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Several of the streams which trickle down the eastern slopes of the Syrian eastern range are vanquished in the struggle with the desert and disappear into its barren soil. The struggle between the sown and the desert, old as time, is a central fact in the physical geography of that part of the country. The desert, which in many of its aspects resembles the sea, has in its movement through history behaved like a mighty one, endlessly repeating the pattern of ebb and flow. The struggle has its counterpart in the equally ancient conflict between the bedouins, the 'have-not' nomads of the desert, and the settled agriculturists, the 'haves' of the fertile plains.

Centuries before and centuries after the Israelites, covetous eyes from the desert turned towards the neighbouring lands 'flowing with milk and honey'. The ruling feature of Syrian climate is the alternation of a rainy season from mid-November to the end of March and a dry season covering the rest of the year. This is, in general, true of the whole Mediterranean region and is due to its location between two zones sharply contrasted in the amount of precipitation they receive: the dry trade-wind tract of Africa—largely desert—to the south, and Europe with its westerly winds on the north.

It is these moisture-bearing westerlies which all the year round bring rain from the Atlantic to middle and northern Europe. They are in winter the prevailing winds in Syria; in summer the heat belt moves northward from the equator, and the country for months approaches the arid conditions of the Sahara. The variability of climate which characterizes the northern United States and is said to promote energy does not obtain anywhere there. As the prevalent westerlies, at times associated with cyclonic storms, sweep over the Mediterranean they become more filled with moisture.

They then encounter Mount Lebanon and the central hilly ridge of Palestine and rise. The result is that the western slopes of the Syrian highlands annually receive the largest amount of precipitation, which decreases as one goes from west to east and from north to south. Thus Beirut averages about 36 inches of rain a year, Jerusalem about 26 and Damascus only On the whole the Palestine-Lebanon coast receives more than twice as much precipitation as the corresponding coast of southern California. Humidity reaches its maximum, strangely enough, in July with an average of 75 per cent, its minimum in December with an average of 60 per cent.

In winter the dense, cold, dry anticyclonic influences of Central Asia spread over the eastern plateau region of Syria, giving it frost and snow, a phenomenon hardly ever experienced along the coast. There the temperature is moderated by the influence of the sea, which is warmer in winter and cooler in summer than the land.


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The mountains prevent the cooling sea breezes from reaching the interior, while dust-laden desert winds cause the summer heat in such cities as Damascus and Aleppo to become intense. Most dreaded of the hot winds from the east or south-east is the simoom, or sirocco , which is particularly oppressive and dry, with a humidity at times under 10 per cent, making it difficult to breathe.

It is frequent through spring and autumn, when it often reaches the coast and announces the coming of rain. On the fringe of the desert it is often laden with fine penetrating sand, increasing the discomfort of man and beast. Much of the rain water percolates through large expanses of limestone rock and is thus lost. Some of it gathers in subterranean channels and gushes out in the form of springs. It restricts the water supply and thus limits human settlement, especially on the slopes of Anti-Lebanon.

Whatever rain-water does not soak through the calcareous layers flows into streams and rivers, which swell into torrents after every heavy downpour, but shrink in the drought of summer to mere trickles or disappear altogether. The rush of water down the highlands, with its concomitant processes of erosion and denudation, has resulted through the ages in rendering barren many once-flourishing tracts of land. The perseverance without major modification of ancient crops, the persistence of tillage methods, and the preservation through the ages of virtually the same seasonal dates for ploughing and harvesting militate against any theory of desiccation through climatic changes.

The real causes of decline in land productivity have been the denudation of the hillsides by the running rain water and winds, the failure of certain springs, deforestation and over-grazing which have deprived the loose soil of roots to hold it together, neglect of irrigation works and their destruction by barbarian invaders or attacking nomads, and possibly exhaustion of the soil in some places. Three contrasting zones of vegetation are found in the Syrian area, in which two distinct floral regions meet: that of the Mediterranean and that of the western Asian steppe-land.

International Religious Freedom Reports: Custom Report Excerpts - United States Department of State

The position of Mount Lebanon introduces the complicating factor of altitude, making the transition from Mediterranean to continental influences unusually abrupt. Banana plantations, winter sports resorts and desert oases are therefore encountered within a mere sixty miles of the sea. But everywhere the contrast between the landscape in spring, when the foliage is at its best, and in summer, when the increased heat has burned up vegetation, is very striking. The coastal plain and the lower levels of the western highlands have the ordinary vegetation of the Mediterranean littoral, characterized by evergreen shrubs and quickly flowering, strongly scented spring plants.

Sugar cane was brought in from farther east by the Arab conquerors. Crops introduced from America in recent centuries include corn maize , tomatoes, potatoes and tobacco, Latakia tobacco having become famous all over the world. The ancient drought-resisting fruits—figs, olives, dates and grapes—have similarly been supplemented with banana and citrus trees, which in the absence of summer rains require irrigation.

The baking Mediterranean sun, whose relentless rays strike the parched land almost daily throughout the dry season, ripens fruit to perfection.

Integration Guide

The olive tree in particular demands little and yields much. Its fruit was and is one of the main components in the diet of the lower classes. Olive oil was consumed in place of butter, which is more difficult to preserve, and was used for burning in lamps, for making ointments and perfumes, and for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. The pulpy residue of the fruit was fed to animals, and its stones were crushed and used for fuel.

Ever since Noah's dove returned with an olive branch, its leaf has been a symbol of peace and happiness. To the south of Beirut one of the largest olive orchards in the world stretches for miles. Aside from fruit trees, the dominant trees in this littoral zone are the scrub oak, the Mediterranean pine, the beech and the mulberry, the leaves of which have been fed to imported silkworms, making silk manufacture possible.

Since the first World War, however, the silk industry has been on the decline, and with it the mulberry orchards. Along the crests of Mount Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon only such hardy trees as firs, cedars and other conifers are able to survive, constituting the second floral zone. The most magnificent and renowned of these is the cedar of Lebanon , noted for its majesty, strength, durability and suitability for carving.

Unfortunately, after centuries of exploitation, culminating in use by the Ottoman Turks for railroad fuel from to , the cedar survives only in small groves, the best known of which is that above Bisharri, where more than four hundred trees still grow. Some of these are perhaps a thousand years old, and eighty feet tall.

One has been adopted as an emblem by the modern Republic of Lebanon. The third floral zone comprises the canyon-like trough and the plateaus of eastern Syria, where intense heat and scanty rainfall combine to produce a steppe regime in which trees all but disappear, grasses tend to have a seasonal existence, and only coarse shrubs and thorny bushes survive. The Orontes and the Jordan flow in deep beds and are of little use for irrigation.

The Hawran and Transjordan plateaus are sufficiently high to condense enough of the remaining westerly moisture to permit pasturage. Goats and sheep, particularly goats, have furthered the process of erosion by eating up grass and young sprouts on the hillsides, leaving the soil loose and more exposed to the action of running water. Because of the relief of the Lebanon mountains and the over-drainage of the Palestinian highlands, Syria has always had scant natural grazing for cattle and horses, but sheep and goats can find enough forage.

Originally an American wild animal, the horse found its way into eastern Asia in remote prehistoric times and, while still in wild form, made its way as far as Palestine.

Anglican priest Brian Heinrich, about chastity

It was domesticated in early antiquity somewhere east of the Caspian Sea by Indo-European nomads, and then imported into the Near East some two thousand years before Christ. The Hyksos introduced the horse into Syria and Egypt some eighteen centuries before the Christian era. Like the horse the camel is of American origin and migrated to north-eastern Asia millions of years ago.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

It gradually made its way to north-western Arabia and on into southern Syria. The first known reference to the domesticated camel in literature is in Judges cf. Mesolithic drawings depict a small one-humped camel, still the typical Arabian camel of today. Another animal introduced from arid Asia through Arabia is the ancient breed of broad fat-tailed, long-fleeced sheep, which is still the common type.

Syrian draft animals include the donkey and mule, as well as the horse and camel, while domesticated animals comprise—in addition to goats and sheep—cows, dogs and cats.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Just as in an iceberg the part visible above the surface of the water is but a small fraction of the huge mass, so in the history of Syria and the Syrians the historic period is a still smaller portion of the whole, dating only from about B. The pre-literary period, for the knowledge of which we have to depend upon archaeological remains rather than written records, goes back through the New Stone Age Neolithic to the Old Stone Age Palaeolithic tens of thousands of years. Recent excavations in the uninhabited wastes of northern and eastern Syria, the caves of Lebanon, the tells of Palestine and the sand-buried cities of Transjordan leave no doubt that this archaeologically long-neglected and little-known region was much more advanced in the earliest ages than was previously suspected.

Throughout all or most of the early Palaeolithic Age, there were presumably human beings living in Syria, but their bones have not been found. By the end of the early Palaeolithic, however, some , years ago, man had progressed sufficiently to leave recognizable traces, in the form of stone implements found in cave deposits or scattered over the surface. These tools and weapons consist of roughly chipped or irregularly flaked flints—at first fist hatchets, then scrapers and choppers, and finally hand axes. The humans who left these stone traces of their existence were presumably a primitive and unspecialized type of white man, whose culture was still undifferentiated.

They lived—at least at times—in caves as a measure of protection against rain, wild animals and other enemies. At this time Europe was suffering from the rigours of the Ice Age, allowing the Near East an earlier start as a human habitat. The only other surviving traces of early Palaeolithic man are some fragments of charcoal from one of the lowest levels in a Mount Carmel cave. In his slow and arduous ascent from lower mental levels primitive man presumably stumbled by accident upon occasional discoveries which stimulated and developed his dormant inventive faculty. For instance, he must have witnessed, and eventually learned to utilize, fires engendered by lightning and other natural occurrences.

Bits of fresh meat, green fruit, edible roots must have fallen accidentally into such fires.

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