Damascus: Witness to History

Damascus is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, stretching back at least 5,000 years! Since then it has been an important centre for numerous empires.

Check out the video we did about Damascus!

The city’s first spell as an imperial capital came under the Arameans, a Semitic people who gave the world the language of Aramaic (language spoken by Jesus or Isa). One important thing the Arameans  did was setting up a water distribution system by building canals; this system was used and expanded upon by the Romans and the Umayyads later on and even serves the old part of the city today!

Damascus: the Jupiter temple (III A.C.) in front of Omayyad mosque
Temple of Jupiter, built by the Romans

After passing between the hands of superpowers of Antiquity, e.g. the Neo-Assyrians and the Achaemenids, Damascus re-emerges into prominence after the Greek conquest of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. The Hellenistic chapter of the city’s history saw much prosperity thanks in part to the excellent organisation that the Greeks brought with them; for instance, they set the city on a grid plan (similar to what you have now in the USA).

After almost seven centuries under Roman rule, Damascus finally came under Muslim control in 635 AD. Soon after, Muawiyah, the first Ummayad Caliph, made it the capital of the Umayyad caliphate (661-750 AD). It was during this period that the city gained its greatest monument: the Great Mosque of Damascus.

Umayyud Mosque
Great Mosque of Damascus

But its fortunes changed when the Abbasids came to power and moved the Caliphate’s capital to Baghdad. Damascus lost its imperial glow, although it still served as a regional centre. Despite a brief interruption of its woes in the shape of the Mameluks, Damascus suffered throughout the Medieval period. It was targeted by the Crusaders during the 12th century; the Black Death plague (1346-53) wiped out half of its population; in 1400, the Turkic conqueror Timur sacked the city and constructed a pyramid of human skulls!

Damascus was saved from its poor run of events by the Ottomans who took over Syria in 1516. Their rule allowed the city to prosper once again, not least of all because of the Hajj season. Since the Ottomans also controlled Mecca, Damascus was designated as the meeting point for pilgrims coming from the north (Anatolia, Bosnia etc) and the east (Persia, Afghanistan, India etc.). Caravanserais – which were like hostels for traders to spend the night – were established.

Khan As'ad Pasha Caravanserai
Khan Asad Pasha Caravanserai, built in the 18th century.

Damascus was the scene of a massacre against its Christian population, a grisly event that was a part of the 1860  Mount Lebanon Civil War between the Druze and the Maronite Christians.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Damascus became the centre of a burgeoning class of Arab nationalist intellectuals who wanted independence from the Ottomans and form their own Arab nation. This was exploited by the British in WWI when they sent Lawrence of Arabia to stoke tension between the Arabs and the Ottomans in what is known as the Arab Revolt. Damascus became a part of French Mandate of Syria after WWI.

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Modern-day Damascus

Since Syria’s independence from France in 1946, Damascus has served as the capital of the country. Thankfully, the city and its rich heritage has not been as affected as other historic areas of the country in the ongoing Syrian Civil War.

Mahmud of Ghazni: The First Sultan

Sultan Mahmud Ghaznawi

Mahmud of Ghazni was born in 971 AD and became the greatest ruler of the Ghaznavid Empire which stretched from Western Iran to Northern India. Coming to power in 998 AD, he went on to be the first ever ‘Sultan’, a title he assumed in order to assert his political authority. At the same time he observed the spiritual authority of the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad, at a time when the Caliph’s authority was significantly less important than before; but Mahmud didn’t necessarily  do this out of the goodness of his heart – gaining the religious legitimacy of the Caliphate strengthened his call for a Jihad against the Hindu kingdoms of the Indian Subcontinent.

Mahmud Ghanznawi Robe from Caliph
Mahmud putting on a robe sent by the Abbasid Caliph

The booty and riches taken from a total of 17 expeditions to the Subcontinent allowed him to establish Ghazni as an imperial city which could attract scholars such as Ferdowsi and al-Biruni. The latter actually accompanied Mahmud on one of his expeditions to India and was able gain a lot of knowledge in a range of subjects that the Indians had excelled in (e.g. Astronomy and Mathematics), ultimately compiling his knowledge in an encyclopedia of sorts on India. 

Mahmud’s invasions of India played a decisive role in expanding Islam in to the Indian Subcontinent (the earlier Umayyads had only conquered up to Sindh). He has since been heavily criticised for his religious policies, especially amongst Indian Hindus. But despite his yearly raids on Hindu kingdoms and stripping the Temples of their materials, Mahmud was much more of a pragmatist than he is often given credit for. His army included Hindus who were allowed to observe their own religion. He didn’t even bother imposing the Jizya tax on his non-Muslim subjects. I mean he even had a male lover! Today he is considered a national hero in Afghanistan, where his capital Ghazni is situated.

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Mahmud’s Tomb in Ghazni, Afghanistan

 

Have you seen our latest video on the Battle that could’ve made Europe Muslim?

 

Koutoubia Mosque

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View from the gardens

Built during the second half of the 12th century by the Almohads, a Moroccan-based Berber Muslim empire (1121-1269). When the Almohads took over Marrakesh in 1147, they destroyed many monuments credited to the Almoravids (their predecessors who they considered heretics). One of the causalities was a previously-built mosque that was taken down and replaced with the Koutoubia Mosque. Subsequently, the Mosque metamorphosized into its present form throughout the second half of the 12th century, with the vital works being carried out during the reign of Almohad Caliph Yaqub al-Mansur (1184-99).

Koutoubia Minaret
The Koutoubia Minaret

Its name, ‘Koutoubia’, is derived from the Arabic word ‘Koutoubiyyin’ or ‘bookseller’ as there were many booksellers plying their trade in a nearby souk (market). The mosque has beautiful, verdant gardens surrounding it and has a distinct minaret which merges Berber, Arab and Andalusian architecture to create a dazzling monument. Built with sandstone, the minaret stands at 70 meters and overlooks the Jema el-Fna, the centre of the old city in Marrakesh.

The Almohads would go on to build other momentous building throughout Morocco and Spain that would share similarities with each other; the Koutoubia’s counterparts can be seen in the form of the La Giralda in Seville and the Hassan Tower in Rabat. (see below).

 

Have you seen our video on Ibn Khaldun?

Herat: Renaissance City

Herat

A key centre for regional powers, Herat’s history stretches back to the Achaemenids circa 500 BC. Since then it has enjoyed the full ups-and-downs of the region’s history. Alexander the Great built a city on its site in 330 BC; the Herat Citadel still stands today and is a testament to his legacy in this city. Herat continued to prosper after the burgeoning Rashidun Arabs wrested it away from the Sassanian Persians in 652 AD. In subsequent centuries it became known as the “Pearl of Khorasan” and  benefited largely from its location on the Silk Road, serving as a linking point in the trade routes between India, the Middle East and China.

The Mongols devastated it in the 13th century before more devastation was brought down by the Turco-Mongolian conqueror Timur who destroyed it in the 1380s, even constructing a skull pyramid after putting its inhabitants to the sword. Timur’s successors, on the other hand, turned Herat into one of the finest cities in the Islamic world during the 15th century. The city served as the capital of Timur’s son Shah Rukh, who made it one of the principle centers of the Timurid Renaissance, a period characterised by increased intellectual and artistic activity. In this period, Herat was home to poets like Jami and painters like Behzad.

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Herat Friday Mosque

The city eventually fell into the hands of the Safavid Persians who used it’s governorship as a training role for the eventual Shah during the 16th century. At the beginning of the 18th century, the nascent Afghans claimed it and ever since then, it has been one of the major cities of Afghanistan. Today Herat is recovering after decades of conflict but the splendour of its Timurid heydays are long-gone. The city has fallen prey to wars and natural disasters. A notable victim of this is the Mousallah Complex, which included a madrasa and a mosque that were initiated at the behest of Goharshad Begum (Shah Rukh’s wife) – it was mostly destroyed in 1885 by the British so the Russians would not be able to use it in case of an invasion (this is now known as the Panjdeh Incident).

Have you seen our latest YouTube video on Damascus?

Ibn Rushd: The Muslim Aristotle

Ibn Rushd

Ibn Rushd or Averroes as he is known in the West was a 12th century Andalusian polymath most famous for his philosophical works. Whilst his talents ranged from geography to astronomy, much of his renown comes from his defence of Aristotelian philosophy. Born in 1126 to a prominent Cordoban family, he received an excellent education. In the 1160s he met Ibn Tufayl (the man who wrote the world’s first philosophical novel), who introduced him to the Almohad ruler Abu Yaqub Yusuf, who made Ibn Rushd the Qadi (chief judge) and later the chief physician. It was actually the Almohad ruler who commissioned Ibn Rushd to write a new commentary on Aristotle, and it’s this work which has subsequently become his defining work.

He was alive during a period when much of the Islamic world was beginning to turn away from the study of philosophy, largely due to the works of al-Ghazali (1058-1111). Al-Ghazali’s pivotal works included the ‘Incoherence of the Philosophers‘ which criticised the role played by Muslim philosophers, e.g. Ibn Sina, during the 8th-11th centuries for what he saw as them rooting their intellectual inspiration in Ancient Greek philosophy. Critically, the book further underlined that each and every event was the will of God; Ibn Rushd rebuked this notion in his book ‘The Incoherence of the Incoherence‘ and put forth his belief that God had created the natural law which allowed every event to take place but that every act was not a manifestation of God’s direct interference.

Ibn Rushd grave

In 1195, many of his books were burned, he was stripped of his position and forced into exile because of public pressure against his ideas. Nonetheless he was soon re-established and died shortly after in Marrakesh in 1198.

After his death, his legacy followed a strange path. He was held in very high regard in the West, even being called “The Commentator” for all of his commentaries on Aristotle’s work. The philosophical school of thought Averrorism was popular through European educational institutions in the 13th century. His works even had a great impact on Jewish philosophers. But amongst Muslim societies his legacy did not gain the same level of appreciation, primarily because al-Ghazali’s ideas about religion’s relationship with philosophy still hold sway over much of the Islamic world.

Have you seen our latest YouTube video on Timur?

 

Siege of Vienna

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The Siege of Vienna in 1683 was arguably one of the most important events in Islamic history because of the potential stakes and the aftermath of the result. The Habsburg-Ottoman rivalry had already lasted for almost two centuries leading up to 1683. This rivalry was marked by long periods of coexistence (brought about by treaties) with violent outbursts of conflict. At the expiry of one such treaty, those in charge in Constantinople decided to pursue aggression towards their long-standing rivals. There are differences as to what the motivations behind this Ottoman aggression were; some historians claiming the Sultan only ordered the capturing of border fortresses in Upper Hungary; whilst others argue the decision to besiege Vienna was taken by the Sultan’s chief Vizier, Kara Mustafa, an ambitious man belonging to the Koprulu family who had monopolised the position of Viziership for half a century. Expansionism served a key aim for Kara Mustafa – to play a distracting role to the internal issues faced by the Ottomans, notably the increasingly damaging role played by the Janissaries.

The Ottoman army, along with the help of its Calvinist Hungarian allies, besieged Vienna with a force of around 150,000 soldiers. The Hapsburg Emperor, Leopold I, was immediately forced to flee the city. By the beginning of September the Ottoman miners  had dug underground tunnels to Vienna’s inner walls and actually made significant headway; at the same time, the siege had dragged on for six weeks and living conditions had taken its toll on the city.

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In the backdrop of such dire straits for Vienna, Jan Sobieski showed up at the head of the Holy League army (which had been brought together by Pope Innocent XI). Roughly 70,000 Holy League troops descended upon the Ottoman forces on September 12. The ensuing battle would last for 15 hours and resulted in the decisive defeat of the Ottomans. Apparently, it took the Holy League a week to collect all the booty left behind by the Ottomans.

The fact that the Ottomans targeted the capital of it’s rival, not once but twice (a disastrous attempt had previously been made by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1529), whilst the Hapsburgs couldn’t dream of conquering Constantinople, shows how unequal the rivalry was. But that changed after 1683. When the Holy League forces, led by Jan Sobieski defeated the Ottoman forces just outside of Vienna and lifted the siege, the Ottoman Empire began a stubborn decline which saw their power erode whilst their European adversaries gained strength. In fact this battle is often seen as the turning point in the rivalry between Christian Europe and the Islamic world. Beyond 1683, Muslim states launched no direct assaults on Europe; from that point on, Europe was in the ascendance.

If you’re interested in military history, check out this video we did on Saladin’s victory at the Battle of Hattin in 1187!

Badshahi Mosque

Badshahi 2

One of the most visually stunning piece of Mughal architecture – with its capacity of 56,000, the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore has been amongst the largest mosques in the world since its completion in 1673. The austere Aurangzeb had it built to commemorate his victory over Shivaji, the king of the nascent Maratha’s. Little did the Mughal Emperor know Shivaji’s descendants would return and wage a war that would prove instrumental to the Mughal Empire’s decline in the 18th century.

Construction began in 1671 on the orders of Emperor Aurangzeb (1658-1707), the last of the great Mughals, thus explaining the name – the ‘Emperor’s Mosque’. The task of overseeing the construction was left to Aurangzeb’s foster brother, Fidai Khan Koka who was also the governor of Lahore at the time. It bears a resemblance to Delhi’s Jama Masjid built during Aurangzeb’s father, Shah Jahan’s, reign.

Badshahi 1880s

Despite its magnificence, it has experienced some dark days. When the Sikhs under Ranjit Singh took the city in 1799 and made it their capital, the Badshahi Mosque’s courtyard was used as a stable for army horses and the mosque’s interior was used as living quarters for the soldiers and to store ammunition. At one point there was a Sikh civil war, during which the Mosque was used as an artillery position to besiege the nearby Lahore Fort!

The British continued the Sikh practise of using it as a military garrison before increasing Muslim resentment forced their hand in establishing the Badshahi Mosque Authority, which aimed to restore the monument to its former glory. But these repairs would prove to be piecemeal and not enough to reverse the decades of neglect; it was not until the middle of the 20th century when funds raised under the auspices of Sikander Hayat Khan were used to make monumental repairs to this  impressive feat of architecture.


Check out our YouTube video on the Badshahi Mosque!