The dedication of the Syrian Cultural Garden on May 29, 2011, marked the first Arab American presence in the Cultural Gardens. This garden had been more than eighty years in the making from the original award for the land for a Syrian garden in 1929 to its dedication. Despite being an early recipient of a garden plot, it is unknown why the garden was never built. However, there was a growing Syrian population in Cleveland around the time that the gardens were being created.
The first wave of Syrian immigrants that would make up the Syrian community in Cleveland arrived in the 1890s and peaked by the 1910s. Many Syrian American immigrants came from agricultural villages and towns that surrounded Beirut and Damascus. The majority came from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, also known in antiquity as Coele-Syria. Most came from the towns of Zahle and Aiteneet, while others came from Aramoon and Kuba in northern Lebanon. Many of the early immigrants during the late nineteenth century into the early twentieth century were Christians.
The first Syrian immigrant believed to have arrived in Cleveland was named Salim Farres. He was a peddler who eventually purchased a storefront on Woodland Avenue that sold threads, needles, and other assorted items to small dealers and other Syrian peddlers in northern Ohio. Syrian immigrants often began in unskilled labor as peddlers, factory workers, and in construction. Over time, they established their own small businesses, including retail shops, grocery stores, produce stands, restaurants, and contracting firms. Most of the early settlers lived just south of downtown in the Haymarket district, notably on Carnegie, Orange, Webster, and Woodland Avenues. They also established significant populations on Bolivar Road, areas between East 9th and East 22nd Streets, and on the near west side in old Ohio City and across the Central Viaduct in Tremont.
The Caraboolads and Ottos were two pioneering Syrian families to immigrate to Cleveland. Salim Caraboolad moved to Cleveland in 1892 and married Najeebie Otto in 1893. In 1898, he organized and became the first president of the St. George Society, a fraternal organization that helped new immigrants settle in Cleveland. With help from the St. George Society, Mr. Caraboolad eventually founded the first Syrian American church in Cleveland in 1905, St. Elias Church. In the early twentieth century, many of the Syrian immigrants in Cleveland were Catholics of the Melkite Rite, an eastern rite of Catholicism. Originally known as the “Church of the Syrian Catholics,” the parish at St. Elias first located on Webster Avenue. As the congregation grew, the parish moved to Scranton Road after purchasing the South Presbyterian Church in 1937. It moved again to Memphis Avenue in Brooklyn in 1965 where the church still exists today. St. Elias Church was the first Melkite parish within a 500-mile radius of Cleveland, the first outside of New York, and the third in the United States.
The first World War sparked another wave of immigration to Cleveland, but the Quota Acts of 1921 and 1924 restricted immigration of many nationalities into the country. Many Syrian Americans in Cleveland moved outwards to the suburbs and surrounding neighborhoods during this time as well. By the 1930s, shortly after the garden plot was awarded, there were more than one thousand Syrian immigrants living in Cleveland proper. During this time, the Syrian community in Cleveland held fundraisers and made attempts to establish their garden plot. By 1934, more than fifteen organizations joined together to form the Syrian Cultural Garden Association. These fundraising events included a benefit gala at the Statler Hotel and the annual dance for Syrians held by the Syrian American Club. Efforts persisted into the 1940s, but despite these early fundraising attempts, the garden remained undeveloped.
However, in 2004, the Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services (AACCESS) rediscovered the plot. They cleaned up the site and worked to garner support from the Syrian American community in Cleveland to begin construction. Located between MLK Jr. and East Boulevards, the garden sits between the American and Hebrew gardens. Designed by graduate students Raghda Helal and Nagham Nano from Damascus University, the garden features many Syrian-influenced design elements.
Entering the garden from East Boulevard, you will pass through Syrian-style arches. These arches were designed to replicate the Arch of Triumph in Palmyra, Syria. Now destroyed, the original arches in Palmyra were built in the late second century into the early third century. Once through the arches, it descends into a Roman-style amphitheater, designed to mimic the ancient amphitheater of Bosra. In the middle of the amphitheater sits an Arabic-style fountain, constructed with traditional Syrian stone colors. The fountain is surrounded by a sixteen-point star design that is a common design in Arabic architecture. Surrounding the amphitheater are six black granite columns or pedestals that detail Syrian history from antiquity to the present. These include achievements like the first alphabet, a history of Syrian immigration in the United States, and the poem “A Message to Young Americans of Syrian Origin” by Khalil Gibran, written in 1919.
The most recent addition to the garden is the bust of Nizar Qabbani. Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998) was a Syrian poet during the mid-to-late twentieth century who tackled themes of romance and politics throughout his work. Formally dedicated to the garden on September 12, 2015, the bust was created by local Syrian American artist Leila Khoury. In addition to the many architectural features, the garden is landscaped with Damascene roses and cedars of Lebanon. These design elements contribute to a beautifully unique scene that captures many elements of Syrian cultural heritage.