Syria, a great and ancient land, is being ravaged by civil war, with government forces using heavy weapons against rebels in the major city of Aleppo. Here are some facts about a little-understood people and country:
1 Syria is commonly considered a Muslim country, but it’s about 10 percent Christian. One Syrian in 10 is non-Arab, including large numbers of Kurds and Armenians.
2 The Krak des Chevaliers (“The Fortress of the Knights”) near Homs is considered a wonder of Medieval military architecture and art. It threw off attack after attack during the Crusades, and even two earthquakes failed to dislodge the Knights Hospitallers. But in 1271, a Muslim army captured it in just a month. How? The sultan forged a letter from the Knights’ allies warning them that no relief was on the way, and the defenders negotiated safe passage back to Lebanon.
3 Longtime Syrian leader Hafez Assad was something of a riddle: While orchestrating massacres and repression, he supported a constitution declaring the equality of women under the law. His heir apparent, eldest son Basel, died after driving his Mercedes into a road barrier in the fog. That left younger son Bashar, an eye doctor, to take over. When Hafez died in 2000, Bashar was only 34 — six years under the constitutional minimum for president. No problem: the People’s Assembly lowered the limit.
4 The New York Times reported that the Assad family paid public relations firm Brown Lloyd James $5,000 a month to facilitate Syrian first lady Asma Assad’s March 2011 profile in Vogue headlined “Rose in the Desert.” When Syria’s image became less fashionable, Vogue took the profile off its website.
5 Emails attributed to Bashar and Asma Assad have been revealed by Britain’s Guardian newspaper, depicting the first lady chatting about $4,000 Christian Louboutin heels and the president evading U.S. trade sanctions by getting a third party to order iTunes products, including Chris Brown songs and the video game “Real Racing 2.”
6 One of this century’s most admired people was Syrian-American — and didn’t know it for most of his life. Steve Jobs’ biological parents, University of Wisconsin student Joanne Schieble and Syrian-born teaching assistant Abdulfattah “John” Jandali, gave him up for adoption to Paul and Clara Jobs. While in his 30s, the consumer electronics genius tracked down his birth mother and learned he had a sister, novelist Mona Simpson. Jobs remained estranged from his biological father, who was working as a casino manager in Reno, Nev., when his famous son died last year.
7 Other Americans of Syrian descent are singer-dancer Paula Abdul (who calls herself a “Syrian-Brazilian-Canadian-American”), comedian Jerry Seinfeld (on his mother’s side) and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (on his father’s side). Vic Tayback, who played the diner owner on TV’s “Alice,” was the son of immigrants from Aleppo. And the hero of Dave Eggers’ Hurricane Katrina book “Zeitoun” is Syrian immigrant Abdulrahman Zeitoun.
8 Syria’s capital, Damascus, makes a good claim to be the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city. It is associated with both hard weapons and elegant cloth: Damascus steel and damask weaving.
9 More than a third of Syria’s population is under age 15, and its median age (21.9) is far lower than in most surrounding countries, such as Turkey (28.5), Israel (29.4) and Lebanon (29.8). (The U.S. median age, by comparison, is 36.9.)
10 Syria does poorly in the Corruption Perceptions Index, in which a group called Transparency International uses polls and independent assessments to rank 183 countries on the perceived level of public corruption. No. 1 — viewed as least corrupt — is New Zealand. Tied for No. 182 — worst — are Somalia and North Korea. While the U.S. is 24th, Syria is in the bottom third, tied for 129th. All this talk about corruption reminds us of yet another famous Syrian-American: Antoin “Tony” Rezko, of Blagojevich scandal fame.
Mark Jacob is a deputy metro editor at the Tribune; Stephan Benzkofer is the Tribune’s weekend editor.