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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
At the ripe age of 26, Suleiman I inherited the Ottoman Empire in 1520 at a period when it was going through aggressive expansion. He would further this expansion of territory whilst embellishing the state in a manner which earned him the sobriquet “Magnificent”. Domestically, he reformed the judicial system so emphatically that he was referred to as “Kanuni” (Lawgiver) by his subjects. Over the course of a 46-year reign, he left a definitive mark on the Ottoman Empire.
Born in 1494, Suleiman received a high-quality education in the imperial school at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, studying science, history, literature, theology and military tactics. In keeping with Ottoman tradition princes were required to command a certain province, so Suleiman gained crucial experience of governorship when he served in various provinces of the empire. He also learnt spoke four languages Turkish, Arabic, Persian and Serbian. The Ottomans had the tradition of every Sultan acquiring a skill in a certain craft, Suleiman became a skilled jeweler.
In 1521, Suleiman’s mother gave him Aleksandra, a young slave girl from modern-day Ukraine whose father was an Orthodox priest. In time she would become Hurrem Sultan, the favourite concubine and later legal wife of Sultan Suleiman. Sultan Suleiman freed Hurrem Sultana and married her in 1533. He was the first Ottoman Sultan to wed for almost 200 years. He also wrote poems to Hurrem Sultan under the pseudonym Mugib. She went on become super powerful to the discomfort of many in the imperial administration. Perhaps her greatest rival was Prince Mustafa, heir and son of Suleiman through another wife. The power struggle in the Ottoman empire between Prince Mustafa and Hurrem Sultan ended decisively when Mustafa was falsely accused of trying to overthrow his father – he was called to the Sultan’s tent where he was strangled in front of his father in 1553.
Suleiman’s Grand Vizier at the beginning of his reign was Pargali Ibrahim Pasha, who was his childhood friend. Gaining a reputation after crushing rebellions in Syria and Anatolia, Ibrahim Pasha gained too much power and made a fatal mistake when he awarded himself a title including the word ‘Sultan’ which could have been taken the wrong way by Suleiman. His downfall was cemented when he trod on the toes of the Hurrem Sultan after giving his support to Prince Mustafa, he was consequently executed in 1536.
Right from the beginning of his reign in 1520, Suleiman sought to further Ottoman expansion into Europe and when the Hungarians refused to pay tribute in exchange for peace and even cut off the nose and ears of the Ottoman ambassador, he had found his reason for war. First on his list was Belgrade, the key to central Europe; a siege of the city lasted two months in 1521 until the Ottomans emerged victorious. In the summer of 1526 Suleiman gained an even more momentous victory when at the Battle of Mohacs. The Ottoman army outnumbered the Hungarians by 3:1 and had 300 canons. After five hours of battle the Hungarians were heavily defeated and became a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire.
In a bid to end the Hapsburg Empire’s meddling in Ottoman Europe, Suleiman attempted to strike at the heart of the Hapsburgs: Vienna. But in the end the 1529 Siege of Vienna failed due to bad weather and overstretched supplies lines. Yet it still shows how powerful the Ottomans were that they almost conquered their enemies capital.
Suleiman also established the Franco-Ottoman alliance with Francis I of France in 1526 to counter the Hapsburg Charles V. In order to highlight the supremacy of the Ottomans, look at the letter written from Suleiman to Francis:
I who am the Sultan of Sultans, the sovereign of sovereigns, the dispenser of crowns to the monarchs on the face of the earth, the shadow of the God on Earth… All this your saying having been set forth at the foot of my throne, which controls the world. Your situation has gained my imperial understanding in every detail, and I have considered all of it.
The Ottoman Navy had undergone a tremendous transformation under Selim I but Suleiman expanded this project beyond his father’s achievements. In 1522, he put this newfound naval confidence to the test by besieging the island of Rhodes, the home base of the Knights Hospitaller, the last remnant of the Crusaders who invaded the Middle East 400 years ago. Suleiman used 400 ships and personally led an army of 100,000 soldiers. After heavy casualties on both sides over a five month period, Sultan Suleiman decided to offer generous terms which were accepted by the defenders. The Knights Hospitaller were given twelve days to leave and take with them their weapons and religious icons.
Suleiman was aided in his quest for Mediterranean domination by famous admirals such as Hayreddin Barbarossa. In 1538 at the Battle of Preveza in Greece Barbarossa defeated the Holy League alliance of the Spanish Empire, Portuguese Empire, Papal States and the Italian Republics of Venice and Genoa. The Ottomans even went on to sack the coast of Italy, Spain and Sicily. After Preveza, the Ottoman Navy emerged as the dominant naval power throughout the Mediterranean. The Ottoman fleet also fought for control over the Indian Ocean with the Portuguese.
He did however also suffer setbacks, most notably the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. After four unsuccessful months, the Ottoman fleet pulled back with great casualties after aid from Spain as well as a resilient defence from the Maltese spelled out Ottoman defeat.
In the east, the Ottoman’s main opponent was Safavid Persia and in the year 1533 Sultan Suleiman order his Grand Vizier Pargali Ibrahim Pasha to lead his army into the east. Tabriz was taken without resistance. The scorched-earth policy of the Persians, along with the harshness of winter caused many Ottoman casualties. Yet this was not enough to stop the momentum of the Ottomans, as Sultan Suleiman conquered Mesopotamia, part of Georgia and Azerbaijan from the Safavids.
As well as enjoying a positive military reputation, Suleiman I is often commended for the judicial reforms he introduced, hence his nickname “Kanuni” (Lawgiver). The Ottomans had established themselves as a preeminent power mainly through the sheer force of its military prowess, but the circumstances the Ottomans found themselves in by Suleiman’s reign, a wide array of ethnicities occupying a vast realm, required a more nuanced approach to the maintenance of law and order.
Suleiman’s reign saw the introduction of many vital reforms in the Ottoman legal system. Taxes were streamlined through the establishment of a transparent tax rate based on income; he went further by removing many of the superfluous taxes imposed by his father Sultan Selim I. Bureaucracy underwent a similar process of reform; meritocracy was encouraged to be the standard of qualification for employment, rather than nepotism or personal discretion. In this sense, an overt and conscious attempt was made to hold all Ottoman citizens to the law. In order to compliment the multi-cultural nature of the empire, Suleiman denounced blood libels* against Jews in 1553 and freed Christian farm labourers from Serfdom.
Sultan Suleiman died in 1566 during a siege in Hungary. He was 71 years old and spent over ten years in military campaigns. In a twisted way, his hard-work and success paved the way for a future filled with complacent and incompetent Sultan’s. Future Ottoman Sultan’s would find themselves more intrigued by the pleasures of the Harem or uninterested in leading the imperial army to war or under the influence of other interest groups.
* Blood libels – The belief that Jews would kidnap and sacrifice children for their own rituals.
Check out our YouTube video on Suleiman the Magnificent!
Check out Kallie Szczepanski’s concise and insightful article on Suleiman:
The city of Peshawar, also known as Pekhawar by its inhabitants, is one of the oldest cities in the region and has been a part of various Indo-Iranian empires throughout the ages. It has been known by many names; Purushapura (city of men) in ancient Sanskrit, Vaekereta in Avestan and later Gandhara. The current name was given by the Mughal Emperor Akbar, meaning place on the frontier. Regardless of its name, it has remained a pivotal city in the region from its inception.
Lying between the western banks of the Bara River and at the east end of the Khyber Pass, it was a province of the Persian Achaemenid Empire from the 6th until the 4th century BC. Eventually it fell to the momentum of the Hellenic expansion under Alexander the Great, who passed through the city on his way towards India in 327 BC. After Alexander’s death, Peshawar fell into the hands of Seleucus I Nikator (a Diadochi* of Alexander) but he gave up the entire Indus River region to the nascent Chandragupta Maurya of the Mauryan empire in exchange for 500 war elephants which Seleucus used in his Middle Eastern campaigns. Chandragupta’s grandson Ashoka instituted Buddhism as the official religion of his realm and the Peshawar region became a hotbed of Buddhist culture. The Peshawar valley then went through a period when it was successively ruled by empires with hybrid cultural backgrounds; Greco-Bactrian, Indo-Greek and Indo-Parthian kingdom – this naturally allowed Peshawar to form quite an eclectic identity.
The city first rose to prominence in the 1st century AD under the Kushan Empire when it became a trading centre between Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. The population increased to 120,000 making it the seventh most populated city in the ancient world according to the historian Tertius Chandler. The third Kushan King, Kanishka was a great advocate for the Buddhist religion and is associated with building the Kanishka Stupa**, which may have been the tallest building in the world at that time. This stupa was so huge that the 5th century Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Faxian says it was 120 metres tall and it could be seen when travelling down from the mountains of Afghanistan to the Gandharan plains. Unfortunately all that survives is the mound due to various fires and lightening.
When the White Huns (nomadic Turks from central Asia) came over in the 5th century, Peshawar had already been taken over by the Persian Sassanid’s. The Huns being a nation of fire worshipers, caused great harm to the Buddhist population of the city and destroyed many of its Buddhist monuments. Buddhism would continue to be the religion of the rulers under the Turk Shahi before it was supplanted by Hinduism under the Hindu Shahi.
Islam’s introduction to Peshawar most likely began and grew under the auspices of the Pashtuns, who arrived in the valley during 1st Millennium BC from the Suleiman mountains in Afghanistan and brought their culture with them. Some Pashtun tribes converted to Islam in the initial annexation of Khurasan during the Rashidun Caliphate. The first Muslim ruler of Peshawar was Mahmud of Ghazni, who conquered the region in 1001.
By the mid 16th Century, Peshawar had officially became part of the Mughal empire after Babur brought the area under his influence on his way to conquer India. A significant yet under-emphasised aspect of the city’s history was the brief period under the Suri Dynasty (1539-1555). Under this Pashtun dynasty, Peshawar boomed economically because of the extension of the Great Trunk Road which ran from Delhi to Kabul. When the Mughals regained the city, they turned it into a city of art by replicating the gardens in the same fashion as those in Persia.
Eventually the instability created by the waning power of the Mughals meant that new powers would vie for control of this important city. This manifested itself in the rivalry between the Afghan and Sikh Empires; Peshawar had been the winter capital of the Afghans and most of the city’s population were Pashtuns (the ethnicity of the Afghan royal family) but it was taken by Ranjit Singh’s Sikh forces in 1818. The Sikh chapter of Peshawar’s history is considered to be a dark one (thanks in no small part to Paolo Avitable***) as the city’s bazaars, mosques and gardens were damaged and the city declined completely. However it wasn’t long before the Sikh empire itself was involved in a war with the British East India company and Peshawar came under the rule of British India Raj in 1849.
The year 1893 was perhaps the last change in the history of Peshawar before it officially became part of Pakistan in 1947. Sir Mortimer Durand, the foreign secretary of British-India and the Amir of Afghanistan Abdur Rahman Khan came to an agreement in what was to become known as the Durand Line dividing the boundaries of Afghanistan and Peshawar which still exists today.
The case of Peshawar is important in shedding light on the legacy of European colonialism in the Islamic world. The Durand Line in 1893 split the Pashtuns, who make up the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan, in half as a means to secure British India’s frontier. When British India ceased to exist, Afghanistan voiced its irredentist claim for Peshawar and the surrounding areas on the basis of its shared cultural, ethnic and historical experience but their aspirations have repeatedly been denied. This has been a massive bone of contention between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This goes to show that countries in the Muslim world still have to face the consequences of actions carried out by its former colonisers.
*Generals of Alexander who fought over his empire after his death
**Mound-like structure that holds Buddhist relics
*** Italian administrator appointed by the Sikhs to rule Peshawar
The Taj Mahal is considered to be amongst the most beautiful and impressive works of architecture in history. This Wonder of the World attracts almost 8 million visitors annually; part of its allure comes from the story that a heartbroken Emperor built the Taj Mahal for his dead wife as a token of his grief. Yet it is important to remember that its construction served to highlight the triumph of its patrons, the Mughals – a tremendously wealthy Persian-ised Turkic Dynasty that ruled over much of the Indian Subcontinent and Afghanistan from the 16th to the 18th century.
At the peak of its imperial glory, the Mughals were ruled by Shah Jahan (1628-1658) who had a wife, Mumtaz Mahal, he was devoted to – so much so that he decided to build this incredible edifice in her memory when she died giving birth. Under the instruction of Ustad Ahmad Lahori more than 20,000 workers from across India, Persia, the Ottoman Empire and even Europe were employed to construct the Taj Mahal between 1632 and 1654. This included masons, stonecutters, inlayers, carvers, painters, calligraphers, dome-builders and other artisans. Don’t forget about the 1,000 elephants used to carry materials!
The mausoleum itself, dedicated to the deceased Mumtaz Mahal, was completed by 1639 but it would require more than an extra decade to finish the buildings next to it and the decoration work. The complex sits on a 315 ft square marble platform and has four minarets which are around 140 ft tall. The mastery of the architects and craftsmen is demonstrated by the usage of proportions. For instance, the four surrounding minarets appear upright from afar but actually lean outward: as well as being a cool trick of the eye, this ensures that the minarets would crumble away from the main tomb in case of an earthquake (a real architectural concern in this period). Also, from the main gate of the Taj Mahal the monument appears close and large but the closer you get, the smaller it becomes! The Taj Mahal’s bag of tricks doesn’t end there – like a chameleon, it can change its colours. Well, the hue of the colour at least. Thanks largely to the sun, the Taj Mahal can appear gray and pink during sunrise, white at noon, orange-bronze when the sun sets and at night it seem blue.
The gardens – which are often intended to be an earthly representation of paradise in Islamic architecture – are actually rooted in the British style due to the intervention of the British Indian Government under Lord Curzon (1899-1905), who is also largely responsible for renovating and maintaining the Taj Mahal after decades of neglect. This neglect included the looting of its semi-precious stones by British soldiers in the aftermath of 1857 Indian Mutiny.
There are a lot of popular myths associated with the construction of the Taj Mahal. One of which relates that Shah Jahan wanted the mausoleum to be a unique masterpiece. In order to guarantee this, he supposedly cut off the hands and gouged the eyes of the artisans and craftsmen involved in its construction so that another like it would not be built. Even though it makes for a cool story, there is no evidence to suggest this happened. On the contrary, historians have found that Shah Jahan was more ruthless than romantic. Although the Taj Mahal has been considered a symbol of love and devotion, it is undoubtedly also a symbol of absolute power. The extravagant attempt to build something perfect – architecturally speaking in its symmetry – can be regarded a source of propaganda, fit for a man who named himself Shah Jahan, “King of the World”.
The famous poet Rabindranath Tagore called the Taj Mahal “a tear suspended on the cheek of time”. But was this tear worth the staggering $800 million in today’s valuation that it cost to build it? As a fan of architecture I can’t help but appreciate the symmetrical beauty of this timeless monument. But if I put myself in the shoes of a Mughal subject in the 17th century, I can’t help but feel anger at a leader who would dedicate so much of the nations resources for his own grief (or vanity). Too often this has become a model of behavior for leaders in the Islamic world, we only tend to notice it in times of want and need.
Check out our YouTube video on the Taj Mahal!
All these great photos have been contributed by Omar Rais – check him out on:
The magnificent palace-fortress complex of the Alhambra had very humble origins. A small fortress had existed in its place since at least as early as 889 AD and was most likely built on the site of Roman fortifications – the continuity of the site’s usage demonstrates its strategic location, being situated on top of a hill overlooking the city of Granada. It came to be known as ‘Qalat Al-Hamra’, or the ‘Red Fortress’, most likely due to the red bricks used in its construction.
It fell into obscurity until the mid 11th century when Samuel ibn Naghrela (994-1056), a Jewish vizier to the Emir of Granada, reconstructed and made it his residence. Samuel was succeeded as vizier by his son Joseph who further expanded the fortress out of fear inspired by the rising anti-Semitism in the taifa of Granada (see 1066 Massacre of Granada). Ironically, when the Christian kingdoms completed the Reconquista* in 1492, the Edict of Expulsion, which forced the Jewish population of Spain to leave the country, was signed in 1492 in the Alhambra – the same place which owed at least part of its roots to Spanish Jewry.
The current shape of the Alhambra is owed to the rulers of the Nasrid Emirate of Granada who transformed it into a royal palace. From the mid-13th century onward the Alhambra was expanded and embellished to its current grandeur over the course of the next century and a half. These improvements included the famous Patio of the Lions, the Baths and extension of some of the towers.
When Granada fell to the Catholic Monarchs, the Alhambra retained its place of prominence as it became the site of their royal residence and was even the place where Christopher Columbus received royal support for his expedition to the New World. Charles V, Emperor of the Spanish Empire and the Holy Roman Empire, was keen to place a Christian imprint on this feat of Islamic architecture and decided to build a palace which required the removal of some aspects of the original complex. Although the palace was not completed, it has left quite an impressionable mark on the entire complex.
From the mid-16th century onward, the Alhambra was virtually abandoned until the 19th century when it was re-discovered by British intellectuals. Since then, the site has benefited greatly from reconstruction works done on it after centuries of neglect and disrepair.
Muslim Spain is a great example of how artistic achievements can transcend differing religious outlooks. Even though the Islamic presence in Iberia precipitated a clash of civilisations between Islam and Christendom, the Christian kingdoms still kept certain remnants of al-Andalus. Some of these Muslim feats of architecture and culture, with the Alhambra being the best example, have left indelible marks on Spanish and Portuguese culture. In turn, this has provided both Spanish and Portuguese culture with an extra layer of richness that is now being utilised to help the countries materially, in the shape of tourism.
* The Reconquista – the resistance of the Catholic kingdoms of the northern Iberia towards Muslim rule, started almost as soon as the Muslims took power in 718 and ended with the fall of the final Muslim stronghold of Granada in 1492.
Check out our YouTube video on the Alhambra!
All these amazing pictures have been provided courtesy of EduArtGranada, a talented artist from Granada – go check him out on