Non-Arab Minorities

From the book Minorities in the Arab World , A.H. Hourani. Oxford University Press, 1947.   


The Turkomans are a Turkic-speaking people who moved into Syria from Central Asia. Originally nomadic, they became seminomadic herdsmen in the Jazirah and along the lower reaches of the Euphrates River and settled agriculturalists in the Aleppo area. Although most Turkomans have assumed Arab dress and speak some Arabic, others still speak Turkic and retain some ethnic customs. Because they are Sunni Muslims, the Turkomans are likely to become further assimilated and may eventually disappear as a distinct group.  


Approximately 100,000 Circassians, descendants of Muslim nomads who emigrated to Syria from Caucasus after its nineteenth century conquest by the Russians, live in Syria. About half of them are concentrated in the southwestern Hawran Province. Al Qunaytirah, the provincial capital destroyed in the October 1973 War, was regarded as the Circassian capital; after 1973 many Circassians moved to Damascus.

Circassian village dwellers, who are organized tribally, primarily cultivate grain crops. In addition to farming, they maintain herds of cattle, horses, sheep, and goats; some are blacksmiths and masons, passing on their skills from father to son.

Having resisted assimilation more successfully than the Turkomans, the Circassians retain many customs quite different from those of their Arab neighbors. Until recently they spoke their own language exclusively, but most now speak Arabic as well. At times some Circassians, especially those in Al Qunaytirah, have demanded autonomy, but this is not an issue for most of them. Syrian Arabs still somewhat distrust Circassians because they served as troops for the French during the mandate period (see The French Mandate). In spite of these difficulties, the Circassians gradually are being assimilated into the Arab population, a process facilitated by their being Sunni Muslims.  


The present-day Assyrians, of whom there are about 20,000 in Syria, are Nestorian Christians and speak Syriac, a form of Aramaic, the ancient language spoken throughout the region before the widespread adoption of Arabic. Fleeing persecution in Iraq in 1933, those in Syria settled in the Jazirah near Tall Tamir on the upper Khabur River. The French established this Assyrian settlement with the assistance of the League of Nations, and in 1942 it became an integral part of Syria.

The Assyrian settlement on the Khabur consisted of about 20 villages, primarily agricultural. Although they own irrigated lands, the villagers barely make a living from their farming, possibly because they are former shepherds, not cultivators, and the lands granted to them are poor. Because of their difficult situation, some Assyrians have emigrated.


Jews have been settled in Syria for centuries; at present most are concentrated in Aleppo and Damascus, and some are scattered in towns in the northern Jazirah. Of the estimated 29,000 Jews in Syria in 1943, fewer than 3,000 remained in 1986, according to Israeli sources. Most had emigrated to Israel. Aleppo once had a fairly prosperous jewish community. The Damascus Jewish lives in the Hayy al Yahud (Quarter of the Jews). Most Damascus Jews are peddlers, shopkeepers, moneychangers, or artisans; a few are important professional men, particularly physicians. Although most Syrian Jews publicly dissociate themselves from Zionism and Israel, most other Syrians distrust them, considering them real or potential traitors.


The Armenians are descendants of a people who have lived in Transcaucasia since about the sixth century B.C. The Armenian language has its own alphabet, and belongs to the Indo-European family. 

Armenians have been settled in the Syria and Lebanon for several generations, mostly arriving in successive waves as refugees from Turkey between 1925 and 1945. 

They are predominantly city dwellers, working in trade, the professions, small industry, or crafts; a few are found in government service. About 150,000 Armenians lived in Syria in the mid-1980s. Roughly 75 percent live in Aleppo, where they are a large and commercially important element, and fewer than 20 percent live in the Hayy al Arman (Quarter of the Armenians), a new section of Damascus. Most Armenians belong to the Armenian Orthodox Church, but about 20,000 belong to the Armenian Catholic Church.  

Armenians are the largest unassimilated group in Syria. They retain many of their own customs, maintain their own schools and newspapers. Some leaders adamantly oppose assimilation and stress the maintenance of Armenian identity. 


The Kurds are a non-Arab Sunni Muslim group who live in a contiguous area of Turkey, Iraq, Iran , Syria, and Lebanon.  Their numbers are estimated at 15-20 million.  They have their own language, Kirmanji, which is related to Persian, and their own culture. 

Kurds have lived in the Arab countries for generations, and many more arrived from Turkey between 1924 and 1938, when Mustapha Kemal came to power.  

They fall into different societal groups: some are farmers, some are city dweller, and others are nomads who drive their flocks far into the mountains in the summer and graze them on the lowlands in the winter. Kurds who have left the more isolated villages and entered Arab society have generally adopted the dress and customs of the community in which they live. Urban Kurds engage in a number of occupations, but not generally in commerce. Many are manual laborers. There are some Kurds in the civil service and the army, and a few have attained high rank. Most of the small wealthy group of Kurds derive their income from urban real estate.  

Roughly 35 to 40 percent of Syria’s Kurds live in the foothills of the Taurus Mountains north of Aleppo. An equal number live in the Jazirah,  and around 10% percent in the Hayy al Akrad (Quarter of the Kurds) on the outskirts of Damascus.  

The Kurds make up about 23% of Iraq’s population, they live mostly in the vicinity of Dohuk, Mosul, Erbil, Kirkuk, and Sulaimaniyah in the north of the country. Since the American war on Iraq in 2003, the Kurds have established a separate state in Iraqi Kurdistan.