Syria

In the Bible and History

Today's Syria is just a portion of the area known as Greater Syria throughout history.  It is found many times in the Bible (Damascus is mentioned 67 times) and references to such places as Philadelphia (today's Amman) and the Decapolis are references to famous Roman cities in Greater Syria.  The first alphabet was invented there as well as the manufacturing of bronze.

In the New Testament, the road to Damascus was the place of Paul's conversion (Acts 9) and Antioch was the city in which the disciples were first called Christians.  (Acts 11:26) Paul and Barnabas taught there for a year and many early churches were founded in that area.  Aramean, the language Jesus spoke, is still spoken in some cities and Syria has a number of villages which are 100% Christian.

A number of our present Eastern denominations began in Syria, including the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Maronites.  (Syriac is a dialect related to Aramean and is still used in liturgies and spoken by a few Christian groups.)  The northern part of Syria holds the remains of many Byzantine churches and monasteries.  Several Patriarchates were located in Antioch but moved to Damascus even when keeping the word "Antioch" in their names.  Antioch is now in Turkey although it is a contested area and some maps show it in Syria.

During the Crusades, castles and forts were built one day's journey from each other in order to re-establish a pilgrimage route and protect the Crusaders.  Some are still there.  It was a part of the Ottoman Empire for many years and refugees from the Turks (Armenians and Kurds especially) fled to the area. 

After World War I the French were given the Mandate by the League of Nations to oversee what became Syria and Lebanon.  Present day Syria became independent in 1946, but it still remains closely related to Lebanon, which was part of its territory until that time.

Christianity Today

There are at least 1 million Christians in Syria today.  The secular ideology of the Syrian Ba'ath party dominates and Christians practice their faith without prejudice.  The government provides churches as well as mosques with electricity and water and all religious groups have the same guarantees.  The only religious stipulation is that the president must be a Muslim.  Relations between church leaders and Muslim leaders are good.

Special Sites to Visit

Aleppo.  Syria's openness to Christianity has meant that those who experienced religious persecution in other countries have often moved here.  Aleppo, for example, is a center of Armenian life for refugees from Turkey. There are covered souks in the Old City and a famous citadel.

Damascus.  The Old City is surrounded by a wall, begun in the Roman era and rebuilt many times.  Inside is the Street called Straight where Paul went after his experiences on the road to Damascus.  The Umayyad Mosque has outstanding mosaics and you are welcome to visit except during Friday prayers.  Several important patriarchates are located in this city and there are some sites connected with Paul but the latter are not unusual.

Krak des Chevaliers. Built in several phases, the castle/fortress is one of the greatest of all crusader buildings.  Its various phases were in response to earthquakes damage but its sheer size and location on top of a hill commanding miles of countryside make it outstanding.  Nearby is the St. George Monastery of Homeyra, built in the 6th century and many villages, entirely Christian.

Maloula - Church of St. Thecla  The residents of this village still speak Aramaic.  The monastery is worth a visit along with the opportunity to hear the language.

Church of St. Simeon (Qala'at Samaan) is a ruin but it was the largest Christian building in the Middle East in the 4th century.  

Palmyra (Tadmor)Palmyra is not a religious site but a visit will afford you a chance to experiences the desert.  Its flat hard surface is the desert which people of the bible experienced rather than the sandy dunes of the Sahara.  The extent of the ruins and their antiquity gives one pause.

Built at an oasis, it was a caravan staging post on the Silk Road to the East and to Europe in the West. In 226 Queen Zenobia established an independent empire with Palmyra as its capital for 14 years before the Romans retook the city.  What you see are the extensive remains of a wealthy Hellenistic city undisturbed for over 1700 years.

For more Information

Ministry of Tourism
Damascus
Tel: +963-11-2210122; Fax: +963-11-2242636;
website: www.syriatourism.org

Embassy to the USA
2215 Wyoming Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20008
Tel. 202-232-6313

Embassy to the UK
8 Belgrave Square
London SW1 8PH

Notes From Personal Visits

Despite the U.S. State Department warnings, Syria is a friendly place to visit.
If you go near Hama, stop in and see the large water wheels.
You will need to get a visa ahead of time and you cannot enter Syria if you have any Israeli visa in your passport or tickets or anything else that indicates you will be or have been in Israel. 
Even if you are not a shopper, visit the souks.  They are worth wandering through.

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