The best books that capture the essence of Syria and its people

Why am I passionate about this?

I'm a social anthropologist who has lived, dreamed, and worked in Syria most of her life. Having spent my childhood in Damascus I always yearned to return. After completing my PhD at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the economy of modern Bedouin Tribes, I won a Fulbright award to teach at the University of Damascus. Since then, Damascus has been at the centre of my academic and social life. I met my husband there, a British helicopter pilot, sent there to learn Arabic. I'm an emeritus professor of anthropology and forced migration at the University of Oxford and my research has been on the forced migrant communities who make up Syria’s cosmopolitan society.


I wrote...

Syria: The Making and Unmaking of a Refuge State

By Dawn Chatty,

Book cover of Syria: The Making and Unmaking of a Refuge State

What is my book about?

Dawn Chatty explores how modern Syria came to be a refuge state, focusing first on the major forced migrations into Syria of Circassians, Armenians, Kurds, Palestinians, and Iraqis. Drawing heavily on individual narratives and stories of integration, adaptation, and compromise, she shows that a local cosmopolitanism came to be seen as intrinsic to Syrian society. She examines the current outflow of people from Syria to neighbouring states as individuals and families seek survival with dignity, arguing that though the future remains uncertain, the resilience and strength of Syrian society both displaced internally within Syria and externally across borders bodes well for successful return and reintegration.

If there is any hope to be found in the Syrian civil war, it is in this history.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Mirror to Damascus

Dawn Chatty Why did I love this book?

I found this book in a bookstore in Damascus in 1977 during a two-year Fulbright teaching post at the University of Damascus. Far more than a travel writer’s account of the city – the first in maybe 100 years it was a ‘love note’ to a city that had enchanted the young traveler. Reading it opened my eyes to the immense charm of the city and many of its secrets. Colin Thurbon returned to Damascus 50 years later in 2017 and found the city empty of tourists again. The first time, because it had not yet been ‘discovered’  by European tourists, and the second time because all the tourists had left. But the old city was much unchanged by the Syrian civil war with only limited damage to the Tomb of Salaheddin next to the monumental and breathtakingly beautiful Umayyad mosque.  

By Colin Thubron,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mirror to Damascus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A 50th anniversary edition of Colin Thubron's celebrated first book, a portrait of Syria's capital city, with a new introduction by the author.

Described by the author as simply 'a work of love', Mirror to Damascus provides a rich and fascinating history of Damascus from the Amorites of the Bible to the revolution of 1966, and is also a charming and witty personal record of an extraordinary city.

In explaining how modern Damascus is rooted in immemorial layers of culture and tradition, Colin Thubron explores the historical, artistic, social and religious inheritance of its people. Along the way, he shares…


Book cover of Syria: The Desert and the Sown

Dawn Chatty Why did I love this book?

The Desert and the Sown is perhaps the most personal of all Gertrude Bell’s travel books revealing a deeply affectionate engagement with the people and places of Syria. It is the first of her books that I read while researching the subject of Bedouin tribes in early 20th century Syria. I wanted to know what connection the Bedouin tribal elites had to the major trading cities such as Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo. There, in her description of Damascus, she revealed the evidence I had been looking for: “In Damascus the sheikhs of the richer tribes have their townhouses; you may meet Muhammad of the Hasene or Bassan of the Beni Rashid peacocking down the bazaars on a fine Friday; in embroidered cloaks and purple and silver kerchiefs fastened about their brows with camel’s hair ropes bound with gold…” I can just see those tribal leaders now in my mind’s eye strutting through the Street Called Straight to the wool market or in the 21st century driving their expensive sports cars up and down the modern boulevards of the city.  

By Gertrude Bell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Syria as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'You may rely upon one thing - I'll never engage in creating kings again; it's too great a strain.'

Gertrude Bell - traveller, scholar, archaeologist, spy - was one of the most powerful figures in the Middle East in the 20th century. With T.E. Lawrence, she was a significant force behind the Arab Revolt and was responsible for creating the boundaries of the modern state of Iraq, as well as installing the Hashemite dynasty, with Faisal I as king, in Iraq and Transjordan. Her knowledge of the Arab world was forged through decades of travel and the relationships she built…


Book cover of The Merchant of Syria: A History of Survival

Dawn Chatty Why did I love this book?

Diana and I published our books with Hurst Publishers at the same time and we shared many book launch events. Her book focuses on one man, Abu Chaker, and uncovers his amazing resilience and business acumen as he moves through life twice losing everything he had. He arrives in England to invest in and revive a struggling textile mill. It is a remarkable story repeated many times by other enterprising Syrian merchants and gives the rich history of a nation built on trade. Over millennia Syria has seen great conflict and turmoil, but like the remarkable story of The Merchant of Syria, it continues to survive.

By Diana Darke,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Merchant of Syria as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Merchant of Syria tells the life of Abu Chaker, a cloth merchant from Homs who lived from 1921 to 2013. Barely literate, he nevertheless built up a commercial empire based on trust, then lost everything twice through political instability and war, before coming to northern England as an economic migrant. The climax of this devout Sunni Muslim's tumultuous life was to buy and save a Yorkshire wool mill, which still serves as the headquarters of the textile manufacturing company he turned into a global brand. Standing on Little Horton Lane in Bradford, Briggella Mill continues to manufacture the finest…


Book cover of Beautiful Agitation: Modern Painting and Politics in Syria

Dawn Chatty Why did I love this book?

This is a truly remarkable work. I was expecting a straightforward book of art but discovered a wonderful portrait of Syria in the 20th century. It is an original, creative, and deeply contextualized lens into the modern political history of Greater Syria. It successfully brings natural Syria, Bilad al Sham, into our frame of reference through the work of three main artists: Khalil Gibran, Adham Ismail, and Fateh al Moudarres. In its early chapters, it skillfully describes and analyses Syria’s interface with the late Ottoman period. The Interwar Mandate period is particularly well researched and articulated in drawing Syrian plastic arts into view, as France and other European diplomats, philosophers, and anthropologists’ influenced individual Syrian poets, and philosophers either during their sojourns in Europe or at home in Syria. Beautiful Agitation is an enchanting read, scholarly and lively, making sense for the first time of important Syrian artists’ lives in the context of an era that saw dramatic political, social, and economic change over a period of fifty years in the  20th century.  

By Anneka Lenssen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Beautiful Agitation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In modern Syria, a contested territory at the intersection of differing regimes of political representation, artists ventured to develop strikingly new kinds of painting to link their images to life forces and agitated energies. Examining the works of artists Kahlil Gibran, Adham Ismail, and Fateh al-Moudarres, Beautiful Agitation explores how painters in Syria activated the mutability of form to rethink relationships of figure to ground, outward appearance to inner presence, and self to world. Drawing on archival materials in Syria and beyond, Anneka Lenssen reveals new trajectories of painterly practice in a twentieth century defined by shifting media technologies, moving…


Book cover of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War

Dawn Chatty Why did I love this book?

I cannot ignore the turmoil that has become Syria over the past decade. Many books have appeared about the peaceful demonstrations that turned violent and a civil war and a proxy war for Iran, Russia, the US, and various Arab states. This book provides a detailed history of how Syria descended into such violence.  It gave me a detailed understanding of how the ‘Opposition’ to the Asad government emerged in the country. And engages with the stories of the Opposition fighters in their exile in adjacent countries. Concluding that the war is not yet over, it provides some hope for those of us who watch from a distance as Russia and Iran reposition and redeploy in response to other critical global events.  

By Robin Yassin-Kassab, Leila Al-Shami,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Burning Country as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

*Shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize 2017*

In 2011, many Syrians took to the streets of Damascus to demand the overthrow of the government of Bashar al-Assad. Today, much of Syria has become a war zone where foreign journalists find it almost impossible to report on life in this devastated land.

Burning Country explores the horrific and complicated reality of life in present-day Syria with unprecedented detail and sophistication, drawing on new first hand testimonies from opposition fighters, exiles lost in an archipelago of refugee camps, and courageous human rights activists among many others. These stories are expertly interwoven with…


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Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

By Kathleen DuVal,

Book cover of Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

Kathleen DuVal Author Of Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a professional historian and life-long lover of early American history. My fascination with the American Revolution began during the bicentennial in 1976, when my family traveled across the country for celebrations in Williamsburg and Philadelphia. That history, though, seemed disconnected to the place I grew up—Arkansas—so when I went to graduate school in history, I researched in French and Spanish archives to learn about their eighteenth-century interactions with Arkansas’s Native nations, the Osages and Quapaws. Now I teach early American history and Native American history at UNC-Chapel Hill and have written several books on how Native American, European, and African people interacted across North America.

Kathleen's book list on the American Revolution beyond the Founding Fathers

What is my book about?

A magisterial history of Indigenous North America that places the power of Native nations at its center, telling their story from the rise of ancient cities more than a thousand years ago to fights for sovereignty that continue today

Native Nations: A Millennium in North America

By Kathleen DuVal,

What is this book about?

Long before the colonization of North America, Indigenous Americans built diverse civilizations and adapted to a changing world in ways that reverberated globally. And, as award-winning historian Kathleen DuVal vividly recounts, when Europeans did arrive, no civilization came to a halt because of a few wandering explorers, even when the strangers came well armed.

A millennium ago, North American cities rivaled urban centers around the world in size. Then, following a period of climate change and instability, numerous smaller nations emerged, moving away from rather than toward urbanization. From this urban past, egalitarian government structures, diplomacy, and complex economies spread…


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Interested in Syria, Damascus, and painting?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Syria, Damascus, and painting.

Syria Explore 51 books about Syria
Damascus Explore 14 books about Damascus
Painting Explore 57 books about painting