For Thames & Hudson's "70 Great Cities of the World", edited by John Julius Norwich
"Damascus has seen all that ever occurred on earth and still she lives. She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies"
Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad.
Damascus sits below the slopes of the sacred mountain of Jebel Kassion, looking out over the Syrian desert and watered by the Barada, a near-miraculous torrent that comes gushing out of an arid mountain range. It was known as the city of 'the odour of Paradise. The great Moorish traveller Ibn Jubayr wrote that 'If Paradise be on earth, it is, without doubt, Damascus, but if it be in Heaven. Damascus is its counterpart on earth." The prophet Muhammad passed beside the city as a young man but was content to look out over the gorgeous city rather than tempt himself with its pleasures - for he aspired to a spiritual rather than an earthly heaven. Kinglake catches this mood beautifully in the pages of Eothen, "This Holy Damascus, this earthly paradise of the Prophet, so fair to the eyes, that he dared not trust himself to tarry in her blissful shades, she is a city of hidden palaces, of copses, and gardens, and fountains and bubbling streams." Her citizens considered Damascus to be the oldest city on earth for Cain slew Abel on the slopes of Mount Kassion, Abraham was transfigured by a vision of his Lord here, just as in the first century AD the Christian-persecuting Saul was transformed into St Paul, the great co-founder of the early Church, on the road to Damascus. These ancient shrines would be joined by such holy relics as the head of St John the Baptist, the tomb of the prophet Hud, the tombs of the Prophet's two daughters, Zaynab and Rukyyah, not to mention the shrines of the veiled 3, the 7 and the 40 sheikhs and the hidden shrine of El-Khidr, the immortal, ever vigilant green knight of Islam. For over a thousand years the vast crowds associated with the Haj pilgrimmage would annually assemble outside the walls of Damascus for the desert crossing to Mecca. (the last such caravan departed in 1864 after which the sea journey down the Red Sea to Jeddah took over)
Excavations amongst the ancient palace libraries of Ebla. Amarna and Mari, confirm Damascus's breathless antiquity. For whether written in the script of Egypt or Mesopotamia the cities name appears just as it does today in Arabic - Dimashq whilst the slang form of al-Shams, the sun, is probably just as old.
From the first, Damascus learned to bend with the prevailing political wind, the better to concentrate on her trade, culture and religion. Her enduring relationships were not with the passing litany of great powers, be they Assyria, Persia, Alexander, Rome or Byzantium, but with the other ancient trading cities of the Levant; such as Petra, Beirut, Dura Europos, Emesa, Baalbek, Palmyra and Apamea - though few of her sisters had quite the same gift for continuity and survival.
The ancient city then and now occupies an irregular rectangle framed by nine gates. The Barada river run chuckling along the foot of the northern walls, like a living moat, from which the cities many fountains were fed. Like many of her Syrian sisters, a single great processional avenue cut through the length of the city, known in the gospels as 'straight Street' in Arabic, the Souk al-Tawil and in Latin the Via Recta. The western entrance gate (Bab al-Jabiye) had been dedicated to Jupiter and led due east to Bab Sharqui, the old gate of the Sun. To the north, a second great processional avenue marched towards the ancient sacred enclosure in the heart of the city. Here an ancient shrine dedicated to Baal Hadad had evolved into an ever more magnificent complex associated by the Greeks with Zeus and with Jupiter by the Romans. The Emperor Septimius Severus (married to a formidably intelligent princess descended from an ancient dynasty of Syrian high priests) had lovingly rebuilt the colonnades, walkways and sacred temenos enclosure around the shrine. Emperor Theodosius would replace this shrine with a basilica dedicated to St John the Baptist. Despite the endless series of frontier wars between the Zoroastrian Sassanid Empire of Persia and the Christian Orthodox Empire of Byzantium, Syria yet prospered in the early medieval period, as the extraordinary density of elegant stone towns that still surround the cities of Bostra, Hama. Halap (Aleppo) testify. The savage wars fought between the two Empires during the reigns of Heraclius and Chosroes II (590-628) would be followed by a tectonic shift in power.
Four cavalry armies (forged from out of a confederation of Arab tribes of central Arabia) burst upon the Middle East in 634 AD. They were united by a shared devotion to the teachings of the prophet Muhammad and a desire for plunder. The city of Damascus, well aware of the events of the Arabian desert through its involvement in the caravan trade, was amongst the first of the Syrian cities to welcome this new power. The annihilation of the entire Byzantine field army just two years later, destroyed during a mid-summer sandstorm at the three-day battle of Yarmak (636) just south of Damascus, confirmed the wisdom of this decision. When a new frontier was created along the line of the Taurus mountains (roughly following the modern borders between Syria and Turkey) Damascus's new eminence was confirmed. For not only did it command the direct route across the desert to the Islamic homeland of Mecca and Medina, but it was close-enough to the new frontier to become the central headquarters of the Arabs. Damascus was also excellently placed to watch over the desert plateau of northern Syria from out of which came the best cavalry horses in the world. The old centres of power, the sprawling metropolis of Antioch and regional capital of Bostra were rapidly overshadowed. Damascus prospered under the governorship of Muawiya (who after the death of his elder brother from plague) had been handpicked by Omar, the puritanical second Caliph of Islam, to be the military leader of the Arab armies in Syria. Muawiya was a brilliant commander but was otherwise an unlikely choice, for he was the son of Abu Sufyan, the leader of pre-Islamic pagan Mecca, and attracted to his court many of the officials of the old Byzantine empire as well as from out of the traditional aristocracy of Arabia. When his cousin Uthman was chosen as the Third Caliph of Islam in 664, Muawiya's authority waxed ever larger, so much so that he was later able to forment civil war against Ali, the principled, aesthetic Fourth Caliph of Islam.
After Ali's assassination in 661 Muawiya became sole ruler of the rapidly expanding Islamic Empire. In less than thirty years Damascus had been propelled from a Syrian provincial city to the capital of the Ommayad Empire, which stretched from the frontiers of Algeria to that of Afghanistan. In the cosmopolitan court of Ommayad Damascus, scholar officials drawn from the old ruling classes of Byzantium and Sassanid Persia, from Yemen and Egypt mingled with singing girls, desert bards and nomad huntsmen drawn from out of the old tribal courts of Arabia. The polyglot scholarship of St John of Damascus - the Venerable Bede of Syria - whose father was a Christian treasury official to the Ommayads is one of the monuments to this era. The other is the Great Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, built Caliph al-Walid (705-715) over the site of the cathedral of St John which until that time had been used by both Christians and Muslims as a house of prayer. The Caliph poured seven years of the revenue of his vast Empire into the building, re-using the ancient sacred enclosure, and fusing Byzantine craftsmanship and architectural forms with the traditions of the first house-mosque of the Prophet. The gorgeous fragments of golden mosaic seem to play with an idyllic landscape inspired both by Damascus's Barada riverbank but above all by the Koranic promise in Sura 13, "Such is the paradise promised to the righteous; streams run through it; its fruits never fail; it never lacks shade." In 750, the supporters of Ali at last had their revenge on Muawiya's Ommayad dynasty. Every last Ommayad princeling was hunted down through the allies of Damascus, their bodies burned on the midden heaps, their palaces oblierated, their tombs excavated and their bones ground into dust. Only the Ommayad mosque was permitted to survive - one of the enduring wonders of the early medieval world.
Overnight imperial Damascus decayed back into a Syrian provincial city whilst Baghdad rose up to be the new Islamic capital. The fortunes of Damascus would however be revived in the 11th century when the brutality of the Crusader conquest of Palestine, especially the sack of Jerusalem, drove thousands of refugees to take shelter behind her walls. A brand new Citadel fortress rose up, which helped Damascus resisted three Crusader sieges, and serve as one of the springboards for Saladin's reconquest of the Holy Land.
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by Barnaby Rogerson