Compared to many other developing nations, Syria is heavily urban, as approximately 50 percent of the population lives in cities. In addition, it is estimated that 70 percent of the townsmen live in the two largest urban centers.
Social structure in Syrian cities seems to be in a state of transition. The traditional city--built around a small, wealthy landowning and industrial elite, craft and artisan guilds, and small merchants--has been decisively undermined by political, economic, and technological changes. However, a cohesive structure based on modern secular education, technology, and class alignments has not yet developed. Many of the values associated with the traditional system endure and strongly influence the population, although admiration for modern values and techniques is increasing.
Cities are commonly composed of several architecturally distinct sections, which represent different periods of history and, to some extent, different ways of life. The very ancient core of a city, often of the pre-Greek or pre-Roman period, houses many of the groups longest settled there. Sections were added during Greek, Roman, and medieval times; these traditional sections also house both majority and minority groups oriented to traditional life. The suq (the traditional market), with its small specialized artisan shops, is a prominent feature of the old city. In addition, cities have a relatively new section, often built on modern European lines by French architectural firms, that houses families and enterprises most closely identified with modern technology and values.
In keeping with the significance of the religious community in Syrian life, cities were traditionally organized into ethnic and religious residential quarters. Members of all faiths still tend to reside with their coreligionists, and a quarter functions as a small community within the larger urban environment.
A residential quarter traditionally had its own mosque or other religious structure, shops, and coffeehouses where the men met, as well as a mukhtar (mayor) who represented it to the outside society and was ordinarily a man of some importance in city politics. Families of all economic positions lived in the quarter appropriate to their religious or ethnic group. In relations within the quarter, family connections, personal reputation, and honor carried more weight than financial standing, although it was of course a factor. Individuals of varying financial positions dealt with one another on a personal basis, with wealthier and more prominent residents assuming leadership.
As new sections and suburbs with more spacious and modern residences were constructed, many of the wealthier families of the various quarters moved there, causing a breakdown in the structure of the old quarters. In the new areas, residential segregation follows economic class rather than religion or ethnicity. As a consequence, the old quarters were robbed of much of their traditional leadership, and the estrangement developing between the tradition-minded masses and the modern-oriented new middle class was exacerbated. An additional factor in the breakdown of the old quarters was the large influx of rural migrants to cities and the resulting tremendous demand for housing.
In the late 1980s, information on the urban upper and middle classes was inconclusive. The old elite appeared to have declined markedly in prestige, power, and influence. In addition, the emigration of professional, commercial, and technical persons undoubtedly had an effect on urban life. It is unlikely, however, that small trading or artisan establishments were greatly affected by the social changes of the 1960s, although future opportunities in these fields seemed to have contracted.
It appears that a middle class, based on education, profession, income, and style of life, is in the process of forming, but its formation is far from complete. The many disparate elements composing it, including government officials, technicians, clerks, professionals, merchants, and traders, come from a variety of social backgrounds and do not share a class consciousness or set of values. The traditional commercial classes had aspired to the life of the old elite; however, the new middle class of education and expertise seeks an entirely different way of life. This group values scientific rather than traditional knowledge, instrumental control of nature rather than passive reliance on the deity, modernity rather than tradition, individual initiative rather than family solidarity, and upward mobility rather than stability.
The urban lower class is also a mixed group, ranging from a comparatively small segment of skilled industrial workers to messengers, domestic workers, and others similarly employed. Industrial workers (skilled, semiskilled, and unskilled) have been located primarily in Damascus and Aleppo, although they are increasing in other towns, among them Latakia. Because of the comparative recency of industrialization in Syria, most industrial workers come from rural areas and any expansion of industry under the revolutionary regime is likely, for a time, to bring other rural people into the cities. The development of Syria's oil resources in the extreme northeast should help, however, to diffuse the industrial working class over a wider area.
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