Damascus (Arabic: دمشق Dimashq) is the capital and the second largest city of Syria after Aleppo. Commonly known in Syria as ash-Sham (Arabic: الشام ash-Shām) and nicknamed as the City of Jasmine (Arabic: مدينة الياسمين Madīnat al-Yāsmīn). In addition to being one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Damascus is a major cultural and religious center of the Levant. The city has an estimated population of 1,711,000 (2009 est.).
Located in southwestern Syria, Damascus is the center of a large metropolitan area of 2.6 million people (2004). Geographically embedded on the eastern foothills of the Anti-Lebanon mountain range 80 kilometres (50 mi) inland from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean on a plateau 680 metres (2,230 ft) above sea-level, Damascus experiences a semi-arid climate due to the rain shadow effect. The Barada River flows through Damascus.
First settled in the second millennium BC, it was chosen as the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate from 661 to 750. After the victory of the Abbasid dynasty, the seat of Islamic power was moved to Baghdad. Damascus saw a political decline throughout the Abbasid era, only to regain significant importance in the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods. During Ottoman rule, the city decayed completely while maintaining a certain cultural prestige. Today, it is the seat of the central government and all of the government ministries.
The name of Damascus first appeared in the geographical list of Thutmose III as T-m-ś-q in the 15th century BC. The etymology of the ancient name "T-m-ś-q" is uncertain, but it is suspected to be pre-Semitic. It is attested as Dimašqa in Akkadian, T-ms-ḳw in Egyptian, Dammaśq (דמשק) in Old Aramaic and Dammeśeq (דמשק) in Biblical Hebrew. The Akkadian spelling is found in the Amarna letters, from the 14th century BC. Later Aramaic spellings of the name often include an intrusive resh (letter r), perhaps influenced by the root dr, meaning "dwelling". Thus, the Qumranic Darmeśeq (דרמשק), and Darmsûq) in Syriac. The English and Latin name of the city is "Damascus" which was imported from Greek: Δαμασκός, which originated in Aramaic: דרמשק; "a well-watered place". In Arabic, the city is called Dimashqu sh-Shām (دمشق الشام), although this is often shortened to either Dimashq or ash-Shām by the citizens of Damascus, of Syria and other Arab neighbors. Ash-Shām is an Arabic term for "Levant" and for "Syria"; the latter, and particularly the historical region of Syria, is called Bilādu sh-Shām (بلاد الشام / "land of the Levant").
Damascus was conquered by Alexander the Great. After the death of Alexander in 323 BC, Damascus became the site of a struggle between the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires. The control of the city passed frequently from one empire to the other. Seleucus I Nicator, one of Alexander's generals, made Antioch the capital of his vast empire, which led to the decline of Damascus' importance compared with new Seleucid cities such as Latakia in the north. Later, Demetrius III Philopator rebuilt the city according to the Greek hippodamian system and renamed it "Demetrias".
In 64 BC, the Roman general Pompey annexed the western part of Syria. The Romans occupied Damascus and subsequently incorporated it into the league of ten cities known as the Decapolis because it was considered such an important center of Greco-Roman culture. According to the New Testament, Saint Paul was on the road to Damascus when he received a vision of Jesus, and as a result accepted him as the Messiah. In the year 37, Roman Emperor Caligula transferred Damascus to Nabataean control by decree. The Nabataean king Aretas IV Philopatris ruled Damascus from his capital Petra. However, around the year 106, Nabataea was conquered by the Romans, and Damascus returned to Roman control.
Damascus became a metropolis by the beginning of the 2nd century and in 222 it was upgraded to a colonia by the Emperor Septimius Severus. During the Pax Romana, Damascus and the Roman province of Syria in general began to prosper. Damascus's importance as a caravan city was evident with the trade routes from southern Arabia, Palmyra, Petra, and the silk routes from China all converging on it. The city satisfied the Roman demands for eastern luxuries.
Little remains of the architecture of the Romans, but the town planning of the old city did have a lasting effect. The Roman architects brought together the Greek and Aramaean foundations of the city and fused them into a new layout measuring approximately 1,500 meters (4,900 ft) by 750 meters (2,460 ft), surrounded by a city wall. The city wall contained seven gates, but only the eastern gate (Bab Sharqi) remains from the Roman period. Roman Damascus lies mostly at depths of up to five meters (16.4 ft) below the modern city.
The old borough of Bab Tuma was developed at the end of the Roman/Byzantine era by the local Eastern Orthodox community. According to the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Paul and Saint Thomas both lived in that neighborhood. Roman Catholic historians also consider Bab Tuma to be the birthplace of several Popes such as John V and Gregory III.
After most of the Syrian countryside was conquered by the Rashidun Caliphate during the reign of Caliph Umar, Damascus itself was conquered by the Muslim-Arab general Khalid ibn al-Walid in September–August 635 CE. His army had previously attempted to capture the city in April 634, but without success. With Damascus now in Muslim-Arab hands, the Byzantines, alarmed at the loss of their most prestigious city in the Near East, had decided to wrest back control of it. Under Emperor Heraclius, the Byzantines fielded an army superior to that of the Rashidun in manpower. They advanced into southern Syria during the spring of 636 and consequently Khalid ibn al-Walid's forces withdrew from Damascus to prepare for renewed confrontation. In August, the two powers met along the Yarmouk River where they a fought a major battle which ended in a decisive Muslim victory, solidifying the latter's rule in Syria and Palestine.
While the Muslims administered the city, the population of Damascus remained mostly Christian—Eastern Orthodox and Monophysite—with a growing community of Muslims from Mecca, Medina, and the Syrian Desert.The governor assigned to the city which had been chosen as the capital of Islamic Syria was Mu'awiya I. After the death of Caliph Ali in 661, Mu'awiya was chosen as the caliph of the expanding Islamic empire. Because of the vast amounts of assets his clan, the Ummayads, owned in the city and because of its traditional economic and social links with the Hijaz as well as the Christian Arab tribes of the region, Mu'awiya established Damascus as the capital of the entire Caliphate. With the ascension of Caliph Abd al-Malik in 685, an Islamic coinage system was introduced and all of the surplus revenue of the Caliphate's provinces were forwarded to the treasury of Damascus. Arabic was also established as the official language, giving the Muslim minority of the city an advantage over the Aramaic-speaking Christians in administrative affairs. It is critical to note that, at the time Damascus was conquered by the Muslims, the majority of Arabs were either pagans or Christians. Damascus itself was predominantly Aramaic with Arab speaking people.
Abd al-Malik's successor, al-Walid initiated construction of the Grand Mosque of Damascus (known as the Umayyad Mosque) in 706. The site originally had been the Christian Cathedral of St. John and the Muslims maintained the building's dedication to John the Baptist. By 715, the mosque was complete. Al-Walid died that same year and he was succeeded at first by Suleiman ibn Abd al-Malik and then by Umar II, who each ruled for brief periods before the reign of Hisham in 724. With these successions, the status of Damascus was gradually weakening as Suleiman had chosen Ramla as his residence and later Hisham chose Rusafa. Following the murder of the latter in 743, the Caliphate of the Umayyads—which by then stretched from Spain to India— was crumbling as a result of widespread revolts. During the reign of Marwan II in 744, the capital of the empire was relocated to Harran in the northern Jazira region.
On 25 August 750, the Abbasids, having already beaten the Umayyads in the Battle of the Zab in Iraq, conquered Damascus after facing little resistance. With the heralding of the Abbasid Caliphate, Damascus became eclipsed and subordinated by Baghdad, the new Islamic capital. Within the first six months of Abbasid rule, revolts began erupting in the city, albeit too isolated and unfocused to present a viable threat. Nonetheless, the last of the prominent Umayyads were executed, the traditional officials of Damascus ostracized, and army generals from the city were dismissed. Afterward, the Umayyad family cemetery was desecrated and the city walls were torn down, reducing Damascus into a provincial town of little importance. It roughly disappeared from written records for the next century and the only significant improvement of the city was the Abbasid-built treasury dome in the Umayyad Mosque in 789. In 811, distant remnants of the Umayyad dynasty staged a strong uprising in Damascus that was eventually put down.
Ahmad ibn Tulun, a dissenting Turkish governor appointed by the Abbasids, conquered Syria, including Damascus, from his overlords in 878-79. In an act of respect for the previous Umayyad rulers, he erected a shrine on the site of Mu'awiya's grave in the city. Tulunid rule of Damascus was brief, lasting only until 906 before being replaced by the Qarmatians who were adherents of Shia Islam. Due to their inability to control the vast amount of land they occupied, the Qarmatians withdrew from Damascus and a new dynasty, the Ikhshidids, took control of the city. They maintained the independence of Damascus from the Arab Hamdanid dynasty of Aleppo and the Baghdad-based Abbasids until 967. A period of instability in the city followed, with a Qarmatian raid in 968, a Byzantine raid in 970, and increasing pressures from the Fatimids in the south and the Hamdanids in the north.
The Shia Fatimids gained control in 970, inflaming hostilities between them and the Sunni Arabs of the city who frequently revolted. A Turk, Alp Takin drove out the Fatimids five years later, and through diplomacy, prevented the Byzantines from attempting to annex the city. However, by 977, the Fatimids under Caliph al-Aziz, wrested back control of the city and tamed Sunni dissidents. The Arab geographer, al-Muqaddasi, visited Damascus in 985, remarking that the architecture and infrastructure of the city was "magnificent", but living conditions were awful. Under al-Aziz, the city saw a brief period of stability that ended with the reign of al-Hakim (996–1021). In 998, Hundreds of Damascene leaders were rounded up and executed by him for incitement. Three years after al-Hakim's mysterious disappearance, the Arab tribes of southern Syria formed an alliance to stage a massive rebellion against the Fatimids, but they were crushed by the Fatimid Turkish governor of Syria and Palestine, Anushtakin al-Duzbari, in 1029. This victory gave the latter mastery over Syria, displeasing his Fatimid overlords, but gaining the admiration of Damascus' citizens. He was exiled by Fatimid authorities to Aleppo where he died in 1041. From that date to 1063, there are no known records of the city's history. By then, Damascus lacked a city administration, had an enfeebled economy, and a greatly reduced population.
With the arrival of the Seljuq Turks in the late 11th century, Damascus again became the capital of independent states. It was ruled by Abu Sa'id Taj ad-Dawla Tutush I starting in 1079 and he was succeeded by his son Abu Nasr Duqaq in 1095. The Seljuqs established a court in Damascus and a systematic reversal of Shia inroads in the city. The city also saw an expansion of religious life through private endowments financing religious institutions (madrasas) and hospitals (maristans). Damascus soon became one of the most important centers of propagating Islamic thought in the Muslim world. After Duqaq's death in 1104, his mentor (atabeg), Toghtekin, took control of Damascus and the Burid line of the Seljuq dynasty. Under Duqaq and Toghtekin, Damascus experienced stability, elevated status and a revived role in commerce. In addition, the city's Sunni majority enjoyed being a part of the larger Sunni framework effectively governed by various Turkic dynasties who in turn were under the moral authority of the Baghdad-based Abbasids.
While the rulers of Damascus were preoccupied in conflict with their fellow Seljuqs in Aleppo and Diyarbakir, the Crusaders, who arrived in the Levant in 1097, conquered Jerusalem, Mount Lebanon and Palestine. Duqaq seemed to have been content with Crusader rule as a buffer between his dominion and the Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt. Toghtekin, however, saw the Western invaders as a viable threat to Damascus which, at the time, nominally included Homs, the Beqaa Valley, Hauran, and the Golan Heights a part of its territories. With military support from Sharaf al-Din Mawdud of Mosul, Toghtekin managed to halt Crusader raids in the Golan and Hauran. Mawdud was assassinated in the Umayyad Mosque in 1109, depriving Damascus of northern Muslim backing and forcing Toghtekin to agree to a truce with the Crusaders in 1110.
Following Tughtakin's death in 1128, his son, Taj al-Din Buri, became the nominal ruler of Damascus. Coincidentally, the Seljuq prince of Mosul, Imad al-Din Zengi, took power in Aleppo and gained a mandate from the Abbasids to extend his authority to Damascus. In 1129, around 6,000 Isma'ili Muslims were killed in the city along with their leaders. The Sunnis were provoked by rumors alleging there was a plot by the Isma'ilis, who controlled the strategic fort at Banias, to aid the Crusaders in capturing Damascus in return for control of Tyre. Soon after the massacre, the Crusaders aimed to take advantage of the unstable situation and launch an assault against Damascus with nearly 60,000 troops. However, Buri allied with Zengi and managed to prevent their army from reaching the city. Buri was assassinated by Isma'ili agents in 1132; he was succeeded by his son, Shams al-Mulk Isma'il who ruled tyrannically until he himself was murdered in 1135 on secret orders from his mother, Safwat al-Mulk Zumurrud; Isma'il's brother, Shihab al-Din Mahmud, replaced him. Meanwhile, Zengi, intent on putting Damascus under his control, married Safwat al-Mulk in 1138. Mahmud's reign then ended in 1139 after he was killed for relatively unknown reasons by members of his family. Mu'in al-Din Unur, his mamluk ("slave soldier") took effective power of the city, prompting Zengi—with Safwat al-Mulk's backing—to lay siege against Damascus the same year. In response, Damascus allied with the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem to resist Zengi's forces. Consequently, Zengi withdrew his army and focused on campaigns against northern Syria.
In 1144 Zengi conquered Edessa, a crusader stronghold, which led to a new crusade from Europe in 1148. In the meantime Zengi was assassinated and his territory was divided among his sons, one of whom, Nur ad-Din, emir of Aleppo, made an alliance with Damascus. When the European crusaders arrived, they and the nobles of Jerusalem agreed to attack Damascus. Their siege, however, was a complete failure. When the city seemed to be on the verge of collapse, the crusader army suddenly moved against another section of the walls, and were driven back. By 1154, Damascus was firmly under Nur ad-Din's control.
In 1164, King Amalric of Jerusalem invaded Fatimid Egypt, which requested help from Nur ad-Din. The Nur ad-Din sent his general Shirkuh, and in 1166 Amalric was defeated at the Battle of al-Babein. When Shirkuh died in 1169, he was succeeded by his nephew Yusuf, better known as Saladin, who defeated a joint crusader-Byzantine siege of Damietta. Saladin eventually overthrew the Fatimid caliphs and established himself as Sultan of Egypt. He also began to assert his independence from Nur ad-Din, and with the death of both Amalric and Nur ad-Din in 1174, he was well-placed to begin exerting control over Damascus and Nur ad-Din's other Syrian possessions. In 1177 Saladin was defeated by the crusaders at the Battle of Montgisard, despite his numerical superiority. Saladin also besieged Kerak in 1183, but was forced to withdraw. He finally launched a full invasion of Jerusalem in 1187, and annihilated the crusader army at the Battle of Hattin in July. Acre fell to Saladin soon after, and Jerusalem itself was captured in October. These events shocked Europe, resulting in the Third Crusade in 1189, led by Richard I of England, Philip II of France and Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor, though the last drowned en route.
The surviving crusaders, joined by new arrivals from Europe, put Acre to a lengthy siege which lasted until 1191. After re-capturing Acre, Richard defeated Saladin at the Battle of Arsuf in 1191 and the Battle of Jaffa in 1192, recovering most of the coast for the Christians, but could not recover Jerusalem or any of the inland territory of the kingdom. The crusade came to an end peacefully, with the Treaty of Ramla in 1192. Saladin allowed pilgrimages to be made to Jerusalem, allowing the crusaders to fulfill their vows, after which they all returned home. The native crusader barons set about rebuilding their kingdom from Acre and the other coastal cities.
Saladin died in 1193, and there were frequent conflicts between different Ayyubid sultans ruling in Damascus and Cairo. Damascus was the capital of independent Ayyubid rulers between 1193 and 1201, from 1218 to 1238, from 1239 to 1245, and from 1250 to 1260. At other times it was ruled by the Ayyubid rulers of Egypt. The patterned Byzantine and Chinese silks available through Damascus, one of the Western termini of the Silk Road, gave the English language "damask".
Ayyubid rule (and independence) came to an end with the Mongol invasion of Syria in 1260, and following the Mongol defeat at Ain Jalut in the same year, Damascus became a provincial capital of the Mamluk Empire, ruled from Egypt, following the Mongol withdrawal. The Black Death of 1348–1349 killed as much as half of the city's population.
In 1400 Timur, the Turco-Mongol conqueror, besieged Damascus. The Mamluk sultan dispatched a deputation from Cairo, including Ibn Khaldun, who negotiated with him, but after their withdrawal he put the city to sack. The Umayyad Mosque was burnt and men and women taken into slavery. A huge number of the city's artisans were taken to Timur's capital at Samarkand. These were the luckier citizens: many were slaughtered and their heads piled up in a field outside the north-east corner of the walls, where a city square still bears the name burj al-ru'us, originally "the tower of heads".
Rebuilt, Damascus continued to serve as a Mamluk provincial capital until 1516.
In early 1516, the Ottoman Turks, wary of the danger of an alliance between the Mamluks and the Persian Safavids, started a campaign of conquest against the Mamluk sultanate. On 21 September, the Mamluk governor of Damascus fled the city, and on 2 October the khutba in the Umayyad mosque was pronounced in the name of Selim I. The day after, the victorious sultan entered the city, staying for three months. On 15 December, he left Damascus by Bab al-Jabiya, intent on the conquest of Egypt. Little appeared to have changed in the city: one army had simply replaced another. However, on his return in October 1517, the sultan ordered the construction of a mosque, tekkiye and mausoleum at the shrine of Shaikh Muhi al-Din ibn Arabi in al-Salihiyah. This was to be the first of Damascus' great Ottoman monuments.
The Ottomans remained for the next 400 years, except for a brief occupation by Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt from 1832 to 1840. Because of its importance as the point of departure for one of the two great Hajj caravans to Mecca, Damascus was treated with more attention by the Porte than its size might have warranted—for most of this period, Aleppo was more populous and commercially more important. In 1560 the Tekkiye al-Sulaimaniyah, a mosque and khan for pilgrims on the road to Mecca, was completed to a design by the famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, and soon afterwards a madrasa was built adjoining it.
Under Ottoman rule, Christians and Jews were considered dhimmis and were allowed to practice their religious precepts. The Damascus affair that took place in 1840 was an incident in which the accusation of ritual murder was brought against members of the Jewish community of Damascus. In addition the massacre of Christians in 1860 was also one of the most notorious incidents of these centuries, when fighting between Druze and Maronites in Mount Lebanon spilled over into the city. Several thousand Christians were killed, with many more being saved through the intervention of the Algerian exile Abd al-Qadir and his soldiers (three days after the massacre started), who brought them to safety in Abd al-Qadir's residence and the citadel. The Christian quarter of the old city (mostly inhabited by Catholics), including a number of churches, was burnt down. The Christian inhabitants of the notoriously poor and refractory Midan district outside the walls (mostly Orthodox) were, however, protected by their Muslim neighbours.
American Missionary E.C. Miller records that in 1867 the population of the city was 'about' 140,000, of whom 30,000 were Christians, 10,000 Jews and 100,000 'Mohammedans' with fewer than 100 Protestant Christians.
The majority of the inhabitants of Damascus are Muslims. It is believed that there are more than 2,000 mosques in Damascus, the most well-known being the Umayyad Mosque. Christians represent 10% of the population. There are some Christian districts in the city, such as Bab Tuma, Qassaa and Ghassani, with many churches, most notably the ancient Chapel of Saint Paul. At the suburb Soufanieh a series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary have reportedly been observed between 1982 and 2004.
There is a small Jewish community namely in what is called Haret al-Yahud the Jewish quarter. They are the remnants of an ancient and much larger Jewish presence in Syria, dating back at least to Roman times, if not before to the time of King David.