The Way Syria Was

Published September 11, 2016
Updated February 12, 2018

Syria has been engaged in a devastating civil war for over five years, rendering much of the country unrecognizable. Here's what it looked like before -- and why that changed.

[The Stream Of Barada, Damascus, Holy Land, (i.e. Syria)]
Coffee Garden
Interior Greek Church
Music School, Syria
The Way Syria Was
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In March 2016, the U.S. Department of State updated its travel advisory for Syria. As the Syrian civil war drags on and the incidence of kidnappings, bombings, murder, and terrorism remains high, the Department of State advised “U.S. citizens against all travel to Syria” and that “U.S. citizens remaining in Syria depart immediately.”

Dire enough in its own right, the Department of State’s warning becomes that much more dramatic when held against the country’s past. As recently as 2010, tourism comprised 14 percent of the Syrian economy, bringing in around $8.4 billion in that year alone.

It’s easy to see why: Some of the oldest, most historically significant cities in western Asia can be found in Syria.

For centuries, Aleppo’s proximity to the legendary Silk Roads rendered it one of the region’s most robust sites of economic and cultural exchange. That truth manifests itself in the city’s very design and architecture: Christian cathedrals, expansive mosques and one of the world’s largest covered bazaars blend together and reflect the country’s rich, diverse heritage.

Damascus, the Syrian capital, likewise embodies millennia of economic and cultural wealth. As one of the world’s oldest continually-inhabited cities (UNESCO says it has been inhabited since as early as 8,000 BC), its architecture reflects the array of cultures — Romans, Umayyads, Byzantines, among others — who built it.

For a time, foreign policy expert William R. Polk writes, this pluralism worked:

Throughout its centuries of rule, the Ottoman Empire generally was content to have its subjects live by their own codes of behavior. It did not have the means or the incentive to intrude into their daily lives. Muslims, whether Turk or Arab or Kurd, shared with the imperial government Islamic mores and law. Other ethnic/religious 'nations' were self-governing except in military and foreign affairs.

…Whether in enclaves or in neighborhoods, each non-Muslim community dressed according to its custom, spoke its own languages, and lived according to its unique cultural pattern; it appointed or elected its own officials, who divided the taxes it owed to the empire, ran its schools, and provided such health facilities and social welfare as it thought proper or could afford. Since this system was spelled out in the Quran and the Traditions (Hadiths) of the Prophet, respecting it was legally obligatory for Muslims. Consequently, when the Syrian state took shape, it inherited a rich, diverse, and tolerant social tradition.

But after Syrians shorn themselves of French rule (taking the place of the Ottomans after World War I) in 1946, Polk writes that in a quest for national identity, this diversity would help sow the seeds for future conflict.

Syria Before War

LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty ImagesUndated picture shows Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and his wife Anisseh posing for a family picture with his children (left to right) Maher, Bashar, Bassel (who died in a car accident in 1994), Majd, and Bushra.

Indeed, the first Assad regime began in 1970, with Hafez al-Assad identifying as an Alawi Muslim — which Orthodox Muslims viewed to be heretical. Assad had joined the secular, pan-Arabist Baathist party early in his military career, which Polk writes “seemed to offer the means to overcome his origins in a minority community and to point toward a solution to the disunity of Syrian politics.”

It didn’t. Assad’s authoritarian leanings — particularly his order that Alawis be considered Shia Muslims, not heretics — inspired the sustained ire of the Muslim Brotherhood, who would carry out organized terrorist attacks on the government and Assad’s inner circle, eventually culminating in a devastating revolt in Hama, not unlike what has transpired in the 21st century.

While Bashar al-Assad, Hafez’s son, would attempt to placate many of these opponents upon assuming office in 2000, Polk writes that he too exhibited authoritarian tendencies, once quoted as saying, “Run your own lives privately and enrich yourselves as you wish, but do not challenge my government.”

When coupled with a four-year drought that United Nations experts say reduced millions to extreme poverty and pushed populations into Syrian cities, the continuation of Assad-style authoritarianism and sectarian divisions would soon culminate in civil war.

Indeed, that spark struck on March 15, 2011, when “a relatively small group gathered in the southwestern town of Daraa to protest against government failure to help them.”

Assad ordered a crackdown, which quickly catalyzed armed opposition among disparate groups, leading to the civil war that continues to be fought today.

Next, see some of the most incredible photos of the Syrian civil war. Then, have a surprising look at just how different Afghanistan was in the 1960s and what life was like in Iran before Islamic fundamentalism.

All That's Interesting
Established in 2010, All That's Interesting brings together a dedicated staff of digital publishing veterans and subject-level experts in history, true crime, and science. From the lesser-known byways of human history to the uncharted corners of the world, we seek out stories that bring our past, present, and future to life. Privately-owned since its founding, All That's Interesting maintains a commitment to unbiased reporting while taking great care in fact-checking and research to ensure that we meet the highest standards of accuracy.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.