A Brief History of Syria
October 31, 2013 § 1 Comment
Soho Theatre, September 29th, Dan Snow
The theatre went dark; Dan Snow was announced, but no one arrived. There was nervous laughter, a ripple of anticipation – then on he comes, tall, open shirt. Very causal. A slight “there’s a rock star in the house” feel descends, particularly when Dan begins by telling us that he’s just come back from the Congo. He likes dangerous places, it seems. We didn’t mind though. Actually, we approved.
He was pretty good. Lots of information. Here are a few bits and pieces. (Huge apologies if any of this is incorrect. I was writing in the dark and he covered about 10,000 years and said quite a few words I couldn’t spell.)
- On medieval maps of the world, before Columbus, Syria is slap bang in the middle. It was the nexus of ancient history, on the route not just for trade but for ideas and language. The first complex civilisation was established there about 10,000 years ago. Damascus and Aleppo are probably the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
- Conquerer upon conquerer arrived – Egyptians, Mongols, Alexandra the Great, the Romans, French and British. The physical geography of the country changed along with each new invader.
- Khālid ibn al-Walīd, known as the Sword of Allah, (592–642), is “perhaps the best general we’ve never heard of.” He won over 100 battles and was key in spreading Islam.
- The Ottomans created a Sunni manorial-type of aristocracy, but this was starting to crumble by the early 20th Century. As shipping routes improved, the old silk route through Syria was abandoned.
- The majority of the world’s Muslims are Sunni and so it is in Syria, where about 75% of the Muslim population are Sunni. The remainder are Shia. Assad is part of the Shia minority. In addition, he is an Alawite – a minority within a minority. (Good bit on what this means across the region here.)
- After World War I, the Sykes-Picot Agreement carved up the Middle East into spheres of influence. Between us, the British and French created eight states, with new borders. The French claimed Syria because, they argued, they had played such a large part in the Crusades. Under French rule, the Alawite minority was favoured and promoted – divide and rule type of thing. Assad’s father benefited.
- After Word War II, Syria was granted independence. However, the new state struggled. Intellectuals were put in charge but there weren’t many of them. Under the French, pre-World War II, only 350 Syrians were in higher education (not sure when and where but it seems like a good stat). In addition, the French charged the newly independent Syria 50 million Syrian pounds – the cost of their occupation.
- Ater the creation of Israel, Syria embarked on a series of disasterous wars. Most Syrians regarded the Golan Heights and other parts of Israel as being Syrian territory.
- In general, Alawites (about 12% of the population) are more left wing than the conservative Sunni majority. In addition, Assad has been very secular. He married in a civil ceremony, for example. But that doesn’t make him the good guy.
- In 1982, Assad’s brother, General Rifaat al-Assad, led the Hama massacre, when the Syrian army besieged the town of Hama for 27 days and ultimately crushed an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood. It is estimated that 20,000 people were killed.
- Before the current civil war, the Syrian population had grown by one third in the last 10 years. Unemployment was high and schools were running double-shifts to cope. Oil is running out and at the end of the 2000s, there were a series of droughts. Prices were also increasing. In addition, as markets have been liberalised, a small number of the ruling regime have become very rich. For example, one of Assad’s cousins owns two large mobile phone companies and all the duty free shops.
- The civil war was triggered when the police beat up a market trader.
- And, to make a link back to my write up about infectious diseases, the WHO have just confirmed the first cases of polio in Syria for 14 years. (Thanks to my friend, Liz, for prompting that thought.) Not good. Really, not good.