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SYRIA

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    Straddling crossroads of trade for 4,500 years, the ancient city of Aleppo, with its hilltop Citadel, avoided demolition plans and was named a World Heritage spot by UNESCO in 1986. The refurbished Citadel is one of Aleppo's main attractions for both foreign and local tourists.
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    Now a tourist attraction, Aleppo’s Citadel has witnessed the rise and fall of a dozen empires.
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    The Greco-Roman ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra still stand majestically in the desert in central Syria. These ruins date back more than two thousand years and are one of Syria's main tourist attractions.
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    A very conservative section of Aleppo’s Old City, the Qalat Sharif neighborhood is where the Agha Khan Trust For Culture has developed an outreach program to bring dropout kids back to school.
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    A street seller in the city Center of Aleppo.
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    Freewheeling Aleppo, in northern Syria, is a historic trading center that today specializes in textiles and glassware--and having a good time.
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    At the center of the largest Iraqi area in Damascus, is the Sayida Zainab Mosque. The mausoleum is said to be the traditional resting place of Zainab, the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammed and daughter of Ali, Islam’s fourth caliph. More than half a million Iranian tourists, worshippers, and religious pilgrims come to Syria every year to worship at one of the holiest sites for Shiites.
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    Men pray inside the Sayida Zainab Mosque.
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    As Ramadan nears its end, The Night of Power, when verses of the Koran are read, takes place at The Omayyad Mosque. This mosque is one of the most important places in the world for Islam and sits at the heart of the Old City of Damascus.
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    Chosen as the 2008 Arab Capital of Culture, Damascus and its 1.6 million residents are witnessing the merging of the traditional past with modern lifestyles.
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    In celebration of the first day of Eid Al-Fitr and the end of Ramadan, young Damascenes gather to socialize, smoke hookahs, and enjoy the view of Damascus from a cafe atop Mount Qassion.
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    Syrian Catholics prepare for Easter by celebrating Holy or Secret Thursday at the Catholic Patriarch Church in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Damascus.
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    With more than half of Syria’s population under age 24, mirrors from a shop in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Damascus reflect images of traditional head scarves mixed with young faces and trendy clothing illustrating the diversity of modern Syria.
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    Military police on patrol in downtown Damascus.
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    Men gather to socialize and smoke hookah pipes at a cafe in the heart of the Old City of Damascus.
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    Muslims from all over Damascus visit an amusement park set up to celebrate the holiday of Eid Al-Fitr, the first day after the end of Ramadan.
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    Established in 1169 AD, the Nour Al-Din Al-Shaheed hammam, one of Damascus' oldest public bathhouses, provides a place for fathers and sons to enjoy the ancient ritual of baths.
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    At the all girls Assat Al Thania public primary school in Sayyida Zeineb district, Syrian and Iraqi children learn together. A third of the students at this school are Iraqi, demonstrating Syria's dedication to making sure Iraqi refugees receive an education and feel integrated into society.
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    A young girl works at the chalkboard at the Assat Al Thania public primary school where Syrian and Iraqi children learn together.
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    In Damascus, neighbors look on as a lamb is slaughtered to celebrate the return of a 'haji' from his pilgrimage to Mecca.
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    Cotton, one of Syria's largest cash crops, is picked by local villagers working as day laborers in the village of Erry Shamaly near Idlib.
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    The Wahda Gin Factory is an old, government-owned cotton processing mill in Aleppo. Due to Syria's water shortage, the 2008 cotton harvest was only a third of the size of the previous year.
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    Syria’s first and largest private university built to compete with public schools where training is reserved for champion test-takers and the politically connected, the University of Kalamoon has almost 5,000 students including these pupils focused on drilling pain-free plastic dental patients.
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    Representing another step toward privatization, the Damascus Securities Exchange opened in March 2009 with seven companies listed. As part of the opening up of the economy by President Bashar Al Assad, the purpose of this exchange is to encourage investment in Syria and open new channels of growth.
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    This television production is financed by an Abu Dhabi company but staffed and directed by Syrians. With the Kalamoon mountains as a backdrop, the show about the lives of bedouin women is filmed using real bedouins and Syrian actors, including one of Syria's best known actresses, Maysoun Abu Khater.
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    Portraits of Basil, Hafez, and Bashar Al Assad adorn the town of Bikrama in the Alawite Mountains.
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    Through the use of bullhorns shouting patriotic slogans and exchanging gossip, residents in the village of Ein Altineh share their April 17 Syrian Independence Day celebrations with the village of Majdal Shams. Although living across the demilitarized valley in Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the residents of Majdal Shams remain Syrians citizens.
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    Qardaha, a town in the Alawite Mountains near the coast, is the birthplace and burial location of former president Hafez Al Assad. 'The Tomb of the Immortal Leader Hafez Al Assad' is visited by dignitaries, military personnel, and citizens on his birthday and the anniversary of the October War.
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    A portrait of President Bashar Al Assad looms over the main highway entering the city of Aleppo.
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    Located in southwestern Syria, Damascus, the capital and largest city in Syria, is widely known as the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.
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    Saudi tourists take in the view of Damascus and drink beer at a cafe on Mt. Qassion.
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    A Bedouin family returns each spring to graze its herd on the stubble left by wheat harvests in the Al Ghab Valley, the breadbasket of Syria.
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    A city of wheat rises from the Syrian desert near Al Qamishli, where sacks of grain await distribution. Syria is a net importer of agricultural products despite its surplus.
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    Children play among the domed-roofs of Am Al Aboud, an ancient village in the Halab region that has conserved its traditional architecture.
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    Dusk settles on Damascus.
Syria

As Syria steps out of the shadows of isolation and auditions for a larger role on the world stage, it has become increasingly important to understand its significance in the murky politics of the Middle East. Although the United States and much of the West have refrained from engaging Syria, its 2008 inclusion in the Paris Summit and renewed talks with Israel are signs of change.

Syria was once the center of the Islamic Empire, and Damascus is one of the oldest and most celebrated cities on earth. Historically Syria has always belonged to someone else: the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Mongols, Ottomans and French have all laid claim to this land possessing one of the world’s oldest civilizations. And since its independence in 1946, Syria has lurched from one military ruler to the next, until strongman Hafez al-Assad took control in 1970.

From these fractured beginnings, Syria remains a largely secular nation somewhat precariously ruled since 2000 by Assad’s son, Bashar al-Assad. He holds together a conglomeration of ethnic groups that include a mostly moderate Sunni majority (70 percent), Shia, Druze, Armenians, Kurds, Assyrians, Arab Christians and the small but powerful ruling Alawites. Further complicating this mix is the recent addition of roughly two million Iraqi refugees, Palestinian refugees and the growing presence of diplomats and businessmen from Iran.

Against this rich backdrop of history and culture, Syria’s mosaic of diversity may be where the road to peace in the region begins.

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