Some ancient languages are still spoken in parts of the country, including Maalua, Aramaic, and Syriac.
As a result of colonial influence, French and English (French in particular) are understood and used in interactions with tourists and other foreigners. The coat of arms displays a hawk, which is the emblem of Muhammad, the founder of the Islamic faith.
Most of the country has a desertlike climate, with hot, dry summers and milder winters.
What little rain there is falls in the winter, mainly along the coast. The population in 2000 was 16,673,282 (not including the 35,150 people living in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, of whom 18,150 are Arabs and 17,000 are Israelis). Kurds are estimated to constitute between 3 and 9 percent of the population.
Anti-French sentiment grew when France turned over control of the Syrian province of Alexandretta to Turkey.
It was exacerbated by the promise of independence in 1941, which was not delivered until five years later.
Hafez al-Assad, the leader of a radical wing of the Arab Socialist party, the Baath, seized control in 1971.
He cracked down hard on dissent and in 1982 killed thousands of members of the the Muslim Brotherhood opposition organization.
The situation was worsened by the Six Day War against Israel in 1967 and the Black September disagreement with Jordan in 1970.
Beginning in 1095, Syria was a target of the Crusades, but the Arabs ultimately defeated the Christian invaders.
The Turkish Ottoman Empire took control in 1516 and ruled the area for four hundred years.
Syria is the name that was given to the region by the Greeks and Romans and probably derives from the Babylonian suri.
Arabs traditionally referred to Syria and a large, vaguely defined surrounding area as Sham, which translates as "the northern region," "the north," "Syria," or "Damascus." Arabs continued to refer to the area as Sham up until the twentieth century.