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.

Umayyud Mosque + City.jpg
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.

Saladin: Hero of History

There aren’t too many historical figures who are held in as high regard as Saladin in the Islamic world. The military leader who set up the Ayubbid dynasty in the Middle East is most fondly remembered for recovering Jerusalem from the Crusader Christians. This single act, more so than any other, is the reason his name is linked to not only prestige but also piety – he has become the champion of Islam. In addition, Saladin’s greatness is enhanced by the fact that his enemies in Christendom respected not only his martial qualities but also his character.

Instasize_1129072128

Saladin was born in 1138 near Tikrit (same town as Saddam Hussein)* into a Sunni military family who served the Zengid Dynasty of Syria. It is important to remember that Saladin was not Arab, rather he was Kurdish; yet Arab nationalists in the 20th century appropriated his legacy to bolster their ideology. His significance as a symbol of Arab nationalism can be seen by the presence of the ‘Eagle of Saladin’ on many Arab flags.

Instasize_1129071852
Eagle of Saladin

Prior to becoming a ruler, his uncle Shirkoh was vital in helping Saladin rise through the ranks of the military. The history books first pick up his career when Nur-al-Din, the Zengid leader who repelled the Second Crusade, sent him and uncle Shirkoh to Egypt to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Crusaders. Egypt was at this time controlled by the severely declining Shi’a Fatimid Caliphate. Once the last Fatimid caliph died in 1171, Saladin, already the Vizier at this point, became the strongest figure in Egypt. He decided to recognise the Abassid Caliph, thereby ending the only Shi’a Caliphate in history. This helps explain why today if there is any group which doesn’t share in the celebration of his legacy, it would be Shi’a Muslims. Once in control of Egypt, his overlord Nur-al-din requested troops and money but was frustrated by Saladin’s consistent stalling. It is likely that an inevitable clash between the two leaders was only avoided by the death of Nur-al-Din in 1174.

The next decade or so, Saladin spent his energy on conquering Syria and northern Mesopotamia. Once the region was centralised under his authority, he sought to undermine the Crusader states in a bid to achieve his ultimate goal: Jerusalem. In 1187 Saladin routed the Crusader forces at the Battle of Hattin, thus paving the way for the capture of Jerusalem. The city which was holy to three religions was finally under Muslim rule after 88 years.

Saladin_and_Guy
Saladin with the captured King of Jerusalem after the Battle of Hattin

Saladin’s recapture of Jerusalem forced Christian leaders around Europe to call for a Third Crusade (1189-1192). Arguably the most prominent of all the crusades, the Third Crusade involved Europe’s most illustrious kings; Richard the Lionheart of England, Philip Augustus of France and Frederick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire. This is an important point because the scale and legacy of the Crusader effort helps to explain the magnitude of Saladin’s fame – not only as an effective military leader but as a chivalrous opponent. This is especially true in Europe where intellectuals as such as the poet Dante viewed him as a “virtuous pagan” similar to Julius Caesar (doesn’t seem like a compliment but trust me it is). Militarily, the Crusaders won every major encounter – their armies imperiously marched down the Levantine coast, followed closely by their ships for supplies and reinforcement. Yet their desire to recapture Jerusalem was stifled and formally accepted in the Treaty of Ramla in 1192 whereby Saladin would keep control of the Holy City whilst allowing entry to Christian pilgrims – which effectively made the contest a draw.

Musings

Saladin’s greatest quality did not necessarily lie in an angel-like character who was devoid of any wrong-doings. In this sense, we often conflate romanticisations of events or figures with the evidence at hand. From all the sources, it would seem Saladin’s greatest achievement was the centralisation of authority in the region. His forces consisted of feudal levies (a type of medieval conscription) who fought seasonally. Rather than being shocked at the fact that the great Saladin was defeated in battle, it is more pertinent that even in the absence of a regular standing army, Saladin was still able to force a draw against the finest kings Europe had to offer. After his death in 1193, the unity he fought so hard and long for also died with him. In the year 1227, Jerusalem was handed back to the Crusaders.

Instasize_1129081538.jpg
Artistic rendition courtesy of Elias Feroz

* Saddam Hussein, ruler of Iraq (1979-2003), drew comparisons between himself and Saladin to enhance his own image as a champion of the Arabs.


Did you know?

Saladin’s birth name was Yussuf.


Check out Elias Feroz’s artwork on his:

Instagram – @mefchannel

YouTube – M.E.F Channel