The Tribune - Spectrum


, June 23, 2002

Damascus: The oldest inhabited city in the world
Shona Adhikari

A woman in a traditional Syrian dress
A woman in a traditional Syrian dress

A COUPLE of years ago, the Ministry of Tourism, Syria, had put on a colourful promotional in the summer in the capital, including folk dances, craftsmen at work, and a Mezz Food Festival. Regrettably, this was not repeated, but the promotional served its purpose, by whetting the appetites of a number of people who happened to be around. Curiosity aroused, they wanted to see more, about this ancient land that dates back to the 3rd. Millennium B.C. Damascus, the capital, said to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, has naturally been the most important point of call. Now a modern city with world class hotels, restaurants and all modern facilities, it, however, needs to be seen in the historical context, with the rest of Syria.

The cradle of great civilisations, Syria is a meeting point of three continents — Asia, Africa and Europe. It lies at a crossroads between the Caspian Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Black Sea, and the River Nile. Through Syria lay the silk route, which led from China to Doura Europos (Salhieh), from Palmyra and Homs to the Syrian ports on the Mediterranean, where for thousands of years, Syrian seafarers had ridden the waves in their enormous fleets with gleaming white sails.

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Until the end of World War 1, geographically Syria included present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. Present-day Syria, covers some 185,000 sq. km, with a population of over 12 million, surrounded by Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq. The country also has a Mediterranean coastline to the west. The landscape is vast and varied — mountain ranges, fertile valleys, forests, rivers, lakes, as well a great central desert, within which lies the ancient oasis of Palmyra, the earlier capital from where Queen Zenobia ruled the whole of Syria.

Located at Allepo, 350 km from Damascus, is the St Simian’s Citadel
Located at Allepo, 350 km from Damascus, is the St Simian’s Citadel

Palmyra, earlier known as Tadmor, and located between two warring empires, Rome and Persia, found her interests lay more with Rome and when the Romans captured Syria, Tadmor flourished even more, and came to be known as the ‘city of palm trees’. Palmyra’s remains tell of a heroic history, full of magnificent remains of the city that Zenobia built. Palmyra lies 210 km north-east of Damascus. When you plan your tour, allow a whole day for the place, as the ruins cover an area of 8 sq. km. Among the must-see category are the Baal Temple, the Arch of Triumph, the Amphitheatre, the baths, and on a nearby hill, the citadel of Fakhr al-Din-Ma’ni (17th century) The Tadmor Museum, is where history falls into place.

Damascus has occupied a position of importance in the fields of science, culture, art, commerce and industry, from the earliest times. It has been variously referred to in glowing terms, and also finds a mention in the Koran as ‘the many columned city of Aram’, whose like has never been built in the land. Early references to the city, such as those in the Elba tablets, confirm that Dameski (i.e Damascus) during the 3rd Millennium B.C., was a city of immense economic influence, dominated by the Greeks, the Romans, and the Byzantines — all of whom left their mark on the city.

From the Roman era, there are the remains of a Roman temple of Jupiter, and the ruins of the earlier city. From the Byzantine era, can be seen a great number of churches and monastries, most of which have survived to the present day. The Omayyads, who came in 551 AD, ruled for a full century, marking what is considered the city’s golden epoch. Thereafter the decline set in, and it was only when Independence was achieved in 1946, that the city began to regain its importance, as a significant cultural and political centre in the Arab world.

The Great Omayyed Mosque
The Great Omayyed Mosque

Among the most important places to visit in Damascus are the Wall, the Gates, and all that lies within the Old City, designed and built in the Roman style. The great Omayyad Mosque, stands at the heart of the Old City, at the end of Souq al-Hamidiyeh. It was built by the Ommayyad Caliph al-Walid ibn Abdul Malek in 705 AD, when Damascus was the capital of the Arab Islamic empire. The mosque was constructed over a site that has always been a place of worship, first it was the Temple of Hadad, the Armean god of the ancient Syrians, 3000 years ago, followed by the Temple of Jupiter, during the Roman era. A church called John the Baptist was erected in the same location, when Christianity spread in the area during the 4th century AD.

When al-Walid decided to erect an impressive mosque, suited to the grandeur of the Arab state, he negotiated with the Christian community, offering to give them several pieces of land for other churches, if they relinquished their right to a part of the mosque. They agreed, and the mosque, built over a period of 10 years, is considered an architectural model for mosques all over the world. The large prayer hall contains a domed shrine venerated by both Christians and Muslims, the tomb of St John, the Baptist.

Standing next to the north gate of the Omayyad Mosque is the exquisite tomb of Saladin, its interiors decorated with polychromatic marble mosaics. Also in the Old City stands the Azem Palace, built in the mid-eighteenth century, earlier the residence of the Governor of Damascus. The Palace is now the Museum of Arts & Popular Traditions.

The old covered souqs of Damascus have a unique flavour, that can be savoured with eyes closed. The Souq al-Hamidiyeh dates back to 1863, to the rule of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid. Covered with a high iron vaulting, the shops here sell everything from sweets and ice-cream to exquisite handmade brocades, mosaic, and copper-inlaid silver. The Souq Midhat Pasha, founded by the Governor of Damascus in 1878, has shops selling local textiles, silks, woollen cloaks, headbands and caps, as well as a number of small inns. Coppersmiths can be observed at work at this souq. Then there is the Souq al-Bzourieh, famous for fruit, medicinal herbs and confectionery — just the place to pick up some delicious Turkish delight. In the middle of the souq, stands a bath, said to have been in use since the 12th century.

St Paul’s Church commemorates the memory of St Paul, whose name was Saul of Tarsus, charged by the Romans to persecute the Christians. Legend has it, that as he approached the village, a burst of blinding light took his sight away, and he fell down unconscious. Tended by a Christian till he recovered, he became one of the staunchest advocates of Christianity.

The New City, began taking shape in the 11th century, when the Old City became too small to house its inhabitants. Mamluk princes and sultans erected numerous schools and mosques, the Ottomans’ construction work continued with new edifices being added. New roads, and European architectural styles appeared. The Hamidiyeh Barracks is now the University, al-Saraya houses the Ministry of Interior, the former Presidential Palace, al-Muhajirin is the National Hospital, while the Law School is now the Ministry of Tourism.

The National Museum of Damascus is generally recognised as one of the finest of its kind in the world. Visitors can see artefacts of the great civilisations that emerged and flourished in Syria. Here besides the ancient antiquities, one can also see the contemporary art of Syria, from the 30s to the present day.

A remarkable example of Ottoman architecture is the al-Takieh al-Suleimaniyeh, built by Sultan Suleiman in 1554. Designed by the celebrated architect of the time, Sinan, it is divided into two sections. One is the Takieh which consists of a mosque and a school, and the minor Taskieh with a prayer hall and a large patio, surrounded by archways, arcades and rooms. These now house the handicraft market. Also an important place to visit is the City of Damascus Historical Museum, housed in an 18th century palace. Here historical documents relating to the history of the city may be seen.

There are places close to Damascus, that can easily be visited. Ma’lula is a famous village, about 56 km from Damascus, and is situated at an altitude of 1500 metres. There are two famous monastries here — Saint Sergius and St. Taqla’s. The inhabitants of this village still speak the language spoken by Christ — Aramaic. Some 30 km from Damascus lies Sydnaya, a village spread over a hilltop. Surrounded by vineyards and olive graves, it has a famous monastery, founded in 547 A.D. and dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. The monastery contains a portrait of the Virgin believed to have been painted by St. Luke.

The second capital of Syria is ancient Aleppo. Located 350 km north of Damascus, it is said that Abraham had camped here at the acropolis. Ever since the 3rd Millennium B.C., Aleppo has been a flourishing city, famous for its architecture, churches, mosques, schools, tombs and baths. In the Ottoman era, Aleppo remained an important centre of trade with Turkey, France, England and Holland. The Citadel, rises 50 m above the city, with a ring of crenellated walls and towers that rise from a deep glacis, encircling a mass of ruins from many different periods. Built in the days of Sayf al-Dawla al Hamadani, on the remains of earlier civilisations, it is the most important landmark of this ancient city.

There is so much more to see in Syria, and so much to be discovered and the months of September and August are among the best times to do so. Many international airlines fly to Damascus, and there are Sheraton and Meridian Hotels to stay at. So for a holiday that is totally different, visit Syria for a memory to treasure all your life.