It is believed the name Syria comes from the Ancient Greek, Seirios, meaning, “sun-bright, glowing, blazing, and shining.” In Latin “Sirius” was used to indicate people from Syria and also for the brightest star in the night sky. Officially today, it is known as the Syrian Arab Republic.
Where is Syria located?
Syria is a middle eastern country and part of southwestern Asia. It lies on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Its area includes territory in the Golan Heights, which has been occupied by Israel since 1967. Its neighbors are Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon to the south and west. The capital city is Damascus.
A brief history of Syria
Syria is thought to be one of the original and oldest civilizations on earth and believed to be part of the Fertile Crescent, where the earliest people practiced cattle breeding and agriculture. Archeologists have uncovered skulls and bones of Neanderthals that date back roughly 700,000 years. Historically, the name Syria, referred to a much wider region than its borders of today. It was known as al-Sham in Arabic, which included: Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and much of Turkey and of course modern day Syria.
Ebla, a city is Syria, is one of the oldest settlements to be excavated and dates back to around 3000 BC. Throughout ancient times, Syria was occupied and ruled by several empires, including the Egyptians, Hittites, Sumerians, Mitanni, Assyrians, Babylonian, Canaanites, Phoenicians, Arameans, Amorites, Persians, Greeks and Romans.
Ancient Syria was a region often referred to in the bible. Probably the most well-known account is when the apostle Paul cited “The Road to Damascus,” where his visions led to his conversion to Christianity. When the Roman Empire fell, Syria became part of the Byzantine Empire. In 637 A.D., Muslim armies defeated the empire and took control of Syria. Damascus became the capital of the Islamic world. Then, around 750 A.D., it was replaced by Baghdad, in Iraq.
In 1516 the Ottoman Empire conquered Syria and remained in power for just shy of 400 years. During World War I, the French and British agreed to divide the Ottoman Empire into zones. In 1918, British and Arab forces took Damascus and Aleppo. The French took control of modern-day Syria and Lebanon in 1920, ending the Ottomans’ rule.
After World War II, Syria officially became independent, in 1946. Unfortunately, the years following, she suffered instability and repeated coups. For a brief time, in 1958, Syria joined with Egypt and became the United Arab Republic, but that was short lived, ending in 1961.
It was 1963 when the Arab Socialist Baath Party seized power in a coup known as the Baath Revolution. Syria lost its territory known as Golan Heights, during the Six Day War with Israel in 1967, a conflict which remains over the area to this day.
In 1970, Hafez al-Assad overthrew the de-facto leader of Syria and remained in power as President until his death in 2000. Many hostilities and conflicts erupted throughout the years with Lebanon and Israel. When Hafez died in 2000, his son Bashar became president, after amending the constitution. He was only 34 at the time, not 40, as was required. There was hope that Bashar would grant more freedom and be less oppressive than his father. However, human rights groups have reported that Bashar has regularly tortured, imprisoned and killed political adversaries throughout his tenure.
In March of 2011, a group of teens and children were arrested and tortured for writing anti-government graffiti that was inspired by the Arab Spring Rebellion. Protests erupted and became widespread and are considered to be the beginning of Syria’s horrific civil war, which remains ongoing today.
The Civil war in Syria is complicated with many moving parts. Assad began fighting the rebels, ISIS joined the fight against the regime, the United States backed the rebels to some degree, however, that in turn put them on the same side as ISIS. Russia was involved as well and was supposed to ensure that Syria no longer had chemical weapons, which were used on their own people. The numbers are not certain, but hundreds of thousands of Syrians are dead and millions have been displaced or are refugees in neighboring countries and Europe. Syria remains a humanitarian disaster in a civil war today.
Syria, with such a long cultural history, is a traditional society. Family, religion, education, self-discipline and respect are the characteristics they cherish. The majority of Syria is Sunni Muslim, about 74%, with 13% being Shi’a. Christians make up about ten per cent, with the remaining being Druze, Jews and atheists. Syria has a history of religious tolerance with cities featuring Jewish synagogues, Christian churches and some of the world’s oldest and most sacred mosques.
The majority of Syrians are ethnically Arabs, and the official language is Arabic. Kurds and Armenians make up the balance, as do their respective languages. French and English are taught in schools. The literacy rate in Syria was 81%, prior to the conflict.
Syria, being part of antiquity, has many historical treasures and entire ancient cities are part of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There has been much anguish during this most recent civil war as many of these treasures have been damaged or destroyed. Diaspora women are taking the lead to try to preserve as much as possible of this most important part of their heritage.
In peaceful times, Syria is known for its festivals, like the Silk Road Festival, which harkens back to the days when Syria was an important trade route between the East and the West. Both Muslim and Christian holidays are recognized. Dance, music, literature, poetry and architecture all have important roots and history in Syria. One of the most popular dances in Syria is the Dabkeh; a folk dance performed at weddings and other joyous occasions. Another popular dance is the Arada, a dance performed with swords.
Syrian cuisine, like its culture, has a rich and ancient history. Many of the dishes are shared with its neighbors. Having gone through various conquests by the Arabs, Persians and Ottoman Turks, the traditional food in Syria is similar to other cuisines like the Levant, Lebanese and Middle-Eastern cuisines. It is, however, known for some important spices like, the Aleppo pepper, which is indigenous there.
Kibbeh Bil Sanieh is considered to be the national dish and is made with bulgur and lamb. Stuffed vegetables, with meat, nuts and rice, come in all kinds of forms, from grape leaves to peppers. Kebabs or grilled meats, are also a popular Syrian dish. Nuts, like walnuts, pine nuts and pistachios are used in many of their dips and sweet treats. Eggplant, zucchini, cabbage, tomatoes and cucumbers are popular vegetables. Many of their dishes are served with a yogurt dip.
Syria is also known for appetizers called mezze. These small dishes are served with Arabic bread before the main course and then followed by coffee and sweet treats. Fruits, like pomegranate, and citrus, are also very popular.
So let’s enjoy a Syrian meal:
We set the scene with the colors of the flag; red, black white and green. We decorated with pomegranate and citrus, as well as cotton and wheat, as they are important crops to Syria. Olives were placed to represent the most ancient agricultural product in Syria. Jasmine, which is the national flower, was placed. (Damascus, the capital city, is also known as the “City of Jasmine.”)
We began with a popular mezze dish, called muhammara. A spicy red pepper dip was made with Aleppo pepper, walnuts, lemon juice and my favorite, pomegranate molasses. This complex dip is spectacular and we savored it on freshly made Syrian pita bread.
For the main course, we loved the national dish called, Kibbeh Bil Sanieh. This is a true comfort dish, somewhat similar to a meatloaf but with a much more delicious flavor. We thoroughly enjoyed this lamb dish alongside a simple yogurt sauce.
For dessert, we devoured the regional dessert made famous in the small town of Nabak, not far from Damascus on the way to Aleppo, that is known for its h’risseh. The name for this delicious semolina nut cake might be a bit confusing, as it also describes a Lebanese savory dish. However, in Syria there is no mistaking the name. We enjoyed every bite of this sweet, nut covered cake alongside a cup of coffee which, would be traditional there.
As we say goodbye to Syria I do so with a prayer that this nation will end its bloody civil war and somehow find its way to peace. I am thrilled that my nephew has fallen in love with a beautiful Syrian woman named Rana, who will soon become part of my extended family. I can’t wait to cook many more Syrian dishes with her.
Until next time,