From Switzerland, I knew Damascus as the “City of Jasmine“. Considered as the symbol of beauty in the Middle East, the jasmine is very common in Syria’s capital town. As other bridge, my home country grows also the damassine– a variety of the little Damascene plum. Beyond shortcuts and clichés, I was hoping to get a direct and protracted cultural exposure to Damascus. This happened finally in recent months.
Damascus is one of the oldest cities in the world with a rich history stretching back to 10,000 BC. Various tribes, kingdoms, empires and caliphates ruled the town over the centuries. In the Antiquity the Arameans, a Semitic people from Mesopotamia, were the first to settle there, followed by the Greeks and the Romans. Much later came successively the Arab Muslims, Seljuks, Mamluks, Persians, Ottomans and French. All those rulers coming from the Middle East and beyond added their distinctive cultural imprint to Damascus’ cityscape and social fabrics.
Damascus prospered particularly in the two first centuries AD under Roman rule. It grew as caravan city along the trade routes from southern Arabia, Syria’s Palmyra, Jordan’s Petra, and the silk routes from China. Surrounded by a protective wall opened with seven doors, the city blossomed architecturally. Aramean and Greek pieces of architecture fused into a new master plan that included collective infrastructures such as road networks, water systems, citadels, theatres, arenas and arches, palaces and mansions.
The Arab Muslims conquered Damascus in 634 AD, which soon became the capital of the Islamic Caliphate came under the rule of the Umayyad dynasty. Damascus role faded away when the Abbasid dynasty seized Damascus in 750 and shifted the capital of the Caliphate to Baghdad.
Under the Seljuks in the 11th century, Damascus became one of the most important centres of Islamic thought in the Muslim world and a point of departure of the Hajj caravans to Mecca. Starting from 1516, the Ottomans ruled Damascus for four centuries. Local Christians and Jews were allowed to practice their religious beliefs and rituals, which contributed to the strengthening of the local social fabrics.
“Damascus Old Town” project
Hailing from the neighbourhood where I reside, I crisscrossed Damascus Old Town in recent months during my leisure time, which constitutes the historical and cultural centre of the contemporary capital city. I visited and re-visited most of the famous historical locations and monuments. Little by little, I discovered more humble albeit fascinating streets and locations where the pulse of Damascus’ heart is to be discovered, listened to and enjoyed.
The experience resulted in the patient photographic documentation of historical places in Damascus Old Town, compounded with public facets of local contemporary life. Thus, the architectural introduction below will frame a sociological and cultural reading of the Old Town proposed in my next posts.
The project makes no direct reference to the events that affected Syria since 2011. Damascus did not suffer as much as Homs or Aleppo, at least in its architectural fabrics. The project depicts nevertheless a strong sense of personal and social resilience of local residents throughout turbulent times.
On the way to the Old Town, the eye gets stuck on so many historical buildings, making a selection a difficult choice. I love contemplating the elegant Yalbogha Mosque and the mythical Hejaz Station under soft sunlight
Passing through Bab Al-Saghir (Al-Saghir Gate), I enter the Old Town to head first to the Citadel then to Al Hamidiyah Souq. Two monumental arches remain as major pieces of Roman antique architecture. One of them stands on the former Roman “Via Recta”, today’s Straight Street. The second arch is part of the ruins of the Jupiter Temple which bridges Al Hamidiyah Souq and Omayyad Mosque.
The place is an extraordinary summary of Damascus’s history. The Ottomans built Hamidiyah Souqin the 19th century based on the plan of the Istanbul main market. Erected by the Romans in the first century BC, the Jupiter Temple was meant to rival the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. It was standing on a former Aramean temple dedicated to the cult of their god of thunder and rain. In the late 4th century AD, a Christian emperor converted the Jupiter temple into a Byzantine cathedral, which was eventually dedicated to John the Baptist. In the 8th century, the Arab Muslims transformed the cathedral into the Omayyad Mosque. In compensation, all the other confiscated churches in Damascus were returned to the Christians.
Inside the courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque, the Qubbyt Al-Khazna (Dome of the Treasury) stands on eight Roman columns since the late 8th century. The dome used to hold the mosque’s large endowments.
Hammans are plentiful in Damascus, and I did not miss visiting some of them. As daylight usually struggles finding its way through the tainted glass, the reception halls are rather dark but so nicely intimate.
Palaces and mansions
Old Damascus hosts incredible historical palaces and mansions built mostly in the 19th century during the Ottoman period. Khan Assad Pacha and the Azam Palace are the most famous of them. Other members of the political or economic elite built also luxurious private mansions.
Damascene traditional mansions feature an ample yard adorned with a fountain. Distributed on the sides, a meeting or reception hall, as well as many bedrooms, bathrooms, not to mention a kitchen indeed. The inner yard is decorated with plants and trees — especially jasmine. Welcome to the “City of Jasmine”.
In recent times, the most prestigious buildings were turned into museums, while the private mansions were transformed into hotels or restaurants. The design of some modern hotels pays tribute to the Damascene traditional architectural layout. I love the exquisite inner yard of the Museum of Medicine and Arabic Sciences.
Damascus Old Town is to be captured not only in prestigious buildings, but also and foremost in narrow streets and other humble locations. The Muslim, Christian and Jewish neighbourhoods offered me rich hours of urban trekking, social encounters and photographic crafting.
Paul the Apostle and Ananias
I walked many times the Straight Street that runs east to west through Damascus Old Town. Built by the Romans, the street is mentioned in the New Testament. Paul the Apostle is reported to have stayed in a house on Straight Street. According to the Acts of the Apostles, Paul was traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus when Jesus appeared to him in a great light. He was struck blind, but his sight was restored after three days by Ananias – an early disciple of Jesus who was residing in the Old Town.
Today, one can visit the beautiful Chapel of Saint Ananias nearby Straight Street and Bab Sharqi (Easter Gate). The 2000-year old underground structure is said to be the foundations of Ananias’ home, where he baptised Paul the Apostle.
Christians as well as Muslims do visit the religious site nowadays. Regardless of whether the site is really the one described in the New Testament, I found the modest chapel as incredibly inspirational and spiritual.
So is my experience of Damascus Old Town to date. Additional insights with a focus on the contemporary life of its residents will follow.