In April 1987 the Southwest Asian and North African Studies Program (SWANA) sponsored a conference, "Syria: The Society, Culture, and Polity of a Complex Middle Eastern Nation," held on the campus of the State University of New York at Binghamton. The present book is a product of that effort, assembled by two editors. The first is a social anthropologist, Richard Antoun; the second, Donald Quataert, is a historian of the Ottoman Empire. As we all know, social anthropologists study present behavior and historians examine the past. But this book inverts the natural order; it permits the historian the first word on past events, then the anthropologist's insights through contemporary field research.
Syria clearly is a significant country. It is both a region of major historical consequence and a modern state, playing a vital role in regional and global politics. The area occupied by the modern Syrian state long has been an experimental laboratory in areas of life as diverse as religion and politics. After all, Saul/Paul had his religious crisis on the road to Damascus. It is a less well-known fact that, approximately a thousand years later, the region nurtured the rise of the Druze faith. In the twentieth century, its environment promoted the emergence of Arab nationalism, and later the Ba'th Party, an Arab-Middle Eastern variant on socialism. The ecology of its mountains still shelters a few speakers of millennia-old languages otherwise vanished, while the economy of its plains are now transforming honored tribal patterns of existence. Few would argue against the contemporary importance of Syria. It stands in the center of Arab politics and for years was the coveted prize of Pan-Arab unification schemes. The Ba'th Party born on its soil continues to be important in the political life of the wider Arab world. Syria plays a key role in the major international problems of the area, variously promoting or impeding resolution of the Arab-Israeli and Lebanese crises.
For all its rich diversity and importance, however, the country has been the focus of remarkably little attention by scholars. As any survey