The following report, by the officer who became known as Lawrence of Arabia, reveals how what is known today as Syria was, and perhaps still is, a collection of very different groups, divided by mountains; trade; politics; religion; and ethnicity, among other issues, with no common or national identity. He reveals that the Yezidis are despised by all; that Syria is not an Arabic word but a Turkish term for the province of Damascus, with the capital instead known as Sham in Arabic; and that residents of cities, towns and villages refer to themselves not as Syrians but as residents of those cities, towns and villages. Fascinating; and chillingly relevant, albeit referring to an Ottoman region that includes modern-day Israel, Jordan, and (perhaps) Lebanon.
Geographically, Syria is much parcelled out. The first and greatest longitudinal division is made by the mountains, which run like a rugged spine north and south close to the sea, and shut off the peoples of the coast from those of the interior. Those of the coast speak a different Arabic, differently intoned; they live in different houses, eat different food, and gain their living differently. They speak of the ‘interior’ unwillingly, as a wild land full of blood and terror.
The interior is divided again longitudinally. The peasants in the valleys of the Jordan, Litani and Orontes are the most stable, most prosperous yeomen of the country; and beyond them is the strange shifting population of the border lands, wavering eastward or westward with the season, living by their wits only, wasted by droughts and locusts, by Bedouin raids, and if these fail them, by their own incurable blood-feuds.
Each of these main north and south strip-divisions is crossed and walled off into compartments mutually at odds: and it is necessary, if political composition of Syria is to be gauged, to enumerate some of the heads of these.
The boundary between Arab and Turkish speech follows, not inaptly, the coach-road from Alexandretta to Ezaz, and thence the Baghdad railway to Jerablus. On the west it begins among Ansariya, disciples of a strange cult of a principle of fertility, sheer pagan, anti-foreign, distrustful of Mohammedanism, but drawn for the moment to Christianity by the attraction of common persecution; the sect is very vital in itself, and as clannish in feeling and politics as a sect can be. One Nosairi will not betray another, and they will hardly not betray Mohammedan and Christian. Their villages are sown in patches down the main hills from Missis to Tartus and the Tripoli gap, and their sheikhs are Aissa and old Maaruf. They speak Arabic only, and they have lived there since, at least, the beginning of Greek history. They stand aside from politics, and leave the Turkish Government alone in hope of reciprocity.
Mixed among the Ansariya are colonies of Syrian Christians, and south of the Orontes are (or were) solid blocks of Armenians, who spoke Turkish, but would not consort with Turks. Inland, south of Harim, are settlements of Druses (who are Arabs) and Circassians. These have their hand against every man. North-east of them are Kurds, speaking Kurdish and Arabic, settlers of some generations back, who are marrying Arabs and adopting their politics. They hate native Christians most, and next to them Turks and Europeans. Just beyond the Kurds are some Yezidis, Arabic-speaking, but always trying in their worship to placate a spirit of evil, and with a warped admiration for crude bronze birds. Christians, Mohammedans and Jews unite to spit upon the Yezid. After the Yezidis lies Aleppo, a town of a quarter of a million of people, and an epitome of all races and religions. Eastward of Aleppo for sixty miles you pass through settled Arabs, whose colour and manner becomes more and more tribal as you approach the fringe of cultivation, where the semi-nomad ends and the Bedawi begins.
If you take another section across Syria, a degree more to the south, you begin with some colonies of Mohammedan Circassians near the sea. They speak Arabic now and are an ingenious but quarrelsome race, much opposed by their Arab neighbours. Inland of them are districts reserved for Ismailiya. These speak Arabic, and worship among themselves a king Mohammed, who, in the flesh, is the Agha Khan. They believe him to be a great and wonderful sovereign, honouring the English with his protection. They hate Arabs and orthodox Muslimin, and look for the crumbling of the Turk. Meanwhile, they are loathed and trampled on by their neighbours and are driven to conceal their beastly opinions under a veneer of orthodoxy. Everyone knows how thin that is, and they maintain among themselves signs and pass-words by which they know one another. Miserably poor in appearance, they pay the Agha a princely tribute every year. Beyond the Ismailiya is a strange sight, villages of Christian tribal Arabs, some of semi-nomad habits, under their own sheikhs. Very sturdy Christians they are, most unlike their snivelling brethren in the hills. They live as do the Sunnis round them, dress like them, speak like them, and are on the best of terms with them. East of these Christians are semi-nomad Muslim peasants, and east of them again some villages of Ismailiya outcasts, on the extreme edge of cultivation, whither they have retired in search of comparative peace. Beyond them only Bedouins.
Take another section through Syria, a degree lower down, between Tripoli and Beyrout. To begin with, near the coast, are Lebanon Christians, Maronites and Greeks for the most part. It is hard to disentangle the politics of the two churches. Superficially, one should be French and the other Russian, but a part of the Maronites now have been in the United States, and have developed there an Anglo-Saxon vein which is not the less vigorous for being spurious. The Greek church prides itself on being old Syrian, autocthonous, of an intense local patriotism that (with part) would rather fling it into the arms of the Turk than endure irretrievable annexation by a Roman power. The adherents of the two churches are at one in unmeasured slander of Mohammedans and their religion. They salve a consciousness of inbred inferiority by this verbal scorn. Behind and among the Christians live families of Mohammedan Sunnis, Arabic-speaking, identical in race and habit with the Christian, marked off from them by a less mincing dialect, and a distaste for emigration and its results. On the higher slopes of the hills are serried settlements of Metawala, Shia Mohammedans who came from Persia centuries ago. They are dirty, ignorant, surly, and fanatical. They will not eat or drink with an infidel (the Sunni as bad as the Christian), follow their own priests and notables, speak Arabic but disown in every way the people, not their co-sectarians, who live about them. Across the hills are villages of Christians, yeomen, living at peace with their Sunni neighbours, as though they had never heard the grumbles of their fellows in the Lebanon. East of them are semi-nomad Arab peasantry.
Take a section a degree lower down, near Acre. There are first, Sunni Arabs, then Druses, then Metawala to the Jordan valley, near which are many bitterly-suspicious Algerian colonies, mixed in with villages of aboriginal Palestinian Jews. The latter are an interesting race. They speak Arabic and good Hebrew; have developed a standard and style of living suitable to the country, and yet much better than the manner of the Arabs. They cultivate the land, and hide their lights rather under bushels, since their example would be a great one for the foreign (German inspired) colonies of agricultural Jews, who introduce strange manners of cultivation and crops, and European houses (erected out of pious subscriptions), to a country like Palestine, at once too small and too poor to repay efforts on such a scale. The Jewish colonies of North Palestine pay their way perhaps, but give no proportionate return on their capital expenditure. They are, however, honest in their attempts at colonization, and deserve honour, in comparison with the larger settlements of sentimental remittance-men in South Palestine. Locally, they are more than tolerated; one does not find round Galilee the deep-seated antipathy to Jewish colonists and aims that is such an unlovely feature of the Jerusalem area. Across the Eastern plain (Arabs), you come to the Leja, a labyrinth of crackled lava, where all the loose and broken men of Syria have foregathered for unnumbered generations. Their descendants live there in rich lawless villages, secure from the Government and Bedouins, and working out their own internecine feuds at leisure. South of them is the Hauran, peopled by Arabs and Druses. The latter are Arabic-speaking, a heterodox Mohammedan sect, who revere a mad and dead Sultan of Egypt, and hate Maronites with a hatred which, when encouraged by the Ottoman Government and the Sunni fanatics of Damascus, finds expression in great periodic killings. None the less, the Druses are despised by the Mohammedan Arabs, and dislike them in return. They hate the Bedouins, obey their own chiefs, and preserve in their Hauran fastnesses a parade of the chivalrous semi-feudalism in which they lived in the Lebanon, in the days of the great Emirs.
A section a degree lower would begin with German Zionist Jews, Speaking a bastard Hebrew and German Yiddish, more intractable than the Jews of the Roman era, unable to endure near them anyone not of their race, some of them agriculturists, most of them shop-keepers, the most foreign, most uncharitable part of its whole population. Behind these Jews is their enemy, the Palestine peasant, more stupid than the peasant of North Syria, materialist and bankrupt. East of him lies the Jordan valley, inhabited by a charred race of serfs, and beyond it, group upon group of self-respecting tribal or village Christians, who are, after their co-religionists of the Orontes valley, the least timid examples of their faith in the country. Among them, and east of them, are semi-nomad and nomad Arabs of the religion of the desert, living on the fear and bounty of their Christian neighbours. Down this debatable land the Ottoman Government has planted a long line of Circassian immigrants. They hold their ground only by the sword and the favour of the Turks, to whom they are consequently devoted.
These odd races and religions do not complete the tale of the races of Syria. There are still the six great towns, Jerusalem, Beyrout, Damascus, Hama, Horns, and Aleppo to be reckoned apart from the country folk in any accounting of Syria.
Jerusalem is a dirty town which all Semitic religions have made holy. Christians and Mohammedans come there on pilgrimage; Jews look to it for the political future of their race. In it the united forces of the past are so strong that the city fails to have a present: its people, with the rarest exceptions, are characterless as hotel servants, living on the crowd of visitors passing through. Questions of Arabs and their nationality are as far from them as bimetallism from the life of Texas, though familiarity with the differences among Christians in their moment of most fervent expression has led the Mohammedans of Jerusalem to despise (and dislike) foreigners generally.
Beyrout is altogether new. It would be all bastard French in feeling, as in language, but for its Greek harbour and its American college. Public opinion in it is that of the Christian merchants, all fat men, who live by exchange, for Beyrout itself produces nothing. After the merchants its strongest component is the class of returned emigrants, living on their invested savings, in the town of Syria which, to them, most resembles the Washington Avenue where they ‘made good’. Beyrout is the door of Syria, with a Levantine screen through which shop-soiled foreign influences flow into Syria. It is as representative of Syria as Soho of the Home Counties, and yet in Beyrout, from its geographical position, from its schools, from the freedom engendered by intercourse with many foreigners, there was a nucleus of people, Mohammedans, talking and writing and thinking like the doctrinaire cyclopaedists who paved the way for revolution in France, and whose words permeated to parts of the interior where action is in favour. For their sake (many of them are martyrs now, in Arab eyes) and, for the power of its wealth, and for its exceeding loud and ready voice, Beyrout is to be reckoned with.
Damascus, Homs, Hamah, and Aleppo are the four ancient cities in which Syria takes pride. They are stretched like a chain along the fertile valleys of the interior, between the desert and the hills; because of their setting they turn their backs upon the sea and look eastward. They are Arab and know themselves such.
Damascus is the old inevitable head of Syria. It is the seat of lay government and the religious centre, three days only from the Holy City by its railway. Its sheikhs are leaders of opinion, and more ‘Meccan’ than others elsewhere. Its people are fresh and turbulent, always willing to strike, as extreme in their words and acts as in their pleasures. Damascus will move before any part of Syria. The Turks made it their military centre, just as naturally as the Arab Opposition, or Oppenheim and Sheikh Shawish established themselves there. Damascus is a lodestar to which Arabs are naturally drawn, and a city which will not easily be convinced that it is subject to any alien race.
Hamah and Horns are towns which dislike one another. Everyone in them manufactures things – in Horns, generally cotton and wool, in Hamah, silk and brocade. Their industries were prosperous and increasing; their merchants were quick to take advantage of new outlets, or to meet new tastes. North Africa, the Balkans, Syria, Arabia, Mesopotamia used their stuffs. They demonstrated the productive ability of Syria, unguided by foreigners, as Beyrout demonstrated its understanding of commerce. Yet, while the prosperity of Beyrout has made it Levantine, the prosperity of Horns and Hamah has reinforced their localism, made them more entirely native, and more jealously native than any other Syrian towns. It almost seems as though familiarity with plant and power had shown the people there that the manners of their fathers were the best.
Aleppo is the largest city in Syria, but not of it, nor of Turkey, nor of Mesopotamia. Rather it is a point where all the races, creeds and tongues of the Ottoman Empire meet and know one another in a spirit of compromise. The clash of varied characteristics, which makes its streets a kaleidoscope, has imbued in the Aleppine a kind of thoughtfulness, which corrects in him what is wanton in the Damascene. Aleppo has shared in each of the civilizations which turn about it, and the result seems to be a lack of zest in all that its people do. Even so, they surpass the rest of Syria in most things. They fight and trade more, are more fanatical and vicious, and make most beautiful things, but all with a dearth of conviction that renders their great strength barren. It is typical of Aleppo that here, where yet Mohammedan feeling runs high, there is more fellowship between Christian and Mohammedan, Armenian, Arab, Kurd, Turk and Jew, than in, perhaps, any other great city of the Ottoman Empire, and more friendliness, though less licence, is accorded to Europeans on the part of the average Mohammedan. Aleppo would stand aside from political action altogether but for the influence of the great unmixed Arab quarters which lie on its outskirts like overgrown, half-nomad villages. These are, after the Maidan of Damascus, the most national of any parts of towns, and the intensity of their Arab feeling tinges the rest of the citizens with a colour of nationalism, which is by so much less vivid than the unanimous opinion of Damascus.
In the creeds and races above described, and in others not enumerated, lie the raw materials of Syria for a statesman. It will be noted that the distinctions are political or religious; morally the peoples somewhat resemble one another, with a steady gradation from neurotic sensibility, on the coast, to reserve, inland. They are quick-minded, admirers (but not seekers) of truth, self-satisfied, not incapable (as are the Egyptians) of abstract ideas, but unpractical, and so lazy mentally as to be superficial. Their wish is to be left alone to busy themselves with others’ affairs. From childhood they are lawless, obeying their fathers only as long as they fear to be beaten, and their government later for the same reason: yet there are few races with a greater respect than the upland Syrian for customary law. All of them want something new, for with their superficiality and their lawlessness is combined a passion for politics, the science of which it is fatally easy for the Syrian to gain a smattering, and too difficult to gain a mastery. They are all discontented with the government they have, but few of them honestly combine their ideas of what they want. Some (mostly Mohammedans) cry for an Arab kingdom, some (mostly Christians) for a foreign protection of an altruistic thelemic order, conferring privileges without obligation. Others cry for autonomy for Syria.
Autonomy is a comprehensible word, Syria is not, for the words Syria and Syrian are foreign terms. Unless he has learnt English or French, the inhabitant of these parts has no word to describe all his country. Syria in Turkish (the word exists not in Arabic) is the province of Damascus.Sham in Arabic is the town of Damascus. An Aleppine always calls himself an Aleppine, a Beyrouti a Beyrouti, and so down to the smallest villages.
This verbal poverty indicates a political condition. There is no national feeling. Between town and town, village and village, family and family, creed and creed, exist intimate jealousies, sedulously fostered by the Turks to render a spontaneous union impossible. The largest indigenous political entity in settled Syria is only the village under its sheikh, and in patriarchal Syria the tribe under its chief. These leaders are chosen, not formally, but by opinion from the entitled families, and they rule by custom and consent. All the constitution above them is the artificial bureaucracy of the Turk, maintained by force, impossible if it were to be carried out according to its paper scheme, but in practice either fairly good or very bad according to the less or greater frailty of the human instruments through which it works.
Time seems to have proclaimed that autonomous union is beyond the powers of such a people. In history, Syria is always the corridor between sea and desert, joining Africa to Asia, and Arabia to Europe. It has been a prize-ring for the great peoples lying about it, alternately the vassal of Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Arabia or Mesopotamia, and when given a momentary independence by the weakness of its neighbours, it has at once resolved itself fiercely into Northern and Southern, Eastern and Western discordant ‘kingdoms’, with the areas and populations at best of Yorkshire, at worst of Rutland; for if Syria is by nature a vassal country, it is also by habit a country of agitations and rebellions.
The proposals to make Syria an Arab or foreign-protected country are, of course, far from the hearts of the ‘autonomy’ party, but the conviction of their internal divisions, and the evident signs that Syria’s neighbours are not going to be of the weak sort that enable it to snatch a momentary independence, have reconciled these parts to having such proposals constantly on their lips.
By accident and time the Arabic language has gradually permeated the country, until it is now almost the only one in use; but this does not mean that Syria – any more than Egypt – is an Arabian country. On the sea coast there is little, if any, Arabic feeling or tradition: on the desert edge there is much. Indeed, racially, there is perhaps something to be said for the suggestion – thrown in the teeth of geography and economics – of putting the littoral under one government, and the interior under another.
Whatever the limits of future politics, it can hardly be contested that, like a European Government, an Arab Government in Syria, to-day or to-morrow, would be an imposed one, as the former Arab Governments were. The significant thing is to know what local basis, if any, such a Government would have; and one finds that it would be buttressed on two fronts, both contained in the word ‘Arab’, which seems to strike a chord in some of the most unlikely minds. The Mohammedans, whose mother tongue is Arabic, look upon themselves, for that reason, as a chosen people. The patriotism which should have attached itself to soil or race has been warped to fit a language. The heritage of the Koran and the classical poets holds the Arabic-speaking peoples together. The second buttress of an Arab polity is the dim distortion of the old glories and conquests of the Arabian Khalifate, which has persisted in the popular memory through centuries of Turkish misgovernment. The accident that these ideas savour rather of Arabian Nights than of sober history retains the Arabs in the conviction that their past was greater than the present of the Ottoman Turks.
To sum up – a review of the present components of Syria proves it as vividly coloured a racial and religious mosaic to-day as it has notoriously been in the past. Any wide attempt at autonomy would end in a patched and parcelled thing, an imposition on a people whose instincts for ever and ever have been for parochial home-rule. It is equally clear that the seething discontent which Syrians cherish with the present Turkish administration is common enough to render possible a fleeting general movement towards a new factor, if it appeared to offer a chance realization of the ideals of centripetal nationalism preached by the Beyrout and Damascus cyclopaedists of the last two generations. Also, that only by the intrusion of a new factor, founded on some outward power or non-Syrian basis, can the dissident tendencies of the sects and peoples of Syria be reined in sufficiently to prevent destructive anarchy. The more loose, informal, inchoate this new government, the less will be the inevitable disillusionment following on its institution; for the true ideal of Syria, apart from the minute but vociferous Christian element, is not an efficient administration, but the minimum of central power to ensure peace, and permit the unchecked development of customary law. Also, that the only imposed government that will find, in Moslem Syria, any really prepared groundwork or large body of adherents is a Sunni one, speaking Arabic, and pretending to revive the Abbassides or Ayubides