Syria Table of Contents
Small groups of Turkomans, Circassians, Assyrians, and Jews retain ethnic identities in Syria. Although the last two are primarily religious groups, they may also be considered ethnic communities because of the cultural consciousness developed over a period of many years.
The Turkomans are a Turkic-speaking people who moved into Syria from Central Asia. Originally nomadic, they are now seminomadic herdsmen in the Jazirah and along the lower reaches of the Euphrates River and settled agriculturalists in the Aleppo area. Although most Turkomans have assumed Arab dress and speak some Arabic, others still speak Turkic and retain some ethnic customs. Because they are Sunni Muslims, the Turkomans are likely to become further assimilated and may eventually disappear as a distinct group.
Approximately 100,000 Circassians, descendants of Muslim nomads who emigrated to Syria from Caucasus after its nineteenthcentury conquest by the Russians, live in Syria. About half of them are concentrated in the southwestern Hawran Province. Al Qunaytirah, the provincial capital destroyed in the October 1973 War, was regarded as the Circassian capital; after 1973 many Circassians moved to Damascus.
Circassian village dwellers, who are organized tribally, primarily cultivate grain crops. In addition to farming, they maintain herds of cattle, horses, sheep, and goats; some are blacksmiths and masons, passing on their skills from father to son.
Having resisted assimilation more successfully than the Turkomans, the Circassians retain many customs quite different from those of their Arab neighbors. Until recently they spoke their own language exclusively, but most now speak Arabic as well. At times some Circassians, especially those in Al Qunaytirah, have demanded autonomy, but this is not an issue for most of them. Syrian Arabs still somewhat distrust Circassians because they served as troops for the French during the mandate period (see The French Mandate , ch. 1). In spite of these difficulties, the Circassians gradually are being assimilated into the Arab population, a process facilitated by their being Sunni Muslims.
The present-day Assyrians, of whom there are about 20,000 in Syria, are Nestorian Christians and speak Syriac, a form of Aramaic, the ancient language spoken throughout the region before the widespread adoption of Arabic. Fleeing persecution in Iraq in 1933, those in Syria settled in the Jazirah near Tall Tamir on the upper Khabur River. The French established this Assyrian settlement with the assistance of the League of Nations, and in 1942 it became an integral part of Syria.
The Assyrian settlement on the Khabur consists of about 20 villages, primarily agricultural. Although they own irrigated lands, the villagers barely make a living from their farming, possibly because they are former shepherds, not cultivators, and the lands granted to them are poor. Because of their difficult situation, some Assyrians have emigrated.
Jews have been settled in Syria for centuries; at present most are concentrated in Aleppo and Damascus, and some are scattered in towns in the northern Jazirah. Of the estimated 29,000 Jews in Syria in 1943, fewer than 3,000 remained in 1986, according to Israeli sources. Most had emigrated to Israel. Because Syria currently restricts emigration of Jews, Israel has had little success in negotiating with Syria through intermediaries for the relocation of the entire Jewish community to Israel.
The Jewish community of Aleppo was once fairly prosperous and an important element in the city's commercial life. However, most of the few Jews remaining in Aleppo live in the Bab al Faraj section, a dilapidated area in the center of the city. The Damascus Jewish community, always less prosperous than that of Aleppo, lives in the Hayy al Yahud (Quarter of the Jews). Most Damascus Jews are peddlers, shopkeepers, moneychangers, or artisans; a few are important professional men, particularly physicians. Although most Syrian Jews publicly dissociate themselves from Zionism and Israel, most other Syrians distrust them, considering them real or potential traitors.
Data as of April 1987
Syria Table of Contents