This set the stage for the legendary Queen Zenobia to establish Palmyra as an independent kingdom until the emperor Aurelian captured it in 271.
Diocletian’s rule (AD 284-305) saw relative stability, but his death brought with it 20 years of civil war between the newly created eastern and western administrations of the Roman Empire. These only came to an end when Constantine managed to establish himself as sole emperor in AD 324, founding Constantinople as a second imperial capital in AD 330.
The Abbasids sought to bring Islamic rule back to the more rigorous and theocratic interpretations they felt it deserved. They transferred the seat of the caliphate to Iraq, first to Kufa and then Baghdad. In doing so, they abandoned the blending of Eastern and Western influences which characterized Umayyad rule and brought to the empire a distinctively Mesopotamian and Persian emphasis. Syria, previously at the political heart of the empire, became a relatively insignificant backwater.
Initially, the Abbasids managed successfully to administer an empire which included the whole of the former Umayyad Empire except Spain and Morocco. By the mid-ninth century, however, their power was beginning to fragment, with numerous local dynasties appearing in Syria. The Tulunid and Ikhshidid Dynasties of Egypt in turn controlled parts of southern Syria from AD 868 to AD 969. The latter were ousted by the Fatimids, who went on to make Cairo their capital in AD 973 and later extended their power into Syria. The Fatimids represented the Ismaili branch of Shi’ite Islam, and as such were a direct threat to the power of the Sunni Abbasids, having set up their own rival caliphate. In the north, meanwhile, the Hamdanid and Mirdasid Dynasties ruled in turn in Aleppo from AD 944-1070. Both, however, were only nominal rulers, being at one time or another subject to either the Fatimids to the south or the Byzantines to the north (the Byzantines were making the most of the chaos and trying to regain territory in their former empire).
While all this was happening, the Seljuk Turks, originally chiefs of the Oghuz tribes of Transoxania, had conquered Persia and established a kingdom there with Isfahan as their capital. Being Sunni Muslims, they came to the aid of the Abbasids, who were experiencing their own domestic problems in Baghdad. In return the Seljuk ruler forced the Abbasid caliph to recognize him as ‘Sultan’ (literally ‘Sovereign’) of the Universal State of Islam. Thus the Abbasids became in effect helpless puppets of the Seljuks. The Seljuks occupied Aleppo in 1070 and defeated the Byzantines at Manzikert in eastern Anatolia in 1071. By 1076 they had extended their control over most of Syria, including Damascus, and largely ousted the Fatimids, though they were never strong enough to completely expel them from the region. After 1095 two Seljuk rulers emerged in Syria with Aleppo and Damascus as their capitals. These rulers set up what were in effect their own rival dynasties, both only nominally subservient to the Seljuk sultan in Isfahan.
Though the Abbasid caliphate continued to exist, nominally at least, until it was conclusively destroyed by the Mongols in 1258, in practice it faded into total insignificance.
After the death in AD 632 of the founder of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, the Arab tribes he had welded together into such a formidable force set about conquering the fertile lands to the north and west. Led by the military commander Khalid Ibn al-Walid, the Muslim Arab army captured Damascus in AD 635 and then withdrew to defeat the forces of Byzantium at the Battle of Yarmouk in AD 636, effectively marking the end of Byzantine rule in the region. They again occupied Damascus the same year, and then proceeded to sweep through the land of present day Syria, meeting little resistance from the local peoples. By AD 656 the whole of Persia had also been conquered.
These conquests took place under the rule of Muhammad’s first three successors, the caliphs Abu Bakr (AD 632-634), Omar (AD 634-644), and Uthman (AD 644-656), who all maintained Medina as their capital. The fourth caliph, Ali (AD 656-661), whose assumption of the title of caliph was opposed both by the kin of Uthman (who had been assassinated) and by others in Medina, moved the Arab Muslim capital to Kufa in southern Iraq. However, the governor of Syria, Mu’awiya, was a close kinsman of Uthman, and he rose up in revolt. After Ali was murdered by disaffected members of his own camp , Mu’awiya assumed the title of caliph, thus founding the Umayyad Dynasty.
Out of these early settlements the first cities and city-states developed during the Early Bronze Age (3300-2250 BC). Initially, this took place in southern Mesopotamia, where the Sumerian civilization began to evolve from the fifth millennium BC. Here, an economy based on animal husbandry and large-scale irrigation of the river valleys between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers produced substantial surpluses. This in turn allowed powerful city-states to emerge with their specialized divisions of labour and complex social hierarchies and administrations. The most important was Uruk in southern Mesopotamia, from which the term ‘Late Uruk culture’ is derived. The most significant feature of the Sumerian civilization was the development of a form of writing based on the cuneiform script.
At the same time, from around 2900-2300 BC (a period in Syria generally referred to as the Early Syrian II period and in Egypt as the Early Dynastic period), the settlements at Mari (Tell Hariri) on the Euphrates and Ebla (Tell Mardikh) on the Central Plains to the south of Aleppo were also evolving into powerful city-states in their own right. Both developed their own systems of writing based on the cuneiform script of the Sumerians. The comparative developmental histories of southern Mesopotamia, Mari, Ebla and the Khabur plains have been described by one historian as a “research frontier looming on the horizon”. Certainly the relationships between the various city-states and their embryonic empires were complex, and the discovery (made only in the 1960s) of a thriving Bronze Age city-state of the mid-third millennium BC at Ebla has forced historians to revise the emphasis previously given to the city-states of southern Mesopotamia in the early development of empires.
It would appear that while the growth of the southern Mesopotamian cities was fuelled by intensive irrigation-based agriculture, the extensive rain-fed plains of the Jezira and northwest Syria were also fuelling a similar growth in powerful city-states. Moreover, there appears to have been a steady shift in the centre of power, first from the southernmost portion of the Tigris-Euphrates alluvium to the dry farming plains of the Jezira, and then to the plains of northwest Syria around Aleppo. It has been suggested that the decline of the southern Mesopotamian centres of power was due to water-logging and salinization brought about by the intensive irrigation on which these city-states depended, a problem not encountered in the extensive rain-fed, grain producing regions of the Jezira and northwest Syria.
The development of these city-states was interrupted (or at least modified) in around 2350 BC by the invasion of the Akkadians, the first territorial empire to emerge in the ancient Middle East. This empire was founded by Sargon (2334-2271 BC), who initiated its expansion from its base in Mesopotamia, while his grandson Naram-Sin continued the process, extending the empire eastwards towards the Persian Gulf and westwards towards the Mediterranean.
The Middle Bronze Age (2250-1550 BC) brought with it major upheavals. Towards the end of the third millennium BC, the region was overrun by the Amorites, a Semitic people who emerged from the deserts to the south and east. After an initial period of disruption, city-states such as Mari absorbed these new peoples and began to flourish once again. Ebla, meanwhile, became part of the newly emergent Amorite kingdom of Yamkhad, based in present day Aleppo. By the 18th century BC, Mari had been destroyed by the Babylonian king Hammurabi, also of Amorite origin, who was extending his own empire from its base in southern Mesopotamia. Ugarit, however, was now entering its first golden age as a great trading city and continued to flourish by maintaining a delicate balancing act with the more powerful civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt.
During the first part of the 11th century, the Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim had ordered the destruction of 30,000 churches in Egypt, Palestine and Syria (including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem). This, along with the pleas of the Byzantine emperor, who was becoming increasingly alarmed at the Seljuk threat, prompted Pope Urban II to call for a crusade to restore the Holy Lands to Christian control.
Thus the First Crusade set off from Europe, arriving in Syria in 1097. To their surprise, instead of a formidable enemy in the form of the Seljuk Turks, what they found was a region deeply divided and fragmented into numerous petty principalities. While the Crusaders were united by their religious mission of a ‘Holy War’, the Muslim peoples against whom they were marching were thoroughly embroiled in their own domestic conflicts. After a nine-month siege they took Antioch, massacring many of its inhabitants, including its Greek Orthodox community. They then continued southwards along the Orontes River. Despite meeting little resistance, they were by this time in a sorry state, riven by disease and famine. The shortage of food in particular was reaching crisis point, prompting the infamous massacre at Maarat al-Numan. Continuing south, they swung inland through the Homs Gap, briefly occupying the castle which was later to become Krak des Chevaliers. After unsuccessfully besieging Aqra (near Tripoli), they headed straight down the Mediterranean coast, turning inland again near Jaffa to arrive at Jerusalem. After just over a month, on 15 July 1099, the Holy City fell to the Crusaders, its inhabitants, like those of Antioch, being subjected to an indiscriminate massacre.
After capturing Jerusalem, the great majority of the soldiers of the First Crusade returned home. Though the Crusaders were to remain in the region for another 200 years or so, their numbers were always dangerously few. In the absence of manpower they resorted instead to building formidable castles which could be easily defended with the minimum of soldiers. Today, numerous examples of these remarkable pieces of military architecture can be seen throughout Syria. Many of them (most famously Krak des Chevaliers, but also others such as Qalat Marqab and Qalat Salah ud-Din) are still in an excellent state of preservation.
The French Mandate was for Syria a period of traumatic dismemberment. First the French carved out Grand Liban in August 1920, adding Tyre, Sidon, Beirut, Tripoli, the Akkar region, the Bekaa Valley and the south to the protected Maronite enclave of Mount Lebanon to create the basis for the modern state of Lebanon. Then parts of the old Ottoman province of Aleppo were given to Turkey. Internally, meanwhile, the French dissected the country, creating two mini-states centred on Aleppo and Damascus while establishing separate Alawi and Druze ‘enclaves’ (in the mountains around Lattakia and the Hauran region to the south of Damascus respectively) and maintaining direct French rule in the northeast. By the time of the French withdrawal in 1946, Syria comprised an area of a little over 185,000 sq km, compared with the former Ottoman province of Syria which ran to around 300,000 sq km.
Within Syria, the desire for an united ‘Greater Syria’ was matched by the strength of feeling against the French administration and their policy of ‘divide and rule’. In 1925 a revolt broke out amongst the Druze of the Hauran region, initially over local disagreements with the French, though it soon spread to Damascus and other parts of the country. The French response, which included the bombing of Damascus, was uncompromising and by 1927 the revolt had been suppressed.
In an effort to appease opposition to their rule, they allowed elections to take place in 1928 to a Constituent Assembly which was charged with drafting a constitution. The draft constitution declared that, “the Syrian territories detached from the Ottoman Empire constitute an indivisible political unity. The divisions that have emerged between the end of the war and the present day do not diminish this unity.” This was unacceptable to the French and, after attempts to negotiate a compromise failed, they dissolved the Assembly in 1930 and unilaterally issued a new constitution less hostile to their rule.
New elections were held in 1932 and negotiations started on a Franco-Syrian treaty, but these also broke down and the Assembly was again dissolved in 1934. By 1936 growing opposition and disturbances which threatened to escalate into a full scale revolt prompted the French to send a Syrian delegation to Paris to discuss their demands.
The new French Popular Front government was more sympathetic and in September 1936 a Franco-Syrian Treaty was signed recognizing the principal of Syrian independence after a three-year ‘handover’ period. In 1938, however, with tensions growing in the wider region, the French announced that the treaty would not be ratified. The following year, in an effort to ensure Turkish neutrality in the Second World War, the enclaves of Antioch (Antakya) and Alexandretta (Iskanderun) were formally ceded to the Turkish (the source of a continuing territorial dispute between Syria and Turkey).
After the surrender of France to Germany in 1940, Syria came under the control of the Vichy government. In 1941, against a background of rioting in Syria, Free French and British troops soon succeeded in overthrowing the Vichy government and in September 1941 Syrian independence was formally recognized, in theory at least. In practice, however, the French held on to power, refusing to restore constitutional rule while the war still raged. In 1943 elections were finally held and a nationalist government formed with Shukri al-Kuwatli becoming the President of the Syrian Republic in August of that year. The handover of power was gradual and acrimonious. The Syrians refused to give in to French demands for a new Franco-Syrian Treaty as a condition for the final transfer of administrative and military services, leading to fresh disturbances in 1945 (and again the French bombing of Damascus). These were only quelled following British military intervention and the final departure of all French troops and administrative personnel. The departure of British troops in April 1946 at last heralded full independence for Syria.
The Ayyubid line in Damascus was brought to an abrupt end in 1260 by the invasion of the Mongols, who swept across Syria leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Already in Cairo the Mamluks had risen to power in a coup in 1250, and they were able to defeat decisively the Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalud in Palestine. One of the Mamluk generals at this battle was a man named Baibars who subsequently made himself sultan and took over from the vanquished Ayyubids. Baibars (1260-1277) proved himself to be a formidable adversary, unleashing the full force of his military genius on the Crusaders. By the end of his rule he had driven them from Antioch, Krak des Chevaliers and Safita. The offensive was continued by Qalaun (1280-1290) who dislodged the Crusaders from Qalat Marqab, Lattakia and Tripoli, and by his successor Khalil who took Acre and Tartus in 1291. The Crusaders continued to cling to a tiny foothold on the coast, occupying the island of Arwad until 1302, but already they had been reduced to little more than an anachronism.
The Mamluk genius was not purely military. During the 14th century they also presided over a remarkable programme of building works, the legacy of which is still very much in evidence in Damascus (their second capital after Cairo), and Aleppo. However, towards the end of the 14th century they were riven by internal power struggles which left their empire in Syria increasingly vulnerable to renewed attacks by the Mongols. The most devastating of these, led by Tamerlane, came in 1400, bringing devastation to much of their empire. Under the sultan Qait Bey (1468-1495), the Mamluks recovered somewhat, but they never achieved their former greatness, and in the first quarter of the 16th century they were overthrown by the Ottomans.
The Ottoman Turks, who had already established themselves in Asia Minor during the middle of the 15th century and made Constantinople their capital, met little resistance when they swept into Syria in 1516, led by the sultan Selim I (1512-1520). Under his rule, the Ottomans extended their empire into Egypt, capturing the last Mamluk sultan, and even into Arabia, taking the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. His successor, Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566), further extended the empire to include Serbia, Hungary, Mesopotamia and all of North Africa except Morocco. Thus present-day Syria formed just a small part of a vast empire.
Nevertheless, the region benefited considerably from its incorporation into this new empire. An efficient administrative system was put in place, new trading links were established and ambitious building projects undertaken. It was during Suleiman’s reign that the great Tekkiyeh as-Suleimaniyeh complex in Damascus was built. One of the first things Selim I had done on capturing Cairo was to proclaim himself caliph (since the final collapse of the Abbasid caliphate in 1258, the title had been held by a puppet of the Mamluks). The Ottomans took great care also to ensure that the great pilgrimage route to Mecca, which they now controlled almost in its entirety, was managed properly. As a result, they soon succeeded in legitimizing their assumption of the caliphate and establishing themselves as Protectors of the Faith. Damascus flourished in its role as the last great staging post on the Hajj to Mecca. Aleppo, meanwhile, was opened up to European traders by ‘capitulation’ treaties with the European powers and prospered even more vigorously, its souqs and khans thronging with commercial activity.
Inevitably for such a vast empire, Ottoman rule was rarely directly applied, with pashas or local governors holding office in the major cities and exercising control over large administrative districts. As long as taxes were collected and paid on time, and peace maintained, the sultans in Constantinople were happy not to interfere. At times, the local governors, or even their subordinate tax collectors, were able to carve out what amounted in effect to more or less fully independent kingdoms for themselves.
The 18th century saw a period of stagnation in the Ottoman Empire, which was followed in the 19th century by a more serious revolt. The viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad Ali (1805-1849) succeeded in establishing his own independent power base there, shaking off the authority of the Ottomans. His son, Ibrahim Pasha, carried the uprising into Syria and Lebanon in 1831, ousting the Ottoman forces from the region and carrying out wide ranging modernizing reforms. At one stage it seemed that the Ottoman Empire would collapse, but in 1840 the European powers chose to intervene on the side of the Ottomans, alarmed at this upset to the balance of power in the region and the threat that it posed to their interests.
The immediate result of greater European involvement was to open Syria up to greater European influence. Christian educational/missionary schools were established in Damascus and Aleppo and the latter began to flourish as a point of commercial and cultural contact with Europe. At the heart of Ottoman political power in Constantinople, meanwhile, the Ottoman sultan was deposed in 1909 by the revolutionary movement known as the ‘Young Turks’, who established the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). This brought with it an upsurge of Turkish nationalism which served to awaken amongst the Arab peoples a sense of their own Arab identity.
First World War and the Arab revolt
The modern political geography of the Middle East was largely shaped during the decade from 1914 to 1924. The onset of the First World War was of enormous significance to the region, which suddenly became a focus of international concern. The decision of the Ottoman Turks to ally themselves with the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) placed them in direct opposition to the Allies. The harsh indifference of the Turks to local Arab peoples, along with a breakdown of civic administration as the Turks focused their attentions on the war, brought widespread famine and epidemics. Arab feelings against the Turks increased, culminating in the Arab Revolt, with the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein Ibn Ali, as the figurehead.
As the concept of Arab nationalism began to develop at the turn of the century, notably amongst the urban middle classes of Syria, it soon became clear that the only source of leadership to which they could turn was provided by the emirate of Mecca – an Arab Dynasty of great Islamic standing that was directly descended from the Prophet. Among those who had recognized this were the British, who in 1882 had established themselves across the Red Sea in Egypt. The contacts that the British had established early on with the various sharifian factions paid dividends when the Ottomans entered the First World War on the side of the Central Powers.
When the CUP’s puppet caliph Muhammad V declared the expected jihad against the Allies on behalf of the Islamic world, the impact on the Muslim populations in the Arab world and India was in fact negligible. The Ottoman-German advance into Aden did, however, mean that the Central Powers could threaten Allied shipping in the Red Sea and Suez Canal area (particularly now that the Germans had U-boats). Furthermore, their armies could be resupplied and reinforced by way of the Hejaz railway. Thus, for the Allies (and British in particular) a revolt in the Hejaz and Syria against the Ottomans would not only disrupt the Central Powers resupply lines to Aden, it might actually cut off the whole of the Ottoman-German forces in southern Arabia. Henceforth efforts were made by the British staff at the Arab Bureau in Cairo to increase contacts with Sharif Hussein and his sons.
The subsequent call to armed revolt against the Ottoman Empire that Sharif Hussein made in 1916 – the Arab Revolt – has been the subject of much reinterpretation over the years. How much the revolt was British inspired and how much it was the result of an indigenous bid for Arab independence is a moot point. Certainly, the Arab Revolt was of minor significance in the wider scheme of things. However, it was important in that by harassing vital Turkish lines of communications, most notably the Hejaz railway line which TE Lawrence and his band spent so much time blowing up, it forced the Turks to tie up large bodies of troops defending strategically unimportant corners of the Arabian peninsula (Medina included), allowing the British to consolidate their military position in Palestine, Egypt and the Red Sea.
Around 700,000 years ago, during the Palaeolithic period, Neanderthal man in the Middle East was engaged in primitive forms of hunting and gathering, utilizing simple stone tools to hunt large mammals such as elephants and hippopotami. This is the earliest evidence of ‘human’ activity to be recorded in the area.
During the Epipaleolithic or Mesolithic period (17,000-8500 BC), following the end to the last Ice Age some 15,000 years ago, Homo sapiens first made their appearance. The predominance of smaller, faster animals such as gazelles and wild goats necessitated the development of more sophisticated hunting skills, and correspondingly more specialized tools such as flint arrow-heads, spear-heads and knives have been uncovered from this period. Simultaneously, the gathering of wild plants began to take on a greater importance.
Mu’awiya promptly made Damascus the seat of the caliphate and capital of the empire, heralding the start of one of the most glorious periods in the city’s history, and that of the region as a whole. Under the Umayyads, the empire grew to its greatest extent and by the end of the seventh century it stretched from Spain in the west to the Indus River in the east.
Though their origins were nomadic, the Umayyads were quick to adopt many aspects of the civilizations that had previously existed in the lands they now ruled. As Albert Hourani comments: “Gradually, from being Arab chieftains, they formed a way of life patterned on that traditional among rulers of the Near East, receiving their guests or subjects in accordance with the ceremonial usages of Byzantine emperor or Iranian King.” (Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples.) The synthesis of different influences – Graeco-Roman, Byzantine, Persian, Mesopotamian and indigenous – which occurred under the Umayyads is most graphically displayed in their architecture, and in particular their religious architecture. The famous Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, built during the reign of the sixth Umayyad caliph Khalid ibn al-Walid (AD 705-715), is the most spectacular example of this. But the Umayyads were also responsible for many other monuments, including Qasr al-Heir al-Sharki near Palmyra.
In retrospect, the Umayyads were seen as lax and corrupt by future Islamic Dynasties. Certainly, they did not place a major emphasis on religion, concentrating instead on developing their empire economically and politically. But, eventually, they did indeed fall into degeneracy. The last truly great Umayyad caliph, Hisham (AD 724-743) was followed in quick succession by a series of incompetent and debauched caliphs. The last of these, Marwan II, was overthrown following an uprising led by Abu al-Abbas, who went on to found the Abbasid Dynasty. One grandson of Hisham did manage to flee to Spain, maintaining the Umayyad lineage there for another 500 years.
A concerted response to the Crusaders came from the Zengids, nominally subservient to the Seljuks. The Zengid Dynasty was founded by Zengi, who in 1124 had helped lead a Seljuk force in the relief of Aleppo from a Crusader siege. In 1128 he became the ruler of Aleppo. Under his rule, and that of his son Nur ud-Din (1146-1174), Aleppo became a centre of resistance against the Crusaders.
In 1144 the County of Edessa (present-day Urfa in Turkey) fell to Nur ud-Din, prompting the Second Crusade. Their attempts to besiege Damascus failed and the whole expedition ended in something of a fiasco. By 1154 the Zengids had themselves gained control of Damascus, uniting the Muslim opposition to the Crusaders in Syria. In 1169 Nur ud-Din sent a huge force against the Fatimids in Egypt. Led by Salah ud-Din (known to European historians as Saladin), the Zengid forces over threw the Fatimids in 1171, restoring Sunni orthodoxy there and, nominally at least, the authority of the Abbasid caliph. After Nur ud-Din’s death, Salah ud-Din returned to Syria and by 1186 had succeeded in uniting all the Muslim lands from Cairo to Baghdad under the Ayyubid Dynasty (named after his father Ayyub). In 1187, having defeated the Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin, he recaptured Jerusalem and also regained Acre, Sidon, Beirut and Byblos. The following year he conducted a whirlwind campaign which saw no less than 50 Crusader positions fall, although he avoided their most important and impregnable strongholds: Krak des Chevaliers, Qalat Marqab and Antioch.
The fall of Jerusalem prompted the Third Crusade, which by 1191 had recaptured Acre. The King of England, Richard I (Richard the Lionheart) is perhaps the best known figure of this Crusade, but despite twice coming to within sight of Jerusalem, he failed to take it. Instead, he signed a peace treaty in 1192 which guaranteed pilgrims free right of passage. After Salah ud-Din’s death the following year, his successors failed to capitalize on the gains he had made and the Crusaders were able to recapture much of their former territory along the coast. The Ayyubid line continued until 1260, ruling from the twin capitals of Cairo and Damascus. It came to rely increasingly on Turkish slaves to man its armies and administer its empire. These slaves grew in power, giving rise to what became known as the Mamluk Dynasty (meaning ‘owned’).
The Six Day War of 1967 was another bitter disappointment for Syria and once again a serious blow to her self-confidence. The credibility of the ‘progressive’ Ba’athist regime which had come to power in 1966 was seriously undermined. In particular it began to be criticized for its heavy reliance on the USSR, and for its overriding emphasis on the importance of developing a neo-Marxist economy. The level of Soviet involvement in Syria was seen by many as bordering on imperialism, while the debacle of the Six Day War was seen as evidence that the regime was more interested in neo-Marxist ideology than the struggle against Israel.
A ‘nationalist’ camp within Ba’ath began to gain ground, one which recognized the need for a pragmatic approach to the economy and emphasized the importance of developing stronger ties with Syria’s Arab neighbours and overthrowing Israel. The ‘nationalist’ camp was led by Hafez al-Assad, who gained control of the all-important Ministry of Defence. Initially Assad was constrained by Soviet threats to withdraw all aid, which would have left Syria greatly weakened militarily and economically. However, improved relations with China strengthened his hand. The power struggle came to a head over the question of Syria’s support for the Palestinian guerrilla groups in Jordan, whose might was being challenged by King Hussein in a showdown which became known as Black September. Assad disapproved of direct Syrian military intervention on the side of the Palestinians, fearing that it would damage pan-Arab unity, and that the Palestinian guerrilla groups were about to trigger another confrontation with Israel at a time when Syria’s military forces were too weak to have any chance of success.
In November 1970 Hafez al-Assad seized power, assuming the position of prime minister. By March 1971 he had made himself president, with a referendum confirming his position for a seven-year term. A legislative body, the People’s Assembly, was formed, with the Ba’ath party being guaranteed 87 of its 173 seats to give it an overall majority (the Assembly was later enlarged to 200 seats). In order to broaden his power base, Assad went on to form the National Progressive Front, a coalition of parties headed by the Ba’ath. In March 1973 a new constitution was put into effect.
Until his death in a car crash in January 1994, the charismatic Basil al-Assad, Hafez al-Assad’s eldest son, had clearly been the heir apparent, his poster appearing widely alongside that of his father. Instead, his quieter and more retiring younger brother, Bashar al-Assad was recalled from his studies in London, where he was training to be an eye specialist, and sent to a military academy, quickly rising to the position of colonel. He was given responsibility for certain foreign policy issues, including one of the most important: Lebanon. In the months before his father’s death, he had been involved in an anti-corruption drive which targeted high-ranking officials in what was seen by many as an attempt to sweep away some of the old guard and establish his own power base in the regime. The military training, foreign policy responsibilities and anti-corruption drive were all clearly part of the grooming process, but when his father died, Bashar was just 34 years old and had held no official position in the state or party hierarchy other than president of the country’s computer society.
The first thing the Syrian parliament did in the hours following the death of Hafez al-Assad was to hurriedly amend the constitutions, lowering the minimum age of the president from 40 to 34, before nominating Bashar for the post. Equally urgently, it promoted him to the position of Commander in Chief of the armed forces, thereby giving him absolute power over the military. A week later he was elected general secretary of the Ba’ath party. By July 2000 he had been sworn in as president following a referendum in which 97% of voters, predictably enough, had endorsed his candidacy. On New Year’s Day 2001, Bashar married 25-year-old Asma Akhras, a British-born computer science graduate from a prominent London-based Syrian family. Significantly, Akhras is a Sunni Muslim, thus providing something of a bridge between the minority Alawi background of the Assad family and Syria’s predominantly Sunni population .
The early years of the Syrian Republic were marked by chronic instability and bitter disappointment. Having already been in existence as a separate entity for a generation, the appeal of restoring ‘Greater Syria’ (expressed in various proposals of union with Iraq) was tempered by a new sense of Syrian nationalism and a fear of being absorbed within such a union. Indeed, the parallel ambitions of Jordan’s King Abdullah to lead a united ‘Greater Syria’ were viewed with outright hostility and politically Syria was more closely aligned with Egypt and Saudi Arabia than with either Iraq or Jordan.
The defeat of the Arab countries by the newly formed State of Israel in the 1947-1949 war shook Syrian confidence and created much resentment within the country. In 1949 there were no less than three military coups. In 1950 a new constitution was put in place and Hashim al-Atasi, a widely respected politician, installed as president.
In 1951 there was another coup, engineered by Adib al-Shishakli (the leader of the final coup of 1949), who by 1953 had installed himself as president. The following year he, in turn, was ousted after popular demonstrations in Aleppo and Damascus. The 1950 constitution was restored, Atasi reinstated as president and new elections held.
On the international scene, Syria’s position was full of paradox. The reappointment of Shukri al-Kuwatli as president in 1955 signalled increasingly close relations with Egypt. Syria was at the same time becoming much more anti-Western and pro-Soviet, protesting strongly against the formation of the Baghdad Pact (a defensive alliance aimed at curbing Soviet communist designs in the Middle East, which included Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Britain). The Suez Crisis and subsequent invasion of Sinai by Israel in 1956 with help from Britain and France only served to bolster anti-Western sentiments. Syria blew up the oil pipelines from Saudi Arabia and Iraq which passed through her territory en route to the Mediterranean and refused to repair them until Sinai was fully restored to Egypt. When America’s Eisenhower Doctrine of 1957 was warmly received by King Hussein of Jordan and the Christian president of Lebanon Camille Chamoun, Syria found herself at loggerheads, politically at least, with every one of her immediate neighbours. Only Egypt appeared to share a similar outlook.
The new found stability of Assad’s regime, along with its relatively enlightened approach to economic development brought with it a veritable flow of foreign aid into Syria from Arab oil producing countries, the UN, World Bank, Europe and even the US. Before the October War foreign aid had averaged just US$50 million annually; after 1974 it jumped to US$600 million. At the same time, the sharp rise in world oil prices saw Syria’s oil exports rocket in value from US$70 million in 1973 to US$700 million in 1974. Remittances from Syrians working in the Arab oil producing countries likewise shot up. In short, after faltering along without any real direction from one unstable regime to another, Syria suddenly started to experience a sustained period of solid economic development which brought with it tangible benefits to ordinary people.
The Alawis in particular benefited from the economic boom, but also other minority groups and previously neglected sections of society. Perhaps inevitably, however, the socialism of the Ba’ath regime gradually started to give way to more selfish opportunism. By 1976 there were around 3500 millionaires (in S£s), as compared with just 55 in 1963, the majority beneficiaries of the commissions, kickbacks and outright corruption which accompanied the government’s close involvement in economic affairs. Muhammad Haydar, the vice-premier of Economic Affairs, was notorious for the personal wealth he amassed and became known as ‘Mister Five Percent’. Assad’s youngest brother Rif’at, unassailable in his position as commander of the elite Defence Companies which acted as a kind of praetorian guard for Assad’s regime, indulged himself in a luxurious international jet-set lifestyle and enjoyed access to unlimited government funds.
Such gross iniquities began to breed resentment towards the Alawis. At the same time, the nouveau riche started to outstrip traditional merchants and landowners, whose political influence had already been weakened by the Ba’ath rise to power. Venerable religious families and the Sunni Muslim ulema, meanwhile, found themselves undermined by the rising tide of secularism. The seeds of a backlash against Assad, the Ba’ath and the ruling Alawi elite were being sown.
The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 gave Assad a chance to mend his bridges with the West. Having restored diplomatic relations with Egypt (severed since 1977 in protest at Sadat’s peace overtures towards Israel), Syria agreed to send troops to Saudi Arabia as part of a pan-Arab deterrent force. Despite strong support for Saddam Hussein amongst Syria’s Palestinians, Assad supported calls for an unconditional Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. By December it was estimated that Syria had more than 20,000 troops in Saudi Arabia. Officially, Assad maintained that they were only there to help defend Saudi Arabia from a possible Iraqi invasion, and they did not directly participate in the massive Desert Storm offensive against Iraq in early 1991. However, the very fact that Assad had aligned himself with the US-led anti-Iraq coalition represented a major turning point in Syria’s international standing, both in the Arab world and in the West.
Assad’s efforts to secure the release of Western hostages held in Lebanon helped to further improve relations with the US and Europe. Britain restored diplomatic relations and, at a time when the break-up of the Soviet Union heralded the end of its economic and military support, Syria began to receive substantial amounts of aid from Europe, Japan and the Gulf states. In Lebanon, Syria gained almost complete freedom to pursue its own ends. In October 1990 Syria suppressed the revolt led by General Michel Aoun and by May 1991 Syria had signed a formal Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation and Coordination with Lebanon, followed later that year by a Pact of Defence and Security. Although Syria was implicitly obliged as a result to recognize Lebanon as a sovereign state, it at the same time gave Syria complete control over Lebanon’s economy and foreign policy.
Syria’s intervention in Lebanon in 1976 coincided with an upsurge in discontent at home. The economic boom was running out of steam, with many Gulf states withdrawing their aid in protest at Assad’s assault on the Palestinians in Beirut. Social inequality was growing, and opposition to the regime was finding a further focus in the form of extremist Sunni Muslim groups which resented minority Alawi rule and the Ba’ath promotion of secularism. The most prominent of these groups was the Muslim Brotherhood, which originated in Egypt during the 1920s. Its original aim had been to bring about an end to British rule in Egypt and to establish an Islamic state in its place. In the context of Ba’athist Syria, its Islamist ideology quickly became a banner behind which all the disaffected sections of Syrian society could unite. Acts of terrorism against prominent Alawi figures became ever more frequent, the most prominent being the massacre of at least 32 Alawi officer cadets at Aleppo Artillery School in June 1979. Almost exactly a year later, an assassination attempt was made on Assad himself.
This growing internal threat to the stability of the country was occurring in the context of serious setbacks for Assad abroad. The Camp David accords of 1978 led the following year to a full peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, seriously weakening the pan-Arab unity against Israel which Assad so cherished. On the Lebanese front, by 1981 the stand-off between Syria and Israel over the positioning of SAM missiles in the Bekaa Valley was threatening to escalate into a full scale confrontation, while at the same time Syrian troops found themselves fighting the Christian Phalangists they had previously been sent to protect. Israel, meanwhile, formally annexed the Golan Heights. To the east, the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980 further added to the regional tension. Syria gave its support to Iran, reflecting the long-standing hostility which existed between the Syrian and Iraqi branches of the Ba’ath party. With Jordan offering its support to Iraq, Syria and Jordan found themselves once again at loggerheads and tensions between the two countries nearly escalated into open hostilities on several occasions.
At home things finally came to a head in February 1982 with a full-scale uprising against Assad’s regime in the conservative town of Hama. It took three weeks before the uprising was finally quelled, and in the process much of Hama was devastated. Though Assad survived this challenge to his authority, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June of that year presented him with an even more serious problem. Many of Syria’s fighter aircraft in the Bekaa Valley were destroyed, along with most of its SAM missiles. The Syrian presence in Lebanon was rendered all but impotent in the face of the sheer might of the Israeli military. By 1983 Syrian forces in Lebanon were under attack not only from the Israelis but also from Sunni Muslims in Tripoli, Maronite Christians in the centre of the country, and guerrillas loyal to Yasser Arafat in the Bekaa Valley (Assad had backed extremist elements within the PLO which were attempting to overthrow Arafat).
In November 1983 Assad suffered what was widely believed to be a heart attack and for several weeks disappeared completely from the public eye while convalescing. A power struggle ensued, with Assad’s younger brother Rifa’at spearheading the challenge to Assad’s supremacy. By March 1984 a showdown seemed certain. Eventually, following a dramatic face to face meeting between the two brothers, Rifa’at lost his nerve and Assad was able to reassert his authority. That year Rifa’at went into effective exile, along with others who had played a part in the confrontation.
In 1985 Assad was elected to a third seven-year term as president and his position at home appeared once more secure. On the international scene, however, Assad was isolated from the rest of the Arab world, both due to his support for Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, and his attempts to oust Arafat from the PLO. Suspicion in the West that Syria was involved in international terrorist attacks led to the US and most members of the EU imposing sanctions in 1986. Britain broke off diplomatic relations entirely. The Soviet Union, Syria’s chief sponsor since 1980, became Assad’s only firm ally, with economic and military aid from this quarter growing massively throughout the 1980s.
On 6 October 1973 Syria and Egypt launched simultaneous attacks on Israel in an attempt to regain territory lost during the 1967 war. The attacks were timed to coincide with the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, hence the popular name the Yom Kippur War, although in Syria the encounter is known officially as the October War of Liberation. Having taken Israeli forces by surprise, Syria and Egypt were able to make dramatic advances, Syria reclaiming a substantial portion of the Golan Heights. The subsequent Israeli counter-offensive saw both the Egyptians and the Syrians pushed back, in the case of the Syrians to within 32 km of Damascus. Egypt signed a disengagement agreement on 18 January 1974, but the Golan fighting dragged on, with an agreement not being signed until 30 May of that year. The outcome of this conflict was at best inconclusive, but it did at least allow Syria to claim some degree of victory and went a long way to restoring Syrian self-confidence, as well as strengthening Assad’s position.
Assad’s close co-operation with Egypt during the October War reflected the improved relations he had effected in that direction. Ties with the Soviet Union were likewise restored, and Syria began to receive substantial amounts of military and economic aid once again. In June 1974 diplomatic relations with America were also restored. The Rabat Conference of October 1974 resulted in a declaration that recognized the PLO as the ‘sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people’. From Assad’s point of view this was highly significant in that it meant that Jordan had implicitly relinquished its claim to the West Bank and signalled that the Arab world was at last united in its approach to the Palestinian question.
Perhaps the most important consequence of Syria’s stance in the Gulf War was that America began to acknowledge Syria’s key role in any future Arab-Israeli peace deal. Following the end of the Gulf War, America intensified diplomatic efforts to initiate negotiations between Israel, the Arab states and Palestinian representatives. In July 1991 Assad agreed to participate in direct negotiations with Israel at a regional peace conference. Although the historic Madrid conference of October 1991 was largely symbolic, a series of bilateral negotiations between Syria and Israel followed. From the Syrian point of view, the primary aim of these talks was to secure an unconditional Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights (occupied since the 1967 Six Day War) in return for peace. At the same time, however, Assad made it clear that any agreement with Israel would have to form part of a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East. Assad was well aware that Israel hoped to reach separate agreements with each of its neighbours, as it had already done with Egypt, so weakening the collective bargaining power of the Arab world, something which he wished to avoid at all costs.
Assad’s decision in 1992 to allow Syrian Jews to leave the country if they wished was seen as a conciliatory signal towards Israel. Though a breakthrough on the issue of the Golan Heights at times seemed imminent, the various rounds of bilateral talks dragged on without any real progress. The signing of the Declaration of Principles (DOP, better known as the Oslo Accords) between Israel and the PLO in September 1993 represented a serious setback to Assad’s attempts to maintain an united Arab front. Nevertheless, after a meeting between President Clinton and Assad in Geneva on 20 January 1994, Syria indicated its willingness to establish, ‘normal, peaceful relations’ with Israel. Progress continued until late 1994, when Assad suspended negotiations, ostensibly in protest at Israeli demands for a mutual reduction in the military presence around the Golan, but no doubt also in protest at the signing of a formal peace treaty between Israel and Jordan in October 1994.
Talks resumed in March 1995 and by May a ‘framework of understanding on security arrangements’ was announced. Syria maintained that any agreement on the Golan Heights would have to be linked to an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon. Eventually the US-brokered plan collapsed after Syria objected to Israeli demands for early warning stations on the Golan. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995 threw the Peace Process into renewed uncertainty. Negotiations resumed with the new Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Initially, there were promising signs of progress, with Peres advancing a new 10-point plan. However, Hezbollah attacks on Israel from southern Lebanon continued, prompting Peres to retaliate with ‘Operation Grapes of Wrath’ in April 1996. Apart from the renewed carnage and bloodshed, this resulted in the negotiations stalling once again. In May 1996 the right-wing Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister. Netinyahu’s uncompromising stance, refusing to cede an inch of the Golan to Syria (not to mention his policy of promoting Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and insisting on an extremely narrow interpretation of the Oslo II accords), effectively brought the Peace Process to a complete halt.
Many perceived the result of the 1999 elections in Israel and the victory of Ehud Barak’s Labour party as a vote in favour of the Peace Process. However, early optimism that Barak would be able to reach a final agreement with the Palestinians, and even Syria, was soon replaced by a more realistic outlook. Initially, negotiations between Israel and Syria looked promising, but by January 2000 they had been broken off. In March 2000, the US President Bill Clinton and President Assad of Syria met in Geneva in an attempt to restart the talks, but without success.
Under intense pressure at home, Barak continued to press ahead regardless with his plans for a unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon. Though he had originally pledged that the withdrawal would be completed by July, events for once moved faster than predicted, and by the end of May 2000 the Israeli army had completely withdrawn from their infamous ‘security’ zone in southern Lebanon, ending 18 years of occupation.
Bashar’s first months in office began with real hope of reform and political freedom. Media restrictions were eased and private publications were allowed to be distributed for the first time in nearly 40 years. The new president also ordered the release of 600 political prisoners. It was said that Bashar was keen to initiate a programme of reforms and modernization similar to that undertaken by King Abdullah II in Jordan. Behind the scenes though, the more conservative elements of the formidable military and secret police as well as the Ba’ath party were alarmed at the progress of modernization and after a brief period of openness Bashar moved more slowly and cautiously in an effort to consolidate his power and not antagonize the more conservative elements of his government. The granting of real political freedom in Syria has yet to be realized.
Since assuming office, regional events have provided a huge test to the young president. Spiralling violence in Israel and The Palestinian Territories led to the eruption of the second intifada and the official suspension of the Peace Process after an emergency summit in Sharm el-Sheikh between Arafat and Barak failed to reach any agreement. The resounding victory of hardliner Ariel Sharon in the Israeli elections of February 2001 hammered a final nail in the coffin for further peace talks between Syria and Israel.
The 9/11 attacks and George Bush’s ‘war on terror’ significantly altered US-Syrian relations. Despite the Ba’ath government’s history of dealing heavy-handedly with religious fanaticism on its own turf and the overall peaceful co-existence of religious minorities within Syria, the Syrian government’s refusal to expel Palestinian organizations from the country led to the Bush Administration labelling Syria as ‘an outpost of Tyranny’ and adding Syria to a list of nations in an extended ‘axis of evil’. The US-led invasion of neighbouring Iraq on 20 March 2003 and the on-going war there turned relations between Syria and the US even frostier when Syria was accused of failing to prevent, and even helping, foreign fighters slip over their 450-mile border with Iraq to join the insurgency against the coalition troops. In May 2004 the US government imposed economic sanctions against Syria and increasingly Syria found itself out in the cold.
The assassination of Lebanon’s popular ex-prime minister, Rafiq Hariri (a vocal opponent of Syrian involvement in Lebanon) in Beirut on 14 February 2005 added to Syria’s diplomatic woes. The bombing in downtown Beirut which killed twenty and wounded more than 100 led to massive protests in Lebanon against Syria’s continued military presence within the country, and eventually the toppling of Lebanon’s pro-Syrian government. It was widely believed within Lebanon that Syria had masterminded the assassination and despite Bashar al-Assad’s strong rebuttal the international condemnation that followed resulted in Syria withdrawing its troops from Lebanon in April 2005 for the first time in 29 years. A UN report published in October 2005 implicated Syria and pro-Syrian elements within Lebanon in the assassination though Syria has continued to this day to proclaim its innocence.
The Hariri assassination left Syria further isolated from the west as Europe as well as the US turned their backs on the nation. With few other alternatives Syria began to look towards alliances with other so-called ‘rogue states’, establishing close ties with Iran and to a lesser level, North Korea. The nation’s defiant dialogue with these traditionally anti-Western players led to September 2007’s Israeli aerial raid on a military site in northern Syria. A few months later the US would accuse North Korea of trying to help Syria build a nuclear reactor at the bombed site. This strange episode has yet to be explained properly by either side.
As the US continued to appeal for the Syrian border to be tightened so that militants could not enter Iraq, Syria was desperately trying to cope with a massive influx of refugees coming the other way. By July 2007 the number of Iraqi refugees in Syria was estimated at close to 1.5 million, putting a severe strain on the country’s public health and education services (which the refugees can access for free) as well as causing the cost of rent, particularly in Damascus where the majority of refugees have taken shelter, to more than double. As the war in Iraq continues to drag on, Syria has repeatedly called for help from the International Community to deal with the refugee burden placed on Iraq’s neighbouring states.
During the 2006 Israeli war against Hezbollah in Lebanon it was widely noted that Syria managed to keep out of the conflict although Israel’s bombardment of the country was thoroughly condemned by President Assad and Hezbollah were roundly supported within Syria. During the conflict an approximate 200,000 Lebanese flocked into Syria seeking temporary shelter putting a further strain on the country’s economy. In the aftermath of the war the European Union, and in particular France, have endeavoured to bring Syria back into the fold of the world community. A succession of visits to Damascus by European officials in 2007 signalled a significant thawing of attitudes towards the nation. The July 2008 meeting in Paris of President Assad, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and the newly elected Lebanese Prime Minister Michel Suleiman ultimately led to diplomatic relations between Syria and Lebanon being established for the first time since both countries achieved independence.
In 2008, for the first time in eight years, Syria and Israel announced that they were resuming peace talks. The indirect talks, mediated by Turkey, were the first ever not to be sponsored by the US and were heralded as a new start by some commentators. Despite the suspension of talks in December 2008 due to the formation of a new Israeli parliament, both sides in recent months have made overtures that they are again ready to go back to the negotiation table.
At home President Bashar al-Assad has begun tentative progress towards reform and liberalization of the state-controlled economy with the opening of the Syrian stock exchange in 2009 and the gradual openings for foreign investment within the country. After nearly 10 years in the job it looks like Bashar al-Assad may finally be stepping out of the long shadow cast by his father.
The Ba’ath (’Renaissance’) party was founded by a Christian Arab academic, Michel Aflaq in 1947. It espoused a combination of socialism, secularism and pan-Arabism and grew steadily in influence in Syria, spreading also to Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. It was the Ba’ath party which was one of the driving forces behind Syria’s short-lived union with Egypt, though within Ba’ath there were divisions between the pro-Egyptian, pro-Iraqi and nationalist camps. Following the collapse of the UAR, Syria experienced a couple more years of uncertain rule which saw the president ousted and then reinstated. In March 1963 a coup was staged by a Ba’athist military junta calling itself the National Council of the Revolutionary Command. The Ba’athist regime which followed purged the remaining pro-Nasserists from power, foiling a coup instigated by them, and set about implementing its socialist agenda, nationalizing banks, initiating land reform, etc. This disaffected the influential land-owning and merchant sections of society. In addition, by relying heavily on the military, which was dominated by religious minority groups and in particular the Alawis, the Ba’ath failed to win the support of the Sunni Muslim ulema. Politically the country was becoming polarized between conservative/traditional elements and modernizing socialist elements. In April 1964 these tensions erupted into civil disturbances in Hama which were swiftly suppressed.
At the same time, there were growing tensions within the Ba’ath party itself, between the more moderate and long-standing civilian politicians, and the more extreme left-wing elements (including many radical young officers from the military). These tensions finally came to a head in February 1966, with the radical elements seizing power. Many of the moderate Ba’ath politicians, including the founder of the Ba’ath Michel Aflaq and the head of state General Amin Hafiz, were placed under arrest.
It was against this background of radicalism that the build up to the Six Day War of 1967 with Israel took place. In November 1966 Syria entered into a defence pact with Egypt, soon to be followed by Jordan. Throughout 1966 and early 1967 Syria increasingly became the focus for cross border attacks on Israel, while Egypt’s actions in Sinai and the Gulf of Aqaba finally resulted in the outbreak of war on 5 June 1967. The war proved to be a disaster for Syria, with Israeli troops gaining control over the strategically vital Golan Heights and pushing forwards as far as the town of Quneitra (just 67 km from Damascus) before a UN-brokered ceasefire was implemented on 10 June.
Less than three weeks later, on 10 June 2000, the death of President Hafez al-Assad of Syria was announced. The news reverberated around the world, with words such as ‘crisis’, ‘turmoil’, ‘power struggle’ and ‘power vacuum’ dominating the headlines. For years observers had speculated on the question of what would happen after Assad’s death. Many argued that after so many years of dictatorial rule, Syria had none of the political structures necessary to cope with a smooth transition of power. In the event, however, the transition of power proved to be almost completely without problems. Nearly 30 years of relative stability and economic growth had created an increasingly affluent society with a sizeable middle class. The vast majority of Syrians, whether they privately detested Assad’s regime or not, had no wish to see the country plunged into the chaos and uncertainty which marked its early years of independence. Nor were they keen to see an Islamic revolution along the lines of Iran.
The pan-Arab nationalism being espoused by Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt had massive popular support throughout the region. Swept along in the tide of popular sentiment, in February 1958 Syria formally united with Egypt to form the United Arab Republic (UAR), with Nasser as its president. Though popular in the beginning, the relationship soon soured, with the inevitable Egyptian political domination of Syria, as well as the economic cost, causing resentment. Despite the formation of a single UAR cabinet in August 1961, by September a military coup had put an end to what most now regarded as Egyptian imperialism and Syria announced her withdrawal from the UAR, leaving it defunct.
When Lebanon erupted into civil war in April 1975, Syria, understandably enough, took a keen interest and followed events closely. A destabilized Lebanon might open the door to an Israeli occupation of all or part of the country (or at least result in the emergence of pro-Israeli government in Lebanon). It also threatened the stability of Syria itself. Direct Syrian military intervention was therefore perhaps inevitable, and indeed came the following year. By the end of May 1976 there were an estimated 40,000 Syrian-controlled troops in Lebanon, and the following month Syria launched a full-scale invasion. Initially Syria’s stated aim had been to protect the Palestinians, and subsequently to control their activities in Beirut. However, it soon became clear to Assad that his best hope lay in restoring stability to Lebanon by crushing the PLO and ensuring that a pro-Syrian government held power. Following the appeal of the Maronite president Suleiman Franjieh for help, Syria switched sides.
Thus Assad found himself attacking the PLO and their allies and defending the Maronite Christians, much to the dismay of the rest of the Arab world. (During the 15 years of civil war, Syria found itself aligned with practically every Lebanese faction at one time or another). By October the Arab League had ‘regularized’ the Syrian presence in Lebanon by giving authority to an Arab Deterrent Force (ADF) to maintain peace. The ADF was, however, dominated by Syrian troops and the Arab League in no position to dictate policy to Assad in what he regarded as his own backyard.
Syria’s military involvement in Lebanon’s civil war was a bitter, costly and long, drawn-out affair. On two occasions, following the 1978 and 1982 Israeli invasions of Lebanon, it very nearly resulted in another full scale war between Syria and Israel, and in the latter case did result in military humiliation for Syria.
The vast majority of the people of Syria can be termed Arab, though the term is an extremely broad one, encompassing many different religious and ethnic groups. It is helpful, therefore, to look first at exactly what is meant by the term ‘Arab’, and how its meaning has evolved over time.
The earliest known use of the word comes from an inscription of the Assyrian king Shamaneser III, which refers to the Arabi. Thereafter it appears frequently, either as Arabi or Arabu, in Assyrian and Babylonian inscriptions. ‘Arab’ first appears in the Bible (2 Chronicles 17:11), although it has been suggested that the ‘mixed multitude’ referred to in Exodus 12:38 as having accompanied the Israelites into the wilderness could equally be translated as ‘Arabs’ (in Hebrew, the word for each is erev and arav respectively, but in their written forms the vowels do not appear). More commonly, however, the Bible makes reference to the Ishmaelites. In Islamic and Hebrew tradition, the Arabs and the Hebrews are both descendants of the prophet Abraham, the Arabs through his son Ishmael and the Hebrews through his son Isaac. The birth of Isaac to Abraham’s elderly wife Sarah meant that Ishmael (born to Abraham’s concubine Hagar) was superseded as Abraham’s natural heir, whose descendants would inherit the Promised Land. Ishmael instead went out into the desert (Genesis 21).
The traditional definition of an Arab, as reflected in the biblical interpretation, was a nomadic inhabitant of the deserts of northern and central Arabia. Indeed, the word ‘Arab’ is thought to have been derived from a Semitic root related to nomadism, perhaps the word abhar (literally ‘to move’ or ‘to pass’), from which the word ‘Hebrew’ is also probably derived. The settled inhabitants of the rain-fed uplands of present-day Yemen could also be termed Arabs, and over the centuries many of the nomadic peoples traditionally recognized as Arabs themselves adopted a settled life based on agriculture and animal husbandry, but the broad definition of an Arab was at this stage fairly clear.
The definition of an Arab became more complicated with the arrival of Islam. The Islamic faith as revealed by the Prophet Muhammad was clearly intended, initially at least, specifically for the nomadic tribes of the Arabian Peninsula: ie the Arabs. However, the conquests of the seventh century resulted in the creation of a vast Arab Empire based on the precepts of Islam. Thus, Arab and Muslim identities became very closely intertwined, though the two were never synonymous.
Although Muslim and Arab identities came to be very closely identified with each other (at least by the Sunni Muslim majority in the region), there existed sizable minorities of Arab Christians (and indeed Jews), who had everything in common with their Muslim counterparts in terms of history, culture and language, but little in terms of religion. Ironically, the Christian Arabs were the first to articulate the concept of Arab nationalism, because they avoided the trap of confusing Arab and Muslim identities.
Thus the traditional definition of an Arab, as a nomadic inhabitant of the deserts of northern and central Arabia, was rendered inadequate by the ‘arabization’ of a far larger area, and much of what we today recognize as Arab culture and society has little in common with that of the nomadic desert tribes. Likewise, the tendency of mainstream Sunni Muslims to identify ‘Arab’ with ‘Muslim’ is flawed even within the Arab world, given the existence of non-Muslim Arab minorities, and completely untenable when you take into consideration the spread of Islam far beyond the bounds of the Arab world. Today, perhaps the nearest you can get to a definition of ‘Arab’ is a native speaker of the Arabic language, though this remains a very loose definition, Arabic being the native tongue of around 120 million people across the Middle East and North Africa. As the language of Islam, it is also known to millions more Muslims outside the Arab world.
Syria’s Armenian population is for the most part descended from the refugees who fled the Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey during the First World War. Between one and a half and two million Armenians are thought to have perished as a result of the genocide. In Aleppo many found a safe haven, and today whole quarters of Aleppo are dominated by Armenians who, as in the past, trade in textiles and fabrics, the distinctive Armenian script gracing their shop signs. There are also considerable numbers of Armenians in Deir ez-Zor and Hassakeh (the Jezira region witnessed the massacre of many Armenians at the hands of the Turks). The majority of Armenians in Syria are Christian (Armenian Orthodox or Armenian Catholic).
The Kurdish people represent the single largest minority group in Syria, accounting for around 9% of the total population. They are concentrated to the north of Aleppo and in the north-eastern Jezira region bordering Turkey and Iran. The Kurdish people as a whole form an ethnic group straddling Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. After the First World War, they were denied their promised homeland of Kurdistan and today continue to exist as a ‘people without a country’. In Iraq and Turkey they have faced continual persecution as a result of their ongoing struggle for autonomy. In Syria the Kurds have fared somewhat better, although any possibility of freedom of political expression is out of the question.
Syria is also home to small numbers of Circassians (non-Arab Muslim refugees from the Russian Caucasus who came to Syria in the 19th and 20th centuries) and Turks. In addition, there is still a tiny community of Jews, numbering less than 100 and concentrated mostly in Damascus, with a few in Aleppo and Qamishle. Before 1948 there were around 30,000 Jews living in Syria, but the majority fled when the state of Israel was created. In 1992 those that remained (around 3500) were given permission to leave the country if they wished, an offer which the majority took up.
In Syria, there are estimated to be more than 378,000 Palestinians, the majority of whom are concentrated in and around Damascus. They began arriving after the 1947-1949 Arab-Israeli War and then in greater numbers during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The majority are Sunni Muslim.
Christian theology has its roots in Judaism, with its belief in one God, the eternal creator of the universe. Jesus, whom Christians believe was the Messiah or ‘Christ’ (literally ‘Anointed One’) and the son of God, was born in the village of Bethlehem, some 20 km south of Jerusalem. Very little is known about his early life except that he was brought up in a devout Jewish family. At the age of 30, he gathered a small group of followers and began to preach in the region between the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee. Two years later he was crucified in Jerusalem on the charge that his claim to be the son of God was blasphemous.
The New Testament of the Bible, which, together with the Old Testament, is the text to which Christians refer to as the ultimate scriptural authority, consists of four ‘Gospels’ (literally ‘Good News’), and a series of letters by early Christians outlining the nature of Christian life.
Much of the early development of the Christian church took place within present- day Syria. At first, Christians faced persecution within the Roman Empire, but gradually, as the faith spread, it became more widely accepted. In AD 313 the emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which formerly recognized the right of Christians to practice their faith, and in AD 380 the emperor Theodosius declared it the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Soon afterwards, the Roman Empire was formally divided into East and West, with Constantinople (formerly Byzantium and today Istanbul) becoming the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, better known as the Byzantine Empire. Under Byzantine rule, Christianity in the Middle East divided into numerous different churches. These different branches of the church arose out of somewhat obscure theological disputes over the nature of Christ, but also reflected the power struggles going on within the empire. Other regional centres of Christianity also developed their own theological doctrines and separate churches.
The orthodox (Dyophysite) view was that Christ was of two natures, divine and human, while the alternative view, that of the Monophysites, was that he was of one nature – purely divine. This latter interpretation was condemned as a heresy by the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451. The Monothelite doctrine, that Christ had two natures but one will, was seen as something of a compromise, and adopted by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius (AD 610-641) as a means of providing a solution to the Dyophysite versus Monophysite schism which was threatening to tear the church apart. In AD 680 the Sixth Ecumenical Council in turn condemned the Monothelite doctrine as heresy.
In the East, those who adhered to the orthodox (Dyophysite) view became known as Melkites (or Melchites), meaning literally ‘King’s Men’, in reference to the fact that they maintained their allegiance to the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople. The Byzantine emperors, meanwhile, regarded themselves as defenders of the Orthodox Church. Followers of the Monophysite, Monothelite and other ‘heterodox’ (as opposed to orthodox) theologies founded their own churches, including: the Antioch based Syrian or Jacobite church, named after Jacobus Bardaeus, a sixth-century monk responsible for organizing the Monophysites of Syria into a church; the Egyptian Coptic church based at Alexandria; the Armenian (Gregorian) church; the Nestorian (Chaldean) church, founded by Nestorius of Cilicia in the fifth century; and the Maronite church which emerged in the seventh century.
To begin with, the Eastern Church of Constantinople and the Catholic (Latin) Church of Rome existed in broad, if at times uneasy, agreement, but over the centuries doctrinal differences intensified, culminating in the great schism of 1054, with the Eastern Church refusing to accept the supremacy of the Pope and recognizing instead the Patriarch of Constantinople as its head. Later, many of the independent churches in the east renounced the doctrines regarded as heretical by the Roman Catholic Church and acknowledged the supremacy of the Pope. They became known as Uniate Churches, but were allowed to retain their respective languages, rites and canon law in accordance with the terms of their union. At the same time, the independent churches continued to exist in parallel, with the exception of the Maronite church, which became fully united with the Roman Catholic Church. Thus today, there is in the Middle East the Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic church, the Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Catholic church, and the Armenian Orthodox and Armenian Catholic church. In addition, the Roman Catholic church is itself represented. Later arrivals on the scene were the Protestant and Anglican churches, which began preaching in the Middle East during the 19th century.
In Syria, Christians account for around 10% of the population. The Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches are the most important, although the Armenian Catholic church forms an important and tightly knit community, particularly in the city of Aleppo. There are also small communities of Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox/Catholics, Maronites, Roman Catholics, Protestants and Anglicans.
The word Islam translates roughly as ‘submission to God’. The religion’s two central tenets are embodied in the creed, ‘There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet’ (Lah Illaha illa ‘llah Muhammad Rasulu’llah), which affirms the belief in the oneness of God and recognizes Muhammad as his divinely appointed messenger.
The Qur’an (generally referred to as the Koran in English) is Islam’s holiest book. The word translates literally as ‘recitation’ and unlike the Bible, the Qur’an is considered to be the uncreated (ie direct) word of God, as revealed to Muhammad through Jibril (the angel Gabriel). The text consists of 114 suras (chapters). Each sura is classified as Meccan or Medinan, according to whether it was revealed to Muhammad in Mecca or Medina. Most of the text is written in a kind of rhymed prose known as saj, and is considered by Muslims to be inimitable. Each chapter of the Qur’an begins with the words Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim (’In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate’), an invocation which is also heard in numerous everyday situations.
In addition to the Qur’an, there is the Hadith body of literature, a record of the sayings and doings of Muhammad and his followers, which forms the basis of Islamic laws (Shariat), and precepts. Unlike the Qur’an, the Hadiths are recognized to have been written by men, and are therefore potentially flawed and open to interpretation. Thus they are commonly classified into four major categories according to their trustworthiness: Sahih (sound, true, authentic), Hasan (fair, good); Da’if (weak); and Saqim (infirm). The two most revered compilations of Hadiths are those by al-Bukhari and Muslim. It is in the interpretation of the Hadiths that most of the controversy surrounding certain Islamic laws and their application originates.
While Muhammad is recognized as the founder of the Islamic faith and the principal messenger of God, Muslims also regard him as having been the last in a long line of Prophets, starting with Adam and including both Moses and Jesus. They do not, however, accept Jesus as the son of God, but simply another of God’s Prophets. Both Jews and Christians are considered Ahl-e-Kitab (‘People of the Book’), the Torah and the Gospels being seen as forerunners of the Qur’an in Islamic belief.
Nearly all Muslims accept six basic articles of the Islamic faith: belief in one God; in his angels; in his revealed books; in his Apostles; in the Resurrection and Day of Judgement; and in his predestination of good and evil. Heaven is portrayed in Muslim belief as a paradise filled with sensuous delights and pleasures. Hell, on the other hand, is portrayed as a place of eternal terror and torture, and is seen as the certain fate of all who deny the unity of God.
Islam has no ordained priesthood or clergy. The authority of religious scholars, learned men, imams, judges, etc (referred to collectively as the Ulema), derives from their authority to interpret the scriptures, rather than from any defined status within the Islamic community. Many Muslims complain that their growing influence interferes with the direct, personal relationship between man and God which Muhammad originally espoused.
Like the Ismailis, the Alawis are an offshoot of mainstream Shi’ite Islam, although very little is known about their origins, beliefs or practices. According to their own traditions they originated from the Arabian Peninsula, moving to the Jebel Sinjar, a mountainous region between the Tigris and Euphrates, before arriving in Syria. The founder of their religion, Muhammad Ibn Nusayr, is thought to have developed its basic tenets in the ninth century, preaching that the One God was inexpressible and unknowable, but that a hierarchy of divine beings emanated from him, with Ali representing the highest of these. The term ‘Alawi’ (or ‘Alawite’) dates from the French Mandate period, meaning literally ‘Followers of Ali’. Previously they were known as Ansaris or Nusayris after Muhammad Ibn Nusayr, and both names are used to describe Syria’s coastal mountains (Jebel Ansariye or Jebel Nusayri), where they settled when they came to Syria.
Their doctrines are said to contain elements of Phoenician paganism, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism and Christian Gnosticism. The Christian element, for example the belief in the symbolic significance of bread and wine and their observance of many Christian festivals, is strongly emphasized by many commentators. Inevitably for such an esoteric religion, where even amongst themselves only a few are full initiates, the numerous stories surrounding their beliefs and practices all to a greater or lesser extent combine elements of truth and fabrication. Those emanating from their orthodox Sunni critics have tended to be the most fantastic and far-fetched, encompassing all manner of sexual perversions and secretive ritual practices.
The Islamic doctrine of Taqiya (concealing or disguising one’s religion, especially in times of persecution or danger) provided the key to their survival and perhaps goes a long way to explaining the supposed syncretic nature of their beliefs. In the eyes of the Sunni orthodoxy of the Medieval period, they were nothing short of heretical, and as such their religion was widely condemned as an abomination to Islam.
Certainly their history is one of constant persecution. From the time of the First Crusade (1098), their mountain strongholds were seized by the Crusaders, while early in the 12th century they faced similar encroachment from the Ismailis. Salah ud-Din, when he swept through the mountains in his campaign of 1188 forced them to pay him a hefty annual tribute. The Mamluk sultans inflicted heavy losses on them, according to the Muslim chronicler Ibn Battuta, massacring 20,000, and tried forcibly to convert them to Sunni Islam, making them build mosques in their villages, to which they supposedly responded by using them as cattle sheds. The oppression continued, more or less unabated, throughout the Ottoman period, mostly through the imposition of punitive taxes.
Remarkably, however, from a position as late as the 1920s of almost total social exclusion, a poor, largely uneducated rural community discriminated against and isolated in a harsh mountainous environment, the Alawis underwent a dramatic transformation. The French courted them as potential allies, giving them a separate ‘enclave’ in the mountains around Lattakia where they were concentrated, For the first time after centuries of relentless oppression they were presented with a unique opportunity, and it was one of which they made every use. In a total reversal of fortunes, today the Alawi totally dominate political and military hierarchy in the modern state of Syria (President Bashar al-Assad is himself an Alawi). The Alawi number around one million in Syria, representing nearly 12% of the total population. Over three-quarters of these live in the province of Lattakia where they form a two-thirds majority.
The Druze represent an offshoot of the Ismailis. Their religion developed in the 11th century AD, during the reign of the Cairo-based Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim (AD 996-1021). Al-Hakim allowed himself to be declared a divine representation of God and substituted his own name for that of Allah in mosque services. This blasphemous act, together with heretical decrees such as banning people from fasting during Ramadan or undertaking the pilgrimage to Mecca, earned him the condemnation of mainstream Ismailis of the Fatimid court. Indeed his disappearance in 1021, taken by his followers as an act of divine ghayba (concealment) pending his eventual return, was probably the result of a discreet assassination.
In the meantime one of his closest disciples, Muhammad Ibn Ismail al-Darazi, had left Egypt and began spreading the new faith in Syria, where he found a more receptive audience amongst a people who had already been exposed to various heterodox interpretations of Islam. The term ‘Druze’ is in fact an Anglicized form of the Arabic word durzi, which was in turn derived from this missionary’s name. As with the Alawis, very little is known about Druze beliefs or practices. Indeed, even the Druze themselves are divided between the juhhal (ignorant) and the uqqal (intelligent), with only the latter being fully initiated into the doctrines of the faith. The Druze form an extremely tight-knit community, only ever marrying amongst themselves, and are said to have ceased accepting new members into their religion 20 years after the death of Al-Hakim. Mainstream Islam tends to regard the Druze either as a heretical offshoot or else as having nothing whatsoever to do with the Islamic faith.
Historically, the Druze were concentrated in the Lebanon mountains, particularly the Chouf and Metn. However, following the 1860 massacre of as many as 10,000 Maronites at the hands of the Druze and the subsequent French intervention, many of them migrated to Syria, settling primarily in the Hauran. Today in Syria they number around 430,000 but make up just 3% of the population.
The Ismailis are an offshoot of mainstream Shi’ite Islam. Following the death of the Sixth Shi’ite Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq in AD 765, there was a dispute as to the rightful heir to the title of Imam, with his eldest son Ismail being passed over by the majority of Shi’ites in favour of his younger son Musa al-Kazim. The Ismailis, however, recognized Ismail as the rightful imam. They are also known as Sab’iya or ‘Seveners’ since, unlike the Twelver Shi’ites, they recognize only seven principal imams after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The philosophy of the Ismailis is a largely esoteric one, and a further name for them is the Batiniyya because of their emphasis on an esoteric (batin) interpretation of the Qur’an.
Their theology is based on a cyclical theory of history centred around the number seven, which is considered to be of enormous significance. They are less restrictive in their customs and practice, allowing much greater freedom to women. Likewise, prayers are not linked to a specific formula. The mosque is replaced by a jamat khana which also serves as a community centre. Their spiritual head is the Agha Khan, who is considered a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima.
First founded in the eighth century, they only really began to make their presence felt in North Africa from the beginning of the 10th century, going on to conquer Egypt in AD 969 and establish the powerful Fatimid Dynasty (named after the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima) which flourished for the next two centuries, extending at the height of its power to include Egypt, Syria, North Africa, Sicily, the Red Sea coast of Africa, Yemen and the Hejaz region of Arabia (including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina).
However, under the Fatimids, the radical doctrines of the Ismailis (the source of their initial appeal) were gradually replaced by a more conservative outlook better suited to the responsibilities of such a powerful dynasty. This led to ideological conflicts which culminated in a major internal schism amongst the Ismailis. After the death of the eighth Fatimid caliph Al-Mustansir in 1094, there was a dispute over his succession. The conservative elements within the court, led by the Commander of the Armies who had risen to a position of great personal power, installed Al-Mustansir’s younger and therefore more easily influenced son Al-Mustali as caliph, disinheriting his older son Nizar, who was subsequently killed after attempting to revolt.
The followers of Al-Mustali became known as Mustalians and the followers of Nizar as Nizaris. The Fatimid Dynasty, although it continued to rule in Egypt until 1171, was in terminal decline, finally being formally abolished by Salah-ud Din who restored Sunni orthodoxy and went on to establish the Ayyubid Dynasty. After the schism of 1094, the Mustalians (many of whom disowned the declining Fatimid Dynasty) established themselves on the outer peripheries of the Islamic world (notably in Yemen and India, where they are known today as Boharis). The Nizaris, meanwhile, began a period of intense political and doctrinal development in Persia, one outcome of which was the formation of the much feared Assassins who established themselves in Syria from the beginning of the 12th century. Small numbers of Nizari Ismailis are still found in Syria, in Masyaf, to the west of Hama, and in Salamiyeh, to the southeast.
Sufism is the mystical aspect of Islam, often described as the ‘science of the heart’. The word Sufi is most probably derived from the Arabic word suf meaning ‘wool’, a reference to the woollen garments worn by the early Sufis. The Sufis do not represent a separate sect of Islam; rather they aspire to transcend sects, emphasizing the importance of personal spiritual development, to be found only through the Qur’an.
Nevertheless, various different Sufi orders did emerge, the most famous of them being the Mawlawiyya or Whirling Dervishes. This Sufi order originated in Turkey, inspired by the 13th-century mystical poet Jalal ud-Din Rumi, and is best known for the whirling dance which forms part of their worship. The dance is performed to music and involves the chanting of the dhikr, a kind of litany in which the name of God is repeated over and over again. The Sufis had considerable influence in Syria. The famous Sufi mystic, Mohi ud-Din Ibn al-Arabi, is buried in Damascus and his tomb remains an important pilgrimage site for Sufis.
Following Muhammad’s death, Islam divided into two major sects. Muhammad left no sons and therefore no obvious heir, and gave no instructions as to who should succeed him. There were two main contenders: Abu Bakr, the father of Aisha (one of Muhammad’s wives); and Ali, the husband of Muhammad’s daughter Fatima and his cousin. In the event Abu Bakr assumed the title of caliph (or vice-regent, from Khalifat rasul-Allah, ‘Successor to the Apostle of God’). He died two years later in AD 634 and was succeeded by Umar who was killed in AD 644. Uthman, a member of the powerful Umayyad family, was chosen to succeed him but proved to be a weak leader and was murdered in AD 656.
At this point the aggrieved Ali managed to assume the title of caliph, thus ousting the Umayyads. However, Mu’awiya, the governor of Syria and a member of the Umayyad family, soon rose up in revolt. The two sides met in battle at Siffin on the upper Euphrates, but both eventually agreed to arbitration by delegates from each side. Some members of Ali’s camp resented this, seeing such a move as submitting the Will of God to human judgement. Eventually, Ali was murdered by one of his own supporters in AD 661 and Mu’awiya proclaimed himself caliph. Ali’s eldest son Hassan set up a rival caliphate in Iraq, but was soon persuaded to abdicate. All the same, the seeds of the schism in Islam had already been sown: between the Sunnis (those who accepted the legitimacy of the first three caliphs) and the Shi’ites (those who recognized only Ali as the first legitimate caliph). Later, when Mu’awiya died in AD 680, Ali’s second son Hussein attempted to revolt against the Umayyads, but was defeated and killed in AD 681 at Karbala, providing the Shi’ites with their greatest martyr.
Followers of the Sunni sect, generally termed ‘Orthodox’, account for around 74% of the population in Syria. They base their Sunna (path, or practice) on the ‘Six Books’ of traditions. They are organized into four orthodox schools or rites named after their founders, each having equal standing. The Hanafi is the most common in Syria, and the most moderate. The others are the Shafii, Maliki and Hanbali, the latter being the strictest. Many Muslims today prefer to avoid identification with a particular school, preferring to call themselves simply Sunni.
Followers of the Shi’ite (or Shia) sect account for only a tiny minority of the population in Syria. Aside from the dispute over the succession of Muhammad, Sunnis and Shi’ites do not generally differ on fundamental issues since they draw from the same ultimate sources. However, there are important differences of interpretation which partly derive from the practice of ijtihad (the exercise of independent judgement) amongst Shi’ites, as opposed to taqlid (the following of ancient models) as adhered to by Sunnis. Thus Shi’ites divest far more power in their imams, accepting their role as an intermediary between God and man and basing their law and practice on the teachings of the Imams.
The majority of Shi’ites are known as Ithna asharis or ‘Twelvers’, since they recognize a succession of 12 imams. They believe that the last imam, who disappeared in AD 878, is still alive and will reappear soon before the Day of Judgement as the Mahdi (one who is rightly guided), who will rule by divine right.
Tea and coffee compete as the national drinks. Both are served in the usual Arabic way and if you ask for milk it will be usually powdered or UHT. If you prefer instant coffee you need to ask for Nescafe. You can get excellent freshly squeezed fruit juices all over the country, and fizzy drinks and mineral water are widely available.
Although bars are not that common outside of Damascus, many visitors are surprised at how readily available alcohol is in what is a predominantly Muslim country. This reflects the diverse nature of society in Syria (Chrisitians account for around 10% of the population), and also its essentially tolerant nature. Wine, locally brewed and imported beers and arak (the Arabic liqueur) are available at many restaurants and liquer stores, while imported spirits are usually obtainable from the more top-end eateries and hotels.
Locally brewed beers include Al-Chark, from Aleppo and Barada from Damascus. Neither are particularly good and you have to watch out for out-of-date bottles, but when fresh and properly chilled, they are certainly drinkable. Look out for the excellent imported Lebanese lagers Al-Maaza and Lazziza, which are both excellent.
Syria’s cuisine is essentially classic Arabic fare. Meat, in the form of lamb or chicken, features fairly prominently in the Arab diet, along with staples such as chickpeas (in the form of falafels or hummus), rice, salads and mezze, and of course bread (khubz). Despite the prominence of meat in the diet, vegetarians can be sure of a nutritious and reasonably varied diet with the wide variety of predominantly vegetable-based mezze dishes on offer.
When Syrian food is done well, it is delicious, and in Damascus and Aleppo there are a host of excellent restaurants where the menu selections are varied and imaginative. Be aware that in many smaller towns though, you will find yourself confronted by a rather predictable choice of roast chicken, meat kebabs, hummus, salad and chips. Those on a tight budget will find the choice particularly monotonous with a diet made up of shawarma and falafel and the occasional half roast chicken.
International cuisine and fast food are available in the bigger towns and in the restaurants of the luxury hotels.
In the event of an emergency contact the relevant service: (police T112, ambulance T110, traffic police T115, fire T113), and your embassy . An official police/medical report is required for insurance claims.
Although there are plenty of exceptions, as a rule just about everything, including the price of hotel rooms, can be bargained over. When shopping, particularly in the souqs, it is the expected way of doing business. Successful bargaining is something of an art. Give yourself plenty of time and be prepared to sit around drinking cups of tea and exchanging small talk: it is all part of the process. At the end of the day, if you think the final price is too high, be prepared to walk away empty handed (as often as not you will be called back to hear one ‘final, last, lowest possible’ price, at which point you can begin bargaining all over again). Conversely, try to avoid relentlessly driving down the price just for the sake of it; if you stop to consider the amount you are offering and compare it with prices back home, you may realize that you are being downright mean.
Children are positively doted on in Syria. ‘Do you have children?’, or, more commonly, ‘How many children do you have?’ is a standard question asked of foreigners. Unlike in Europe or North America, children are warmly welcomed in restaurants, and most hotels will go out of their way to accommodate them. If you are travelling with children, you will constantly find yourself receiving offers of help and hospitality. There are of course important health considerations specific to children but facilities are reasonably good in all but the most out-of-the-way places within the country.
Everyone is allowed to bring in a duty free allowance of 570 ml of spirits and 200 cigarettes. Ammunition, firearms, and birds of any type (live, stuffed or frozen) are prohibited. Since the swine influenza outbreak in 2009 the importing of all pork products has been banned as well.
If you bring more than US$5000 into the country or take out more than US$2000, you are officially supposed to declare it. In practice this is very rarely enforced, but if you want to be absolutely sure of avoiding potential problems, stick to the rules.
Provisions for disabled travellers are largely non-existent in Syria and getting around the country can present huge problems. Urban areas generally have uneven, cracked and pot-holed pavements, with ridiculously high kerbs, while visiting historic sites often involves traversing rough, uneven ground unsuitable for wheelchairs. Careful planning will be required if you plan on travelling in Syria but, despite the considerable obstacles, you can be sure that people everywhere will be extremely accommodating and helpful.
Homosexuality is illegal in Syria, and very much frowned on. Pre-marriage homosexuality amongst men is probably far more widespread than most Syrians would admit, but it remains a taboo subject. The idea of women engaging in lesbian relationships is something which Syrian men seem totally unable to come to terms with, and most would deny that it occurs at all. Gay and lesbian travellers are therefore advised to be discreet about their sexuality. Paradoxically, the carefully segregated nature of society means that public behaviour which would be seen as inappropriate between members of the opposite sex (eg holding hands, kissing on the cheek, etc) is acceptable between members of the same sex.
Try phoning a specialist travel clinic if your own doctor is unfamiliar with health conditions in Syria. Make sure you have sufficient medical travel insurance, get a dental check, know your own blood group and if you suffer a long- term condition such as diabetes or epilepsy, obtain a Medic Alert bracelet/necklace (http://www.medicalert.co.uk). If you wear glasses, take a copy of your prescription.
Stomach upsets are common among travellers to Syria. They’re mainly caused by the change in diet (Syrian food is heavy on oil which can be hard to digest for people unused to this diet). The most common cause of prolonged travellers’ diarrhoea is from eating contaminated food or drinking tap water. Diarrhoea may be also caused by viruses, bacteria (such as E-coli), protozoal (such as giardia), salmonella and cholera. It may be accompanied by vomiting or by severe abdominal pain. Any kind of diarrhoea responds well to the replacement of water and salts. Sachets of rehydration salts can be bought in most chemists and can be dissolved in water. If the symptoms persist, consult a doctor. To avoid diarrhoea, drink only bottled or boiled water, avoid having ice in drinks and peel fruit and vegetables before eating. Use your sense when choosing a restaurant; if it’s a busy, popular place it’s more likely to be safe to eat there and food is more likely to be fresh.
In the summer months heat exhaustion and heatstroke are common health risks in Syria. This is prevented by drinking enough fluids throughout the day (your urine will be pale if you are drinking enough). Symptoms of heat exhaustion and heatstroke are similar and include dizziness, tiredness and headache. Use lots of fluids or better, rehydration salts mixed with water, to replenish fluids and salts and find somewhere cool and shady to recover.
If you suspect heatstroke rather than heat exhaustion, you need to cool the body down quickly (cold showers are particularly effective) and may require hospital treatment for electrolyte replacement by intravenous drip.
Contact your embassy or consulate for a list of doctors and dentists who speak your language, or at least some English. Doctors and health facilities in major cities are also listed in the Directory sections of this book. Good-quality healthcare is available in the larger centres but it can be expensive, especially hospitalization. Make sure you have adequate insurance .
It is advisable to vaccinate against polio, diphtheria, tetanus, typhoid, hepatitis A and hepatitis B. If you’re going to more remote areas consider having the rabies vaccination. You are not required to show a yellow-fever vaccination certificate on arrival unless you are arriving from a yellow-fever- infected country. You may also be required t o show a vaccination certificate if you have visited a yellow-fever-infected country at any stage during the last month and may be turned away if you can’t produce one. The occurrence of malaria is rare in Syria though there have been reported cases. It is sensible to avoid being bitten as much as possible; cover bare skin and use an insect repellent. The most common and effective repellent is diethyl metatoluamide (DEET). DEET liquid is best for arms and face (take care around eyes and with spectacles; DEET dissolves plastic). Aerosol spray is good for clothes and ankles and liquid DEET can be dissolved in water and used to impregnate cotton clothes and mosquito nets. Impregnated wrist and ankle bands can also be useful. Contact your travel clinic before travel to find out up-to-date information on malaria-risk and discuss anti-malarial drugs.
Always take out comprehensive insurance before you travel, including full medical cover and extra cover for any activities (hiking, rafting, skiing, riding, etc) that you may undertake. Check exactly what’s being offered, the maximum cover for each element and also the excess you will have to pay in the case of a claim. Keep details of your policy and the insurance company’s telephone number with you at all times and get a police report for any lost or stolen items.
President Bashar Assad’s only official position prior to becoming president was as head of the Syrian Computer Society, and he is said to have been directly responsible for introducing the internet in Syria. Since his coming to power the internet has flourished in Syria and you shouldn’t have too many problems in finding somewhere to log on. Damascus has a decent number of internet cafés and many restaurants and hotels in the city now provide free Wi-Fi (though don’t expect it to work all the time). Outside of the capital most medium-sized towns can boast at least one internet café.
Costs for internet use are about S£100 per hr and connections tend to be on the slow side. Remember to save your work frequently, as power cuts are common. Note that certain sites are currently banned in Syria, including http://www.facebook.com and http://www.couchsurfers.com. Savvy internet café staff can usually bypass the ban and hook you up if you ask them nicely. Some internet cafés need to register your passport before you can log on.
Arabic is the national language in Syria but even in very remote areas, you will usually be able to find someone who speaks at least a little English, while in the major towns and cities and at important tourist sites, English is fairly widely spoken. Many older generation Syrians also speak a little French.
The influx of ATM machines over the past few years has made travelling in Syria much easier. The Commercial Bank of Syria (CBS) has ATMs in most medium-sized towns but their machines sometimes don’t accept foreign cards (even if they display Maestro, Visa and Cirrus network signs). Cards linked to the maestro network tend to have the most problems. ATMs linked to branches of the Bank of Syria and Overseas are usually reliable for most foreign debit/credit cards. Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Lattakia and Tartus all have reliable ATMs but in smaller towns you may run into problems and it is not sensible to depend solely on using ATMs.
It’s still advisable to carry plenty of cash (in US$) for the times when an ATM won’t accept your card and for the smaller towns. Cash can be changed at most banks (including branches of CBS), and exchange offices (which are open for longer hours than the banks). Most mid and top-range hotels also prefer to be paid in US$.
These days traveller’s cheques (TCs) are more a hindrance than a help in Syria and you’d be better off using a mixture of ATM withdrawals and cash. Changing TCs is a lengthy and involved process that can take up an entire morning. Branches of CBS change TCs and charge a flat fee of S£25 per transaction.
Most major credit cards (Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club) are accepted at the more expensive hotels and restaurants, and at larger tourist souvenir and handicraft shops in the main cities. They can also be used to pay for airline tickets and car hire. Note that over-the- counter bank cash advances are officially not possible in Syria. That said, the situation is becoming much more relaxed and some of the luxury hotels, large shops and several private companies are willing to do so. If you need a cash advance ask at your hotel or anywhere displaying a Visa, MasterCard or American Express sign. Be aware that you will have to pay a hefty fee for the service.
Using the black market won’t save you any money as the rates offered are the same as the banks. The black market is most active in the area around Martyrs Sq in Damascus and in the city souqs. If you need to change money outside of banking hours ask at your hotel reception. Staff are usually happy to exchange cash at the official bank rate.
Changing S£ back into hard currency is very difficult in Syria. If you are flying out, be aware that the airport bank won’t change S£ into dollars either. It’s really a case of trying not to end up with too many S£s left over. If you are leaving overland there is no problem in changing S£ at the Jordanian, Lebanese and Turkish border.
The cost of living and travelling in Syria is far cheaper than in Europe or North America and in comparison to neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, travel in Syria can be very economical. Be aware though that prices have risen dramatically over the past couple of years and how much you spend will depend not only on the degree of comfort you want to travel in, but also on how much you want to do in a given amount of time.
Accommodation will be your biggest expense in Syria, especially in Damascus and Aleppo where rooms are in high demand. In contrast, eating out is remarkably cheap, even in the fanciest restaurants. A 2-course meal in an expensive restaurant rarely works out at more than US$10-$15 per head and those on tight budgets will rarely pay over US$2 per meal by existing on a diet of mostly shawarma and falafel.
Travelling by public transport is inexpensive with tickets seldom costing over US$4. If you plan on hiring a car/driver budget approximately US$60-100 per day for travel costs. Entry fees to major museums and sites are cheap but if you plan on seeing a lot they can add up. Entry costs S£75 for small sites and S£150 for larger ones but those with an international student card (ISIC) are given huge discounts.
Those on tight budgets can exist on about US$25 per day by living on a diet of shawarma and falafel and by staying in the cheapest of budget hotels and using dormitories where available. A budget of US$50-70 per day would be much more comfortable and would allow you to eat a more varied diet, stay in decent budget/ mid-range accommodation and hire a car/driver for the more out-of-the-way sights. Luxury travel (boutique hotels, the best restaurants and a private vehicle, perhaps with driver and guide), means moving into the equivalent price ranges as for luxury travel in Europe and North America; basically from US$150-200 per day upwards.
The basic unit of currency is the Syrian pound (S£) or lira. Notes come in denominations of S£1000, S£500, S£100 and S£50. Coins come in denominations of S£25, S£10, S£5, S£2 and S£1. The division of the S£ into 100 piastres is largely redundant.
Banks, post offices and government offices are usually open Sat-Thu 0800-1400, though in the cities some banks and post offices open until 1700. Official shop opening hours are Sat-Thu 0800-1400 and 1600-1800, but many now open throughout the day especially in the larger towns. Museums and sights are normally open from 0900-1800 in summer (Apr-Sep) and from 0900-1600 in winter (Oct-Mar). Most close on Tue though there are exceptions to the rule.
Airmail letters (up to 20 g) cost S£50 to Europe and S£55 to North America or Australia/NZ. Postcards cost S£30 to Europe and S£35 to North America or Australia/NZ. Postal services tend to be slow when posted outside Damascus but generally reliable.
To send a parcel, you should take it unwrapped to the post office, where its contents will be inspected. Parcels to the UK/Europe cost S£525 per kg, and to North America or Australia/NZ S£625.
There is a poste restante counter at the central post office in Damascus (open Sat- Thu 0800-1700, closed Fri). To collect mail you must present your passport as ID and pay S£10 per item of mail. Mail sent here should have your surname in capital letters and underlined to avoid it being filed under your first name. It should be addressed to: c/o Poste Restante, Central Post Office, Said al-Jabri Ave, Damascus, Syria.
If you do find yourself in legal trouble in Syria be aware that your embassy cannot help you get out of trouble, but they are a useful source of advice for seeking translators and English-speaking lawyers.
Possession of narcotics is illegal in Syria. Those caught in possession risk a long prison sentence and/or deportation. There is a marked intolerance to drug-taking in Syria and the drugs scene is distinctly seedy (not to mention paranoid) and best avoided.
Avoid taking pictures of military installations, or anything that might be construed as ‘sensitive’. In Syria, the definition of ‘sensitive’ can include bridges and very unimportant public buildings, which may have an armed guard at the entrance.
Syria is probably the safest of all the Middle Eastern countries in which to travel. Theft and violent crime are virtually unheard of and you are safe wandering around the big cities at any time of the day or night (notwithstanding the inevitable offers of help if you are looking lost). Nevertheless, the usual precautions are advisable with regard to valuables: never leave them unattended in hotel rooms, and keep your money and important documents (passport, etc) on your person, preferably in a money-belt or something similar.
Lone women may encounter minor hassle, though it almost always consists of nothing more than constant offers of marriage and is usually easily ignored. If you do find yourself being harassed don’t be afraid to call for assistance. Most Syrians are appalled by this behaviour and will quickly come to your aid.
Probably the biggest danger tourists face is on the roads. Syrian driving is erratic, to say the least, and you need to keep a close eye on traffic (not to mention pedestrians, donkeys and a whole host of other dangers) when using the roads. When crossing a busy road as a pedestrian, use your right hand, to make the hand signal for ‘astena’ (‘wait’ in Arabic): bring the tip of your thumb to meet in the middle of the tips of your fingers and show this hand gesture to oncoming traffic. Surprisingly, this is actually extremely effective at stopping traffic. Syrian drivers like to speed. If you’ve hired a driver never be afraid to tell him to slow down or stop if you’re not comfortable. The best advice if you’re driving on Syrian roads is to practise defensive driving and always be aware of what might be coming up further along the road.
Anyone in full-time education is entitled to an International Student Identity Card (ISIC). These are issued by student travel offices and travel agencies across the world. In Syria an ISIC card is enormously valuable since it entitles you to massive discounts on entry fees to museums and historic sites. Due to the amount of fake ISIC cards now in distribution, at some sites your card will be very carefully scrutinized and you will not be issued a discounted entry rate unless you are also under 26.
At the time of research, people departing the country by air are still being charged the hefty airport departure tax of S£1500 but there is talk of phasing this out in the near future. Check with your hotel for up-to-date information.
To call Syria from overseas dial your international access code, followed by Syria’s country code 963 and then the area/town code (dropping the 0). To call an international phone number from within Syria dial 00, followed by the country code.
Most travellers are able to use their mobile phones in Syria – ask your provider before you travel. Pay-as-you-go SIM cards are available from phone shops and mobile phone provider offices. Syriatel (http://www.syriatel.com) have offices in all main towns. Take your passport along to register a new SIM card. You can purchase a Syriatel SIM card with 400 units for S£365 (valid for 135 days) or one with 1200 units for S£835 (valid for 220 days).
The cheapest way of making international (and national) calls is by card-phone. There are currently 2 card-phone systems operating in Syria. Damascus, Aleppo and Hama use the Easycomm system. Cards come in denominations of S£200 (for national calls only), S£500 and S£1000 (national and international calls). Easycomm card-phone booths can be found dotted all over Damascus and Aleppo and less so in Hama. The cards themselves are sold at shops near the booths (often from late-opening juice bars and the like; just ask around), or else from the main telephone office.
The older card-phone system is operated by the Syrian Telephone Exchange and found throughout the rest of the country. The cards are made of very thin plastic (they are easily damaged, so handle them carefully). They come in values of S£250 (national), S£500 and S£1000, though often only the latter is available. STE card-phones are located at the main telephone offices only (either inside or just outside), where you can also buy the cards (either over the counter, or else from semi-official touts outside). Here you will also find some coin-operated phone booths, good for national calls only.
Tipping is very much a way of life in Syria. In restaurants 10% is acceptable though remember that the more expensive restaurants often add a service charge anyway. Any person who provides a service (driver, guide, hotel porter) will expect a tip and what you give them is really down to your own discretion.
Syria does not have any dedicated tourist offices abroad, although their embassies can provide you with a selection of the Ministry of Tourism’s free maps/pamphlets. All main towns and tourist centres have a tourist information office which hand out the free Ministry of Tourism maps. Staff are always friendly and willing to help but usually don’t have much information. The Ministry of Tourism’s website has some useful information and a handy calendar of events.
For detailed and up-to-date information on applying for a Syrian visa, contact your nearest Syrian embassy. All foreign nationals, except for nationals of Arab countries, require a visa to enter Syria. Your passport must be valid for at least 6 months beyond your intended stay. Note Anyone whose passport shows evidence of a trip to Israel is not allowed into the country (see box, opposite).
Single entry tourist visas are valid for 3 months from the date of issue and allow for a stay of up to 15 days. Multiple entry visas are valid for 6 months from the date of issue but again only allow for a stay of 15 days. Visa costs vary by nationality, check with the Syrian embassy for details.
In nearly all cases the tourist visa must be obtained before arriving in Syria. The only official exceptions to this rule are for nationalities that do not have a Syrian embassy in their country (eg New Zealanders and Dutch). These nationalities are entitled to a visa at the point of entry. In practice though, in the past couple of years, it has also been possible for Australians to be issued visas on arrival in Syria despite there being a Syrian embassy in Australia. This really all depends on the whims of the immigration officials at your time of entry and the best rule is for you to apply for your visa beforehand if you have a Syrian embassy in your home country.
Applying for a Syrian visa in a neighbouring country has become decidedly tricky in recent years. The Syrian embassy in Turkey is the only embassy that is still officially issuing visas to non-residents. Foreigners can apply at either the consulate in Istanbul or the embassy in Ankara. Visas take 1 working day to be processed and you will need to bring along a letter of recommendation from your country’s embassy in Turkey, which you will most likely be charged a hefty fee for. Please be aware that some countries embassies refuse to supply letters of recommendation. Officially you can only apply for a Syrian visa in Jordan if you don’t have a Syrian embassy in your home country, though in practice even if this is the case, you may be turned away and told to get your visa on the border. The Syrian embassy in Egypt has also stopped processing visas for foreigners, though there is always the odd exception to the rule that succeeds in getting one. As there is no Syrian embassy in Lebanon it is impossible to apply for a visa from there. Visa extensions (of up to 2 months) are easily obtained once in Syria from any office of the Immigration and Passport Department, which have a branch in most main towns. Don’t bother applying for an extension until your 14th day or you will most likely be told to come back again. Processing of extensions can usually be done on the same day and you will have to supply about 6 passport-sized photographs and a letter from your hotel. The cost of the extension varies from office to office but is always minimal. In general it is usually easier and faster to apply for an extension in any town other than Damascus (the offices in Tartus, Lattakia and Hama are particularly efficient).
Generally, women travelling alone in Syria experience no more harassment than is the norm in most European countries; the majority report it to be amongst the most relaxed country in the Middle East in this respect. While solo female travel can be demanding, there are also distinct advantages. In the vast majority of situations women are treated with great respect. Seasoned female travellers in Syria argue that they get the best of both worlds. As a foreigner they are generally accorded the status of ‘honorary males’ in public, while in private they have access to female society, from which men are excluded. When invited to a Muslim Syrian household, male guests are usually confined to the guest room while women are whisked away behind the scenes into the ‘real’ household, where they can meet wives, mothers, sisters and other members of the extended family.
Amongst Syria’s Christians (and amongst wealthier Syrians of any background), social etiquette and codes of dress are much more relaxed. Nevertheless, women travellers should make an effort to dress modestly and will find they garner more respect and experience less hassle if they do. Wearing a wedding ring may help to classify you as ‘respectably married’, while photos of a husband and children (whether real or imaginary) will further raise your status.
Remember that most Syrian women do not travel alone, and in more remote areas are rarely seen in public. The widely held perception of Western women is based on the images in Western magazines, films and satellite TV, which portray them as having ‘loose’ sexual morals. This can lead to problems of sexual harassment. Cases of violent sexual assault are, however, extremely rare and a firm, unambiguous response will deal with most situations. In public, the best approach is to make a scene; someone is bound to come to your aid, while the perpetrator will quickly vanish in a cloud of shame. Predictably enough, many women travellers report receiving far more unwanted attention after dark in the red-light districts of Damascus (Martyrs’ Square) and Aleppo (the area of cheap hotels bounded by Baron St, Al-Maari St, Al-Kouwatly St and Bab al-Faraj St).
Work and volunteer opportunities in Syria are few and far between. A useful website for volunteer opportunities is www.volunteer abroad.com/Syria. If you have a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) qualification, you may be able to find work as a teacher. The British Council (Maysaloun St, Shaalan, Damascus, T011-331 0631, http://www.britishcouncil.org/syria, and Al-Sabeel Dabbagh Building, Franciscan St, Aleppo, T021-228 0302) recruits qualified English teachers from the UK for their language programs. Another option is Berlitz (Bramkeh, Damascus, T011-213 2256, and Aleppo, T021-263 2715, http://www.bertitz.sy), who have language centres teaching English, French, German and Spanish.
Palmyra Desert Festival This major event runs for 3 days and draws locals as well as foreign visitors. In the day there is a full programme of horse and camel racing, while the evenings host performances of folk dancing and traditional music in the restored Roman theatre in the midst of the ruins.
In addition to the fixed-date Christian holidays listed above under Public holidays, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are both public as well as religious holidays; each are celebrated on different dates every year, in the case of both the Western (Latin) and Eastern (Orthodox) churches.
Islamic holidays are calculated according to the lunar calendar and therefore fall on different dates each year.
Ras as-Sana (Islamic New Year) 1st Muharram. The first 10 days of the year are regarded as holy, especially the 10th.
Ashoura 9th and 10th Muharram. Anniversary of the killing of Hussein, commemorated by Shi’ite Muslims (Shi’ites are a small minority in Syria, so this event is not widely celebrated). Ashoura also celebrates the meeting of Adam and Eve after leaving Paradise, and the end of the Flood.
Moulid an-Nabi The Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. 12th Rabi al-Awwal.
Leilat al-Meiraj Ascension of Muhammad from Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) in Jerusalem. 27th Rajab.
Ramadan The Islamic month of fasting. The most important event in the Islamic calender. 21st Ramadan is the Shab-e-Qadr or ‘Night of Prayer’.
Eid al-Fitr Literally ‘the small feast’. 3 days of celebration, beginning 1st Shawwal, to mark the end of Ramadan.
Eid al-Adha Literally ‘the great feast’. Begins on 10th Zilhaj and lasts 4 days. Commemorates Ibrahim’s (Abraham’s) near sacrifice of his son Ismail (though in Christian and Judaic tradition it is Isaac who is nearly sacrificed), and coincides with the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. Marked by the sacrifice of a sheep, feasting and donations to the poor.
The following dates are fixed public holidays; many of the major Muslim and Christian holidays are also public holidays, although their dates vary from year to year. Only those holidays marked * are celebrated nationally; the remainder are celebrated in a limited way, perhaps with a cultural event and certain government offices closing, or in the case of something like Marine’s Day, with that section of the armed forces having a holiday.
Bosra Festival This festival uses Bosra’s huge Roman theatre as a venue for a lively programme of music, singing, dancing and drama, with many visiting acts from abroad. The festival dates change yearly, for further details visit http://www.bosrafestival.org.
Silk Road Festival Organized by the Ministry of Tourism, this annual event stages cultural performances celebrating the history of the trade routes. Concerts and events are held in Damascus, Aleppo and Palmyra.
Travel between the main centres in Syria is relatively easy and cheap. The bus network stretches nearly all over the country while the recently improved rail network is a good option in the west. If you are travelling by public transport, some of the more far-flung sights (particularly the Dead Cities and the Euphrates region) provide more of a challenge to visit. It’s worthwhile hiring a car/driver to save time, but with careful planning, and a lot of patience, it’s not impossible to visit most sights using a combination of public transport and negotiating rides with locals.
As Syria is small enough to travel around by road, domestic flights are pretty unnecessary. For those with very limited time, Syrian Air (http://www.syriaair.com) operate reasonably priced flights from Damascus to Aleppo, Lattakia, Deir ez-Zor and Qamishle .
For those considering cycling in Syria, be aware that the heat during summer is fierce, and head winds and cross-winds can be a real problem (good tail winds always seem to be remarkably elusive). Given the distances involved, it is worth considering putting your bike on a bus for the longer journeys (slogging across the Syrian desert to Palmyra, for example, is only really for those interested in testing their endurance to the limit). Pullman buses have enough room to stow bicycles in their luggage compartments, while older buses generally have a large rack on the roof.
If you bring your own hi-tech mountain or touring bike, bear in mind that spares will be difficult to find. It is perhaps worth considering buying a bike in Syria; although it will be heavier, slower and without the same range of gear ratios, you will at least be able to find spares for it. You will find workshops where you can get most repairs carried out in almost every town, but you should still carry your own basic tool kit and a supply of spares. Probably the most attractive areas to cyclists are the coastal Jebel Ansariye mountains and the so-called Dead City region around Aleppo; here traffic is minimal and the scenery very beautiful, even if the terrain is hilly.
There are plenty of privately owned bus companies operating large air-conditioned coach services (known as Pullman buses) between the main centres in Syria. Due to competition prices tend to be cheap and services frequent and, in general, you don’t have to pre-book tickets. Of the many companies, Kadmous and Al-Ahliah seem to operate the most extensive routes. All Pullman bus services are non-smoking except for the driver, so if you have problems with cigarette fumes be sure to ask for a seat towards the back of the bus. On many routes you will need to show your passport to purchase tickets.
As well as the Pullmans there are still some old mid-size buses (known as Hob-hob buses) plying routes between the smaller towns. Services tend to leave when the bus is full and are generally cheaper (and slower) then the Pullman buses.
Although cramped, uncomfortable and hot (in summer), microbuses provide transport to many of the smaller places that the big Pullman buses don’t service. They are particularly useful for routes between smaller towns along the coast and the Orontes Valley, and getting to sights such as Apamea, The Dead Cities and Krak des Chevaliers. Microbuses leave from their own garages (usually a dusty parking lot) and there are no set departure times so you just need to turn up, ask around and wait for the next service to leave (usually when it’s full).
Hiring a car is an attractive option in Syria, particularly if you intend to visit remoter areas where public transport can be erratic or non-existent. The vast majority of car-hire firms are based in Damascus, though centres like Aleppo and Lattakia also have branches of the international car-hire firms. While the local companies are sometimes significantly cheaper than the international ones (some offer cars for as little as US$30 per day, as opposed to an average of around US$60 per day), it is very important to check the rental conditions and insurance cover carefully, as some smaller local companies don’t offer any cover other than third party with their vehicles. In such cases, if you have an accident you will usually be liable for the full cost of the repairs. If you have an accident, make sure you obtain a police report; without one, even full insurance arrangements may be invalidated.
The minimum age for car hire varies between 21 and 25. Most companies require that you have held a full licence for at least one year. An international driving licence is not compulsory, although it is useful to have one in any case. Most companies have a minimum rental period of three days. There is usually a choice between limited mileage (usually up to 125 km) and unlimited mileage; unless you are sure that you are not going to be covering any great distances, it generally works out cheaper in the end to go for unlimited mileage. Most companies require either a credit card or a cash deposit, usually in the region of US$500-1000.
Budget (http://www.budget-sy.com) and Europcar (http://www.europcar-middleeast.com) are two of the main international car-rental firms in Syria. Both have offices in Damascus and Aleppo. With Budget, the minimum rental period is three days, with small car rental starting from US$55 per day with unlimited mileage. A medium-sized car starts from US$75. You have to pay a deposit (credit cards accepted) of US$600, which you get back when you return the car. Europcar’s rates tend to be higher: with limited mileage and a three-day rental, small cars start from US$80 per day and medium-sized cars from US$90 per day, but if you are renting a car for more than one week the daily rate drops substantially. Marmou Car Hire (http://www.marmou.com) is a good local car-hire company with offices in Damascus. Their rates are as low as US$35 per day for the cheapest car, with their most expensive car US$80 per day. They have excellent weekly rental rates from US$220-500. Car hire has limited mileage of 120 km per day with an extra charge of 30 cents per kilometre if you go over this. All car rentals include full insurance.
Some remote sites (particularly in the east and in the Dead City region) are unable to be reached without your own transport. If this isn’t an option you’ll need to depend on negotiating rides or hitchhiking. For many Syrians in rural areas this mode of transport is a common way of getting around. Be aware though, that hitchhiking anywhere has inherent risks and no one (especially females) should ever hitchhike alone.
The Syrian train network has vastly improved in recent years making train travel a viable and inexpensive option for travellers, at least along the main route between Damascus and Aleppo and to the coast, from Aleppo to Lattakia. Both routes boast comfortable new air-conditioned trains.
First-class tickets are good value and are worthwhile. There are five services per day between Damascus and Aleppo but be aware that some departures are in the very early morning hours, or in the evening, denying passengers of any views en route. The journey between Aleppo and Lattakia is particularly beautiful. Always take your passport when buying train tickets.
For most of the rest of the country train travel is unfeasible due to lacklustre services, inconvenient departure times, old and uncomfortable carriages and inconveniently placed railway stations that are far out of towns.
Syria’s two international airports are in Damascus and Aleppo. Damascus is the main hub with more connections to Europe. Both airports have flights to other Middle Eastern destinations. Direct flights to Syria are accessible and affordable from Europe but for cheap flights from Australasia and North America you will need to shop around a little. Flights from both destinations will involve at least one stopover en route. For the cheapest possible flights, consider flying to another Middle Eastern country and travelling overland, or booking an onward flight, from there. Recommended online booking agencies where you can compare airfares include http://www.expedia.com,http://www.cheapflights.com and http://www.skyscanner.net.
The quickest routes are offered by Emirates (http://www.emirates.com), Qantas (http://www.qantas.com.au), and Etihad (http://www.etihadairways.com). Flights from Australia via Dubai cost from AU$1400 one-way or AU$1800 return. From New Zealand prices tend to be higher, with one way tickets costing from NZ$2200 and returns from NZ$3000. It is usually cheaper looking into flights to other Middle Eastern destinations such as Istanbul, Dubai and Amman and booking separate onward flights or overland travel to Syria from there. It’s worth noting that from Dubai the new airline Flydubai (http://www.flydubai.com) offers daily flights to Damascus and Aleppo from US$80.
There are no direct flights to Syria from North America. To get the best deal you can either fly to London or another European city first, or via another city in the Middle East. Both Emirates (http://www.emirates.com), and Etihad (http://www.etihadairways.com), fly via the Gulf States and onward to Damascus. Flights to Damascus, via Dubai, from Los Angeles and New York start from US$700 one way or US$1100 return.
You can cross into Syria from Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. The land borders with Iraq and Israel remain out of the question for the time being.
From Amman in Jordan, JETT (Al-Malek al-Hussein St, Shmeisani, T962-656 64146, http://www.jet.com.jo) operate buses to Damascus at 0700 and 0800 (4½ hours, JOD6). There are also plentiful share taxis leaving to Damascus from Amman’s Abdali bus station (Al-Malek al-Hussein St, Jebel Amman). Taxis depart when full (3½ hours, JOD12).
From Lebanon frequent buses and service taxis ply the route between Beirut and Syria. Beirut’s large Charles Helou bus station (Av Charles Helou, East Downtown) has frequent departures to Damascus from Zone A and Aleppo from Zone B. Saad bus company (T961-701 42999) services both destinations (S£600). Service taxis leave for Damascus, Aleppo and Lattakia throughout the day and have similar prices.
If you’re coming from Turkey, direct tickets from Istanbul to Aleppo always involve changing buses in Antakya, so it makes more sense to buy a ticket to Antakya and scout around for the bus soonest to depart from there. Kent (T9-0326 213 4722), and Has (T9-0326 444 0031), have daily departures from Antakya to Aleppo at 0930 (three hours, TYL10). You can also buy tickets to Damascus from Antakya but be aware that in most cases this involves a bus change in Aleppo.
Drivers no longer need a carnet de passage en douane to enter Syria by car. As long as the driver is permanently residing abroad and only entering Syria for a short stay, the border process only involves purchasing a car temporary entry card for US$40 and car insurance for US$30.
If you are driving from Jordan, the Ramtha/Deraa border is a good alternative to the extremely busy Jabir/Nasib border nearby. It’s 180 km from Amman to Damascus. From Lebanon, the most popular point of entry is the Jdaide border on the Beirut–Damascus highway, though you should have no problems on the alternate routes between Baalbek and Homs and Tripoli and Tartus. There are several entry points between Turkey and Syria but the most important and frequently used crossing is Cilvegözü/Bab al-Hawa border which links Antakya and Aleppo .
There are currently no passenger ferry services between Limassol (Cyprus) and Lattakia, though this may change in the future. For up-to-date ferry information on travelling from Cyprus to Syria see the website http://www.varianostravel.com.
The Hejaz railway between Amman and Damascus has been suspended for the foreseeable future as much-needed track repairs take place. This is the last remaining fragment of the Ottoman Hejaz Railway that once linked Damascus to Medina and was famously attacked by T E Lawrence and his Bedouin compatriots during the Arab Revolt in 1917. For up-to-date information on when/if the service will be up and running again, ring the Hejaz Railway office (Amman, T00962-6 48 95413) or ask at Kadem Station in Damascus.
At the time of research, the Toros Express sleeper train between Istanbul and Aleppo had been temporarily suspended while construction of a new high-speed line in Turkey is completed. For information on the service resuming, ask at Haydarpasa Station in Istanbul and Baghdad Station in Aleppo, or visit the Turkish railway website (http://www.tcdd.gov.tr). There is also a twice-weekly service (seater-only) from Mersin and Adana to Aleppo.
One month (or longer) gives you the time to really explore the country and get off the beaten path. You also have the flexibility to change your schedule and accept and enjoy any surprising opportunities that present themselves on your journey.
Damascus (7 nights) deserves as much time as you can allow and you can also visit a multitude of surrounding sights while here (Maaloula and Bosra should be on your list). Then travel on to Palmyra (1 night), before heading to Deir ez-Zor (2 nights) to see the Byzantine city of Dura Europos. From here head to Lake Assad (2 nights) (or Raqqa) via the twin ruins of Halabiye and Zalabiye, and spend the next day exploring Rasafeh. Next, journey to Aleppo (4 nights) from where you can visit Qala’at Samaan and some of the Dead Cities as day trips. Take the train to the coast using Lattakia (3 nights) and Tartus (2 nights) as your bases to further delve into this region. Qala’at Marqab, Kassab and Arwad Island are just a few of the highlights here. Afterwards spend the night at Krak des Chevaliers (1 night) to truly appreciate the castle in the early morning light, before backtracking slightly to Hama (4 nights), which is a good place to station yourself for a few days to see sights such as Qasr Ibn Warden, Homs and Masyaf. If you can, try to spend a night at Deir Mar Musa (1 night) before heading back to Damascus to leave.
Trying to cover too much ground in one week will leave you exhausted but even with this limited time you should be able to cover Damascus, Aleppo and the major sites of Palmyra and Krak des Chevaliers. The following circuit can be comfortably achieved by public transport as well as by private vehicle.
Most people begin their Syrian journey in Damascus (2 nights). Concentrate your time in the Old City where most of the sights are based, including the awe-inspiring Umayyad Mosque and the opulently decorated Azem Palace. In the New City don’t miss visiting the National Museum, which contains extensive collections from sites all over Syria. From Damascus, head out into the desert to Palmyra (1 night). Get here for sunset over the ruins from Qala’at Ibn Maan and rise early the next morning to spend a few hours thoroughly exploring the site. In the early afternoon journey to Krak des Chevaliers (1 night) and spend the next morning delving into the nooks and crannies of this spectacular castle. (As an alternative to spending the night at Krak, you could stay in Hama or Homs and visit the castle from there.) After you’ve finished your sightseeing head to Syria’s second city, Aleppo (2 nights), where the chaotic labyrinth of the souqs and the formidable citadel are the major highlights. From here you can either return to Damascus or, if you’re overlanding, head to the nearby Turkish border.
If planned well two weeks allows you the flexibility to see some of the coast and maybe some of the sights to the east. Though it’s not at all impossible to do the following itinerary with a combination of public transport and some ride-negotiation with locals, due to irregular services (or non-existent services) to sights in the east you’d be better to allow three weeks if you’re not using private transport at all.
After discovering the delights of Damascus (3 nights) take a day trip to nearby Bosra for its impressive Roman theatre. Then head to Hama (2 nights), which makes a great base for visits to the Roman site of Apamea and some of the more southern Dead Cities. From here you can either do an excursion to the grand Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers (1 night) as well or choose to spend the night there to witness sunrise. Then travel on to fun-loving Lattakia (2 nights), which makes an excellent base for nearby Qala’at Salah ud-Din and the bronze-age site of Ugarit (if you get up early enough you can visit both sites in one very long day). Take the scenic train journey to Aleppo (2 nights), to see the lush countryside of the Jebel Ansariye. After you’ve finished all your bargaining in the city’s souqs head east to Lake Assad (1 night) for some swimming and relaxation before heading to Palmyra (2 nights) via a long day’s drive visiting the colossal desert ruins of Rasafeh and Qasr al-Heir al-Sharki. After you’ve finished admiring Palmyra’s impressive monuments, head back to Damascus to finish.
Syria is at its best during spring (late March to early June) and autumn (early September to early November). During both these seasons temperatures are pleasantly mild (15-20°C). Spring is when the country is at its greenest, the wild flowers are in full blossom and the showers and cooler air mean that the atmosphere is free from haze, so you get the best views. During the summer (early June to early September) it is generally very hot and dry, with temperatures averaging 30°C and sometimes reaching above 40°C, particularly from mid-July to mid-August. Sightseeing in such conditions can be very hard work. Winter (mid-November to mid-March) by contrast can be bitterly cold, temperatures often fall close to freezing and this is also when the majority of the rainfall comes.
Another element to factor into planning, is Ramadan (the Muslim month of fasting). During this month Muslims do not drink, eat or smoke from sunrise to sunset and although non-Muslims are not expected to join in, you should refrain from eating, drinking and smoking in public. Also, many smaller businesses will close during daylight hours and some will not open for the entire month, although shops and tourist sites are open as normal. Travelling in Syria at this time can be frustrating but if you do find yourself here during Ramadan you will probably be rewarded by constant invitations to share Iftar (the evening meal that breaks the daily fast) with the many Syrians that you meet, leaving you with an unforgettable insight into Islam and Arab culture.
Syria groans under a weight of history that not many other countries can boast. The astonishing array of ruins and historical sites here can be mind-boggling to the visitor and those who try to fit too much into a short trip soon find themselves befuddled with ruin-fatigue. Although compact and relatively easy to travel around, you’ll enjoy yourself more if you visit fewer sites and see them properly rather than rushing between ruins to try and cram them all in.
The ancient cities of Damascus and Aleppo both deserve as much time as you can afford them. You could simply spend days exploring the souqs and seeking out the multitude of architectural gems within, but outside the medieval walls of the old quarters these cities are also vibrant modern metropolises that buzz with the dynamism of contemporary Syrian life. Both cities are within easy reach of nearby sites. The black basalt remains of Bosra, with their massive Roman theatre, are a day trip from Damascus, while forays to the eerie and atmospheric ruins of the Dead Cities can be arranged in Aleppo.
Remnants of the Greek and Roman period are scattered liberally throughout the country but if you only have time for one big ruin, make it Palmyra. The spectacular remains of this caravan town rise majestically out of the vast expanse of the desert-steppe and are, undoubtedly, one of the most impressive sights in the Middle East.
The Syrian coast may not be a beach bum’s paradise but this region more than makes up for its lack of sunbathing potential with its sheer beauty. Tucked into the verdant hills of the Jebel Ansariye is a line of atmospheric Crusader castles. Krak des Chevaliers is the most famous and best preserved but Qala’at Salah ud-Din and Qala’at Marqab are also worth visiting for their breathtakingly beautiful and lonely locations.
The area around Hama provides a wealth of sightseeing opportunities and the town itself is already a firm favourite with travellers who come to see the famous groaning norias (waterwheels). The impressive Roman ruin of Apamea and the elegant Byzantine architecture of Qasr Ibn Warden are two of the many highlights of this area.
If you have the time head east to the Euphrates and Jezira region where, on the edge of the desert, the crumbling walls of Rasafeh loom up, providing a dramatic prelude to this huge and awesome fortified city. Already a popular choice with Syrian holidaymakers, the astonishing vast expanse of Lake Assad is fast becoming a must-do for visitors to this region. If you’re exploring this section of the country, camping beside the lake’s sparkling blue waters is an excellent alternative to staying in the night in the nearby town of Raqqa. Right to the southeast, overlooking the mighty Euphrates River, is the dusty, lonely remains of Dura Europos. It’s a long hot drive to get here but worth every minute for the stunning views out onto the expansive green plains below.
Syrians place a lot of importance on smartness and cleanliness and making the effort to be presentable in public will earn you greater respect. Singlets, low-cut tops, bare midriffs, above-the-knee shorts and skirts and other skimpy clothing are not acceptable dress in Syria and often cause offence. The key to remember is shoulders and knees (and everything in-between) should be covered at all times. This rule applies to men as well as women.
Syrians are incredibly welcoming and open and will go out of their way to help foreigners. Return this gesture by being equally polite and friendly.
Making the effort to use a little of the language will be greatly appreciated. Syrians are always ecstatically happy and surprised when a foreigner speaks Arabic, even if it is only a few words. Except among more cosmopolitan people it is not usual for a man and woman to shake hands when meeting. Instead place your right hand across your heart; this can also be used as a sign of thank you as well. Open displays of affection between couples are not acceptable in public and can cause great offence. Conversely, it is completely normal for friends of the same sex (male and female) to hold hands and link arms in public.
While eating a shared meal like mezze, it’s acceptable to use your left hand to tear bread but the right hand should be used to take from the communal bowls and also to pass things to people. Always tuck your feet in towards you when sitting down. Feet are considered unclean and it’s very rude to point them at someone. Also, crossing your legs while seated is considered rude by some more conservative people.
Non-Muslims are welcome in most mosques in Syria, although in some Shi’ite mosques they are only allowed into the courtyard and not the prayer hall itself. In any case, always seek permission before entering a mosque. Remember that shoes must be removed before entering the prayer hall, although socks can be left on. It is very important that both men and women dress modestly, covering arms and legs (shorts are not acceptable) and in the case of women, wearing a headscarf. At larger, more important mosques, such as the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, women are required to hire a full-length black hooded robe at the entrance (and men also if they attempt to enter in shorts).
Syria is something of a paradise for souvenir, handicraft and antique hunters. The most interesting and rewarding places to go exploring are the souqs of Damascus and Aleppo. Things to look out for include: wooden chess sets and backgammon boards; wooden boxes inlaid with mother-of-pearl; carpets and rugs; jewellery; gold and silverware; brassware; carpets; hand-painted tiles; Damascene swords; musical instruments; narghiles; fabrics and silk brocades (for which Damascus is famous); and all manner of antiques.
Bargaining is the name of the game in the souqs. If you want to get a rough idea of how much things cost, head to the specialist handicraft markets in Damascus and Aleppo before diving into the souqs.
Most of the main cities and tourism centres have a reasonable amount of accommodation for all budgets. Many smaller towns tend to have one or two hotels, usually in the mid-range or budget categories. In Damascus and Aleppo, a burgeoning number of old Ottoman houses and palaces have recently been converted into atmospheric and unusual top-end hotels, making a welcome addition to the luxury market, which had until now been dominated by the chain-hotels.
Be aware that hotel facilities, even in the top-end bracket, are usually not to the same standard as the West. Hot water can be erratic in all but the luxury end of the market. Many mid-range hotel rooms may boast TV and air-conditioning but that doesn’t mean they work. It is always wise to ask to see the room and check that everything works before actually checking in. Making up for a shortfall with facilities, hotel staff are usually incredibly helpful and eager to please.
While the lower mid-range and budget hotels accept payment in S£s, practically all hotels from $$ category upwards prefer to be paid in US$. Just to confuse things, many mid-range and top-end hotels in Aleppo prefer to be paid in Euro. Most luxury and mid-range hotels now also accept major credit cards. Nearly all hotels above $$ category also charge an extra 10% government tax; be sure to check whether this is included in the price you are quoted.
Hotels in some places, most notably Palmyra and to a lesser extent Hama, show marked variations in prices between the low and high seasons. In the case of Palmyra, the high season is March-April and August-December, while in Hama it is April-May and July-October. Elsewhere, prices generally stay stable throughout the year, although there are small variations in some categories in Damascus, where the high season is during the summer months (July-October).
There are very few official campsites in Syria. Beside the Damascus–Aleppo motorway just outside Damascus, the government-run Harasta campsite is a thoroughly unappealing place: noisy, with little natural shade and very basic toilet/shower facilities. By contrast, the privately run Camping Kaddour to the west of Aleppo is very pleasant and Palmyra has a lovely campground amidst the date palms.
Providing you have your own equipment, there are plenty of opportunities for ‘unofficial’ camping. The coastal Jebel Ansariye mountains are probably the most beautiful area, with plenty of attractive woodlands complete with streams and waterfalls offering idyllic sites. Camping at some of the more remote historic monuments and archaeological sites is also an option, although you should ask permission first. In more populated areas, camping will certainly generate a great deal of curiosity amongst local people, and in all likelihood you will be invited to stay in someone’s house; trying to persuade them that you actually want to camp may be difficult.
Que verFortalezas y palacios omeyas, iglesias, monasterios y campamentos militares bizantinos se levantan por doquier, en los sitios más insospechados, proporcionando al viajero momentos de belleza indescriptible: recorrer a la caida del sol Rasafa, ciudad bizantina en medio del desierto, ascender a Qalat al-Mudiq o a Qalat al-Saladin, fortalezas islámicas de tiempos de Saladino, o llegar hasta el conjunto monástico bizantino de Qasr Ibn Wardan, en tierras beduinas, lugares todos ellos poco o nada frecuentados por los turistas, puede hacer sentir modos de vida y tradiciones culturales de tiempos remotos.
Los amantes de la historia y la arqueología pueden encontrar en este país lo más parecido a un paraíso: desde los asentamientos más antiguos, como Ebla o Ugarit (donde se descubrió el primer alfabeto), hasta mezquitas turcas del s XVI, pasando por enclaves hititas, templos fenicios, ciudades romanas todavía habitadas, como Bosra y Shakba, decenas de castillos de las Cruzadas o la mítica Palmira, capital del desierto en tiempos del Imperio Romano. Casi cualquier rincón, cada colina, cada pueblo, esconde riquezas arqueológicas dignas de mención.
Y para quienes estimen el trato con la población y se interesen por los modos de vida, Damasco, Hama, Raqqa, y sobre todo Alepo, colmarán sus aspiraciones. Ajetreadas unas (Damasco y Alepo), pausadas otras (Hama y Raqqa), estas ciudades invitan al visitante a conocerlas profundamente, pues sus calles y sus gentes atraen al desconocido en un clima de confianza y amabilidad.
Quizá haya que destacar por encima de todo Alepo, con su barrio armenio y su zoco, ejemplo éste de pervivencia de un tiempo que se resiste a desaparecer bajo las garras de la globalización. Una experiencia que no debería perderse ningún viajero que se precie de tal es dedicar al menos una tarde completa a deambular por sus callejuelas abovedadas sin rumbo fijo, dejándose llevar por los reclamos de las tiendecillas, las voces de los comerciantes y el bullicio de sus gentes.
Lo más interesante de Siria se encuentra en una ruta, paralela a la costa, que va de norte a sur, y se puede recorrer en unos 15 días.
Si llegas en avión a la capital, puedes comenzar tu recorrido en Damasco y visitar la ciudad antigua y la muralla romana. Siguiendo hacia el noreste llegarás a Palmira, donde puedes pasar dos días. Desde aquí, dirígete al este, visita el famoso castillo de los cruzados Crac des Chevaliers y sigue hacia la ciudad de Hama. La última escala de tu ruta se encuentra en Alepo, al norte, cerca de Turquía.
Damasco y Alepo son dos ciudades imprescindibles en Siria, además de ser las más importantes del país.
Damasco, tiene a orgullo ser la ciudad más antigua del mundo aún habitada. La Ciudad Vieja, discurre alrededor de la Gran Mezquita Omeya, laberinto de estrechos pasajes y callejones por los que vale la pena perderse. Visita el Museo de Arte y Tradiciones Populares, el Museo Nacional y la Mezquita Omeya.
Aleppo `la blanca´ -construida con mármol-, ciudad cristiana con más de 300 mezquitas.
Su zoco, conserva el sabor original de Oriente Próximo. te sorprenderán la Gran Mezquita, con su minarete del s XI, y la catedral bizantina de Qala’at Samaan a 40 km. de Aleppo,-conjunto bizantino de la Iglesia de San Simeón el Estilita, anacoreta que permaneció durante 36 años encima de una columna, para estar más cerca del cielo, y encontrar su paz interior.
Palmira (Tadmor, para los árabes) - monumental antigua ciudad romana- oasis inmenso de palmeras y olivos.
Crac des Chevaliers, fortaleza templaria del s. XII en buen estado de conservación, ubicada estratégicamente en lo alto de una colina entre las cordilleras que separan Turquía y el Líbano, dónde se alojó Ricardo Corazón de León, en la época de las Cruzadas. Son lugares de visita obligada.
Hama, a orillas del río Orontes, abarrotada de árboles, jardines y norias de agua, que mueven el agua del río, provocando un perpetuo sonido. Cuenta la leyenda que, al llegar el profeta Mahoma a las puertas de la ciudad, no quiso entrar en ella, pues no quería ver el Paraíso antes de morir. Y debe serlo, pues en ella siguen conviviendo en armonía los habitantes del barrio árabe, cristiano y judío. Visitar las norias (algunas de 20 m de diám).
Apamea, al norte de Hama, las segundas ruinas más importantes del país, después de Palmira. Dotada de una verde campiña dónde se producen excelentes vinos sirios.
Bosra. Fuera de la ruta principal, 150 Km al sur de la capital. Visita su teatro romano, en el interior de una fortaleza árabe,muy bien conservado.
Malula Encajonado en un valle entre acantilados, las casas de se descuelgan de tal forma que las azoteas de unas sirven de paso para las de más arriba. Toda la ciudad es irreal, igual que el idioma que siguen hablando: el arameo.
Además de las prósperas y modernas ciudades a la orilla del Mediterráneo, el viajero puede visitar otras antiguas ciudades como:
Mari al borde del mítico Eúfrates, del III milenio a.C.;
Ebla, del 2.500 a.C.;
Ugarit, dónde se nació el primer alfabeto