Officially known as the Syrian Arab Republic, this once fertile country was home to countless and irreplaceable artifacts and beautiful examples of classic Arab architecture. Damascus, Syria’s capital city, was once known as “The City Of Jasmine”. Syria was home to the bronze age, the oldest written alphabet and a vast Arab cultural revival in the 19th century. Today, Damascus and Aleppo look entirely different but instead of bombarding you with more horrific images, we’ve compiled a list of 40 that will completely change your perspective.
Over fifty years ago, photographer Charles W. Cushman, an avid traveler and amateur photojournalist, explored Syria on his own and captured these stunning images. The picture below is one example from his series on the far east. You can see how the Syria of old was more peaceful and allowed for normal everyday family activities. This father and his two children are chatting with a more traditionally dressed neighbor and observing the daily activities of the neighborhood. What a drastic change from the Syria we see today in the media.
There is a great deal of emphasis placed on the family in Syria and children are the crowning glory. In 1960, the birthrate in Syria was an amazing 7.47 children per woman, a number on par with the averages of other countries in the area. The last recorded statistic places the birthrate at 3 children per woman. Due to the civil war in Syria, thousands of families have been displaced but at least in this image we can still see a few smiley faces!
How beautiful are these women in their classic 1950’s apparel? It’s very likely that each dress was handmade and individualized for each woman. Syria’s once liberal stance on fashion and the female form has been replaced with a new order and this would never happen today. Under the ever watchful eye of ISIS and other Islamic extremist groups, women are subject to harsh restrictions on behavior and dress. Countries like Syria, Afghanistan, and even Iran were once quite open and liberal!
This is one of the only surviving images of TV host Nadia Ghazzi and Syrian poet Aziza Haroun from a television broadcast in 1960. Crates and crates of TV stills was destroyed by airstrikes and bombings when the building they were stored in was destroyed in recent fighting. Thousands of talk shows and interviews, song recordings, and television dramas were recorded over a period of eighteen years. These recordings gave a glimpse into the pop culture of Syria in the 1960’s.
Miss Syria 1952 has fallen between the pages of history and is now not much more than a beautiful face. Miss Arab World , Miss Universe, and Miss Syria have all been featured in the country over the years to varying degrees. In 1965, the first ever representative for Syria in the Miss World competition was Raymonde Doucco. Not many images exist from this time unfortunately but in the last few years leading up to Syria’s civil conflict there are plenty of images of contestants.
Amal al-Atrash is better known by her stage name Asmahan. This Syrian actress and singer immigrated to Egypt with her family at the tender age of three. Born into a Syrian Druze family, her father once served as governor for the Demirci District in Turkey. She rose to fame thanks to her beautiful voice and partnership with another famous performer, Farid al-Atrash, who just happened to also be her brother. She died in a tragic and mysterious car accident in July of 1944.
This dancing troupe is seen performing a traditional “rakes” in honor of the Syrian President. Sufi Dervish dancers are unforgettable to watch. Their mystifying and constant movement is sure to take your breath away. The Mevlevi Sufi Order has been active in Syria for centuries and their spiritual and artistic practices are intricately woven into the local culture. A medieval Sufi school for whirling dervishes was once located at Tekkiya Suleymaniye in the heart of Damascus. Many of Syria’s Sufi Dervishes have since fled the country for their safety.
This vintage postcard showcases the glittering coastal plains of Syria that once brought tens of thousands to the middle eastern country. The coastal city of Latakia was once a vacation hot spot for visitors from around the world. Artist Julien Lacaze was a visual artist born in 1886 who has a stunning portfolio of modern drawings. Most of his work focuses on landscapes and tropical locales. You can purchase his works at auction and have a bit of vintage Syria for your home office.
This is an old photo of the entrance to one of the oldest boroughs in the Old City of Damascus. The Bab Tuma, or Gate of Thomas, is just one of seven entrances to the historic neighborhood. Early Christian missionaries made the area theirs due to it’s importance in the early recordings of the Bible. Inside the walls of the ancient city you can find churches and places of worship for several Christian denominations including Armenian Catholic, Evangelical and Chaldean Catholic.
Syria once had a bustling tourist industry and hopes to reclaim it if and when the country returns to peace. The juxtaposition in this image between traditionally and heavily garbed Muslim women and a group of foreign tourists is breathtaking. The women are simply doing their daily shopping while the group behind them visits a perfumer. According to UNESCO, prior to 2011 about 6 million foreign tourists visited the country in 2009 alone. The tourism industry once accounted for 12 percent of the gross domestic product of the country.
The Grand Citadel of Aleppo can be found in the center of the old city of Aleppo. Surrounded by a 22 meter deep and 30 meter wide moat, the citadel was one of the most highly fortified buildings in the area for thousands of years. At one time, the mound that the citadel sits on was covered in massive blocks of limestone that made it nearly impossible to scale it’s walls. Prior to the Syrian civil war, the building and it’s surrounding land was a major tourist attraction and archaeological site.
Lawrence Of Arabia
During World War One, the combined forces of the British and Arab forces captured Damascus from the Turks and Lawrence Of Arabia led the charge. This legendary British soldier spent countless years working in Egypt as an intelligence officer in the area. Lawrence had hoped that the whole area would be united as a single nation but his dreams were dashed when Arabian factionalism came to the fore. After the war ended, Lawrence died in a tragic motorcycle accident in 1935.
Outside of Aleppo, the first domesticated animals and agricultural lands were settled, laying the ground work for the city to become a center of on the first great trade routes. Warehouses in Aleppo were once filled to the brim with exotic spices, richly scented soaps, and precious metals and ceramics. This rare image of the Aleppo Souk is one of the few surviving prints from the heyday of the spice route. As a trading city, Aleppo was full of diverse communities but despite this there was relative calm and peaceful coexistence.
Hustle And Bustle
Life in the big cities and even small villages of Syria was always full and busy. From daily deliveries of local produce and livestock in the popular outdoor markets to pilgrims just on their way, Syria was alive with people. Young and old alike found their way to the street to meet friends, share gossip, and of course trade items for profit. In the image below you can see locals going about their daily business all under the watchful eye of the minaret of a local mosque.
Castle Of The Kurds
The Castle of the Kurds, also known as Krak des Chevaliers, is an ancient Crusader Castle and one of the most important medieval castles in the world. At its peak this castle hosted a Hospitaller garrison of 2,000 men. In the late 19th century, long after the castle was no longer serving its original purpose, it was home to a settlement of 500 individuals who were moved when the castle was given over to the French state. The castle is about 40 km outside the city of Hom near Syria’s border with Lebanon.
Damascus Sword Monument
This magnificent sword monument is found in the Umayyad Square in the middle of downtown Damascus. The square takes its name from the Umayyad Caliphate, the second of the four major Arab caliphates after the death of the prophet Muhammad. Syria was the center of the Umayyads’ power and Damascus their capital city. Umayyad Square is also home to the Al-Assad National Library, and the Damascus opera house complex. The Sword monument is just one of the remarkable structures damaged by mortar shelling during the last few years of internal conflict.
Citadel Of Salah Ed-Din
Located in the mountainous region of north western Syria and surrounded by forests, you can understand why this site has been fortified since the mid 10th century. The citadel changed hands several times and fell under the control of Saladin after a three day siege in 1188. The Mamluks gained control later on and fought off a siege in 1287. The Citadel was officially recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2006 due to its incredible preservation and value during the crusades.
Syrian Cuisine is truly a fusion of tastes and civilizations! Arab, Turkish, Persian and Lebanese flavors can be found in the kitchens of Syria. Traditional dishes worth sampling include kebab halabi, meat kebabs specific to Aleppo, and fresh labneh cheese. Syrians often serve a wide array of appetizers before the main course, ‘meze’ as it is often known, will wet your appetite for more. Fresh baked flat breads are ever present at a Syrian table, and are perfect for sharing with loved ones at the table.
The Umayyad Mosque once drew thousands of faithfuls to Umayyad Square in the center of Damascus. It’s also known as the Great Mosque of Damascus and one glimpse inside will explain why. Its rich carpeted halls, stunning glass work and adjoining garden are breathtaking. It is considered by some Muslims to be the fourth holiest place in Islam and the place Jesus will return to at the End of Days. This mosque is also unique as it has remained larger unchanged since its construction in the early 8th century.
Al Madina Souq
The Al-Madina Souq is located inside the walled ancient city of Aleppo. The market is approximately 13 km long and fully covered, making it an other worldly experience. Entering the market will remind you of a time when it was a major trading center for imported goods brought to Syria by foreign travelers with their caravans. Locals still took to the souq to buy everything from agricultural goods to spices and handcrafted metalwork until recently. Many sections of the souq were damaged or burnt as a result of fighting in the city since September 2012.
Islam in Syria is followed by 90% of the country’s population but is not homogeneous. 74 % of the population adheres to Sunni Islamic practices while only 13% of the population is Shia. President Assad is an Alawite and part of the Shia minority, as is most of his government. Alawi Islam is centered in Syria and its followers revere Ali. Historically, Alawites have remained quite secret about their practices and represent only 11% of the Syrian population. In addition to Islam, the Syrian population is also comprised of Druze and Christians.
Women Leading The Way
Today, most people see Syria as a strict dictatorship, war ravaged and oppressive to women. However, between 1970 and the late 1990’s, the female student population was on an upswing and the literary rate had risen to 74.2 % for women. Women got the vote in 1949 and received universal suffrage in 1953, but still upheld fairly traditional gender practices. Women only made up 15.5% of the labor force in Syria as of 2014 and today face even stricter regulations that limit their potential.
Deir ez-Zor Bridge
This amazing pedestrian suspension bridge crosses the ancient Euphrates river in the city of Deir ez-Zor in north-eastern Syria. The steel bridge was built in 1927 by a French construction company during the French mandate of Syria. It was once a popular place for couples and families to spend a sunny afternoon. Sadly, the bridge was destroyed by intense shelling in 2013 and severely limited access to the area. The Siyasiyeh Bridge, locally known as “the bridge of death”, became the last entry point across the Euphrates and Hasakeh province.
Al Sabil Park
This vintage photo shows Al-Sabil park in the center of Aleppo. The six hectare urban Eden was opened in 1895 during the Ottoman reign in Syria. One of the main features of the park, the Sabil ad-darawish fountain, was renovated and replaced in the mid 2000’s. The fountains and elaborate gardens made this park a popular spot with locals and tourists alike and restaurants and playgrounds on the grounds added to its appeal. In 2006, dancing water fountains were installed in the center of the park.
Traditional carpet weaving is an art lost to most of today’s youth, but at one time was an integral part of Syrian culture. Kilim, are flat tapestry woven carpets usually produced in bright colors and intricate design. Owning a traditional carpet would have been a sign of wealth as the time it took to make one added to its value. The Kurdish region in north-west Syria is known for producing incredibly unique and complex carpets. If you wanted to pick up a handmade carpet, the best place to go would have been the one of the ancient Souqs of Damascus.
The Bedouin people are perhaps one of the most understudied populations in Syria. Al- Badou or badiya comes from the word for desert and truly reflects the lifestyle of these people. This traditionally nomadic and livestock-herding group maintains kinship ties through tribal and clan structure. There were sizable tribal communities located around Damascus and in the countryside surrounding Aleppo. During the early stages of the civil war, many Syrians with tribal backgrounds took to the forefront of fighting and featured prominently among rebel demonstrations.
Mosaics are made by piecing together small individual pieces of colored glass, stone or other materials to create beautifully detailed images. Few mosaics dating back from the Roman empire survive in Syria, and those that do are Hellenistic in style. Three dimensional patterns, bright colors and naturalist figures are heavily featured. In November of 2015, a well preserved mosaic floor was discovered in the ancient city of Doliche, which lies on the fringes of the Turkish city of Gaziantep.
Syrian Jews originated from two distinct groups, those that fled Spain during the Expulsion and Jews that lived in Syria for generations. There were once large Jewish population in the cities of Aleppo, Damascus, and Qamishli. In the early 20th century, due to rising hostility against Jews in the region, most of Syria’s Jewish population fled to the U.S.A., South America, and Israel. As of November 2015, it was reported that the once prosperous community had been reduced to just 15 Jews in the entire country.
The world’s largest marzipan sweet was made by 225 chefs in an organized event at Hamadanya Stadium in Aleppo in July of 2003. The delicious Pistachio treat weighed in at just over 4.1 tonnes and was composed of 270 pieces fused together into one big cake. The record placing event was organized by Spacetel Syria, Syria’s pre-paid mobile phone system as a publicity stunt. The giant sweet treat was decorated with green, white, and orange glaze to recreate the logo for the new phone system. Yummy!
Afrin is a district of Northern Syria known for its ancient artifacts. This area owes its overwhelming amount of antiquities to Roman, Muslim, and Kurdish settlement. Afrin was originally a market and trade base but under French administration of Syria was incorporated and by 1968 had 7,000 permanent residents. According to the 2005 census, a recorded 172,095 people called Afrin home. The Syrian government lost control of the district in 2005 and it now belongs to an independent autonomous council called Rojava.
The coastal city of Latakia is one of the most beautiful areas in Syria as well as one that has escaped some of the harshest fighting ravaging other areas of the country. Latakia has been inhabited since the 2nd millennium and the modern day city was founded somewhere in the 4th century BCE. Latakia houses several ethnic groups including Alawites, Sunni Muslims and Palestinian refugees. The coastline is renowned in Syria and was a favorite holiday spot for Syria’s middle class.
Damascus Fruit Vendor
This idealistic photo takes us back to an earlier and more peaceful time in Syria’s history. Fresh fruit, vegetables and spices are a staple of the Syrian diet and you can see from this image how important they are to the economy as well. Street vendors were and still are quite common in the middle east. These children on their way home from school might have been responsible for picking the best quinces, freshest dates, and juiciest clementine oranges for the family.
St. Thecla Maaloula
This remarkable monastery might be one of the most surprising things about Syria. Located just 65 kilometers north-east of Damascus and nestled between towering mountains, there is an isolated Christian village and pilgrimage site. The name, “Ma’lula”, means entrance in Aramaic, a language still used in the village. The Greek Orthodox convent of St. Thecla lies on the northern slope of a mountain and is rumored to have holy spring waters that can cure your ailments. Nuns live in the church grotto and would occasionally travel to Damascus for provisions.
Walled City of Tell Bisse
This vintage photo of Tell Bisse is a stunning example of the Syria of old. The walled city served as one of the principal rural fortresses along what was once called the “Sultanic Road” that led to Istanbul. The mud houses of Tell Bisse are unique to the area because of their dome shaped roofs and absence of windows, most logically a defense mechanism against marauders. Heavy fighting occurred in the area in 2012 between Syrian anti-government forces and state troops.
Step aside Laurence of Arabia, the Bedouin Camel Brigade has arrived. The use of camels for cavalry fighters was a fairly common practice across areas of the middle east, like Syria. Napoleon employed camel cavalrymen during his French campaign in Egypt and Syria where the desert animal was the most logical choice. Camels can walk for long periods of time without needing a water source and are more adept at navigating sandy and rocky desert terrain. This picture is likely from around 1940 when camels were still regularly used in battle.
Zenobia was the Queen of the Palmyrene Empire in the 3rd century. A cultured monarch and tolerant leader, she was much loved and well respected by her citizens and is considered a national hero in Syria. Palmyra was one of the hardest hit cities over the course of the Syrian conflict and this famous statue of Zenobia sat off the coast of the Latakia beach. Most of the statues and ruins of Zenobia’s empire have been destroyed by ISIS fighters.
Kessab is a predominantly ethnically Armenian town in north-western Syria. It is located just 59 km north of Latakia. Thanks to its lush forests and picturesque views, it was once a hot spot for vacationing locals from Aleppo and Latakia. Agriculture and high quality laurel soap production added to the town’s fame. Due to this idealistic towns proximity to the Turkish border, it suffered incredible loses during Syria’s civil war between Turkish military forces and ISIS rebels. The Armenian Catholic Churches were burnt along with the Misakyan Cultural Center.
Church Of Saint Simeon
The arched doorways of the Church of Saint Simeon are remarkable! This historical building was one of the oldest surviving Byzantine churches dating back to the 5th century. Saint Simeon is a famed hermit Monk who apparently chose to live on top of a pillar to show his devotion to God as opposed to in a cave like many other Monks. The church was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in June of 2011, but was held by Islamic extremist forces not long after. In May of 2016, the church suffered extensive damage due to an airstrike in the area.
Clay Writing Tablet
Syria is credited with some of the earliest modern writing forms. Cuneiform was used throughout the Bronze Age and well into the Iron Age. By the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C., cuneiform was primarily used on clay tablets which lasted longer. These surviving tablets show proof of how the language was used for a vast array of scholarly, religious, and economic documents. The Ebla Tablets are a collection of 1800 complete examples and 4700 fragments found in the palace archives of Ebla, Syria.
Bee Hive Houses
These beehive homes have been protecting Syrians from harsh summer heat for centuries. Composed of mud, straw, and stones these amazing structures are environmentally friendly and an incredible example of native ingenuity. Beehive homes were popular in the surrounding rural areas of Aleppo where their shape and design kept locals dry during rainy season and cool in summer. Similarly designed homes can also be found in Harran, Turkey and as far flung as Scotland and Ireland.
Al- Hamidiyah Souq
How beautiful is the Al-Hamidiyah Souq? The largest and most centrally located souq in Syria, you can find it within the walled city of Damascus. The Souq is so famous it was even featured as a “treasure” in Dan Cruickshank’s Around the World in 80 Treasures. What feels like a mix between a Parisian passage and traditional middle eastern bazaar, you can find everything along its aisles. The street dates back as far at Roman times, but in 2002 underwent extensive renovations to update and restore its’s storefronts.
Damascus is the seat of government and judicial courts in Syria. Over the course of its history, it has changed hands several times including brief periods under French, Turkish, Ottoman and Arab control. Despite its history and modern turmoil, this picture shows a more mundane side of Damascus. Western style clothing, yellow taxi cabs and bustling streets show a thriving city. In comparison to the images we see of Damascus today, these were far simpler times and are definitely missed.
Aleppo At Night
Aleppo was once the most populated city in Syria and the second largest after the capital of Damascus. One of the most continuously inhabited cities in the entire world, excavations in the area have yielded fantastic archaeological finds. In the 1970’s a split occurred between Damascus and Aleppo regarding economic control in the country after the centralization of the state. Aleppo found it hard to compete with Damascus and lost its status as the cultural and economic capital of the country.
Built into the rugged country side north-east of Damascus you can find the small village of Ma’loula. Ma’loula is unique for several different reasons. First and foremost, the village is composed of Orthodox Christians and Muslim citizens. The Muslim population, however, was never Arabizsed, they converted to Islam centuries ago but never adopted Arab customs or language. Second, in Ma’loula, Aramaic is still a widely used and spoken language. Due in part to its isolation and lack of access to television and radio, it has until recently retained its individuality.
The fine art of copper craftsmanship used to be passed down from father to son in Syria and plenty examples of excellently crafted household tools can still be found. In Syria, copper has historically been the metal of choice for household items. Pans and pots made of the metal were traditionally given as wedding gifts. The covered copper market on King Faisal Street, just outside the Old City of Damascus, used to be the place to get delicately made copper platters and coffee urns.
Syria is a semi-Presidential Republic that has been led by a member of the Assad Family for the last few decades. In this photo, you can see former President Hafez al-Assad on the far right standing vigil at a war commemoration ceremony. Hafez passed away in 2000 and was followed by his son, Bashar Al-Assad. Bashar Al-Assad worked as doctor in the Syrian army after graduating from Damascus University. Seen initially as a potential reformer of Syrian policy, he has since been highly criticized for his involvement in war crimes against his own people.
Water Pipe Cafe
Aromatic water pipes took the streets of Aleppo by storm and rose in popularity in recent years. These men are seen enjoying a relaxed afternoon at their local coffee shop while indulging in flavored tobacco. According to a 2010 census, 20% of women and 60% of Syrian men smoke some form of tobacco product. Nargilla, or water pipe smoking, is enjoyed for the social atmosphere it facilitates and the pleasurable smell and taste users experience. Cigarettes, on the contrary, are less socially acceptable.
No social gathering in Syria is complete without fresh roasted coffee. Sometimes, ground cardamon is added to coffee for its rich flavor and delicious scent. Coffee is traditionally served in small espresso style cups with saucers for added aesthetic value. This man is a traditional coffee peddler often seen on the streets of Aleppo or along market aisles. The portable Samovar you can see on this man’s back is popular across Syria, Turkey, Kashmir and parts of Eastern Europe.
Western style “white weddings” are gaining popularity and acceptance in Syria with the younger generation. This bride might have the princess gown but chances are she has chosen to keep some traditional practices like the “arada band” – a traditional musical group that entertains guests with songs and mock sword fighting. In Damascus, a Mubarake is performed one week after a wedding to make sure everyone is aware of the happy nuptials. A Mubarake is a congratulatory party where friends and family that couldn’t attend the wedding can still give gifts to the new couple and toast their love.
Bab Tuma Alleyway
Bab Tuma is a borough in the Old City of Damascus, one of seven gates whose name translates to Gate of Thomas in English. Early Christianity has roots in Bab Tuma and its famous residents throughout history including Saint Paul and Saint Thomas the Apostle. In the 16th century, it became the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch. Bab Tuma was one of the most popular tourist destinations in Damascus and home to several popular bars and coffee shops.
Vogue Fashion Shoot
This photo shoot would never happen today! In these images from 1965, a model strikes a pose in daring silk chiffon among the ancient Roman relics of Palmyra. Photographer for Vogue magazine, Henry Clarke, captured beautiful images in several Middle Eastern locations in the mid 1960’s. Vogue Editor Diana Vreeland was inspired by the mystery and history of the Middle East and did what it took to get her models on location, including pulling strings with high up government officials.
Overlooking the city of Damascus you’ll find stunning Mount Qasioun. The city has expanded over the years and is home to a variety of restaurants and tourist sites. The slopes of the mountain are steeped in legend and rumored to have once been the home to the first human. Adam, Abraham, and Jesus are all supposedly former residents of the mountain and took refuge in its caves. Three separate caves are specifically referenced in Holy Scriptures, The cave of Blood, The cave of Hunger, and The cave of the Seven Sleepers.
Time Before Cars
Donkeys have been used as a working animal for more than 5000 years around the world and for various reasons. The price of an automobile made it difficult for your average Syrian citizen to purchase and pack animals fulfilled the need instead. Donkeys and camels are quite common in the Middle East as a valuable mode of transportation and agricultural animal. The men in the photo below are likely taking their purchases home after a day of trading and selling in one of Damascus’ busy markets.
Any tourist to the middle east will tell you that a trip to the local market or Souk is an experience you’ll never forget. It’s customary to barter for services and goods and never expect that the first price offered is a fair one. You can see in the image below dry spices, baskets of food stores and hanging gourds and fruits. The women in the picture are well aware of how to get the best deals and won’t let the shop keepers take advantage of them! Remember, if you visit a souk to start high and gradually lower your price. Act like a local!
Al- Dawayat Cave
Al-Dawayat cave is located near Mashta al-Helu, a resort town in north western Syria. This small village is surrounded by lush greenery and a coastal mountain range. The town is predominately Christian and fairly secluded. This amazing cave structure was a source of tourist attraction and it’s easy to see why. Its unique structure is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. It is considered to be one of the oldest cave formations to have been discovered in Syria.
Syrian Flat Bread
This young boy is seen drying traditional flatbread along the sonny steps of his neighborhood. Traditional Syrian flat bread is soft and only slightly leavened. Across the Middle East, pita bread or flatbread is commonly eaten and accompanies most meals. This young boy might be preparing to sell his freshly baked flatbread, and although it might not look appetizing to purchase bread off of the ground, it was a quite common practice for cooling. Most savory Syrian dishes are served with a healthy does of pita on the side.