Many National Souls, but No Nation: The Ethnic and Religious Topography of Arab Syria

Many National Souls, but No Nation: The Ethnic and Religious Topography of Arab Syria (Photo:

In 2007 the Kurdish activist Mechi ad-Din Iso wrote an open letter to Syria's head of state, Bashar al-Assad. He requested that citizenship be restored to all the Kurds who were denationalised after the 1962 census – under the specious pretense that they were supposedly illegal immigrants from Turkey. Iso's father was among those affected, and his son explains the background behind the events as follows: after the First World War, a straight borderline was drawn between Syria and Turkey as if with a ruler, dividing his own hometown, Ras al-Ain, into a Turkish and a Syrian half.

In the ensuing decades, the Kurds called with increasing vehemence for their own state, but at the same time, the idea of pan-Arabism was gaining ground in the Arab world. The result was that Syria proclaimed itself the "Arab Republic of Syria" in 1961, with a census carried out the following year.

Arabism – a historical first

"As Kurds, we no longer had a place amongst the Arabs," says Mechi ad-Din. Arab dominance in Syria was however unprecedented in its history. As a matter of fact, the list of rulers over this territory reads like a catalogue of human civilisation – Phoenicians, Assyrians, Aramaeans, Persians, Chaldeans, Macedonians, Romans, Muslims, Crusaders, Kurds, Mongolians, Ottomans. It was not until the 20th century that Syria's identity as an Arab state was sealed, becoming official doctrine in 1963 when the Baath Party rose to power.

The unifying bond was to be not the Islamic faith but rather Arab ethnicity.

What to do then with the Kurds (who are estimated by various sources as accounting for 2.5 to 4 million of the 23 million Syrians), the Armenians, who make up 2 per cent of the population, the Cherkassians, Turkmens or Aramaic-speaking Christians (each under 1 per cent)? The presence of the latter for thousands of years is manifested not least in the country's name – the Aramaeans today still call their people "Suryani".


By Mona Sarkis; Translated by Jennifer Taylor

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