Syria is home to one of the oldest and most advanced civilizations in the world. While Arab Muslims and Christians make up the majority of the population (22 million pre-conflict), Syria is a vividly diverse country with Kurds, Armenians, and Turkomans comprising the major cohabitant minority groups. Ethnic identity and native tongue are closely tied in Syria and as such all Syrians speak colloquial Arabic – known as Levantine or Shami Arabic – and a great majority can read and write Modern Standard Arabic. In pre-conflict Syria, there was a small but significant professional class made up of doctors, bureaucrats, teachers, university professors, and social activists and workers, among others. Even though the arts have been heavily controlled by the state, Syria was known worldwide for its artists, musicians, writers, and actors.
In keeping with most surrounding Arab societies, the Syrian society is governed by patriarchy with families under control of the oldest men. Women are generally viewed as needing protection, particularly from unrelated men. Families in Syria are large and extended with the males being the decision-makers while the women engage in familial negotiations to make their voices heard. Although the war has fuelled ethnic and religious tensions, Syrians generally lived amicably with members of other faiths and ethnicities. Now ravaged by years of conflict, the country has been an amalgam of historical and cultural treasures such as the Great Mosque of Damascus where the head of John the Baptist is said to have been enshrined. A village named Maloula is one of the last places on earth where the ancient language of Aramaic still survives as a spoken language. Syria is home to several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, one of them being the mosque as Homs named after Khalid ibn-Al Walid, companion to the Prophet Mohammad.