Ancient City of Damascus
Since 1979 • Cultural
Founded in the 3rd millennium B.C., Damascus is one of the oldest cities in the Middle East. In the Middle Ages, it was the centre of a flourishing craft industry, specializing in swords and lace. The city has some 125 monuments from different periods of its history – one of the most spectacular is the 8th-century Great Mosque of the Umayyads, built on the site of an Assyrian sanctuary.
Damascus is considered to be the oldest city as well as the oldest capital of the world. It is the cradle of historical civilizations, constituting a beacon of science and art over time, and a historical encyclopaedia which tells a great part of the history of humanity. In the same way, it represents a historical reference for comparing the systems of architecture and town planning over several thousand years.
Founded in the 3rd millennium BC, Damascus is one of the oldest cities in the Middle East. Dominated to the west by Mount Qasiyun and bounded to the east by the desert, Damascus was founded, with the name of Palmyra, in an oasis that was very fertile thanks to the presence of the River Barada, a meeting place for cultures and caravans. It was the capital of an Aramaic kingdom (11th-7th centuries BC), often at war with the kings of Israel and temporarily conquered by King David. After being defeated twice by the Assyrians, it was definitively conquered by Nebuchadnezzar in 600 BC. It fell into Persian hands in 530 BC, and then in 333 BC it was annexed to the empire of Alexander the Great. The two adjoining areas were unified by the Romans, during the reigns of Septimius Severus and his son Caracalla (AD 197-217). The city was enclosed by a single ring of enclosure walls that are still be identified. After the interval of rule by the Sassanid Parthians, in 636 its fate was sealed permanently as part of the Arab world, becoming the prestigious and monumental capital of the Umayyad caliph. The city then began to expand outside the enclosure walls and enjoyed a time of particular economic prosperity, which continued despite its loss of capital status under the Mameluke dynasty and the devastation wrought during the Mongol incursion.
Damascus preserves a few traces of its long history prior to the Arabic conquest, including some from the Roman period, such as the decumanus, mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, which coincides with the present-day route that crosses the city from east to west, a road lined with columns which still preserves one of the three monumental arches.
The main entrance to the old city is the al Hamidiyeh souk. The Ayyubid Citadel of Damascus is a masterpiece of military architecture, and its courtyards, walls and two enormous entrances illustrate numerous historical events, including the conquest by Timur in 1400.
At the end of the 4th century, during the reign of Emperor Theodosius, on the site of the ancient Temple of Jove there was a Byzantine church dedicated to St John the Baptist and, since 706, the Great Mosque, built at the behest of al-Walid, the sixth Umayyad caliph. The complex has an external courtyard, bounded by a massive wall and flanked by three minarets in different styles. The inner courtyard has three sides with a covered double portico and the centre of it is covered by a dome for the ablution ritual that precedes the prayers. Adjoining the porticoes is the Dome of Treasure, a small octagonal pavilion covered with fine mosaics, and surmounted by a dome that stands on eight Corinthian columns. On the fourth side of the internal courtyard is the mosque proper, subdivided by arches into three parallel aisles, cut on a perpendicular line by a transect, the central part of which was covered by a wooden dome that was destroyed in 1401.
The arrangement of its component elements is reminiscent of the Christian churches of Syria and Armenia and represents a significant example of Umayyad art that continues, through the master craftsmen employed, the tradition of Byzantine art. The urban fabric underwent important transformations with the rise to power of the Abbasids: the urban centre ceased to be a unified organism and was divided up into autonomous quarters, each equipped with its own institutions, mosques, public baths, markets, and police corps. In this way, the rectangular blocks from the Hellenistic grid were transformed into the characteristic Islamic urban fabric. Over the centuries guilds of craftsmen and merchants established themselves around the Great Mosque, while the important Christian minority consolidated itself in the north-east quarters of the city, around the churches and sites associated with the conversation of St Paul.