The Syrian Arab Republic revels in its antiquity, having been inhabited for tens of thousands of years - and in the variation and cultural riches that such antiquity has brought it. This is a country that preserves scores of relics documenting the rise and fall of different civilisations, and which continues to welcome such diversity.
Syria was once regarded as a frontier region, bordered to the east by the Arabs and Persians. The Persian invasions were repulsed but Syria eventually fell to the Muslims in the mid-seventh century. From then on, Syria was to be firmly part of the Muslim world, although retaining Christian and Jewish populations. Muslim control of Syria was vital to the defeat of the Christians and their expulsion from Jerusalem. Even when the terrifying force of the 13th-century Mongols was unleashed on Syria, their massive Hulagu army was eventually defeated at the Battle of Goliath's Well - a victory that, in retrospect, must be seen as one of the world's most decisive military engagements, preventing both the Muslim world - and the Christian one - from certain doom.
Today, Syria's Islamic identity is as central to the country as its Arab roots. Such doctrine over-spilled into Arab nationalism in the 1950s - indeed, Nasser's revolution in Egypt prompted Syria to join Egypt in the United Arab Republic. However, the alliance was short-lived, Syria seceding in 1961 to form the Syrian Arab Republic. Since then, Syria has been ruled at the head of a tightly controlled dictatorship. Even when General Hafez al-Assad of the Ba'ath Party (or Arab Socialist Renaissance) died in 2000, and his son Bashar assumed headship, Western hopes that the country would pursue a more pro-Western line proved misguided - in the vocabulary of the US Bush administration, the Syrian Arab Republic is a 'state of concern' (one level below the 'axis of evil').
Although Syria pulled its forces out of Lebanon in 2005 after being implicated by a UN report for the assassination of former Lebanese premier, Rafik Hariri (Syrian troops have remained there ever since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, in a (successful) attempt to prevent the expansion of Israel, and to counterbalance Israeli military might in the region), relations with numerous Western states remains fragile.
In short, the Syrian Arab Republic's long history is littered with dramatic episodes, from being subsumed into past empires (Babylonians, Canaanites, Assyrians, Phoenicians, and so on) to more recent events, such as Napoleon's campaign in 1799/1800, the Egyptian invasion in the 1830s and the insurrection in 1860-61. However, such battles and scrambles over territory have translated into a catalogue of staggering cities full of stunning monuments, from the entire city of Damascus to the country's many mosques. The events have also failed to impair the character of the Syrian people who - surprisingly to some - exude friendliness and warmth, and are justly proud of their land.