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What Should I Know About Syria?

A map of the Middle East, including Syria.
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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 06 July 2014
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Syria is a large country in the Middle East. It covers 71,500 square miles (183,900 sq. km), making it a bit smaller than the state of South Dakota. It shares borders with Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.

Syria has been inhabited for millennia. Around 3000 BCE one of the first civilizations on Earth formed around the city of Ebla in the northern part of Syria, eventually achieving an Empire that spread from Turkey to the Red Sea. For the next few millenniums the country was mostly in the possession of other empires, from the Akkadian Empire in the 23rd century BCE, to the Amorites in the 20th century BCE, to the Hittites a few centuries later. The region would also be ruled by the Phoenicians, the Canaanites, the Egyptians, the Sumerians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Arameans.

The Persian Empire eventually conquered Syria in the 6th century BCE, holding it until Alexander the Great conquered the region. It then passed into the control of the Roman Empire. During this era Christianity was introduced to the region, with the first Christian Church being organized by Paul in Antioch. Upon the decline of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire took control of the area.

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During the 7th century and the Arab conquest, the country became a part of the Caliphate. For the next few centuries it flourished as it converted to Islam. In the 13th century the Mongols arrived, decimating the country to hundreds of years, and weakening it as a regional power. In the 16th century the Ottomans descended on the country, seizing power and holding it for the next few centuries.

When World War I ended and the Ottoman Empire was dissolved, the region was split between the Western powers of Britain and France. The section that Britain received would eventually become Palestine and Jordan. The section that the French received would eventually become modern Syria, as well as Lebanon.

The French controlled Syria until 1936, when a treaty was negotiated, and the country became independent. The nation was formed as a republic, and a president was soon elected. The French refused to ratify the treaty, however, in the face of growing fears of Nazi Germany and giving up Middle Eastern territories. In 1944 Syria again declared its independence, and it was formally recognized in 1946.

A series of coups followed, with the government switching hands consistently for the next few decades. In 1958 Syria merged with Egypt to form the United Arab Republic. It seceded from the United Arab Republic in 1961, following another military coup. The Ba’ath party eventually took power and held it through a number of subsequent coups. In 1970 power was stabilized following a bloodless coup and the installation of Ba’ath president Hafez al-Assad. He held power for the next three decades, until being succeeded by his son in 2000 following his death.

The situation in the country now is tense, and a fair amount of anti-American protests occur. The country is still considered relatively safe for travelers, but take care to avoid any protests, and it's best to check in regularly with an embassy.

The Basilica of St. Simeon, locally known as Qala’at Samaan, is a basilica dating back to the early 5th century, and is a marvel. The dead cities found surrounding Aleppo are also of historical interest. The Umayyad Mosque is an amazing example of Islamic architecture, and is one of the most important locations in Islam. The desert ruins of Palmyra hearken back to the 2nd century, and are some of the finest architectural ruins in the region. And of course, Damascus itself is a glory to behold, with astounding architecture and culture, and museums that recount the region’s long and illustrious history.

Flights arrive daily in Damascus from most major European hubs, as well as airports throughout the Middle East and Africa. Buses are available from Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, and trains are available from Jordan and Turkey.

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