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.