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By: Ma'n Abul Husn

  Damascus is the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city. The only other city that might contest this fact might be Aleppo, 360 kms to the north. A center of life from as early as 5000 BC.,  Damascus was a meeting place of many different caravan routes and one of the greatest market places of history. It was mentioned in many cuneiform tablets dating back to 3rd millennium BC. found in Mari and Ebla archives. Amorite settlement began around late 3rd millenium. It came into Egyptian sphere of influence and was mentioned in the Amarna archives 14C. BC. It went under Arameans, Assyrians, and Persians control before it was conquered by Alexander the Great in 333 BC. , marking a turning point in the history of Damascus: the beginning of an age of classical civilization in this area that lasted until 630 A.D. In its long history of domination by outside powers, it was the first time that Damascus had come under Western control. Damascus went under wave of western influence marked by the Greeks, Romans and the Byzantines. It became Islam’s first great capital under the Umayyad Caliphs during 7-8 C.

  As the chief city of the Middle East and Headquarters of Mu’awiyah, Damascus was the natural choice for the capital of the new Islamic Empire - the Omayyad Caliphate.  These were the glorious days of Damascus, when the Great Omayyad Mosque was built, along with numerous palaces and villas.   The great mosque was initially shared with the Christians when the Arab Army conquered Damascus.  For more than sixty years, both religions perform their rituals side-by-side. 

  However, Caliph al-Walid ibn Abdul Malek decreed in 705 A.D. that he shall build the greatest mosque ever - one “whose like was never built before, nor will ever be built after.”  And he took 10 years and 11 million gold dinars to build his mosque.  The result is a  marvelous monument - a grand prayer hall with mosaic walls (very beautiful mosaic arrangements depicting buildings and landscapes - so unlike most mosques one sees around the world where the only art appears to be geometric patterns), a huge marble courtyard and a few tall minarets. 

  What impresses there is not merely the grandeur but the sense of peacefulness that one finds inside.  That aside, visitors should be aware that this is a very special holy place, as the shrine of St John the Baptist, who the Muslims consider as Prophet Yahya, lies within the prayer hall.  Round the shrine were many people, kissing and praying softly in front of the shrine, where St John’s head (he was decapitated by the Romans) was kept.

  Near the Omayyad Mosque were mausoleums of two great Middle Eastern sultans of the Age of the Crusaders - Salah Ad-Din, founder of the Ayyubid Dynasty,  and Baibars I, the most eminent of the Mamluk sultans.  Each of the mausoleums is small and almost insignificant architecturally.  Salah Ad-Din (which means "Righteousness of the Faith”), commonly known as Saladin in the West, was an army commander under the ruler of Aleppo.  Through his military genius and shrewdness, he conquered Damascus and then took over Egypt.  When Nureddin died, he took over the throne and within a short time, built an empire which included Egypt, Palestine, Syria and northern Mesopotamia. After uniting the Muslim territories, he turned his target to the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.  At the Battle of Hattin on July 4, 1187, Salah Ad-Din routed the Crusader Army, capturing the King of Jerusalem and his lords.  By October 1187, his troops marched into the Holy City of Jerusalem, ending 88 years of western rule, and unlike the standards of the days, he did not celebrate his victory with a standard bloodbath of Christians.  And it was this civilised act, together with many other events of chivalry that made Salah Ad-Din legendary in the Western world.

  The old city was defended against enemies by means of a fortified wall and a powerful citadel. 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 Eight gates in it: Bab Sharqi, Bab Al-Jabieh, Bab Keissan, Bab al-Saghir, Bab Tuma, , Bab al-Faradiss, Bab Al Faraj and Bab Al Salam. 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 and 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 old covered souqs of Damascus have a unique flavour you can savor with eyes closed. As you walk about in the warm darkness of these streets with their fragrant scents, spices, and colourful merchandise spilling out of the shops onto the pavements, you enter the strange world of exotic legend. The most famous of these is Souk Al Hamidieh, built in1863, by the Ottoman Sultan Abdul-Hamid, after whom the souq was called. It is covered with high iron vaulting, so old that sun rays filter through it into the darkness of the souq. The shops here sell everything from tissues to leather-work, from sweets and ice-cream to exquisite handmade brocades, mosaic, and copper inlaid with silver.

  That area has many other souqs, mostly specialized ones. Souq Al Darwishieh was built by Darwish Pasha in 1574. Its entrance is at the end of Souq al-Hamidiyeh just outside the Omayyad Mosque. Its shops are filled with local embroidered cloths, perfume essence, and tailoring and sewing requisites. Here, too, a number of old khans have been converted into shops, best known for their cloaks, capes, mantles, shawls, and "galabiyas". Most interesting of these clusters of little shops is an old bath called al-Qishani.

  Souq al-Harir (silk) leads to yet another souq called al-Khayatin (Tailors) which was founded by Shamsi Pasha in 1553; a multitude of shops here sell woolen and material for men's clothing. Hundreds of celebrated tailors of traditional wear used to work here in the past. Between these two souqs stands the mosque and tomb of the Muslim leader Nureddin ibn Zenki. The mosque was erected in 1173, and is distinguished by a dome of unequalled beauty, and interior and exterior designs of unique originality. Also between the two souqs stands Madrassat (school) Abdallah al-Azem, constructed in 1779, during the Ottoman period, which has also been converted into a cluster of small shops for traditional crafts

  Souk Al-Bzourieh extends between Souq Midhat Pasha and the Omayyad Mosque and is famous for, medicinal herbs, and confectionery.

  In the middle of this souq stands a bath (one of the two hundred public baths) which has been in continuous use from the twelfth century. Here, too is the celebrated khan of As'ad Pasha built by the owner of al-Azem Palace in the mid-nineteenth century; it is now being converted into a hotel.

  Another little souq branches out of al-Bzourieh; this is Souk Al Sagha (Goldsmiths Market), where an endless variety of hand-made jewellery is sold; the southern entrance to the Omayyad Mosque overlooks this glittering little souq.

  Those who can resist shopping, at least at first, should wade farther, to the triumphal arch that marks the remains of the Temple of Jupiter, on a site that has housed sacred enclosures for more than 3,000 years and ended up as a site to the majestic Umayyad Mosque, which so far survived more than 1,200 years of invasions, earthquakes, fires and Mongol sackings. Another important palace that must be visited by all Damascus visitors is the Street Called Straight, a major thoroughfare since Hellenistic times, and featured in biblical tales of St. Paul's conversion to Christianity. Straight Street also marks the best route to the Bab Sharqi, at the old city's eastern edge, in a quarter that has a cluster of good restaurants. It is here that old Damascene houses may be most easily glimpsed, along the street leading to the Chapel of St. Hanania, on a site where Paul reputedly took shelter. Visitors are free to peer into many courtyards, and in some houses, small shops offer Damascus's most famous wares, including the brocade and inlaid wooden boxes.

  The Straighty Street, which is now hardly straight, was mentioned in the bible. And who commented on that? Mark Twain himself:

  “The street called straight is straighter than the corkscrew, but not as straight as a rainbow.  St Luke is careful not to commit himself; he does not say it is the street which is straight, but `the street which is called straight.’  It is the only facetious remark in the Bible, I believe.”

  Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, 1869

  Old Damascus has maintained a lifestyle that emphasizes seclusion, beauty, and family togetherness. In old Damascus, each home, regardless of size, is conceived as a private paradise. In an Old City house, the courtyard - or two or three, depending on the owner's wealth - is typically a secret garden of damask roses, citrus trees, jasmine, and gurgling fountains in summer. Surrounding the courtyard are two floors of living space, the upper level used in the winter months. The lower level includes open reception halls with arabesque and rococo paneling on ceilings and walls.

  Wealthy Syrian businessmen have bought some 40 traditional Arab homes - jewel boxes of friezes and frescos, marble and mosaic - and converted them into restaurants with trendy names such as Oxygen and Neutron. The effect on the old quarters has been moderate. However, with rapidly increasing numbers of visitors, the authorities have stated to give the matter due attention and has restricted any project that changes the face of the old city.


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