current capital of modern Syria, located in a basin east of the Anti-Lebanon range, at the foot of Mt. Qasiyun (33°30′ N, 36°18′ E). Rainfall in the area is fairly meager (about 250–300 mm/year), but the plain is well watered by the Barada River. The river, augmented with several major irrigation canals, has allowed Damascus to prosper as one of the great oases of Southwest Asia.
Because the city has been occupied since antiquity, often playing an important role in the history of the Levant, very little excavation has been possible in Damascus, and to date, virtually no remains of the city prior to the Roman period are known. However, literary sources from the Late Bronze Age onward refer to Damascus and make it possible to construct its general history from that period through Hellenistic times, in spite of the lack of archaeological data.
History of the City.
Although Damascus is popularly called the oldest continuously occupied city in the world, evidence for its existence currently goes back only to the time of the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmosis III, who lists Damascus as one of the cities whose rulers were captured at the siege of Megiddo in the early fifteenth century BCE. In the Amarna letters, Damascus appears as a town in the land of Upu/Upi, an area under Egyptian sovereignty during virtually the entire Late Bronze Age. The Amarna and other Egyptian texts give no indication that Damascus had any major political significance during this period.
During the Iron Age, specifically in the ninth and eighth centuries BCE, however, Damascus became the capital of one of the leading Aramean states of the Levant. It played a significant role in the political life of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, usually as an antagonist, but sometimes as an ally against the encroachments of Assyria. Portions of the history of this period are known from biblical texts (especially Kings, Chronicles, and Isaiah), Assyrian records, a few scattered references in Aramaic inscriptions from northern Syria, and the recently discovered Aramaic Stela from Tel Dan in northern Israel (Avraham Biran and Joseph Naveh, “An Aramaic Stele Fragment from Tel Dan.” Israel Exploration Journal 43 : 81–98).
In the mid-ninth century BCE, Damascus and the kingdom of which it was the capital (usually called Aram or Aram Damascus) became the preeminent political power in the Levant, and its king, Hadad-idri, led an anti-Assyrian coalition of states in battle against Shalmaneser III in four confrontations between 853 and 845. The reign of Hazael (c. 842–800 BCE) saw Damascus become the head of a substantial empire, dominating most, if not all, of ancient Palestine, including Israel, Judah, and Philistia, and perhaps controlling some parts of northern Syria as well. A decline set in during the reign of Hazael's son, Bir-Hadad, which was not reversed until about 738, when the last independent king of Aram Damascus, Rasyan (biblical Rezin), came to power and led another anti-Assyrian coalition that included Israel, Philistia, and Tyre against Tiglath-Pileser III. This attempt to secede from Assyrian control was unsuccessful and led to disaster for Damascus, which was captured by the Assyrians In 732 BCE and annexed into the Assyrian provincial system.
Because of its important position on the major trade routes of the Levant, Damascus remained a significant city through the rest of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian periods. The Hellenistic period brought important changes. Following Alexander's conquest of the Levant (333 BCE), the city became the site of a Macedonian colony and was substantially expanded and rebuilt, with new fortifications. In 111 BCE, the city became the capital of Phoenicia and Coelesyria. Following a brief period under the control of the Nabateans, from 85 to 64 BCE, it was incorporated into the Roman Empire. During the Roman period a number of emperors lavished funds on Damascus for public construction: its main temple was spectacularly reconstructed, the city wall was rebuilt, and major colonnaded streets were constructed. The Byzantine period has provided few significant remains, but the city experienced another brief time of glory when it became the Umayyad capital In 661 CE, which climaxed with the building of the Great Mosque. Unfortunately, this period of splendor was short-lived, for In 750 CE the ῾Abbasid caliphs moved the Islamic capital to Baghdad, leaving Damascus without power.
Archaeology of the Site.
Archaeological information about the pre-Hellenistic periods of Damascus is scarce in the extreme. Although several limited excavations have been undertaken, none have found those levels. Even the exact location and extent of the ancient site are not yet defined. Scholars generally place the original city within the boundaries of the current “Old City,” and propose that the great Umayyad mosque, located on a large, flat plateau in the northwest part of the city, was probably built on the site of the main temple of Iron Age Damascus, which was dedicated to Hadad-Ramman (cf. 2 Kgs. 5:18). Some scholars argue, however, that the rest of the city was located to the west and south of the temple, while others propose that a group of hills to the east and southeast of the mosque area covers the remains of the settlement. One hill, located some 300 m to the south of the mosque, is generally thought to be the prime candidate for the location of the Iron Age citadel. Only excavation will further illuminate the problem of the location of the original city.
Although no artifacts from Bronze Age Damascus are known, a few items, discovered in secondary contexts, including a carved orthostat, ivories, and bronze ornaments, can be attributed to the Iron Age. The orthostat (about 80 × 70 cm) is basalt and is decorated with a carved relief of a crowned sphinx, stylistically datable to the ninth century BCE. It was found incorporated into the substructure of the wall around the Umayyad mosque and probably belonged to the temple of Hadad-Ramman. Of the two ivories, one was found in the Assyrian fortress town of Til Barsip in northern Syria and the other at the Assyrian capital Kalaḫ, or Kalḫu (Nimrud), in Mesopotamia. They are inscribed with dedications to “our lord Hazael,” who may be the Damascene king of that name. Presumably, the ivories were part of the booty taken from Damascus by the Assyrian kings in the eighth century BCE. Each of two bronze horse ornaments, one found on the island of Samos, the other in Eretria in Greece, has an Aramaic inscription mentioning a Hazael, who may be the Damascene king. The ninth-century Bir-Hadad, or Melqart, stela from the North Syrian town of Breij, often attributed to a Damascene king, Bir-Hadad, is now thought by several scholars to belong to the king of a northern Aramean state rather than Damascus (see Wayne T. Pitard, “The Identity of the Bir-Hadad of the Melqart Stela,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 272 : 3–21).
Little is preserved from the Hellenistic period as well, although most scholars agree that the general plan of the current Old City is based on the Hellenistic reconstitution of Damascus. Jean Sauvaget (1949) argued that a rectangular city wall was constructed during the Hellenistic period, and this appears likely. However, clear evidence for this wall has yet to be found. The remains of a hippodrome to the north of the Old City probably belong to this era.
Several elements of Roman Damascus are still visible. The most notable examples of Roman architecture are the remains related to the great temple of Damascene Jupiter (Hadad-Ramman) found in the area of the Umayyad mosque. This temple complex, perhaps the largest in Roman Syria, can be reconstructed from the existing remains. Two inscriptions, which can be dated to 15/16 and 37/38 CE, indicate the time of the initial construction of the complex.
The Temple of Jupiter was surrounded by two concentric enclosure walls. The almost-rectangular outer wall encompassed an area of about 380 by 310 meters, creating a large outer court for the temple. The interior side of the wall was covered by a portico, which was occupied by a bazaar. Parts of both the eastern and western gates of this enclosure wall still stand in situ, as do some of the columns from the interior colonnade of the eastern side. Toward the end of the first century, the west and northwest sides of the outer wall were doubled in thickness to create more space for shops. This section was called the gamma, after the Greek letter it resembled.
Within the great courtyard was a second rectangular temenos wall that surrounded the temple proper. It enclosed an area of about 156 by 97 meters and had entrances on all four sides. The exterior was decorated with pilasters, and there were square towers at each of the four corners. A considerable percentage of this enclosure wall is still preserved as the foundation of the current wall surrounding the Umayyad mosque. Much of the principle entrance on the east side, with its impressive propylaeum still exists, as does almost all of the western wall and the lower sections of the south wall.
Within the enclosure, all traces of the Temple of Jupiter have disappeared, and even its location within the enclosure is uncertain.
A study by Klaus S. Freyberger (1989) has shown that the entire complex was substantially refurbished during the reign of Septimus Severus (193–211), including major reconstructions of the south and east gates of the inner temenos wall.
In addition to the temple complex, the main street of Roman Damascus, usually identified with the “Street called Straight” in Acts 9:11, can be reconstructed. This street was the city's main artery and was oriented east-west. The eastern city gate that opened onto the street (today called Babesh-Sharqi) is well preserved and has undergone restoration. The gate has three entries, the largest in the center, which opened onto the street itself. This entry indicates that the street was 13.68 m wide. The other two entries opened onto the sidewalks, which were colonnaded porticoes that flanked the road all the way across the city. The gate has usually been dated to the early third century CE, but Freyberger argues that the decor includes elements that belong to the early first century CE. Thus, the gate and the grand street were probably constructed in the first century and refurbished during the reign of Septimus Severus, as the temple complex was.
About 500 m west of the Bab esh-Sharqi are the remains of an arch that was also related to the street, although its function is not clear. This arch and one about 250 m farther west (no longer in existence) marked spots where the street made a slight shift in direction (thus, Straight Street was not straight). The west gate has not been preserved.
The current wall around the Old City dates largely to the twelfth century CE, and none of it, besides the east gate, to the Roman period, although many Roman stones have been reused in the current wall. Most of the line of the ancient wall remains unknown, although it is commonly believed that it followed the line of the rectilineal Hellenistic wall, rather than that of the current, oval-shaped one. Most reconstructions of the Roman wall show the current wall overlapping the Roman one only near some of the gates.
During the reign of Diocletian (287–305) a fortress was built to the west of the temple complex. It is not clear whether it was outside or inside the city wall because the line of the western wall has not been firmly established. However, its location became the site of the medieval citadel that stands today.
In the reign of Theodosius (379–395), the temple area became the site of a church, dedicated to St. John the Baptist. It is not known whether Theodosius simply converted the old temple into a church or destroyed the temple and constructed a new building within the inner temenos. Very little architectural evidence of this period survives. Virtually nothing is known of the church and the inner court during this period because the entire area within the temenos wall was cleared to build the mosque in the early eighth century. However, the courtyard area between the inner and outer temenos walls was divided up by the erection of colonnades between the entry gates of the outer and inner walls on the north, east, and west. This apparently was done to allow the rest of the outer court to be filled in with new construction while maintaining open ways into the church courtyard. The southern part of the outer court became the site of a new palace at this time. None of the latter has survived, but sections of the western and northern colonnades are still in situ.
The city came under Islamic control In 636 CE, and in 656 the caliph Mu῾awiyah made Damascus his capital. This development did not have an immediate impact on the architecture of the city. Mu῾awiyah occupied the older Byzantine palace and simply shared part of the inner court of the temple area with the Christians who worshiped in the church. Caliph al-Walid (705–715), however, confiscated the entire complex shortly after coming to power, demolished everything inside the temenos wall, and built the Great Mosque, one of the crown jewels of Muslim architecture.
The inside of the temenos was completely changed. A huge sanctuary (136 m east–west and 37 m north–south) was built along the southern side of the court. Its interior is divided by two rows of columns into three almost-equal aisles. The center is intersected by a transept surmounted by a dome. The interior of the sanctuary was paneled with marble to a height of about 3 m, above which were extensive mosaics.
To the north of the sanctuary was a large open courtyard, paved with white marble and flanked on the north, east, and west by a two-tiered arcade built to match the style of the sanctuary's northern facade. The entire face of the courtyard was decorated, the lower part with marble paneling and the upper part with mosaics depicting landscape motifs. The mosaics in the Great Mosque covered the largest surface ever put to this use. Only a small portion of the marble paneling and mosaics has survived the several disasters that have struck the mosque over the centuries. The most famous surviving section of mosaic is the lovely depiction of trees on the northern face of the transept, although a long section on the back wall of the west portico is equally impressive.
The Umayyad mosque in Damascus had a very strong influence on Muslim architecture and is referred to in Islamic documents as one of the wonders of the world. Although much of its original splendor has been lost, it remains an imposing complex.
Damascus went into a serious decline with the end of the Umayyad dynasty and the rise of the ῾Abbasids, when the capital was moved to Baghdad. In 750, the new rulers sacked Damascus and demolished its city wall. The city lost its important position and went into a long eclipse, marked by little architectural development.
- Creswell, K. A. C. Early Muslim Architecture. 2 vols. 2d ed. New York, 1979. Volume 1 includes the best study of the Umayyad mosque available. For an abridged and less technical version of this work, see A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture, revised and supplemented by J. W. Allan (Aldershot, 1989).
- Dussaud, René. “Le temple de Jupiter Damascénien et ses transformations aux époques chrétienne et musulmane.” Syria 3 (1922): 219–250. Significant analysis of the temple complex; still very useful, although it should be read in light of Creswell's (above) analysis.
- Freyberger, Klaus S. “Untersuchungen zur Baugeschichte des Jupiter-Heiligtums in Damaskus.” Damaszener Mitteilungen 4 (1989): 61–86. Important study concerning the date of the Jupiter temple.
- Pitard, Wayne T. Ancient Damascus: A Historical Study of the Syrian City-State from Earliest Times until Its Fall to the Assyrians in 732 B.C.E. Winona Lake, Ind., 1987. Reconstruction of the historical development of Damascus through the Iron Age.
- Sack, Dorothée. Damaskus: Entwicklung und Struktur einer orientalischislamischen Stadt. Mainz am Rhein, 1989. Important study of the development of the city from the Iron Age to modern times.
- Sauvaget, Jean. “Le plan antique de Damas.” Syria 26 (1949): 314–358. Classic and still useful study of the development of Damascus through the Byzantine period.
- Watzinger, Carl, and Karl Wulzinger. Damaskus: Die Antike Stadt. Wissenschaftliche Veröffentlichungen des Deutsch-Türkischen Denkmalschutz-Kommandos, 4. Berlin and Leipzig, 1921. Foundational study of the archaeological remains of Damascus, detailed, brilliant, and still very useful.
Wayne T. Pitard