SYRIA - DAMASCUS
Damascus is a crowded metropolis of 4 million people and
is the chief manufacturing and trading center of Syria. Most of the main sites
of interest are found in or near the Old City including the workshops that still
make Damask silk brocade, carpets, gold and silver filigree jewelry and beautiful
Despite rapid urbanization, Damascus still retains some of the many orchards and
private gardens that made the city famous. It is a delight encountering groves
of apricot, almond and quince growing so close to the noisy heart of a modern
city. A specialty of Damascus and a treat not to be missed are crystallized apricots
and apricot delights sold in abundance in the city's souqs.
In Damascus, past and present mingle at every turn. In a region where a number
of cities claim the title of "the world's oldest", Damascus credentials
are very impressive. Josephus attributes the building ofDamascus to Uz, the grandson
of Noah, from whose father, Aram, the Arameans are descended. A settlement of
the fourth millennium has been excavated in Tell al-Salihiye and pottery from
the third millennium was unearthed in the Old City. In the Ghouta a system of
irrigation canals was dug prior to the second millennium BC and were expanded
by successive rulers.
In the tablets discovered at Tell al-Amarna, in Egypt, Dimashqa is mentioned as
being amongst the cities conquered in the 15th Century BC by Tuthmosis III. The
Arameans, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Macedonians under
Alexander, the Nabateans, Rome and Byzantium all stamped their influence on this
great city. Christianity was established in Damascus from the beginning of the
religion --Saul of Tarsus converted to the new faith on "the road to Damascus"
-- and flourished under Byzantium. On August 20th, 636 AD the Arabs routed the
Byzantine army in the battle of the Yarmouk and entered Damascus a few days after.
Apart from the short period of
the French Mandate, Damascus has been under Muslim rule ever since. For nearly
100 years Damascus was the political and cultural center of the Islamic world
under the Omayyad Caliphate.
It was under the Caliph Walid, in 705 that the Great Omayyad Mosque was built,
the 4th most important in Islam, and the most splendid and opulent building ever
constructed in the Middle East.
Other conquerors followed. The Abbasids were replaced by the Seljuk Turks. Nure
al-Din captured the city from its Turkoman rulers and under him and his successor
Salah al-Din (Saladin of the Crusades fame) the city entered its most illustrious
era. The Mongols came and went, followed by the Mameluke Sultans of Egypt, followed
by Tamerlane --who burned down half of the city after looting it and taking the
best of its craftsmen captives to Samarkand. In 1516 the Ottoman Sultan Selim
I, captured Damascus and for the next 400 years the city was a part of the Ottoman
Empire. On October I st, 1918 troops under General Allen by entered the city and
Turkish domination came to an end. The French, who were given the UN Mandate over
Syria finally left in the spring of 1946, and Damascus became the capital of the
The minimum time required to see Damascus is two days but five would be best.
The sites that are a must are Souq Hamidiye, the Citadel, Nur al-Din Hospital
and Museum, Madrasas Zahiriye and Adiliye, the Tomb of Salah al-Din) and the Omayyad
Mosque --a feature interesting to Christians is the South-East minaret) named
Madhanat Issa, the Tower of Jesus. According to Muslim tradition Jesus will descent
to earth via this tower to fight the Antichrist before the Day of Judgment. Also
the Azem Palace museum and Souq Assagha (the gold market). Do not miss a visit
to the Hammam al-Malik al-Zaher (Turkish style steam room, massage room, and bath).
Dating from the 11 th or 12th century the baths have been completely restored
and modernized. They cater only to men. It is one of the few places left in the
world where men can still enjoy Arabic coffee
and a narghile (water-pipe).