Ancient records suggest that Damascus, the cultural and historical center that has enchanted a seemingly endless line of civilizations, religions, and cultures, has been inhabited continuously since at least the fourth millennium BCE and possibly as early as the eleventh millennium. As one of the top contenders for the regionally coveted title of “oldest continually inhabited city in the world,” Damascus and its environs contain layer after layer of intersecting history and legend.
Throughout antiquity, a number of dynasties – Amorites, Aramaeans, Assyrians, Chaldaeans, Persians, Greeks, Romans – swept through the region, seizing control of Damascus as they sought to expand their territorial holdings. In the seventh century CE, Damascus became the official capital of the Umayyad Empire, a move which brought over a millennium of western rule in the city to an end. The Umayyads invested in the city significantly, developing it as one of the important cultural and political centers of the age. Damascus’s importance waned as new dynasties moved in and placed their capital in other cities, but it was renewed during the Crusades: as other cities fell to the Crusader forces, Damascus became both a center of resistance and a home to large numbers of refugees fleeing the Crusaders. This was an era of significant reinforcement of the city’s gates, walls, and central citadel.
In the thirteenth century, Damascus served as the second capital of the Mamluk Empire and experienced a new wave of physical and cultural expansion. Much of this was damaged a few years later with the invasion of the Mongol Empire, but progress began again when the Ottomans gained control of the city and the surrounding region. Damascus enjoyed a special status under Ottoman rule as the last major stopping point on the Hajj route from Turkey before caravans set out on the last six weeks of travel through the desert before arriving at Mecca. For some time, in fact, the governor of Damascus set out with these caravans, acting as leader for the remainder of the journey.
Modern Damascus has been hailed by travelers, locals, and UNESCO as a major world heritage site, every corner replete with traces of local history. One of the densest centers of this history has been Damascus’s Umayyad Mosque, located in the northern part of the Old City. Built in the early eighth century CE, the mosque sits on the site of many previous places of worship; a temple, originally dedicated to the ancient Semitic god Hadad and later to Jupiter/Zeus, occupied the space for several centuries. Later, with the advent of Christianity as the official religion of the empire in the fourth century, the site also housed the Cathedral of St. John, one of many rumored resting places of the head of John the Baptist. In addition to elements of each of these previous holy sites and of a myriad of architectural styles, the mosque complex contains a variety of other significant pieces of history, including the tomb of Saladin. On the exterior, the mosque can be spotted from a distance by its three characteristic minarets, some of the first to appear in the region: the Western Minaret, the Minaret of Jesus, and the Minaret of the Bride. The Minaret of Jesus receives its name from the Muslim tradition that, in the days leading up to the Last Judgment, Jesus will descend from heaven at the location of this tower and there do battle with the Antichrist. The origins for the name of the Minaret of the Bride are less clear. Some report that it is named for the daughter of the merchant who provided the lead for the minaret’s roof and eventually married a local ruler. Other scholars claim that its name is meant to reflect the affectionate nickname applied by many ancient travelers to the city of Damascus: “Bride of the World.”
Many of Damascus’s most famous sites are the burial places of significant figures from throughout the ages: Fatima, daughter of Muhammad, and Suqaina, his granddaughter; Muawiya, founder of the Umayyad Dynasty; and Ibn al-Arabi, the famous Sufi mystic, are all said to be buried in Damascus.
For centuries, historians and pilgrims also took interest in Straight Street, the relatively unbending east-west thoroughfare through the heart of the city. The street is a testament to Greek influence in the city; when Alexander took control of Damascus, he had it reorganized in the classical grid pattern, as he had done in nearby cities like Apamea and Aleppo) – hence the name. The street is referenced in the New Testament as the place where Paul, then called Saul and suffering from blindness, was taken in and healed by locals.
Just north of the city sits Mount Qasioun, the towering mountain from whose summit many ancient travelers caught their first glimpse of Damascus. Tradition relates that Muhammad, upon reaching the peak of Mount Qasioun, turned back and refused to continue forward, fearing that he would spoil his eventual first glimpse of Paradise by first laying eyes on its earthly equivalent. Such legends about Mount Qasioun abound. Locals credit it as one possible location for the birthplace of Abraham and built a mosque at the foot of the mountain to commemorate this tradition. Mount Qasioun is also locally revered as the place where Abraham received his first revelation about the oneness of God.
One cave in the side of Mount Qasioun is especially associated with a number of significant historical figures. Many from Damascus claim that Adam, the first human, lived in this cave and that it marks the spot where Cain killed Abel. Local Muslims also believe that God hid Mary and Jesus in this cave; the Qur’an mentions the two figures taking refuge and refers to a location with high, level ground and sources of flowing water. This variety of sacred tales has caused the cave to be regarded by many as a place where God is especially attuned to prayers offered.