Damascus-a significant historical city-is situated at the Ghouta Oasis. Fed by the Baruda River, the urban core of Damascus flourished as an oasis surrounded by dry, infertile land.
Although recent scientific studies trace the city to 8000 BC, its documented history dates as far as the Amorite period in the middle of the second millennium BC. During that period the city was the capital of a small, Aramaic principality that was arranged around two major monuments, the Temple of Hadad and the royal palace. Remains of the Aramaic city likely lie buried under the western part of the historic city.
A series of power shifts that shape Damascus's social and cultural layers began when the Assyrians and then the Neo-Babylonians took Damascus in 572 BC. Then, by overthrowing the Babylonians in 538, the Persian king Cyrus reoriented Damascus investing it as the capital and military headquarters of the Persian province of Syria. Two centuries later, when the Macedonian general Alexander the Great and his armies swept through Syria and the Persian Empire in 333 BC, Damascus for the first time came under Western control. Greater Syria's significance rested in its strategic location at the heart of an empire that spanned all of Asia Minor reaching Iran and Afghanistan.
As part of the Roman Empire, in 64 BC Damascene traders were well positioned for marketing and distributing products between Europe and the Orient. Local manufacturing and widespread marketing of Damascene products such as swords, glassware, and cloth, established Damascus' wealth base necessary for the foundation of a strong city that would become one of the Roman Empire's most prominent cities. During this period of expansion a new city was built upon the old to accommodate a larger infrastructure.
A rectangular stone Roman wall with seven gates framed and fortified the city. The best-preserved part today is the section of the wall between the Gate of Safety (Bab al-Salama) and Thomas Gate (Bab Touma). The major commercial street, known as the Street called Straight, was built during this period. Extending 1500m between Bab al-Sharqi and Bab al-Jabiya, its wide center lane displayed covered columned arcades on either side. Monumental in scale, this period saw the erection of the Temple of Jupiter.
Damascus' Roman map remains imprinted on the city's plan.
With the introduction of Christianity in the Byzantine era, Damascus became an important center where the Christians and the Bishop of Damascus were perceived as second in rank of religious importance only to the Patriarch of Antioch. When the Roman Empire was divided in 395 AD, Syria joined the eastern province of the Byzantine Empire. It maintained a strategic link between Anatolia and Egypt, the two most important provinces of the Byzantine Empire.
Architecturally, additions to the city did not occur on a grand urban scale, but rather through the insertion of religious structures into existing sites. The Temple of Jupiter was transformed into the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. The Church of the Musallaba was situated inside the city walls between Bab al-Sharqi and Bab Touma on the site of the house of Ananias. Other Christian additions include the Church of al-Maqsallat near the middle of the Street Called Straight, the Church of Saint Mary along the same main access, and the Church of Saint Paul near the current Suq al-Khayatin.
In 635 AD Damascus began its transformation into a Muslim city, the first political center of the Muslim people. That year, the city was taken over by Islamic armies who had traveled north from the Arabian Peninsula. A strong majority under Roman control welcomed the Muslim armies and the city saw mass-conversions to Islam, which strengthened the Muslim military power. As Damascus shifted from its western focus to an eastern one, it faced severe opposition from the Romans.
At the center of the rapidly expanding Islamic Empire-even if only for a brief 100 years-this position was crucial to Damascus' development. Muawiya bin Abi Sufyan made Damascus the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate in 661. Although the dynasty lasted for less than a hundred years, it had a great impact on the cultural and artistic heritage of the city. Adding yet another layer to Damascus's multi-textured urban and architectural fabric, the lasting Islamic symbol, the Umayyad Mosque was built above the remains of the Roman temple of Jupiter. The site had already seen the Aramaic temple and the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.
The mosque embodies the architectural influences of former empires (Aramaic, Roman, Byzantine) while suggesting a model for a mosque typology that would develop in the following centuries. As a physical monument acknowledging the strength and power of the growing Islamic Empire, the mosque served not only as an important religious center but also as a political, social and scientific gathering point for leaders, scholars and visitors from all the surrounding regions.
The capital of the Islamic Empire was transferred from Damascus to Baghdad in 750 under the newly formed Abbasid dynasty. This shift left Damascus as a provincial town with a declining population. Political rivalries between the Abbasids and Umayyads left physical scars and damage as a result of assaults, raids and attacks. Defense towers, palaces and public buildings (including the Umayyad mosque) suffered the most. Later in the Abbasid period Damascus assumed a new role as a place of leisure, leading to the building of palaces in the area. An Abbasid approaches to rule affected the city's fragmentation. Quarters became isolated and self-contained, each one developing independent markets, mosques and institutions for security reasons. The historian Ibn Asakir counted more than 242 mosques within the city walls in the 12th century, which is a direct effect of this fragmentation
The Seljuk and Ayyubid periods beginning in the late eleventh century triggered Damascus to regain stability. During the reign of Nur al-Din (1154-1174), large-scale restoration projects throughout the city were initiated. The city walls were repaired and fortified with new defense towers. City gates were rebuilt and new ones were added such as Bab al-Salaam and Bab al-Faraj. Nur al-Din also founded many institutions across the city that were important in stitching the community back together through central public buildings like the Bimaristan of Nur al-Din, the Madrasa of Nur al-Din, and Dar al-Adl (Hall of Justice). Major urban shifts in the Ayyubid period, with large expansions outside the city walls and the development of al-Salihiyya on the slope of Mount Qasyun and Hikr al-Summaq to the west of the city, can be mapped by tracing the Ayyubid madrasas and mosques in each area. Some of these Ayyubid monuments include al-Madrasa al-Murshidiyya, al-Rukniyya and al-Badra'iyya.
Timurid armies invaded Damascus in 1400 slaughtering hundreds of Damascenes and destroying many of the city's buildings. After the Timurids departure from the ruins of Damascus, the Mamluks took control of the city. The Mamluk period was one of reconstruction. Ayyubid monuments were restored and Mamluk additions were constructed. Dar al-Adl was restored and readapted as Dar al-Saada, the governor's residence. Mamluk buildings in Damascus include the Mausoleum of Baybars, the Tankiz mosque, Hisham mosque and the Madrasa al-Jaqmaqiyya. The Mamluk period also witnessed the expansion of the pre-existing, Ayyubid extensions so that the areas were linked together forming a greater Damascus outside the old city's walls.
In 1516 Damascus was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire that would rule the city for four centuries. Political stability and the city's increased importance created an atmosphere of architectural resurgence. Most of the prominent Ottoman additions are complexes built outside the old city walls. The first was in al-Salihiyya around the tomb of Sheikh Muhi al-Din Ibn al-Arabi that included a mausoleum and a takkiya. Another Ottoman complex is the Darwishiyya built in 1574 that included a mosque, a madrasa, a mausoleum and a water fountain. In addition to the religious additions of mosques and madrasas, the Ottoman era established commercial building types in the forms of the suq and khan. These suqs and khans served the flow of travelers passing through the Ottoman regions especially during pilgrimage season. Some commercial Ottoman buildings include Khan al-Jawkhiyya, Suq al-Harir (Khan al-Harir and Hammam al-Qishani) and Suq Midhat Basha.
The 18th century saw projects by the Azm family who governed Damascus for nearly a century take on great significance. The Azm family was responsible for projects that encompassed commercial buildings (Khan Asaad Basha and Suq al-Jadid the western wing of Suq al-Hamidiyya), governmental buildings (Hall of Justice) and residential architecture (Azm Palace).
Damascus' urban fabric in the 19th century began to evolve as the suburbs connected to absorb the growing population and the old city walls and defense systems ceased to have any military importance. The 19th century also witnessed a change in architectural style as European influences appeared in the buildings of 'modern' Damascus. For example the Hamidiyya barracks (currently part of the Damascus University campus), the old Republican Palace in al-Muhajirin, the National Hospital and Dar al-Mu'alimin (the House of Educators). Other late Ottoman interventions included building channels to supply the city with fresh spring water and linking Damascus to its neighboring regions (Beirut and al-Hijaz) by railroad transportation. New streets were built throughout the city to connect different suburbs and accommodate new tramlines that linked the quarters.
Modernizing interventions continued under the French Mandate that began in 1920. Urban development, in tandem with the destruction of parts of the city during revolts against the colonialist occupation characterized the first half of the twentieth century.
After Syria regained its independence in 1946, Damascus quickly transformed into the country's modern capital city.
The 1950s and 60s were a period of political instability as the central authority was transferred from one party to the next prevailing one. Mirroring politics, Damascus expanded to absorb migrants from the villages. In 1963 the Ba'ath socialist party took control of the country in a military coup. Syria became the Syrian Arab Republic with Damascus as its capital. Relative political stability aided the development of urban and rural areas in the country through major projects like the Asad Dam on the Euphrates, the expansion of the universities and institutions, and the building of large governmental centers.
Currently, restoration and adaptive reuse projects have driven the city's development, partly in response to the overall loss of 80% of the city's urban fabric during the colonial and postcolonial periods. These projects recognize the importance of the old city in Damascus' future and have been initiated by the Syrian government, international organizations, and those concerned in the private sector. The projects simultaneously restore the physical material built fabric and the public's relationship with their cultural heritage.
Keenan, Brigid, and Tim Beddow. Damascus: Hidden Treasures of the Old City. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2000.
Rīḥāwī, ʻAbd Al-Qādir. Damascus: Its History, Development and Artistic Heritage. Damascus: N.p., 1977.
Weber, Stefan. Damascus: Ottoman Modernity and Urban Transformation (1808-1918). Århus: Aarhus University Press, 2009.