How do we understand the size of Syria?


This inset appears on a CIA map of Syria from 2004. We can assume it’s meant to give the map reader a sense of the size of Syria by comparing it to a region that he or she is familiar with.

I’m fascinated, first, by the assumption that the decision-maker reading the map is located in the mid-Atlantic states, (Washington, presumably). This kind of regionality runs throughout American politics, a geography of where important people live, and where they don’t, that one carries in the memory and consults without even knowing it. 

This is an attempt to make the map *personal* but I almost think it should be captioned, “This might be helpful to you if you happen to live in the northeast.”

The second thing I’m fascinated by is, assuming we have to stick to the northeast USA, would it have been a smarter decision  to have aligned Damascus with Washington, DC? These are the two national capitals. Such a juxtaposition would, in the context of the Syrian Civil War, allow the President to imagine New York no longer doing his bidding, and Providence functioning like an independent state.

CIA inset Washington and Damascus aligned

Perhaps this juxtaposition puts too much of Syria out to sea, but it does put New York City more or less where Raqqa, the ISIS capital, was.

Of course one must always be careful when constructing these comparison maps. In GIS software a polygon (Syria) whose coordinates are in degrees, dragged to another latitude, will be the wrong size. The safer method, which I have used here, is to make separate maps at the same scale of both Syria and the northeast US, and then juxtapose them in a photo editing program (the GIMP, in my case).  Syria is about 780 km from end to end on its long axis, about the distance from Boston to Richmond, Virginia.

This brings up the question of what it means to understand distance. In the original map, what does the distance from, say, Philadelphia to the eastern tip of Tennessee, mean to people living in Washington? I suspect they rarely go very far to the southwest from the city, and when they do they experience slow, twisting roads that have difficulty passing through the Appalachian mountains. So if the Washington-dweller says “It would take me six hours to drive to the tip of Tennessee!” is there anything meaningful at all there for his understanding of Syria?

I kind of prefer this juxtaposition, both for the similarity of desert landscape, and the sense of distance.

CIA inset LA and Damascus aligned

Los Angeles stands in for Damascus here, and Las Vegas finds itself somewhere up on the Euphrates. (“Las Vegas on the Euphrates” is not yet, but may someday be, the tourism slogan of Deir Ez-Zur or Raqqa.) If you are familiar with the distances and deserts of the American southwest, it is remarkable how much smaller Syria looks when shown like this.

Of course, as Appalachian Trail hikers know, there happens to be a town in Virginia called Damascus. It’s actually right there, just across the border from that eastern tip of Tennessee. So perhaps the best juxtaposition of all aligns Damascus, Virginia, with Damascus, Syria.

CIA inset Damascus and Damascus aligned