Official name: Syrian Arab Republic
Area: 185,180 square kilometers (71,498 square miles)
Highest point on mainland: Mount Hermon (2,814 meters/9,232 feet)
Lowest point on land: Unnamed location near Lake Tiberis (200 meters/656 feet below sea level)
Hemispheres: Northern and Eastern
Time zone: 2 P.M. = noon GMT
Longest distances: 793 kilometers (493 miles) from east-northeast to west-southwest; 431 kilometers (268 miles) from south-southeast to north-northwest
Land boundaries: 2,253 kilometers (1,400 miles) total boundary length; Iraq 605 kilometers (376 miles); Israel 76 kilometers (47 miles); Jordan 375 kilometers (233 miles); Lebanon 375 kilometers (233 miles); Turkey 822 kilometers (511 miles)
Coastline: 193 kilometers (120 miles)
Territorial sea limits: 65 kilometers (35 nautical miles)
Syria is located in southwest Asia between the countries of Lebanon and Turkey, in the region of the Middle East. The country borders the Mediterranean Sea and also shares boundaries with Iraq, Jordan, and Israel. With a total area of about 185,180 square kilometers (71,498 square miles), the country is slightly larger than the state of North Dakota. Syria is divided into fourteen provinces.
Syria has no outside territories or dependencies; as of early 2003, however, the country was in a dispute with Israel over the area known as the Golan Heights.
Syria has a mostly desert climate. East of the Anti-Lebanon ridges, Syria has hot days that can reach temperatures as high as 38°C (100°F) to 43°C (109°F). By contrast, nights are cool and winters are fairly cold, with temperatures falling to frost levels. The coastal hills along the Mediterranean enjoy a moderate climate; on the highest peaks, snow may be found from late December to April.
Although Syria's average annual rainfall is less than 25 centimeters (10 inches), as much as 100 centimeters (39 inches) of rain falls on the coastal plains, mountains, and on parts of the steppe east of the Homs Gap. Annual rainfall totals ranging from 20 centimeters to 38 centimeters (8 to 15 inches) are not uncommon on the southern steppe of the Fertile Crescent. Rainfall diminishes greatly in the eastern desert, but increases in the extreme east.
The terrain of Syria consists of a fairly narrow series of mountain ranges in the west, which gives way to a broad plateau sloping gently toward the east and bisected by the Euphrates River valley. Syria's western mountain slopes catch moisture-laden winds from the Mediterranean Sea; thus, they are more fertile and more heavily populated than the eastern slopes, which receive only hot, dry winds blowing across the desert.
Northeast of the Euphrates River, which originates in the mountains of Turkey and flows diagonally across Syria into Iraq, is the fertile Al Jazīrah region, watered by the tributaries of the Euphrates.
Syria has a short, narrow coast along the Mediterranean Sea.
Sand dunes cover the coastal region; lateral promontories, running down from the mountains to the sea, form the only interruptions in the flat shoreline.
The largest inland body of water is the artificial Lake Al-Asad (Buhayrat al Assad), a body of water about 80 kilometers (50 miles) in length and averaging 8 kilometers (5 miles) in width. The Euphrates dam, built in 1973 upstream from Ar Raqqah, created this lake.
The country's waterways are of vital importance to its agricultural development. The longest and most important river is the Euphrates, extending some 3,956 kilometers (2,235 miles), which provides more than 80 percent of the country's water resources. Its main left-bank tributaries, the Balīkh and the Khābūr, are both major rivers in their own right and also rise in Turkey. The right-bank tributaries of the Euphrates River, however, are small seasonal streams called wadis. The Tigris River flows along the northeastern border for a short distance.
Throughout the plateau region east of Damascus, oases, streams, and a few interior rivers that empty into swamps and small lakes provide water for local irrigation. The most important of these is the Barada, a river that rises in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains and disappears into the desert. The Barada River creates the Al Ghutah Oasis, the site of Damascus. This verdant land, which covers some 30 square kilometers (11.5 square miles), has enabled Damascus to prosper since ancient times.
Areas in the Al Jazīrah have been brought under cultivation with the waters of the Khābūr River (Nahr al Khābūr). The Sinn, a minor river in the northwest, is used to irrigate the area west of the An Nuşayrīyah, while the Orontes River waters the area east of these mountains. In the south, the springs that feed the upper Yarmūk are diverted to irrigate the Hawran Plateau.
Underground water reservoirs that are mainly natural springs are tapped for both irrigation and drinking water. The Al Ghab region is richest in underground water resources and contains nineteen major springs and underground rivers that have a combined flow rate of thousands of liters per minute.
Most of eastern Syria is part of the Syrian Desert, which is barren except for those areas in which rivers allow irrigated cultivation. All of the country west of the Euphrates and south of the central mountain ranges is part of the barren desert region called Hamad. North of the mountains and east of the city of Homs is another barren area known as the Horns Desert, which has a hard-packed dirt surface. Even the Al Jazīrah "island" land between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers is predominately desert.
The steppes of the western side of the Jabal Druze are part of the great Fertile Crescent; these lands are either cultivated or covered with seasonal grasses. The coastal strip is also home to wild grasses and shrubs such as tama-risk and buckthorn. Salt flats in the northeast include Rawdah and Al-Burghūth.
Along the coast, parallel to the Mediterranean, a range of high hills moderates the humidity and cooler temperatures coming off the water. This effect is restricted to the narrow coastal belt. Several other ranges of hills, fanning out gradually to the southwest, lie east of the Orontes River.
Homs Gap is a corridor between the An Nuşayrīyah Mountains and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains. For centuries, Homs Gap has been a favorite trade and invasion route from the coast to the country's interior and onward to other parts of Asia. To the east, the line of the An Nuşayrīyah is separated from the Jabal az Zawiyah range and the plateau region by the Al Ghab depression, a fertile, irrigated trench crossed by the meandering Orontes River.
The An Nuşayrīyah Mountains (Jabal an Nuşayrīyah), a range paralleling the coast in the northwest, have average elevations of just over 1,212 meters (3,976 feet). The highest peak in this range, Nabi Yunis, rises to about 1,575 meters (5,167 feet).
The term "Middle East" was coined by western Europeans as a geographic designation for those countries of southwest Asia and northeast Africa that stretch from the Mediterranean Sea to the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan, including the Arabian Peninsula. This area was considered to be the midpoint between Europe and East Asia, usually called the Far East.
In a cultural sense, the term sometimes refers to all the countries of that general region that are primarily Islamic. In this sense, the Middle East includes the countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as some of the North African countries that border the Arabian Peninsula.
Inland and farther south, the Anti-Lebanon Mountains rise to peaks of over 2,700 meters (8,858 feet) on the Syrian-Lebanese frontier and spread in spurs eastward toward the plateau region. The eastern slopes have little rainfall and vegetation, eventually merging with the desert.
In the southwest is the country's highest peak, Mount Hermon (Jabal ash Shaykh; 2,814 meters/9,232 feet), also on the border between Syria and Lebanon. All but the lowest slopes of Mount Hermon are uninhabited. Southeast of the Hawran Plateau lies the high volcanic region of the Jabal Druze range, home of the country's Druze population. The volcanoes, mostly unnamed, are extinct. The entire eastern plateau region is intersected by a low chain of mountains, the Jabal ar-Ruwāq, the Jabal Abū Rujmayn, and the Jabal Bishrī, extending northeastward from the Jabal Druze to the Euphrates River.
There are many natural caves throughout the mountain regions of Syria. These caves have served as homes for the area's earliest inhabitants, provided refuge during invasions, and become burial grounds. Archaeologists have found a variety of tools and bones in Syrian caves.
Hawran Plateau, frequently referred to as the Hawran, is a broad, expansive steppe situated south of Damascus and east of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains. The Hawran receives rain-bearing winds from the Mediterranean. Volcanic cones as high as 900 meters (2,952 feet) intersperse the open, rolling, once-fertile plateau.
The Euphrates Dam (70 meters/230 feet high) created Lake Al-Asad, the largest inland body of water in Syria. The dam was built to aid in irrigation and to produce hydroelectric power.
The northeastern part of Syria lies in the ancient region of Mesopotamia. The name means "between rivers," and it refers to the territory between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The region extends from the Persian Gulf north to the mountains of Armenia and from the Zagros and Kurdish Mountains of Iran and Turkey to the Syrian Desert. This area has been nicknamed "the cradle of civilization" because it was home to the ancient empires of Babylon, Sumer, and Assyria, among others. The Tigris and the Euphrates are also two of the four rivers mentioned in the biblical story of Eden.
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