History & Background
Geography & Population: The Syrian Arab Republic, commonly known as Syria, is a Middle Eastern country located at the east end of the Mediterranean Sea. The country was formerly known, with Egypt, as the United Arab Republic. It is known locally as Al Jumhuriyah al Arabiyah as Suriyah; the shortened form of this name is Suriyah. Syria is bordered on the north by Turkey, on the east by Iraq, on the south by Jordan and Israel, and on the west by Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea. In 2001 the total land area of 184,050 square kilometers included 1,295 square kilometers of Israeli-occupied territory.
Geographically, Syria can be divided into four regions. A narrow fertile coastal plain runs along the Mediterranean border and extends inland to a narrow range of mountains and hills. The coastal climate is moderate with hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters; the average annual rainfall is this area is between 30 and 40 inches. The mountainous region runs from north to south, parallel to the Mediterranean Sea. The interior semiarid plains region is found to the east of the mountains. Much of the southeastern part of Syria is desert region that extends to the borders of Jordan and Iraq; most of the desert is a rock and gravel plateau that receives less than four inches of rain annually and is extremely hot.
Until the 1960s and 1970s, Syria was primarily an agricultural country. Because much of the country is semiarid and desert, only 28 percent of the land is arable land, and much of the farmed land must be irrigated. Since 1974, oil has become Syria's most important source of revenue and its greatest export. Pipelines from Iraq and Jordan cross Syria, and there is a pipeline to the coast as well. Forty percent of the labor force works in agricultural areas, 40 percent in service areas, and 20 percent in industrial areas.
The population of Syria is approximately 16.3 million, of which 90.3 percent are Arab; Kurds, Armenians, and nomadic groups make up the remaining 9.7 percent. The annual population growth rate was estimated at 2.58 percent at the turn of the century, with 41 percent of the population 14 years of age or younger, 56 percent between 15 and 64, and 3 percent aged 65 and older. Educational facilities have expanded since the mid-1960s, but illiteracy is still widespread among older Syrians living in rural areas and among women. In 2000, Syria's literacy rate was 70.8 percent. More males were literate (85.7 percent) than females (55.8 percent).
Although 90 percent of all Syrians are Muslims, they belong to different sects. Approximately 74 percent are Sunnites, and another 16 percent are members of Alawite, Druze, and other Muslim sects. The non-Muslim population is largely Christian; the largest group is Greek Orthodox, but there are also Armenian Catholics, Maronites, Armenian Orthodox, and Syrian Orthodox. There are small Jewish communities in Damascus, Al Qamishli, and Aleppo. The country's legal system is based on Islamic law and civil law system, and there are special religious courts.
Arabic is Syria's official language and is spoken by of 85 to 90 percent of its people. Kurdish is the largest linguistic minority (11 percent), but Armenian, Aramaic, and Circassian are also widely understood. The older citizens often speak French, and English is widely understood and spoken among the younger and middle-aged groups. Most Arabic speakers are bilingual, so there are few communication problems resulting from language differences.
Historical Evolution: Three geographical factors have influenced Syria's history: its location on the trade and military routes, its varied topography, and the encroaching desert. Although the modern Syrian state was not established until after World War I, Syria has been inhabited by various powers since ancient times. The Amorites, coming in 2100 B.C. from the Arabian Peninsula, were the first important Semitic people to settle in the region and establish many small states. From the fifteenth to thirteenth century B.C., the area was probably part of the Hittites' empire. The Phoenicians established trading settlements along the coast sometime after 1250 B.C. From the eleventh to the sixth century B.C., Syria was invaded and intermittently controlled by Assyrians. Babylonian conquerors periodically held parts of the land, and even Egypt tried to reestablish positions in Syria. Alexander the Great conquered Syria between 333 and 331 B.C. His empire was conquered a short time later by the kings of Syria, the Seleucids, who founded cities and military colonies. In 63 B.C. the area was incorporated into the Roman Empire. Following the decline and collapse of the empire in the fourth century, Syria became part of the Byzantine Empire and remained so for almost 250 years.
The most important and lasting conquest took place in A.D. 636, when Muslim Arabs took over the region. During the following century, most Syrians converted to Islam, and the culture of the area became distinctly Arab. By the late eleventh century, the Crusades led to the incorporation of part of Syria into the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem. When the Seijuk Turks captured the area at the end of the twelfth century, Jerusalem was overthrown. In the mid-thirteenth century, Mongols under Hulagu Khan invaded Syria, destroying and sacking major cities and massacring tens of thousands of inhabitants.
The Ottoman Turks incorporated the region into their empire in 1516, and it remained in their possession for the next four centuries. Rulers established military and civilian schools; missionary and foreign schools were also established during these years, but most of the population attended the Islamic schools. In the late eighteenth century, the European powers began to have an increasing interest in Syrian affairs: the British were friends of the Druze, the Russians protected the Orthodox Christians, and the French became allies of the Roman Catholics. Growing Arab nationalism and opposition to Turkish control led to a British-supported rebellion prior to World War I.
The efforts to form an independent state were thwarted, however, when in 1922 the League of Nations made Syria part of the territory controlled by France and drew the geographical boundaries that have defined Syria into the twenty-first century. In an effort to maintain control, the French limited changes in the educational system as they tried to impose their own culture and language. The public education system was administered and controlled by French officials, who patterned the schools and the subjects taught after those in their homeland. As a result, the curricula did not consider the local traditions and customs. Many individuals chose not to attend these schools. Those who could afford private, foreign, or missionary schools often sent their children to these rather than the French public schools.
Following many years of political disturbances and uprisings, in September 1941 the French proclaimed the creation of an independent Syrian republic. In 1945 Syria became a charter member of the United Nations, and on April 17, 1946, Syria was proclaimed an independent country. The new state established an educational system that would provide needed manpower and include instruction that maintained local traditions and customs.
Much of Syria's post World War II history has been turbulent. Between 1949 and 1963 there were several military coups and frequent changes in government. In 1958 Syria and Egypt merged to form the United Arab Republic, but the agreement dissolved in 1961. In 1963 the Ba'ath Socialist Party came to power by military coup and the country began to stabilize. Another coup took place in 1970, and Hafez al-Assad, then Defense Minister, became president; he remained president until his death in 2000 when his son, Dr. Bashar al-Assad, became president. During the 1990s, Syria began working to improve diplomatic ties with the West and with the Arab world.
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