WASHINGTON, September 10, 2013 — Thanks to the round-the-clock media watch over President Obama’s potential strike on Syria, most Americans now know Bashar al-Assad is the ruler of the country, that he has chemical weapons, that there is an al-Qaeda presence in the rebel group, and that it is mired in a civil war.
So what else is there to know about Syria?
1. Syria is an ancient country. Archeologists estimate that the city of Ebla, near Aleppo in northern Syria, was founded in approximately 3000 BC. Professor Paolo Matthiae of Rome University and his team of archeologists have discovered more than 15,000 tablets at the site, which are some of the earliest recorded writings, and date from approximately 2300 BC. The oldest standing city in Syria is Lattakia. Records show it was built in approximately 440 BC. Some of Syria’s current-day roads were built more than 4,000 years ago.
2. One of the most common foods in Syria is Kibbeh. Kibbeh is an appetizer, eaten both with meals and as snacks. The main ingredients are ground meat, usually lamb, bulgur, onions and some combination of spices, but every region and family has its own adaptation of the dish. Spices usually include cumin and allspice, but often also include pine nuts, almonds or other additives. In Aleppo, they frequently add pomegranate seeds or cherries to the dish. Kibbeh is sometimes fried or baked, but is generally served raw.
3. One of the most popular festivals in Syria is the Traditional Festival in Palmyra, which usually takes place in May. Also called the Desert Festival, it is a showcase of traditional desert culture, and centers around camel races. According to the Syrian Bureau of Tourism, the festival is important throughout the desert region and pits the “top camels” from different countries against each other for prize money of up to $5,000 per race. Historically, children rode the camels, but the practice was halted after complaints by human rights groups. Now stuffed dummies “ride” the camels and owners run behind them and urge them to run.
4. Syria was previously a French colony. Their national holiday, Evacuation Day, is April 17, and celebrates the day the last French soldier left the country. As a result of the French occupation, most Syrians speak both Arabic and French. They also generally speak English. The form of Arabic Syrian’s speak is called Levantine Arabic. The most common greeting in Syria is “Al Salamu Aleykom,” which loosely translates to mean “peace be with you.” The common reply to this greeting is “Wa Alaykom el Salaam,” which loosely translates to “And peace be upon you, too.”
5. Alawites, a minority Islamic sect, are centered in Syria. Approximately 17 percent of the population identifies as Alawite, according to the CIA World Factbook. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom explains that Alawites are a secretive, mystical Islamic sect often reviled by other Muslim groups. In the 14th century, for example, Sunni scholar Ibn Taymiyya authorized a jihad against Alawites, who he called, “more infidel than Jews and Christians, even more infidel than many polytheists.”
Alawite beliefs are not well known, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and most religious rites are performed in secret. However, the focus in Alawite belief is to attempt to find hidden meanings/messages in regular Islamic teachings, such as the Quran. This focus on hidden meanings is one of the bases for their understanding of worship. One of the beliefs unique to the Alawites is the belief in reincarnation, and it is something that mainstream Shias and Sunnis reject.
Women are not allowed to learn the details of the religion, and only a very few men are invited to the inner workings of the religious details. Alawites follow the Shiite interpretation of the lineage of Mohammed, that the only true heir or “imam” was his son-in-law Ali bin Abu Talib. Additionally, Alawites generally do not prohibit drinking alcohol. Moreover, Alawites celebrate Christmas, venerate Adam and see Jesus Christ as a prophet.
This article was compiled from a variety of sources, including the CIA factbook, Institute for Creation Research, reporting form the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Syria Bureau of Tourism, general history sites, National Geographic, Fine Cooking, personal knowledge and personal interviews. No single source was used in writing this article.
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