17 images Created 4 Apr 2015
Life in Damascus before the war
Syria today evokes images of war and extremism, but a few years ago, it was an amazing place – generous people, beautiful landscape, vibrant cities, and vast history. I often want to show people images from my 2009 visit to remind them that Syria wasn’t always a harrowing place and to tell stories of its long history so people understand how much we share with and are connected to Syria. Its capital, Damascus, vies with its compatriot city, Aleppo, for the title of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city. The city lies with the edge of the anti-Lebanon mountains on one side, and the vast Syrian Desert on the other - a strategic and beautiful place. First inhabited in 6000BC, it came to prominence under the Aramaeans, Mesopotamian nomads who imparted their language, Aramaic. Later, the Assyrians conquered it, then lost it to the Neo-Babylonians, led by King Nebuchadnezzar. It fell to the Achaemenid Persians, who ruled for 200 years before losing to the Greeks, led by Alexander, who laid out the foundations of the city before losing it to Petra’s Nabateans. All of this before the Romans came in 64BC at the start of 700 years of rule. It was during this time that many of the foundations of the city were brought together and built upon – the Hellenistic grid was expanded; archways, a walled city, a colonnaded Via Recta, and the Temple of Jupiter were built; and even the city’s water system was established. Under Hadrian, Damascus was declared a metropolis in 117AD. Christianity came to Damascus, as did St Paul with his vision of Jesus. Roman rule ended with the Muslim empires from Arabia declaring Damascus a capital of the Umayyad Empire, a new caliphate that expanded far and wide. Damascus languished under minor empires for the next few centuries, before the city rose again under Saladin, who fought off 3 attempts by Crusaders to take the city. It is said that at this point, Damascus was larger than Paris or Florence. Soon Mongols invaded and razed the city, before being defeated by Egypt’s Mamluks. Damascus flourished again. Then Tamerlane, from Samarkand, came and destroyed much of the city. Once again, the Mamluks came back and rebuilt. The Ottomans then ruled for four centuries and the city slowly lost prominence. Damascus was used as a base for the Germans and Turks in World War I. After the war, Damascus was given to the French as part of the French Mandate, despite great opposition. Finally, in 1946, Damascus became capital of an independent Syria. When I visited, Damascus was a bustling modern city, connected to its history and spirituality. The night view from Mt Qasioun was sublime – city lights and green-lit minarets to the horizon. At sunset, the call to prayer began, with all the mosques’ individual broadcasts starting near simultaneously. Each was live, vibrant and real, individually distinctive yet, from a perch on top of the mountain, merged into a whole that rose up from the city below and hung in the air around me.