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 HISTORY and CULTURE
History     Culture

History
 

Historically, Syria included Jordan, Israel and Lebanon as well as the area now known as Syria. The country was in a top strategic spot, and its coastal towns became important Phoenician trading posts. Later, Syria was a pivotal part of the Roman, Persian, Egyptian and Babylonian empires. It finally ended up as part of Ottoman Turkey and, along with Lebanon, was dished out to France when the Turkish Empire broke up after WWI. The Syrians weren't too pleased with this arrangement (they had been an independent nation from 1918-20) and staged an insurrection in 1925-6, which resulted in the French bombing Damascus.

In 1932, Syria had its first parliamentary elections, and although the candidates had been picked by the French, they refused to accept France's proposed constitution for the country. In 1939, France granted Turkey the Syrian province of Alexandretta, further sharpening feeling against the imperial overlords. France promised independence in 1941 but didn't come through with it until 1946.

Civilian rule didn't last long in Syria: in 1954, after several military coups, the Ba'athist section of the army took over the country. The Ba'ath Party was founded in 1940 by a Christian teacher and was committed to a form of pan-Arabism under which Syria would forfeit its sovereignty. This led to the formation of a United Arab Republic with Egypt in 1958, but several people thought this wasn't such a hot idea, and another series of military coups trundled across the country. By 1966 the Ba'ath were back in power, but the celebrations were curtailed by the 1967 Six Day War with Israel and the 1970 Black September spat with Jordan. While everyone was otherwise occupied, Defence Minister Hafez al-Assad seized power.

Since 1971 Assad has held onto the presidency with a mixture of ruthless suppression and guile, and used his position to maneuver Syria into a position of power negotiating the terms of peace in the Middle East. In 1999, he was elected to a fifth seven-year term with a predictable 99.9% of the vote. Although falling oil prices instigated much hand-wringing throughout the Middle East, Assad's astute exploitation of the Gulf War in the early 1990s brought improvements in the Syrian economy. During the war, Syria joined the anti-Iraq coalition, getting into the USA's good books in an effort to get off Washington's list of states supporting international terrorism.

In 1997, Syria was removed from the US list of drug-trafficking states, while Assad moved to strengthen ties with the fledgling EU, Turkey and the US. Attempts to diversify the oil-reliant economy, primarily with investment in agricultural products, have had mixed success. In early 2000, US State Department officials discussed removing Syria from from the terrorism list, admitting that even according to US intelligence, the country hadn't sponsored any terrorist activity since 1986. The chaotic withdrawal of Israeli troops from Southern Lebanon in May 2000, occuring under fire from the alledgedly Syrian-sponsored Hezbollah, would have probably delayed further talks under the best of circumstances. President Assad's death the following month added another variable to that equation and to the future of the Middle East peace process as a whole. Assad's son Bashar stood poised to take over the presidency as of June 2000.




Culture
 

You're unlikely to hear traditional Arab tunes on the streets of Damascus, but you will find an interesting hybrid of Arab-style singers backed up by orchestras of western and traditional instruments everywhere you go. Some of the favourite artists are Mayada al-Hanawi and Asala Nasri. The Bedouin are still hanging on to their musical traditions, with groups of men singing trance-like chants to accompany a lone belly dancer.

Visual art in the Arab world often means architecture, largely because Islam forbids the depiction of living things. Throughout Syria you will find some spectacular ancient and classical sites, with relics left by the Muslim caliphs, the Romans and the Byzantines. There are also plenty of religious works left behind by the Crusaders. The Qur'an is one of the finest examples of classical Arabic writing; the Al-Mu'allaqaat is an even older collection of Arab poetry. Toward the end of the 10th century, Syria was the focal point of one last great flash of Arab poetry - the most notable works of this era were penned by Al-Mutanabbi (who considered himself a prophet) and Abu Firas al-Hamdani. One of the best known works of Arab literature is Alf Layla wa Layla (A Thousand and One Nights), a collection of tales from several centuries and countries. Bedouin artworks include silver jewellery, colourful textiles and a wide range of knives.

Hospitality is a cornerstone of Arab life. It is commonplace for Syrian families, particularly desert dwellers, to welcome strangers into their home. The tradition developed from the harshness of desert life - without food, water and shelter provided by strangers, most desert travellers would die. Wherever you go in Syria, you are likely to hear the word, tafaddal (loosely translated as welcome) and you will frequently be invited into people's homes for food or a cup of tea.

Islam is the predominant religion in Syria. A monotheistic religion, Islam's holy book is the Qur'an, and Friday is its sabbath day. Every day, five times a day, Muslims are called to prayer from the minarets of mosques that dot the country. Islam derives from the same monotheistic roots as Judaism and Christianity, and Muslims generally regard Christians and Jews with respect - in Islam, Jesus is regarded as one of the Prophets of Allah, and Jews and Christians are considered fellow 'people of the Book'. Mohammed was the last Prophet, and it was to him that Allah dictated the Qur'an. Most Syrian Muslims belong to the Sunni sect of Islam, but there are sizeable Shi'ite, Druze and Alawite minorities. The Druze mostly live around the border with Jordan, and their beliefs are shrouded in secrecy. The Alawites, mostly found around Lattakia and Hama-Homs, are extreme Shi'ites.

Islamic law forbids eating pork and drinking alcohol, and this law is followed to a greater or lesser (generally lesser) extent throughout Syria. Islam also has a tendency to divide the sexes, and you might find that many eating establishments only welcome men. Most of these will, if asked, show you to the 'family room', an area set aside for women. When Syrians eat out, they will usually order group meals - a selection of mezzeh, or starters, followed by main meals to share. Arabic unleavened bread, or khobz, is eaten with almost everything. The other staples are felafel, deep-fried chickpea balls; shwarma, spit-cooked sliced lamb; and fuul, a paste of fava beans, garlic and lemon. Mensaf is a Bedouin speciality - a whole lamb, head included, on a bed of rice and pine nuts.


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