Damascus, Syria is located in a desert oasis east of Lebanon and northwest of Mt Hermon. It is situated on a plateau 680 metres above sea level, bordered by the Anti-Lebanon Mountains to the west, and the desert to the east. It is at the northern end of the King's Highway and is the connection to the Near East.
Damascus is situated at the Ghouta Oasis, fed by the waters of the Baruda River. It was this oasis which first made settlement possible, as the surrounding area would otherwise be uninhabitable.
The old city of Damascus is surrounded by what was once a Roman wall, much rebuilt at various times during the past two millennia. The section between the Gate of Safety (Bab as-Salama) and Thomas Gate (Bab Touma) is the best preserved part of the wall. Other Roman remains include the western gate of the Temple of Jupiter, all that remains of this huge structure from the 3rd century B.C. The Temple gate is situated at the far end of the Souk al-Hamadiyyah and consists of two vast Corinthian columns supporting a decorated lintel.
Damascus has the reputation of being the oldest city in the world though there are no actual records of when Damascus was founded - as records were not kept by its early inhabitants. More recent discoveries suggest that Damascus was first settled ca. 6,000 B.C. but some discoveries suggest that it is older than 8,000 B.C. but we don't know exactly who ruled Damascus at that time. An old story says that its name "Sham" was derived from "Shem" the eldest son of Noah because he chose to live there after the flood.
There is no real knowledge, however, of what Damascus was like at that time. It is unclear what the lifestyle of its peoples was. The documented history of Damascus starts half-way through the second millennium B.C., in the Amorite period. At that time the city became the capital of a small, Aramaean principality. The Aramaeans were Arab people who spoke a northern Arabian dialect of Arabic called Syriac, originated in the Arabian peninsula. Damascus became a focal point for the Aramaean kingdoms, as documented in the Old Testament.
The Assyrian army reached the Syrian-Phoenician coast and Damascus in 732-841 B.C. After many repeated incursions.It is most probable that the remains of the Aramaean city lie buried under the western part of the present day walled city. Excavation of the area is impossible because of the architectural value of the buildings now situated on top of the Aramaean site so information about the layout of the city is sparse.
Then sovereignty passed into the hands of the Assyrians and subsequently to the Neo-Babylonians (Chaldeans) under Nebuchadnezzar in 572 B.C. Babylonian domination was cut short by the Persian king, Cyrus, who took the city in 538 B.C. and made Damascus the capital and military headquarters of the Persian province of Syria. The Macedonian general, Alexander the Great, and his armies swept through Syria and the Persian Empire in 333 B.C., it was the first time that Damascus had come under Western control.Syria became later the heart of a huge empire that included all of Asia Minor up to Iran and Afghanistan.
In 64 B.C., the Roman made Syria a part of the Roman Empire. Certain principalities with large Arab populations, such as Palmyra, were given the right to retain a degree of autonomy. Damascenes became the mercantile middlemen of the Roman Empire, marketing and distributing products between Europe and the Orient. They built an entirely new city over the ruins of the ancient one. As a result, Damascenes products, such as swords, glassware, and cloth, became renowned throughout the Empire. Damascus had gained the distinction of being counted among the ten most prominent cities of the Roman Empire.
It was during this period that Christianity was introduced in Damascus. It had already taken root by the time St. Paul (Saul of Tarsus) arrived in Damascus in approximately 34 A.D. It was on the road to Damascus that he had his vision that left him blinded and convinced him that he should not carry out his mission to arrest the Christians of Damascus. Paul was cured of his blindness by Ananias, who was later canonized. Damascus became an important center for Christians and the Bishop of Damascus became the second most important ecclesiastical figure after the Patriarch of Antioch. With the break-up of the Roman Empire in ca. 395 A.D., Syria became a part of the eastern province of the Byzantine Empire. Strategically placed between Anatolia and Egypt, the two most important provinces of the Byzantine Empire.
635 A.D. was a turning point in the history of Damascus. In March of that year, the city faced the onslaught of the Islamic armies that was very welcomed by the Syrians at large. The Muslim invaders had traveled north from the Arabian peninsula, inspired by their new religion, and had come across a strong opposition (from the Romanians) on their way. Damascus was now subject to an empire of Eastern origin once again, after a thousand years of Western control. There was mass conversion to Islam. The first decades of Islamic rule in Damascus are considered the golden age of the city. Damascus became in effect the capital of an empire that stretched from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to the Indus River basin and from south of France to west of China.
In 661 A.D., Damascus was made the capital of the empire by Muawiya Bin Abu Sufian, who founded the Umayyad Dynasty. This dynasty ruled Damascus for less than a hundred years, but made a significant contribution to the cultural and artistic heritage of the city. In 750 The Abbasids, an Arab family of Meccan origin that had settled in eastern Iraq, put an end to Omayad rule. They transferred the capital of the Islamic Empire to Baghdad, and Damascus became nothing more than a provincial town with a declining population and no political role to play. The Umayyad Dynasty escaped to Andalos (Spain) and rebuild Qutuba, their capital, to be very similar to Damascus. Latter on, Mongols destroyed Damascus while Spain remain on the Damascus's style. During the next three centuries from the Abbasids rule, the physical appearance of Damascus was further scarred by successive assaults and civil strife. Most of the city was burnt down, including the Omayad Mosque (Umawi Masjid).
Damascus was controlled by non-Arabs rulers later. The First Crusade in 1096 invaded Syrian coast and captured one of the holiest cities in Islam, Jerusalem, in 1099. The arabs start to make state extends from Iraq to Egypt and retrieve Jerusalem later.
The period between 1260 and the invasion of Tamurlane in 1400 was one of relative prosperity for Damascus. One after another, the Crusader states fell to the Arabs. In 1400, while the Damascus armies were in the south, Tamurlane took advantage of the cities lack of defenses. His Mongol hordes almost completely destroyed the city and killed everyone they could capture. After a ransom of one million pieces of gold was paid, Tamurlane departed the ruins of Damascus, taking the surviving armorers with him. From thence forward, the famous Damascus swords were to be manufactured in Samarkand.
From 1516 to 1918, Damascus was part of the Ottoman Empire. They have stopped the scientific movement and isolated the Arabs from the outer world. During World War I, the Ottoman Empire sided with the Central Powers and lost. Syrian nationalists, however, conspired against the Turks and assisted Faisal, the son of the Sherif of Mecca, in capturing Damascus. At the end of the war, the Kingdom of Syria, which included Lebanon and Palestine, was proclaimed, and Faisal was crowned king. The kingdom was short-lived, however, as the British had made a separate, secret agreement with the French, giving the latter the right to control Syria after the war. The newly formed League of Nations gave the French the Mandate for Syria, and the French forced Faisal out of power in 1920.
The people of Syria revolted against the French in 1925, 1936, and 1945, but didn't regain their freedom from foreign rule until 1946. Damascus suffered heavy bombardments during the French Mandate. Syria grew up quickly after the independence, and had in 1953 the second strongest economy in Asia (after Japan). Syria tried later to join other arabic states but it failed.
In 1963 The Baa'th socialist party took control over Syria by military coup and started a new era in the Syrian history.
The most impressive mosque in Damascus is the Omayyad Mosque . This dates back to 705 A.D., although the site is much older, probably by another 2,000 years. The grandeur and peace of the mosque is a welcome relief from the heat and hurly-burly outside. Non-Muslims are welcome to visit and to take photographs, but visitors must don the black robes provided before entering the mosque.
The Via Recta is also found in Damascus. Mentioned in the Bible as the "Street called Straight", it is the famous refuge of Saint Paul, after his vision on the road to Damascus, and today marks the boundary of the city's Christian quarter. St. Paul's Chapel is to be found in Bab Kisan, on the spot where St. Paul was lowered from a window in a basket to make his escape from the city.
Excavations at Tell Ramad on the outskirts of the city have demonstrated that Damascus has been inhabited as early as 8,000 to 10,000 BC. It is due to this that Damascus is considered to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. However, Damascus is not documented as an important city until the coming of the Aramaeans, Semitic nomads who arrived from the Arabian peninsula. It is known that it was the Aramaeans who first established the water distribution system of Damascus by constructing canals and tunnels which maximized the efficiency of the Barada river. The same network was later improved by the Romans and the Umayyads, and still forms the basis of the water system of the old part of Damascus today.
In 1100 BC, the city became the center of a powerful Aramaean state called Aram Damascus. The Kings of Aram Damascus were involved in many wars in the area against the Assyrians and the Israelites. One of the Kings, Ben-Hadad II, fought Shalmaneser III at the Battle of Karkar. The ruins of the Aramean town most probably lie under the eastern part of the old walled city.
After Tiglath-Pileser III captured and destroyed the city in 732 BC, it lost its independence for hundreds of years, and it fell under the Neo-Babylonian rule of Nebuchadnezzar starting in 572 BC. The Babylonian rule of the city came to an end in 538 BC when the Persians under Cyrus captured the city and made it the capital of the Persian province of Syria.
Damascus first came under western control with the giant campaign of Alexander the Great that swept through the near east. After the death of Alexander in 323 BC, Damascus became the site of a struggle between the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires. The control of the city passed frequently from one empire to the other. Seleucus Nicator, one of Alexander's generals, had made Antioch the capital of his vast empire. This led to the importance of Damascus declining as compared with the newly founded Seleucid cities such as Latakia in the north.
In 64 BC, Pompey and the Romans annexed the western part of Syria. They occupied Damascus and subsequently incorporated it into the league of ten cities known as the Decapolis because it was considered such an important center of Greco-Roman culture. According to the New Testament, St. Paul was on the road to Damascus when he received a vision, was struck blind and as a result converted to Christianity. In the year 37 AD, Roman Emperor Caligula transferred Damascus into Nabataean control by decree. The Nabataean king Aretas IV Philopatris ruled Damascus from his capital Petra. However, around the year 106, Nabataea was conquered by the Romans, and Damascus returned to Roman control.
Damascus became a metropolis by the beginning of the second century and in 222 it was upgraded to a colonia by the Emperor Septimius Severus. With the coming of the Pax Romana, Damascus and the Roman province of Syria in general began to prosper. Damascus's importance as a caravan city was evident with the trade routes from southern Arabia, Palmyra, Petra, and the silk routes from China all converging on it. The city satisfied the Roman demands for eastern luxuries.
Little remains of the architecture of the Romans, but the town planning of the old city did have a lasting effect. The Roman architects brought together the Greek and Aramaean foundations of the city and fused them into a new layout measuring approximately 1500 by 750 meters, surrounded by a city wall. The city wall contained seven gates, but only the eastern gate (Bab Sharqi) remains from the Roman period. Roman Damascus lies mostly at depths of up to five meters below the modern city.
Damascus was conquered by the Caliph Umar I in AD 636. Immediately thereafter, the city's power and prestige reached its peak when it became the capital of the Umayyad Empire, which extended from Spain to India from AD 661 to AD 750.
In AD 744, the last Umayyad caliph, Marwan II, moved the capital to Harran in the Jazira (Hugh Kennedy, "The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates"), and Damascus was never to regain the political prominence it had held in that period.
After the fall of the Umayyads and the establishment of the Abbasid caliphate in AD 750, Damascus was ruled from Baghdad, although in AD 858 al-Mutawakkil briefly established his residence there with the intention of transferring his capital there from Samarra. However, he soon abandoned the idea. As the Abbasid caliphate declined, Damascus suffered from the prevailing instability, and came under the control of local dynasties. In 875 the ruler of Egypt, Ahmad ibn Tulun, took the city, with Abbasid control being re-established only in 905. In 945 the Hamdanids took Damascus, and not long after it passed into the hands of Muhammad bin Tughj, founder of the Ikhshidid dynasty. In 968 and again in 971 the city was briefly captured by the Qaramita.
In 970 AD the Fatimid Caliphs in Cairo gained control of Damascus. This was to usher in a turbulent period in the city's history, as the Berber troops who formed the backbone of the Fatimid forces became deeply unpopular among its citizens. The presence in Syria of the Qaramita and occasionally of Turkish military bands added to the constant pressure from the Bedouin.
For a brief period from 978, Damascus was self-governing, under the leadership of a certain Qassam and protected by a citizen militia. However, the Ghouta was ravaged by the Bedouin and after a Turkish-led campaign the city once again surrendered to Fatimid rule.
From 1029 to 1041 the Turkish military leader Anushtakin was governor of Damascus under the Fatimid caliph al-Zahir, and did much to restore the city's prosperity.It appears that during this period the slow transformation of Damascus from a Graeco-Roman city layout - characterised by blocks of insulae - to a more familiar Islamic pattern took place: the grid of straight streets changed to a pattern of narrow streets, with most residents living inside harat closed off at night by heavy wooden gates to protect against criminals and the exactions of the soldiery.With the arrival of the Seljuk Turks in the late 11th Century, Damascus again became the capital of independent states. It was ruled by a Seljuk dynasty from 1079 to 1104, and then by another Turkish dynasty - the Burid Emirs, who withstood a siege of the city during the Second Crusade in 1148.
In 1154 Damascus was conquered from the Burids by the famous Zengid Atabeg Nur ad-Din of Aleppo, the great foe of the Crusaders. He made it his capital, and following his death, it was acquired by Saladin, the ruler of Egypt, who also made it his capital. Saladin rebuilt the citadel, and it is reported that under his rule the suburbs were as extensive as the city itself. It is reported by Ibn Jubayr that during the time of Saladin, Damascus welcomed seekers of knowledge and industrious youth from around the world, who arrived for the sake of "undistracted study and seclusion" in Damascus' many colleges.
In the years following Saladin's death, there were frequent conflicts between different Ayyubid sultans ruling in Damascus and Cairo. Damascus steel gained a legendary reputation among the Crusaders, and patterned steel is still "damascened". The patterned Byzantine and Chinese silks available through Damascus, one of the Western termini of the Silk Road, gave the English language damask.
Ayyubid rule (and independence) came to an end with the Mongol invasion of Syria in 1260, and Damascus became a provincial capital of the Mamluk Empire, ruled from Egypt, following the Mongol withdrawal.
In 1400 by Timurlank, the Mongol conqueror, besieged Damascus. The Mamluk sultahn dispatched a deputation from Cairo, including Ibn Khaldun, who negotiated with him, but after their withdrawal he put the city to sack. The Umayyad Mosque was burnt and men and women taken into slavery. A huge number of the city's artisans were taken to Timur's capital at Samarkand. These were the luckier citizens: many were slaughtered and their heads piled up in a field outside the north-east corner of the walls, where a city square still bears the name burj al-ruus, originally "the tower of heads".Rebuilt, Damascus continued to serve as a Mamluk provincial capital until 1516.
In early 1516, the Ottoman Turks, wary of the danger of an alliance between the Mamluks and the Persian Safavids, started a campaign of conquest against the Mamluk sultanate. On 21 September, the Mamluk governor of Damascus fled the city, and on 2 October the khutba in the Umayyad mosque was pronounced in the name of Selim I. The day after, the victorious sultan entered the city, staying for three months. On 15 December, he left Damascus by Bab al-Jabiya, intent on the conquest of Egypt. Little appeared to have changed in the city: one army had simply replaced another. However, on his return in October 1517, the sultan ordered the construction of a mosque, taqiyya and mausoleum at the shrine of Shaikh Muhi al-Din ibn Arabi in Salihiyya. This was to be the first of Damascus' great Ottoman monuments.
The Ottomans remained for the next 400 years, except for a brief occupation by Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt from 1832 to 1840. Because of its importance as the point of departure for one of the two great Hajj caravans to Mecca, Damascus was treated with more attention by the Porte than its size might have warranted - for most of this period, Aleppo was more populous and commercially more important. In 1560 the Taqiyya al-Sulaimaniyya, a mosque and khan for pilgrims on the road to Mecca, was completed to a design by the famous Ottoman architect Sinan, and soon afterwards a madrasa was built adjoining it.
Perhaps the most notorious incident of these centuries was the massacre of Christians in 1860, when fighting between Druze and Maronites in Mount Lebanon spilled over into the city. Some thousands of Christians were killed, with many more being saved through the intervention of the Algerian exile Abd al-Qadir and his soldiers, who brought them to safety in Abd al-Qadir's residence and the citadel. The Christian quarter of the old city, including a number of churches, was burnt down. The Christian inhabitants of the notoriously poor and refractory Midan district outside the walls were, however, protected by their Muslim neighbors.
In the early years of the twentieth century, nationalist sentiment in Damascus, initially cultural in its interest, began to take a political colouring, largely in reaction to the turkicisation programme of the Committee of Union and Progress government established in Istanbul in 1908. The hanging of a number of patriotic intellectuals by Jamal Pasha, governor of Damascus, in Beirut and Damascus in 1915 and 1916 further stoked nationalist feeling, and in 1918, as the forces of the Arab Revolt and the British army approached, residents fired on the retreating Turkish troops.
On 1 October 1918, Arab forces led by Nuri al-Sa'id entered Damascus, and a military government under Shukri Pasha was named. British forces followed the day after, and Faisal ibn Abd Allah was proclaimed king of Syria. Political tension rose in November 1917, when the new Bolshevik government in Russia revealed the Sykes-Picot Agreement whereby Britain and France had arranged to partition the Arab east between them. A new Franco-British proclamation on 17 November promised the "complete and definitive freeing of the peoples so long oppressed by the Turks."
The Syrian Congress in March adopted a democratic constitution. However, the Versailles Conference had granted France a mandate over Syria, and in 1920 a French army crossed the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, defeated a small Syrian defensive expedition at the Battle of Maysalun and entered Damascus. The French made Damascus capital of their League of Nations Mandate of Syria.
When in 1925 the Druze revolt in the Hauran spread to Damascus, the French repressed it brutally, bombing and shelling the city. The area of the old city between Souq al-Hamidiyya and Souq Midhat Pasha was burned to the ground, with many deaths, and has since then been known as al-Hariqa ("the fire"). The old city was surrounded with barbed wire to prevent rebels infiltrating from the Ghouta, and a new road was built outside the northern ramparts to facilitate the movement of armoured cars.
In 1945 the French once more bombed Damascus, but on this occasion British forces intervened and the French agreed to withdraw, thus leading to the full independence of Syria in 1946. Damascus remained the capital.
Damascus has a wealth of historical sites dating back to many different periods of the city's history. Since the city has been built up with every passing occupation, it has become almost impossible to excavate all the ruins of Damascus that lie up to 8 feet below the modern level. The Citadel of Damascus is located in the northwest corner of the Old City. The street called straight (referred to in the conversion of St. Paul in Acts 9:11), also known as the Via Recta, was one of the main streets of Roman Damascus, and extended for over 1500 meters.
Today, it consists of the street of Bab Sharqi and the Souk Medhat Pasha, a covered market. The Bab Sharqi street is filled with small shops and leads to the old Christian quarter of Bab Touma (St. Thomas's Gate). Souq Medhat Pasha is also a main market in Damascus and was named after Medhat Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Damascus who renovated the Souq. At the end of the Bab Sharqi street, one reaches the House of Ananias, an underground chapel that was the cellar of Ananias's house.
The Umayyad Mosque, also known as the Grand Mosque of Damascus, is one of the largest mosques in the world, and one of the oldest sites of continuous prayer since the rise of Islam. A shrine in the mosque is said to contain the head of John the Baptist.
The old city of Damascus is surrounded by ramparts on the northern and eastern sides and part of the southern side. There are 7 extant city gates, the oldest of which dates back to the Roman period. These are, clockwise from the north of the citadel:
Bab al-Faraj ("the gate of deliverance"),
Bab al-Faradis ("the gate of the orchards")
Bab al-Salam ("the gate of peace"), all on the north boundary of the old city
Bab Touma (the "Touma" or "Thomas gate") in the north-east corner, leading into the Christian quarter of the same name,
Bab Sharqi ("eastern gate") in the east wall, the only one to retain its Roman plan
Bab Kisan in the south-east, from which tradition holds that Saint Paul made his escape from Damascus, lowered from the ramparts in a basket; this gate is now closed and a chapel marking the event has been built into the structure,
al-Bab al-Saghir (the small gate) in the south.
In addition, the names of the two former gates in the east, Bab al-Jabiya at the entrance to Souq Midhat Pasha and Bab al-Barid near the entrance to Souq al-Hamidiyya, are still recalled by Damascenes, the former being used commonly to refer to the area at the entrance to the souq. Two other areas outside the walled city also bear the name "gate": Bab Mousalla and Bab Sreija , both to the south-west of the walled city.
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