Nasser O. Rabbat Nasser Rabbat is the Aga Khan Professor and the Director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT. An architect and a historian, his scholarly interests include the history and historiography...
Alternative Titles: Dimashq, Pearl of the East, al-Fayḥāʾ, al-Shām
Damascus, Arabic Dimashq, city, capital of Syria. Located in the southwestern corner of the country, it has been called the “pearl of the East,” praised for its beauty and lushness; the 10th-century traveler and geographer al-Maqdisī lauded the city as ranking among the four earthly paradises. Upon visiting the city in 1867, Mark Twain wrote
To Damascus, years are only moments, decades are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and prosper and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality.
The city’s Arabic name derives from Dimashka, a word of possibly pre-Semitic etymology, suggesting that the beginnings of Damascus go back to a time before recorded history. The city is commonly called al-Shām, the vernacular name of Syria as a whole, which is said to mean “the left” or “the north,” where the region is situated relative to the Arabian Peninsula. Owing to associations of Damascus with Aram, the biblical capital of the Aramaeans, some Arabic sources link Damascus and the Iram dhāt al-ʿimād (“Colonnaded Aram”) mentioned in the Qurʾān, an identification that has long been disputed. Also contended has been the association of Damascus with Jilliq, a fertile pre-Islamic site whose name derives from a word of unknown origin in use by the Ghassānids active there in the 6th century (seeGhassān). The city is still known by its popular epithet al-Fayḥāʾ (“the Fragrant”), earned perhaps for the freshness of its surrounding orchards and gardens. Many scholars believe that, among the ancient cities of the world, Damascus is perhaps the oldest continuously inhabited.
Over the centuries, Damascus has been conqueror and conquered, wealthy and destitute, and capital of empire and small states. Its fame has been sustained by its continuous prominence as a commercial and intellectual centre. Its life has been nourished periodically by immigrants from the hinterland and from the Mediterranean Basin and Southwest Asia. Often a focus of contention by powers of East and West, Damascus’s fortunes have frequently been linked to those of distant capitals, most notably Ashur, Antioch, Rome, Baghdad, Cairo, and Istanbul. Now a burgeoning metropolis of the Middle East, it retains, as it has through centuries of triumph and disaster, an indomitable spirit and a considerable charm.
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Area city, 17 square miles (43 square km). Pop. (2007 est.) municipality, 1,669,000.
Character of the city
Travelers to Damascus have been struck by the sight of aspens and poplars growing along streams, of fruit (particularly apricot) and nut orchards, and of olive groves and vegetable gardens. A popular story about the Prophet Muhammad’s journey to Syria recounts that, upon seeing verdant Damascus, he refused to go in, as man should only enter paradise once. Upon reaching Damascus in 1326, Ibn Baṭṭūṭah, the Arab travel writer from Tangier, said that no words could do justice to the city’s charm; he resorted to quoting his Maghribi predecessor, Ibn Jubayr, who sojourned in Damascus in 1184 and wrote that Damascus had “adorned herself with flowers of sweet scented herbs” and “is encircled by gardens as the moon…by its halo.” In 1350 a European traveler, Ludolph van Suchem, wrote of the city as “begirt with gardens and orchards and watered in and out by waters, rivers, brooks, and fountains cunningly arranged to minister to men’s luxury.” While the accelerated and often disordered growth of the city since World War II has sharply raised the ratio of buildings to trees and open space, Damascenes still enjoy some of the former splendor of al-Ghūṭah, the fertile belt of irrigated land adjacent to the city.
Water and geography have determined the site and role of Damascus. Early settlers were naturally attracted to a place where a river, the Baradā, rising in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains (Al-Jabal al-Sharqī), watered a large and fertile oasis before vanishing into the desert. This tract, al-Ghūṭah, has supported a substantial population for thousands of years. Damascus itself grew on a terrace 2,250 feet (690 metres) above sea level, south of Mount Qāsiyūn and overlooking the Baradā River. The original settlement appears to have been situated in the eastern part of the walled Old City. City and oasis grew together, and over time Damascus came to dominate the lesser rural settlements surrounding it.
The natural endowments of an assured water supply and fertile land made Damascus self-sufficient. Successive colonizers from the 2nd millennium BCE onward developed an intricate irrigation system that fed the city through a system of branches derived from the river, contributing to a steady expansion of al-Ghūṭah, especially to the east and west. Damascus’s position on the edge of the desert and at the eastern end of the easiest route through the Anti-Lebanon range made it a trade centre where caravan routes originated and terminated. Since the advent of Islam, the city has also been the starting point of the northern pilgrimage road, the Darb al-Hajj al-Shāmī, to the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
Some 50 miles (80 km) from the sea yet separated from it by two mountain ranges, Damascus receives only about 7 inches (178 mm) of precipitation annually, most of it from November through February. The Anti-Lebanon range gets far greater amounts of both rain and winter snow, which annually replenish the water table that is a source of the Baradā River and other, more minor springs watering Damascus. Owing to the city’s elevation, winter is rather cold, with average temperatures of around 40 to 45 °F (5 to 7 °C). A short blossoming spring in March and April is followed by six to seven months of hot dry summer. Temperatures average around 80 °F (27 °C) in midseason, although they occasionally reach 100 °F (38 °C) or above. Summer evenings tend to be tempered by cooler breezes, with temperatures dropping to 65 °F (18 °C). Dust-laden winds blowing in from the desert are somewhat mitigated by small mountain ranges to the east and south of the city.
Damascus was an active commercial centre in the 2nd millennium BCE and developed through different stages of urbanization thereafter, reaching its zenith at the beginning of the 7th century CE when it became the capital of the Umayyad empire. The heart of Damascus’s Old City, which contains most of the city’s historical monuments, is Hellenistic in origin, with significant Roman additions and modifications. It is a rough oblong about 5,000 feet (1,500 metres) long and 3,300 feet (1,000 metres) wide and is defined by historic walls, of which sizeable stretches still stand, especially in the north and west. Eight gates, seven of which are of Classical derivation, pierce the walls. The long axis of the oblong runs between two gates, Bāb al-Jābiyya (the Roman Jupiter Gate) in the west and Bāb Sharqī (the Roman Sun Gate) in the east. It occupies the former location of the decumanus maximus (main east-west thoroughfare) of the Classical city, which lies some 15 feet (5 metres) below the modern street level; no cardo maximus (main north-south thoroughfare) has been positively identified. Many secondary streets and some of the most prominent features of the Old City owe their positions to the Roman city planners of the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE.
The city’s orthogonal plan deteriorated during the late Byzantine period in the 6th and 7th centuries. The Umayyads (661–750) chose Damascus as their capital but did not much change its layout or considerably expand beyond its walls. Although the city was neglected and its population drastically decreased between the 8th and 11th centuries, by the 13th century Damascus had revived and was outgrowing its walls. Two axes of development extra-muros, beyond the city walls, predominated. One linked the city to the northwest with the suburb of Ṣālḥiyyah, which was established in the 12th century by immigrants from Jerusalem on the slopes of Mount Qāsiyūn; the second extended as a long, narrow strip southward along the road leading to the Ḥawrān and Palestine. The Old City was designated a UNESCOWorld Heritage site in 1979.
The modern city began with the Ottoman Tanzimat (Reorganization) in the late 19th century. Buildings in pseudo-European styles were constructed along new, straight streets to the west and north of the walled city or in Al-Mujāhirīn, the new quarter for immigrants on Mount Qāsiyūn. Later developments followed a plan originally devised by the French during the mandate period (1920–46), with a number of revisions attempted thereafter. Its basic elements include wide boulevards radiating from squares spread around the Old City, especially in the west and northwest and, later, in the east. New housing has developed in the form of concrete blocks of flats along these boulevards. Government buildings are concentrated in an area west of the walled city around Marjah Square, along Nasr Street, and in several districts west of Ṣālḥiyyah Street. Stimulated by the appeal of modern housing and amenities, well-to-do families began in the 1930s to move to the area northwest of the Old City, whose magnificent courtyard houses were left to poorer tenants recently arrived from the countryside, or to light industry. As the population grew, more and more of the garden and farm area was converted into residential districts, many of them illegal settlements, while mukhalafāt (informal districts, such as upper Al-Muhājirīn and the Kurdish quarter) expanded up the slopes of Mount Qāsiyūn. Ancient farming villages close by, such as Al-Mazzah, Barzah, Kafr Sūsah, Al-Qābūn, and Al-Qadam, were incorporated into the city, both administratively and physically. Government efforts to retain green areas and to zone housing and industry have been plagued not only by overwhelming population growth but also by administrative laxity and corruption. The development of affluent residential suburbs in the 1990s added precious new parks and gardens in the north, northwest, and southeast of the city, yet more than half of the city’s green space has been lost since 1945.
People of Damascus
Damascus experienced tremendous growth during the second half of the 20th century, with its population estimated to have increased more than tenfold. The city’s growth rate is higher than that of the country as a whole, owing mainly to steady migration from rural areas. So heavy has been the influx of young migrants drawn by employment and educational opportunities that the average age of Damascenes has dropped below that of the national level. Among the religious minorities, the ʿAlawites from the coastal mountain region are notable for their prominence in the army and in the intelligence services (al-mukhābarāt). Other religious and ethnic groups, principally the Druze, Kurds, Circassians, Twelver Shīʿites, and Ismāʿīlīs (seeIslam: Ismāʿīlīs) maintain their identity among the majority ArabSunni Muslim populace. The city’s minorities include a Palestiniancommunity. There is also a substantial Christian population representing various denominations, including Syriac and Armenian, while a once-flourishing Jewish population has been greatly decreased. The population decline owes largely to emigration in the late 20th century following pressure on Syria to allow the remainder of its Jewish population—previously subject to limitations on travel, employment, and other restrictions—to leave the country.
Government is Damascus’s most important economic activity. National politics and administration, including large military and secret services establishments, are centred there. Well-known over the centuries for luxurious manufactured wares, especially textiles, the growing city has attracted many new industries since the mid-20th century. All major factories and most strategic industries are state-run, but the private sector began in the 1990s to assert its economic agility in small, service-oriented industries. Textile plants, the chemical industry, cement works, and food-processing factories are principally distributed to the south, east, and northeast. Most of the population’s requirements for food, clothing, and the like are met by private businesses. Traditional artisan crafts such as copper engraving, mother-of-pearl-encrusted woodwork, and brocades are still practiced in the Old City.
The historical role of Damascus as a “desert port” has changed because of political developments and the scale of modern commerce. Most imports come through Syria’s own ports of Latakia, Tartus, and Bāniyās instead of through Lebanon, as was the case until about the mid-20th century. Goods are transshipped to countries of the Arabian Peninsula. Damascus distributes its own products and imported goods within Syria as well. A large international trade exposition is held there in the autumn. The potential for a highly profitable tourism sector—particularly cultural tourism, for which Damascus is well suited—has been modestly explored since the late 1980s through the active promotion and development of new accommodations and transportation facilities. Attempts to modernize the financial and banking systems and to liberalize trade that took place under Pres. Bashar al-Assad in the early 2000s largely lacked the vigour required for a measurable impact on the economy. After a series of delays, the country’s first stock exchange formally opened for trading in Damascus in March 2009.
Damascus’s traffic problems are relatively few and are largely resolvable. Damascus is adequately connected to its surrounding regions; major highways fan out in all directions, connecting Damascus with such cities as Beirut, Ammān, Aleppo, and Baghdad. A rail line north to Homs ties in with the national railroad system; along with the trucking industry, it transports imported products to the city. Damascus International Airport, located some 20 miles (32 km) east of the city, is served by many commercial airlines that offer direct flights to major regional and international cities. Inner-city transportation is largely provided by motor vehicles. Animal-drawn carts, which once gave the city a picturesque aura, have largely disappeared, except in some of the poorer residential quarters. Buses and taxis carry passengers both within the city and to other parts of the country; these are supplemented by the microbus and the “service,” a car or van that travels an established route for a fare. The substantial increase in the number of private cars since the early 1980s with no corresponding expansion of the basic street system has subjected the city to unprecedented congestion, especially in the administrative and commercial centre. New projects aimed at alleviating this problem have included the construction of a highway belt encircling the city, as well as the creation of satellite towns through ventures such as the Dummar Project and the Qurā al-Assad (the Assad Villages) west and northwest of the city.