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Society, Politics & Law

About Syria

Updated Wednesday 3rd February 2010

From its arrival as a separate nation following the unravelling of the Ottoman Empire to its current status as a gateway to the Mediterranean, Syria is a country with a rich history and many stories to tell.

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Syria is a Mediterranean country that enjoys a unique location at the meeting point of Europe, Africa and Asia. It is the home of the first alphabet, and a primary location of the Koran, the Torah and the Bible. Its roads have carried traders on the silk route and pilgrims to Mecca.

It is a country surrounded by war and far from at peace with itself. The experience and outlook of young people growing up in Syria today reflect the country’s challenging international position as well as its internal divisions and debates.

Considering the country consists of geographical features as diverse as plains, mountains and deserts, it’s no surprise that the country is also home to a wide range of people with varying customs and religious beliefs, including Muslim, Druze and Christian communities.

Syria’s borders have historically been disputed or altered many times over the centuries, with some disputes remaining to be settled to this day.

Modern-day Syria came into being followed the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire in 1920. Initially, it was placed under French rule.

During the 1920s and ’30s, the French governers of Syria gradually gave the area now known as the Hatay Province more and more autonomy from Syria until it finally became a part of Turkey in 1939. Even now, both countries claim this region as their own.

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In 1946, Syria gained its independence from France and has since lived through periods of political instability driven by the conflicting interests of its various groups.

Twenty-one years later, Syria lost control of the Golan Heights to Israel. As with the Hatay Province, this territory remains hotly disputed. However, civil war in neighbouring Lebanon has allowed Syria to extend both its political and military influence in the region.

January 2008 saw the official opening of festivities for Damascus City of Arab Culture for 2008 and the country’s Arab identity and Pan-Arab perspective is the predominant anchor-point for Syrian culture today. Externally, the Shia and Sunni, Muslim and Christian divides are not apparent on the street – churches stand next to mosques and the general atmosphere is a lot closer to Europe or Turkey than it is to the Gulf. Syria is a tolerant society but under the surface its Arab identity is contested both internally as well as with its neighbours.

Syria remains a One Party state that professes to be democratic and the image of its President looks down on the citizens from ubiquitous billboards in the streets, behind the headmaster’s desk and from above the black-board.

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Some facts from the BBC's Syria guide

Full name: The Syrian Arab Republic

Population: 22 million (UN, 2009)

Capital: Damascus

Area: 185,180 sq km (71,498 sq miles)

Major language: Arabic

Major religion: Islam

Once the centre of the Islamic Empire, Syria covers an area that has seen invasions and occupations over the ages, from Romans and Mongols to Crusaders and Turks.

This and further information is available on the BBC website.

Syria overview map

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The oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, to the extent where it is even mentioned in the Bible, Damascus has seen many historic events, cultures and rulers in its time.

Damascus

 

“Damascus never dies. Years here are but moments and dozens of years are but intangible crumbs of time. This is the model of immortality.” Mark Twain

 

Damascus has been lived in longer than any other city on earth. The spectacular old city includes its vast souk and Umayyad Mosque built on the site of an old Church and synagogue next to the ruined remains of the Roman temple of Jupiter.

The old city teems with carpet sellers, while its narrow streets are being dug up to repair the ageing sewage system for a new generation that is moving back into this historic area. Boutique hotels, bars and nightclubs are also setting up, revitalising the old city.

Outside the walls of the old town the City of Damascus reflects its colonial French influence - evident in the apartment architecture across the town. International hotels, embassies and government ministries with all the attendant security, give a clear sense that you are in a capital city.

The capital city, Damascus has been increasingly isolated in recent years, criticised for its alleged support for insurgents in Iraq, and over its role in Lebanon. That isolation appears to have eased since 2000.

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

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