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History of Syria

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Damascus

 

   Damascus, the capital of Syria, is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. It has occupied a position of importance in the fields of science, culture, politics, art commerce, and industry from the earliest times. It has been called Al-Fayha'a (the fragrant city), Al-Sham, Jollaq, and Pearl of Orient as Emperor Julian named it. It was mentioned in the Holy Qur'an as the many-columns city of Aram, "whose like has never been built in the land".

 

Early references to Damascus such as those in Ebla tablets, confirm that it was as a city of immense economic influence during 3rd millennium BC.

 

Ancient Pharaonic scripts refers to it as Dameska. It enjoyed great prominence during 2nd millennium BC as center of an Aramaic kingdom under the name of Dar-Misiq (the irrigated house). The Aramites were the original inhabitants of Damascus, and their language was Syriac. Many villages around Damascus are still known by their Aramaic names.

 

Damascus fell under the domination of Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines. They all left their mark on Damascus as visitors can still readily observe today. In the Roman era, Damascus was first among ten most prominent cities. It received many privileges, especially during the reign of Syrian dynasty of Roman emperors. It was from Damascus that most talented architect of Roman Empire came. This was Apolodor the Damascene, who designed the celebrated Trajan Column in Rome, and the great bridge on the River Danube. Part of heritage of this era is the remains of the city-plan which Apolodor designed in oblong shape according with Roman architectural style. There is also part of the Roman temple of Jupiter, which was erected on the site of an older Aramaic temple (Hadad) where the Omayyad Mosque stands today; a part distinguished by its huge Corinthian columns with its richly decorated capitals.

 

In Byzantine era, a great number of churches and monasteries were built, and most of them have survived to present.

 

Damascus became capital of the first Arab state at time of the Omayyads in 661 AD. This marked the beginning of its golden epoch, and for a whole century it was the center of the youthful Islamic Empire. This reached its peak of expansion during this period, and came to stretch from shores of Atlantic and Pyrennese in west, to river Indus and China in east. Omayyads took a genuine interest in building up Damascus, organizing its souks (bazaars) and districts, improving its water supply, erecting palaces, and hospitals.

 

Nowadays, Damascus is a living museum spanning thousands of years. A city measuring time not by hours, days, months, and years but by empires it has seen rise and crumble to ruin.

Of the most important landmarks at Damascus are: Omayyad Mosque, Azem Palace, St. Ananias Church, Damascus Citadel, Old Souks like Al-Hamidieyeh and Midhat Pasha, Bimarstan Al-Nory, Saladdin's Tomb, St. Paul Church, and Al-Takieh Al-Suleimaniyeh.

 

Damascus Citadel

       
           

 

The only fortress in Syria built on the same level as the city, it does not top a hill or a mountain like all other castles and citadels. It was erected by the Seljuks in 1078 A.D. with masonry taken from the city wall, and turned into a heavily-fortified citadel surrounded by walls, towers, a moat and trenches. Inside, they built houses, baths, mosques, and schools; it was a city within a city. At the height of Crusader raids and attacks, it was used as residence for the sultans of Egypt and Syria such as Nureddin, Saladin, and al-Malek al-Adel,whence they supervised military operations against the Crusaders. But al-Malek al-Adel soon found that it was no longer adequate for defense against contemporary weapons and siege tactics, so he  decided in 1202 to demolish and re-build it. The outcome was an impressive modern citadel, incorporating the latest inventions in the martial arts. It has imposing walls and a dozen colossal turrets surrounding it; there were three-hundred arrow slits and enormous parapets all round. In the mid-thirteenth century, however, it was the principal target for Tatar and Mongol attacks, and was later neglected by the Ottomans. The moats and trenches around it were filled up, and the souqs of Hamidiyeh, Asrounieh, and al-Khuja were built thereon. Recently, the latter was demolished, and the western walls of the fortress came into full view. Extensive repair and restoration work is underway at the moment; when completed the citadel will become a war museum, and a center for various cultural activities.

The wall and gates

 

 

 

 

 

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The Wall was built in the Roman era with large, tapered stones. It was oblong in shape, designed in the manner of Roman military camps, cities, and fortifications. There are seven gates in it: Bab Sharqi, Bab Al-Jabieh, Bab Keissan, Bab al-Saghir, Bab Tuma, Bab al-Jeniq, and Bab al-Faradiss. The main thoroughfare traversed the city from Bab al-Jabieh to Bab Sharqi; on both sides there were Corinthian columns, and cross it numerous triumphal arches. But this thoroughfare has been submerged over the years to about six metres underground, and has been superseded by Souq al-Tawil of Midhat Pasha, under which are occasionally discovered some Roman columns, especially when road works are in progress.

One such discovery was made in 1950 when a triumphal arch was found at Bab Sharqi, brought up to street level, and re-erected after its restoration was completed.

At the time of the Islamic conquest in 635  A.D., the wall was still solid nd impregnable, so the two Muslim leaders Khaled ibn al-Wlid and abu Obeida ibn al-Jarrah entered the city through Bab Sharqi and Bab al-Jabieh respectively. Thus the wall was preserved, and remained intact throughout the Omayyad era. But when the Abassids stormed Damascus in 750 A.D., they destroyed large parts of it. It began to deteriorate over the years so much, so that it became oval in shape. But it was partly restored and reinforced at the time of the Nourites and Ayoubites, in order to withstand the attacks of the Crusaders. During Ottoman rule, however, it was neglected altogether, and some masonry was removed for use in other buildings; later on, numerous houses were built upon the greater expanse of it.

The only part of historic significance still standing in its original form is 500 metres long, and stretches from Bab al-Salaaam to Bab Tuma. Most of the gates are still there, although much altered by additions and engraving done over the years. Other gates were made during the Islamic era, such as Bab al-Salaam and Bab al-Faraj which were built by Nureddin. Bab Keissan and Bab al-Jeniq were blocked up; and Bab al-Nasre, which has stood next to al-Qal'a (the castle) was removed when Souq al-Hamidiyeh was built in 1863. The remaining towers on the Wall are: The Nureddin Tower to the south of Bab Tuma, and al-Saleh Ayoub Tower to the east.
 

 

 

Saladin's Tomb and its neighboring Schools

The tomb is next door to the north gate of the Omayyad Mosque. It was originally part of al-Azizieh School built by Uthman, Saladin's son, in the twelfth century. The whole interior is decorated with polychrome marble mosaics.

 Next to the tomb stands a typical mamluk edifice, the Jumaqjieh School, built in the twelfth century. The interior is decorated with inscriptions and beautiful lettering. It is one of the most splendid old schools in Damascus; and has recently been turned into a Museum of Arabic Calligraphy.

 Two other schools stand nearby: al-Zhahiriya, which is an Ayoubite edifice and house the famous library of that name; and al-Adliya, which is also Ayoubite in style, and is now headquarters of the Arab language Academy.
 

St. Paul's Church

commemorates the memory of St. Paul, whose name was Saul of Tarsus, charged by the Romans to persecute the Christians. As he approached the village of Daraya, a burst of blinding light took his sight away, and he heard Jesus Christ ask him "Saul, why do you persecute me? This was a vision of faith. He was taken unconscious to Damascus, attended by Hananiya, Christ's disciple, and became one of the staunchest advocates of Christianity. His Jewish peers decided to kill him, but he hid in a house by the city wall. The church is located at the site of his escape. He traveled to Antioch, Athens, and Rome, after a brief stay in Jerusalem, and continued to teach the gospel until he died.

 

The Omayad Mosque

 

 

 

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This Great Mosque stands at the heart of the Old city at the end of Souq al-Hamidiyeh. It was built by the Omayyad Caliph al-Walid ibn Abdul Malek in 705 A.D. when Damascus was the capital of the Arab Islamic Empire.

It was constructed on the site of what has always been a place of worship: first, a temple for Hadad, the Aramean god of the ancient Syrians three thousand years ago; then, a pagan temple (the temple of Jupiter the Damascene) during the Roman era. It was later turned into a church called John the Baptist when Christianity spread in the fourth century. Following the Islamic conquest in 635, Muslims and Christians agreed to partition it between them, and they began to perform their rituals side by side.

 

   

When al-Walid decided to erect an impressive mosque suited to the grandeur of the Arab state "whose like was never built before, nor will ever be built after" as he is reported to have said he negotiated with the Christian community of Damascus, and undertook to construct a new church for them (St. John's) and allot several pieces of land for other churches, if they relinquished their right to their part of the Mosque. They agreed. It took ten years and eleven million gold dinars, as well as a huge number of masons, artists, builders, carpenters, marble-layers, and painters to complete. It became an architectural model for hundreds of mosques throughout the Islamic world.

A prominent feature of it are the three minarets built in different styles; the upper parts of which were renovated during the Ayoubite, Mamluk, and Ottoman eras. The mosque has a large prayer hall  and an enormous courtyard. The interior walls are covered with mosaic panels, made of coloured and gilded glass, portraying scenes from nature. The dome is greyich-blue, celebrated for its magnificence. The prayer hall contains domed shrine venerated by both Christians and Muslims, the tomb of St. John the Baptist.

The Azem Palace

 

 

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This also stands at the heart of the Old City, on the southern side of the Omayyad Mosque, and very close to it. It is an astonishing example of a Damascene house, where the simple, almost primitive, exterior contrasts rather sharply with the beauty and sophistication of the interior. Here one finds a sense of space, a wealth of polychrome stone, splendid marble, cascading fountains, and fragrant flowers. The palace was built in the mid-eighteenth century for the Governor of Damascus. The palace now houses the Museum of Arts and Popular Traditions.

 

 

 

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Succeeding Caliphates and Kingdoms

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