Project number: UK/13/LLP-LdV/TOI-615
2 Profile SYRIA
Syria is a country in the Middle East, which shares a border
with Lebanon in the West, with Israel in the Southwest, Jor-
dan in the South, Iraq in the East and Turkey in the North.
Capital: Damascus. Aleppo (ancient name Halab) is the big-
gest and most populated city in Syria.
Climate: subtropical – the climate is Mediterranean (humid
and mild winter and long, hot and dry summer) in the coast-
al area, and continental (dry) in the inner parts of the coun-
Ethnic groups: about 74% of the population are Syrian and
Palestinian Arabs, 9% are Kurds that live in the Northeast
part of Syria. Other minorities include Turkmens, Circas-
sians, Greeks, Jews and Armenians.
Religion: Islam 73% (60% Sunni and 13% Shia), Christian 10%
(the majority Antiochian Orthodox).
Government: unitary, single party, semi-presidential repub-
The coat of arms of Syria is a
hawk, which is the symbol of
Muhammad, the founder
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The primary goals of president Bashar al-Assad’s foreign policy are ensuring national
security, increasing influence among its Arab neighbors, and securing the return of the
Golan Heights. In the past, Syria has often seen virulent tension with its neighbors – Tur-
key, Israel, Iraq, and Lebanon. There was an improvement in Syria’s relations with several
of the states in its region in the 21st century, prior to the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil
After the beginning of the civil war in 2011, the large number of killings and human rights
abuses resulted in Syria’s isolation from its neighboring countries and the international
community. The diplomatic ties with Great Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Germany, Tuni-
sia, Egypt, Lebanon, the United States, Belgium, Spain, and the Gulf States were severed.
In terms of the countries in the Arab league, Syria continues to maintain diplomatic
relations with Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan and Yemen. Because of the violence
against civilians in the country, Syria was suspended from the Arab League and the Orga-
nization of Islamic Cooperation in 2012.
Syria continues to foster good relations with her traditional allies Iran, China, Venezuela
and Russia, who are among the few countries which have supported the Syrian govern-
ment in its conflict with the opposition.
Syria considers the Hatay Province of Turkey as part of its own territory.
In 1981, Israel annexed the Golan Heights, and to this day Syria continues to demand the
return of this territory.
The Syrian occupation of Lebanon began in 1976 as a result of the civil war, and ended in
April 2006 in response to domestic and international pressure after the assassination of
former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Syria is included in the European Union’s European Neighborhood Policy which aims to
bring the EU and its neighbors closer.
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The civil war in Syria is a military conflict
that began in March 2011.
Under the influence of the so-called Arab
Spring, protests began in the country,
which in the beginning of 2011 escalated to
armed clashes between protestors and the
Protestors demanded an end to the rule of
Baas’ party and president Bashar al-Assad,
whose family has been ruling Syria since
March 15, 2011 was declared the “Day of
Rage”. Thousands of protestors marched on
the streets of Damascus, Daraa, Hama, and
Deir Ez Zor. In the period between March 18
and May 5, 2011 the anti-government forc-
es sieged the town of Daraa. They began
as students riots, but ended up under the
control of the Islam forces. More and more
people joined the protests, but accidents
increased and the protests escalated into
a Civil War. More and more civilians were
arrested and killed. With the advance of the
military actions, blockades and bombard-
On July 29, the Free Syrian Opposition Army
(FSA) was created; it included members like
deserted soldiers, engineers, farmers, and
criminals. In November, the town of Homs
became a battlefield after the military ac-
On June 5, the Syrian army of Assad’s re-
gime attacked the forces of the opposition
near the town of Latakia with helicopters
and fighter jets.
On July 18, 2012 the Minister of Defense
Dawoud Rajiha, the ex-Military Minister
Hasan Turkmani and the brother-in-law of
the President Asef Shawkat died in a bomb
attack in Damascus. Assad’s army managed
to push back the opposition’s army from
the capital and fell under the control of the
regime. Afterwards the military conflict
moved to the town of Aleppo. The govern-
ment army conquered the western part of
the city, while the FSA governed the eastern
part. In early August, the opposition armies
tried to take over the airport and the city
prison, but were pushed away. In late Sep-
tember, the headquarters of FSA were
transferred from Turkey to the region con-
trolled by the opposition – North Syria.
In what is described by the UN as “the big-
gest humanitarian crisis of our time”, about
9.5 million Syrian citizens (or almost half of
the population) have been forced to leave
their homes since the beginning of the Civil
war. Three million Syrian citizens live out-
side the country as refugees.
CIVIL WAR IN SYRIA
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The flag consists of three stripes – red at the top, white
in the middle and black at the bottom. There are two
green stars on the white area – the symbol of Islam. The
coat of arms is a hawk, the symbol of Mohammed – the
founder of Islam.
FACTS ABOUT SYRIA
Arabic is the official language. Nowadays several Arabic
dialects are spoken - Levantine in the West and Meso-
potamian in the Northeast. The Kurds speak the Kurdish
dialеct Kurmanji. Turkish and Armenian are also spoken
among the minorities.
Aramaic is the ancient language spoken in the region be-
fore the adoption of Arabic. It is still spoken among the
Assyrians. The classical Syriac is still used as the liturgical
language in many Syriac Christian denominations. Many
educated Syrians also speak English and French.
Syria is a Presidential Republic. The president is elected
for a 7 year period. The legislative body is the unicam-
eral National Council, elected for a period of 4 years.
Syria is divided into 14 governorates (muhafazah) and
65 districts (mintaqah).
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FACTS ABOUT SYRIA
Damascus is the capital and the second largest city
of Syria after Aleppo. It is commonly known in Syria
as ash-Sham and nicknamed as the City of Jasmine
(Мadīnat al-Yāsmīn). It is one of the oldest capitals in
the world. Damascus has been inhabited since 9000
B.C. The city has been under the rule of the Egyptian
Pharaohs, Assyria, Persia, the Empire of Alexander the
Great and Bizanteen. During the 7th and 8th centu-
ry, Damascus was the capital of the Caliphate of the
Umayyad Dynasty. In 1260, it came under the power
of Egyptian Mamluks. The period of their reign was fa-
mous for the flourishing of arts and crafts. During the
Ottoman Empire, the city was a district center. From
1920 to 1943, Damascus was an administrative center
of the mandate territory of France–Syria, and after the
proclamation of the country’s independence in 1943 it
became the capital.
The first data about the region of Syria can be found in the
Egyptian annals from the 4th millennium B.C. describing
expeditions to the Amman and Mount Lebanon in search
of cedar, pine and cypress trees. The medieval historian Ibn
Asakir mentions that the first wall built after the worldwide
flood is the Damascus wall, and relates the birth of the city
to the 4th millennium B.C. Around the 22nd century B.C.
the Phoenicians, descendants of the Canaanites, started
to settle down on the Syrian shores. The Phoenicians cre-
ated one of the most significant inventions in history – the
alphabet. The Arameans adopted the 30-letter Phoenician
alphabet in the 14th century B.C. The Greeks began to use
it as well, but they also added vowels (not present in the
77 Profile SYRIA
A fertile, 10-20 km wide lowland, is located to the
West, along the entire Syrian Mediterranean shore. It
is the most important agricultural area in the country
where the largest part of the population lives. The two
most important Syrian ports – Tartus and Al Ladikia
(Lattakia) are also located here.
Lava plateaus and the vast, rocky and sandy Syrian
dessert spread eastward from the inland mountain
ridges, covering more than half of the country’s terri-
tory. To the North, the desert borders the fertile valley
of Efrat – the largest river in the country. The dam
built on the river produces almost 35% of the electric-
ity of Syria.
Syria’s main earnings come from the oil industry
(40%), the agriculture sector (20%) and the textile in-
dustry (20%). Since the beginning of the civil war, the
economy has shrank by 35%, and the country increas-
ingly relies on loans from Iran, Russia and China.
The economy is highly regulated by the government,
which has increased subsidies and tightened control
over trading and restrictions on international trade.
Private banking operations have been permitted since
2001, and two years later three non-government
banking institutions were created.
FACTS ABOUT SYRIA
88 Profile SYRIA
FACTS ABOUT SYRIA
The main religion in Syria is Islam (60% Sunni and 13%
Shia). Islam was born in the lands of what nowadays is
Saudi Arabia. Muslims’ obligations include praying five
times a day – at sunrise, at noon, in the afternoon, at
sunset and in the evening. The exact hour is printed in
the newspapers every day. Friday is the Holy day for
Muslims. During the holy Ramadan, Muslims don’t eat
and drink from dusk till dawn.
The Syrians identify mainly with their religious group or
sect, but the fact that most of the population is Sunni
contributes to the strong feeling of cultural unity. The
contemporary borders of Syria were drawn by France
in the 1920’s, and there is still a strong pro-Arab mood
that extends the national identity beyond the borders
of the country.
The country supplies almost all of its food. The popula-
tion that works in the agriculture has decreased from
50% in 1970 to 23% nowadays, but the production has
increased thanks to the Tabka dam, which provides irri-
gation to farm lands.
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The Umayyad Mosque
The Umayyad Mosque, also known as the Mosque of the Umayyads
or the Great Mosque of Damascus is one of the largest and
oldest mosques in the world. The Umayyad Mosque possess-
es great architectural and cultural-historic value. The great
Mosque of Damascus is where the head of John the Baptist
is kept. He is considered a prophet by Christians and Mus-
lims alike. It is believed that the head was found during
excavations in the mosque. Another reason that makes
the mosque famous is the tomb of Saladin (a Muslim
conqueror of the holy lands) that stands in a small garden
adjoining the north wall of the mosque.
Pope John Paul II visited the mosque in 2001, mainly to bow
to the remains of John the Baptist. This is the first time a Pope
visited a mosque.
Al-Madina Souq, Aleppo
Al-Madina Souq, or the City market, also called the Halan suk, is a
covered market in Aleppo – the largest city in Syria. It is locat-
ed westwards of the castle, known as the Citadel, in the
central part of the Ancient city.
The entire complex of the Ancient City, including the
market and the castle, were included in the UNESCO
World Heritage Sites list in 1986.
With its long and narrow alleys, al-Madina Souq is
the largest covered historic market in the world, with
an approximate length of 13 kilometers. It is the main
trade center of the city. It offers many different prod-
ucts, mainly consumer goods, including luxury goods,
such as raw silk from Iran, spices and dyes from India, and
many others. Al-Madina Souq is also the home of local prod-
ucts, such as wool, agricultural products and soap.
UNIQUE PLACES IN SYRIA
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Syrian cuisine is influenced by the many cultures and civilizations that lived in its territory,
especially during and after the Islamic era. The cuisine is very similar to that of other Arab
countries – Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq.
Syrian cuisine includes dishes like “kibbeh” – a dish made from
bulgur and minced lamb meat; “kebab halabi” – a type
of kebab, served with hot tomato sauce and Hallab
pepper; “waraq nab” (dolma) – rice or bulgur with
minced meat, wrapped in grape leafs or stuffed
into peppers or eggplant; hummus, tabule (sal-
ad from bulgur and parsley); “fattoush” – flat
bread (khubz ‘arabi), covered with salad;
“labneh” – filtered yoghurt; “mujaddara“ –
boiled lentils and rice, covered with fried
onions; “shawarma” – a type of gyros
with chicken, lamb or beef, served with
garnish wrapped in a flat pitta bread.
“Shawarma” is usually consumed with
tabule, tomatoes and cucumbers.
Syrians often serve selections of appe-
tizers, known as mezze, before the main
course. Typical mezzes are pastirma and
sujuk, “shanklish” – well-ripened cow or goat
cheese made into small balls covered with
spices, usually mint; “za`atar” – beef and “man-
aqish” cheese. The Arabic flatbread is always eaten
together with mezze.
Syrians prepare cookies known as “ka`ak” that are consumed
with cheese. They are made from margarine and other ingredients,
shaped in the form of pretzels and baked. Another type of cookies are filled with ground
dates and butter and eaten with “jibbneh mashallale” – cheese made from yeast. The
mixture of spices called “baharat mushakalah” can be found only in Syrian cuisine.
11 Profile SYRIA
BEVERAGES IN SYRIA
Arabic coffee is divided into two types:
Turkish coffee (brewed without sugar, car-
damom can be added or served pure, “qa-
hwah sādah”) and Saudi coffee (beans are
ground and brewed in front of the guests,
cardamom or saffron is added, and it is
served with dates or other candied fruit).
Syrup made from carob, dates, grape mo-
lasses and rose water. Served with crushed
ice and sprinkled with pine nuts and raisins.
Dried leaves of yerba mate, brewed in hot
water. The drink is being served in a special
mate gourd with metal straw, called “ma-
sassa”. The drink is typical of Latin America,
and Syria is the biggest importer of mate in
Other traditional drinks in Syria are tea,
ayran and polo (mint lemonade).
Arak is a high alcoholic drink (40-60 de-
grees) with aniseed aroma. It is usually
diluted with water in 1:3 ratio, in a large
vessel, called “barīq” and then it is poured
in small cups filled with ice. When diluted,
the drink becomes milk white in color. It
is served as an aperitif with appetizer or a
The production and sale of beer in Syria is
controlled by the government.
The sales take place mainly through a chain
of stores of the Syrian Military Social Ser-
vice and via small shops in the Christian
and Muslim quarters. The two main beer
brands are Al-Shark (produced in Aleppo)
and Barada (from Damascus). Imported
beer is sold only in hotels.
Another traditional alcoholic beverage con-
sumed in Syria is wine.
According to Islam, the consumption of
alcohol is prohibited, but not everybody ob-
serves this prohibition.
The consumption of alcohol in Syria is 1.1
liters a year per capita.
The minimum age in Syria for people who
are allowed to buy and consume alcohol is
18 years of age.
There is no prohibition for selling alcohol at
specic hours, places or at specific events.
There is full prohibition in the country for
advertising alcoholic beverages, but spon-
sorship and promotions are allowed.
There are no requirements to have warning
signs about health risks, to be placed on
12 Profile SYRIA
1 January: New Year’s Day
Festivities continue till the
next morning and many
people spend the first of
January resting and visiting
friends and relatives.
8 March: Revolution Day
The successful seizure of
power is celebrated by the
Arabian socialist party Baas
21 March: Mother’s Day
Respect and gratitude to-
wards all mothers and older
women is expressed.
17 April: Evacuation and
The evacuations of the last
French troops is commemo-
rated, the end of the French
mandate in Syria and the
declaration of independence
of Syria on 17 April 1946.
Variable date: Easter
Is celebrated according to
the Julian and Gregorian
Labor and Solidarity Day
This day is an opportunity
for some people to address
demands for better work
conditions. Many others use
the day to rest and meet
with friends and relatives.
6 May: Martyrs’ Day
Commemoration of the Syri-
ans executed in Damascus in
1916 by Jamal Pasha. Today
the square where they were
executed carries the name
“Martyrs’ Square”. The day is
celebrated by laying flowers
and wreaths on the Tomb
of the Unknown Soldier in
Summer or autumn:
People visit their relatives
and pay tribute to the el-
1 August: Armed Forces Day
The establishment of the
Syrian armed forces is cele-
Autumn or winter:
Sacrificial rite is made on
this day, people visit rela-
tives and poor people re-
October Liberation War
The beginning of the Yom
Kippur war in 1973 is cele-
brated, during which Syria
and Egypt attack Israel. As a
result of this war, Syria loses
the Golan Heights.
13 Profile SYRIA
Syria is a traditional society with a long cultural history. Family, religion,
education, self-discipline and respect are very important forlocal people. The
Syrian love for traditional art can be expressed through dances like al-Samah
and Dabkeh. Marriage ceremonies are occasions for demonstration of folk
PEOPLE IN SYRIA
Men and women gather and socialize sep-
arately, except for special occasions where
the entire family should be present.
Syrians spend most of their spare time in
conversations, and the art of conversing is
a highly appreciated skill. Men often make
jokes among themselves by addressing
each other with witty and smart insults.
During social interactions people stay
close to each other, talk in a loud voice
and gesticulate a lot.
Greetings have an enormous social signif-
icance. They are often long and include
questions, related to health. Greetings are
usually accompanied with a handshake
and sometimes with a hug and a kiss on
Placing your right hand on the heart,
when you meet someone is an expression
Syrians are very emotional people. Men
often walk shoulder to shoulder or hold-
ing hands. Hugs and kisses on the cheek
are typical between men, as well as be-
tween women. Close physical contact in
public places is typical between people of
the same sex, rather than between hus-
band and wife.
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According to the Muslim traditions, marriages are arranged by the families of the couple.
Although there is a certain amount of leniency in observing this tradition, especially in the
big cities and among richer people, it is still very rare for a couple to get married against
the will of the family. According to the constitution of the country, the state has the ob-
ligation to protect and encourage marriage. However, the number of marriages reduces
due to the lack of homes, inflation, better education, high dowries and the high prices of
Although both the state and the Muslim religion oppose the existing tradition of paying a
dowry, this tradition is deeply rooted in Syria. It places a lot of pressure on the husband
and his family who have to gather a big amount of money, but also on the wife who is
forced to marry the candidate that is able to pay the most.
Syria is the first country that introduced laws related to polygamy. In 1953 the country
adopted the Law of Personal Status, according to which the man has to prove that he has
enough financial resources to sustain two women in order to receive permission to take a
In the past, the laws observed the Arab tradition, according to which the man had only to
pronounce three times “I divorce you” (no matter whether his wife was present or not) to
be divorced, but today divorce is given only with the court’s decision.
The family is the main social unit in Syria. The oldest man in the family, usually the father
or grandfather, has full authority and holds responsibility for the sustenance of the oth-
er members of the family. Usually a couple of generations live together in one home. In
some village areas, where women are still not allowed to leave home, the family is the
only social outlet and a source of socializing with other people.
FAMILY IN SYRIA
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Class and caste
Traditionally, Syrian society is strongly strat-
ified. People of different class rarely have
social contact with each other. People from
the lower class are usually humble and ac-
cept their social standing.
Classes usually coincide with racial differ-
ences, and people with lighter skin color
hold higher political and economic posi-
The families of landowners and merchants
have once held traditionally higher social
and political positions. They have usually
lived in Damascus and Aleppo and man-
aged their lands from distance. Religious
teachers, called “ulama” have also been
very influential. They have been judges,
teachers, political people and government
advisors. In these roles, they have usually
protected the existing traditions. Artisans,
shopkeepers and a small working class lived
in the cities.
The Baath government introduced changes
to this model. Some villagers have moved
to live in the cities and joined the middle
class; others own their own land today. But
still there are many landless villagers. Af-
ter the seizure of power by Baath, officers
who participated in the coup d’état inherit
the landowners and become the new elite
of the country. Due to the development of
education, the middle class has expanded.
Symbols of social stratification
Rich and educated people have a very mod-
ern way of life, typical of the West. Every-
body, except the poorest people, have a TV
and radio, but only the richest can afford
air-conditioners, dishwashers and micro-
Clothing is the other indicator of social
class. Different tribes and villages wear
clothes with distinctive patterns and colors.
Men usually wear long togas, called kaf-
tans, while women wear long gowns which
reveal only their palms and feet. Both men
and women cover their heads. The edu-
cated high class prefers the western style
of dressing – women wear bright colors,
jewelry, make-up and high heels, and men
wear stylish trousers and shirts. Jeans and
T-shirts are rare, as well as short trousers
and skirts and clothes with bare shoulders.
Traditionally, when women from a certain
family wear long gowns and have their fac-
es veiled, it is a symbol of wealth and high
16 Profile SYRIA
MEN AND WOMEN IN SYRIA
In small towns, women traditionally take care of the
household and rarely leave their home. In villages,
women not only take care of the household, but also
help with the field work.
Despite the fact that women are officially allowed to
work outside their home, they often meet serious ob-
stacles. For example, the government department on
moral issues investigates each woman before allowing
her to take a state position. Less than 11% of women
of working age work outside their homes. 80% of them
work in the field of agriculture.
The rest of the women work in the textile and tobacco
industries, and only 1% hold administrative or mana-
gerial positions. There are only a few women in state
positions in the government, while in the capital some
women work in hardware or electrical stores. Many
women also do domestic work.
Comparative status of men and women
The Baath party is one of the first in the Arab world to
declare that among one of its main goals is women’s
emancipation and equality between men and women.
According to the constitution, adopted in 1964, all citi-
zens of Syria have equal rights. Today women are enti-
tled to the same education as men, and they also have
the right to work on equal terms with men. However,
the traditional and prevailing view is that women are
inferior to men. The woman is considered property of
the man and not a separate person. Until the marriage,
a woman is viewed as the daughter of the father, and
after she gives birth to a son, she is viewed as a wife
and a mother.
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RULES AND RESTRICTIONS
• Shake hands when meetings someone or
• When meeting a Syrian, always ask about
• Kissing the hand and raising the fingers
of the right hand towards the mouth is an
expression of respect.
Follow the host’s example – if he takes off
his shoes before entering his home, do the
same. If you have been invited to some-
body’s home, bring a small gift (but do
not bring alcohol or art objects depicting
people). A suitable gift could be pastry or
Do not enquire about the host’s wife. If
you meet her, shake hands with her, but
only if she reaches out her hand first. Keep
to non-formal conversation – do not talk
about business during a social meeting with
a business partner.
Refrain from making compliments about a
specific decorative object in the home of
your host, otherwise he might feel obliged
to give it to you as a gift.
If you are invited to sit on the floor, sit with
At the table
Never touch the food before the host has
said “Bismillah” and invited you to take
Eat only with your right hand and never
pass food with your left hand – it is consid-
ered to be dirty.
Never cut the traditional Syrian bread with
a knife, break off a piece of bread with your
Do not overextend your visit. The third cup
of tea or coffee is usually considered an
invitation to leave.
Do not expect stores, offices and markets
to be open on Friday, the holy day of the
Muslims (the work week is from Saturday
It is normal for merchants to offer you
coffee or cigarettes. Do not refuse. Do not
leave your coffee half drunk.
If you are offered a second or third cup,
accept it. However, accepting a fourth cup
of coffee is considered inappropriate.
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If you are a woman and you are riding in a
taxi alone, sit on the back seat, diagonally
from the driver.
Do not point at people, this is considered to
When sitting, do not keep your legs crossed
in front of someone older than you – it is
Shaking your head from left to right means
“I don’t understand”.
Shaking your head up and down, accompa-
nied with “tz” means “no”.
Nodding your head downwards means
Women are allowed to wear short
sleeves in tourist places and in the
centres of big cities.
In village areas, when visiting
places with religious significance,
sleeves should cover at least the
It is recommended to cover your head
when visiting Islamic or Orthodox religious
sites, as well as when you don’t want to at-
tract too much attention. Also avoid wear-
ing short trousers when visiting religious
In bigger cities and places visited by tourists
you can wear clothes typical for the West. It
is completely acceptable to wear jeans and
a T-shirt in Damascus.
In remote rural areas and the Muslim quar-
ters it is better to wear more conservative
clothing – long trousers and a shirt with
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