UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Damascus Intl

About five million of Syria's 22 million people live in the vicinity of Damascus. As the center of government activity, Damascus is the major contact point for selling to the public sector. In addition, a significant portion of private sector trading and industrial activity is located in the capital.

The high population density in urban areas, such as Damascus, is a major vulnerability especially to hazards like earthquakes and urban fires. Population density is 800 people per hectare in some neighborhoods in the capital. Some citizens live in informal settlements that were developed spontaneously and illegally. For instance, around 800,000 people live in these informal settlements which were built in high risk frequency buffer zones and along the Damascus fault line (as cited in Fernandes, 2008). This situation is also exacerbated by the flood of refugees and by the common trend of migration from rural to urban areas. Rural-to-urban migration is recently encouraged by the degradation of agricultural lands and grazing fields in rural areas. Groups in such high density areas are less resilient to hazards.

Iran is the largest single non-Arab source of foreign tourism to Syria. Iranians represented about 800,000 of some four million tourists estimated to visit Syria in 2008. Most Iranians are religious pilgrims visiting the Shia shrine of Sayeda Zeinab in rural Damascus. Iranian pilgrims in Syria tend to be lower middle class, and do not generally patronize Western hotels or shopping areas in Damascus. Iranian tour groups prefer to stay at one of the "Iranian-friendly" hotels near Sayeda Zeinab and shop in the various souqs in Damascus' Old City.

Damascus is one of the very few ancient cities of the world that still retain anything of their former greatness. Nineveh and Babylon are buried in ruins, and Tyre is now a small fishing village; but Damascus, boasting of an antiquity of 4,000 years, is still a prosperous city, with a large, industrious and lively population. It has associations with great names in the past, and a busy, stirring life in the present; it is a city of ancient art and of modern activity, peopled by men of various races and of various creeds, in themselves a study of more abiding interest than the 'blades,' the 'damasks' and the 'roses' with which the name of Damascus is commonly connected.

In Mohammedan times it was sometimes, but not always, been the chief city of Syria. Its rival was Aleppo, which it displaced in the year 1312, by command of the Sultan Nasir, anxious to gratify the Emir Tengiz, a faithful partisan, whose daughter the Sultan married. When Tengiz came to Cairo to be present when his grandchild was born, and both spent and received fabulous sums, he thankfully prostrated himself when the child proved to be a girl: had it been a boy, he would have thought his luck too great! His distrust of fortune was justified; for, ere a year was over, the Sultan's face changed towards him, and he was summoned from Damascus, imprisoned and executed. The reason for this proceeding is unknown, but is said to have been the Sultan's resentment at his harshness towards the Christians of Damascus, who had been charged with incendiarism. In 1366 Aleppo was again given precedence over Damascus, and this relation appears to have lasted until Turkish times.

Under the name of damascene or Damascus, steel appeared in Western Europe, during the Middle Ages, the same kind of celebrated Indian steel which was already known in Russia as "poulad" or "bulat." The external characteristic of this steel was its patterned surface-watering, or "jaubar" (Persian); therefore the Persians called such steel "poulad jauherder," which means "steel with a watered surface." This steel was imported to Eussia through Persia and the Caucasus, and became known from the sixteenth century as "poulad" or "bulat"; the same steel found its way to Western Europe through Syria and Palestine as damascene or Damascus steel. The damascene steel was manufactured in India, and apparently this manufacture afterwards spread to some parts of the Iran; the origin of the process may be traced back many centuries BC.

The Umayyads in such anecdotes as are preserved of them often figure as luxurious and magnificent princes, whence we should expect to hear something of their palaces, since wonderful things are told us of those belonging to the Caliphs of Baghdad and Cairo. Our curiosity in this matter is not adequately gratified, though occasionally there is a notice to the effect that some mosque or other edifice occupies part of the ground at one time covered by an Umayyad palace. Of that built by the founder of the dynasty, Muawiyah, whose reputation was rather for gluttony and cunning than magnificence, though in some tales he is represented as boasting that he had enjoyed all that the world could give.

The Great Umayyad Mosque stands at the heart of the Old city at the end of Souq al-Hamidiyeh. It was built by the Omayyad Caliph al-Walid ibn Abdul Malek in 705 A.D. when Damascus was the capital of the Arab Islamic Empire. It was constructed on the site of what has always been a place of worship: first, a temple for Hadad, the Aramean god of the ancient Syrians three thousand years ago; then, a pagan temple (the temple of Jupiter the Damascene) during the Roman era. It was later turned into a church called John the Baptist when Christianity spread in the fourth century. Following the Islamic conquest in 635, Muslims and Christians agreed to partition it between them, and they began to perform their rituals side by side.

The great Umayyad Mosque is the grandest of all Mohammedan buildings, and Arabic writers gave full rein to their powers of description in recounting its magnificence and the riches lavished upon its erection by al-Walid, the whole revenue of Syria for seven years, not counting eighteen shiploads of gold and silver from Cyprus and many rich gifts of precious stones. These latter enriched the mihrab and minbar but, with the 600 golden lamps suspended by chains of the like precious metal, were soon diverted to other uses by a following Caliph. The leaden roof of the mosque is described in as high terms of admiration as the gold so lavishly spread on the interior. Every town had to furnish its quota, but so difficult was it to obtain sufficient that tombs were rifled.

A prominent feature of it are the three minarets built in different styles; the upper parts of which were renovated during the Ayoubite, Mamluk, and Ottoman eras. The mosque has a large prayer hall and an enormous courtyard. The interior walls are covered with mosaic panels, made of coloured and gilded glass, portraying scenes from nature. The dome is greyich-blue, celebrated for its magnificence. The prayer hall contains domed shrine venerated by both Christians and Muslims, the tomb of St. John the Baptist.

The enthusiastic language of Moslem writers about the beauties of Damascus, which they regard as an earthly Paradise, may seem to western visitors exaggerated and true of it only at an age long past, if ever. And, indeed, by the time of the Great War there were few show buildings left where once there were many. The great Umayyad Mosque, much of it brand new, was the one important edifice, whither the sightseer hastens; there are besides one or two show-houses, gorgeous rather than beautiful; and the Bazaars, still illustrative of Oriental manners, are probably roofed with European materials, and largely stocked with European goods.

The beauty of the place lay rather in its natural than its artificial endowments. Its situation is indeed neither wild nor grand; but the contrast between its luxurious vegetation with its copious waters, and the arid region which often lies between it and the traveller's starting-point or destination, connects it in the mind with eastern conceptions of Paradise, literally a garden, and never represented without trees and running water. A fountain enlivened the courtyard of every house: to him who looked down upon the city from Mount Kasion the minarets and castle-battlements appear to rise out of an orchard; peace seemed to reign within its walls, and plenteousness within its palaces. To the south-west the snow of Mount Hermon lent a touch of Alpine beauty to the scene. The mountains which surround it on three sides were no more than a background to the picture, viewed from the east; they are a natural finish to the landscape, not a bulwark of defence.

In the Nuri and Ayoubite periods new suburbs emerged; they were separate and independent of the city proper, but they, in turn, continued to grow at such a rate during the Mamluk period that they joined the wall, and the old city became indistinguishable from the new. Most notable among the suburbs was al-Salhieh at the foot of jabal Qassiun, al-Uqiba, al-Midan, and al-Mazzeh, Mamluk princes and sultans also erected numerous schools and mosques beyond the old city walls. During the Ottoman period four new edifices were constructed, namely: Sheikh Muhieddin, al-Takieh al-Suleimaniyeh, al-Darwishieh, and al-Sinanieh.

In the nineteenth century, new roads were built across the city along with new residential areas. European architectural styles started to appear. Most important among the buildings of this period are: al-Hamidiyeh Barracks (where part of the University of Damascus stands today), al-Saraya (now housing the Ministry of the Interior), al-Muhajirin Palace (the former Presidential Palace), the National Hospital, and the Law School (now being renovated to accommodate the Ministry of Tourism). Construction of new roads, bridges, hospitals, public parks, hotels, government offices, and new residential suburbs began after Independence and is still going strong today.

Click on the small image to view a larger version

Downtown Damascus
Damascus International Airport

Overview of the Damascus Air Field, 22 April 1987

Close up of the Damascus Air Field, 22 April 1987

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 26-03-2012 18:40:58 ZULU