Syria’s capital and the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city. It has been under variable rules through the ages; Aramean, Byzantine, Roman, and Arabian. This city was once the capital of an empire which stretched from Indus to the Pyrnees. Damascus is very rich in its archeological sites; the Omayad mosque, the old city with all its contents, the national museum where there is a superb collection from the Islamic art and other.
LAND MARKS OF OLD DAMASCUS
The Walls and the Gates:
The Wall was built in the Roman era with large, tapered stones. It was oblong in shape, designed in the manner of Roman military camps, cities, and fortifications. There are seven gates in it: Bab Sharqi, Bab al-Jabieh, Bab Keissan, Bab al-Saghir, Bab Tuma, Bab al-Jeniq, and Bab al-Faradiss. The main thoroughfare traversed the city from Bab al-Jabieh to Bab Sharqi; on both sides there were Corinthian columns, and across it numerous triumphal arches.
The Ommayad Mosque
This great 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.
When al-Walid decided to erect an impressive mosque suited to the grandeur of the Arab state ‘whose like was never built before, nor will ever be built after’ as he is reported to have said, he negotiated with the Christian community of Damascus, and undertook to construct a new church for them (St.John’s) and allot several pieces of land for other churches, if they relinquished their right to their part of the Mosque.They agreed.It took ten years and eleven million gold dinars, as well as a huge number of masons, artists, builders, carpenters, marble-layers, and painters to complete.It became an architectural model for hundreds of mosques throughout the Islamic world.
The Azem Palace:
This also stands at the heart of the Old City, on the southern side of the Omayyad Mosque, and very close to it.It is an astonishing example of a Damascene house, where the simple, almost primitive, exterior contrasts rather sharply with the beauty and sophistication of the interior.Here one finds a sense of space, a wealth of polychrome stone, splendid marble, cascading fountains, and fragrant flowers.The palace was built in the mid-eighteenth century for the Governor of Damascus.
The Damascus Citadel:
The only fortress in Syria built on the same level as the city, it does not top a hill or a mountain like all other castles and citadels.It was erected by the Seljuks in 1078 A.D. with masonry taken from the city wall, and turned into a heavily-fortified citadel surrounded by walls, towers, a moat and trenches.Inside, they built houses, baths, mosques, and schools; it was a city within a city.At the height of Crusader raids and attacks, it was used as residence for the Sultans of Egypt and Syria such as Nureddin, Saladin, and al-Malek al-Abdel, whence they supervised military operations against the Crusaders.
The old covered souqs of Damascus have a unique flavour you can savour with eyes closed.As you walk about in the warm darkness of these streets with their fragrant scents, spices, and colourful merchandise spilling out of the shops onto the pavements, you enter the strange world of exotic legends.Most prominent of these souqs are:
Souq Al Hamidiyeh :
Follows a straight line from the west (where Bab al-Nasr used to be) to the Omayyad Mosque.It dates back to 1863, to the rule of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul-Hamid, after whom the souq was called.It is covered with high iron vaulting, so old that sun rays filter through it into the darkness of the souq.The shops here sell everything from tissues to leather-work, from sweets and ice-cream to exquisite handmade brocades, mosaic, and copper inlaid with silver.
Souq Midhat Basha:
(The Long Souq): Founded by the governor of Damascus Midhat Pasha in 1878.It stands above the Roman ‘Street Called Straight’ which used to traverse the city from Bab al-Jabieh to Bab Sharqi, and runs parallel to souq al-Hamidiyeh, with numerous side-souqs separating them.
Souq Al Harir:
Founded by Darwish Pasha in 1574.Its entrance is at the end of souq al-Hamidiyeh just outside the Omayyad Mosque.Its shops are filled with local embroidered cloths, perfume essence, and tailoring and sewing requisites.Here, too, a number of old khans have been converted into shops, best known for their cloaks, capes, mantles, shawls, and ‘galabiyas’.
Souq Al Bzourieh:
Extends between Souq Midhat Pasha and the Omayyad Mosque and is famous for its quaint little fruit, medicinal herbs, and confectionery.
In the middle of this souq stands a bath (one of the two hundred public baths) which has been in continuous use from the twelfth century.
Aleppo is the second capital of Syria (360 km north of Damascus), and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in history. Abraham is said to have camped on the acropolis which, long before his time, served as the foundation of a fortress (where the Aleppo citadel is standing now). He milked his grey cow there, hence Aleppo’s name:’Halab al-Shahba’.
Ever since the 3rd millennium B.C., Aleppo has been a flourishing city, with a unique strategic position. This position gave the city a distinctive role from the days of the Akkadian and Amorite kingdoms until modern times. It was the meeting-point of several important commercial roads in the north. This enabled Aleppo to be the link in trade between Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent and Egypt.
The Amorites made it their capital in the 18th century B.C.
The Aleppo Citadel
50 m above the city, a ring of crenellated walls and towers rises from a steep glacis, encircling a mass of ruins from every period. It has always been extremely important, both strategically and militarily. It was built in the days of Sayf al-Dawla al-Hamadani, on the remains of earlier civilizations.
The citadel’s fortified entrance is a marvelous example of Arab militarily architecture.
Souqs and commercial khans
In terms of spaciousness and originality, the covered souqs of Aleppo, which extend for more than 10 km, are the most striking in any Islamic city. The souqs are named after various crafts: hence, we find the souq of gold, the souq of copper, cotton, etc. Traditionally, there is always a fountain in the centre and sometimes a little garden planted with jasmine and roses. Most of these souqs date back to the 15th century. They are living museums which depict mediaeval life.
The khans (caravanserai) are in the same area as the souqs, since they were used for the accommodation of traders and their goods. These khans are characterised by their beautiful facades and entrances, their high arches and fortified wooden doors. Some of these khans are:Jumruk (Customs), Wazir (Minister) and Saboun (Soap).
Places to visit in Aleppo:
-The National Museum; this includes in particular documents and relics from Ebla and Mari.
-Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions.
-al-Jami’ al-Kabir (The Great Mosque), similar to the Omayyad mosque in Damascus.
-Old schools, churches, mosques, baths and ancient houses, some dating back to the 15th century, like the al-Bunduqiah (Venetian) Consulate, which contains superb ornaments and antiquities.
Qala’at Samaan (St. Simeon)
The Church of Qalb Lawzi (Idleb)
Ebla (tel Mardikh- Idleb)
Palaces of Semi Desert
It is located south of the Euphrates and north of the Syrian semi-desert, 160 km south-east of Aleppo and 30 km south of the Aleppo-Raqqa road.
Rasafeh palace was the residence of Hisham ibn Abdul Malik, the third Omayyad Caliph, whose age was a golden one, due to his great interest in the arts and in architecture. He had several palaces built in various parts of Syria. He was in favor of simplicity and modesty; this is why he chose Rasafeh as his residence. There, he died and was buried.
The palace was originally a church, built to commemorate a Roman officer (St.Sergius), who died in defense of Christianity in the 4th century. In 616, the church was invaded by the Persians, robbed and destroyed. When Hisham ibn Abdul Malik became a caliph in the 8th century, he built two beautiful palaces on its site. Later, the Abbassids invaded and destroyed what the Caliph Hisham had built. Very little of the ruins of the Mar Sarkis church remain. Parts of the church have been used as a mosque; inscriptions in both Arabic and Greek, engraved on the walls, indicate that the Christians and the Muslims co-existed peacefully in Syria from the 13th century onwards.
Homs is the 3rd most important city in Syria.It lies 160 km to the north of Damascus. Like Petra and Palmyra, Homs was an Arab emirate in the 2nd century B.C. It was also the 3rd station on the ‘Silk route’ after Doura Europos and Palmyra.
It still retains this position of importance today, as the oil pipelines pass through the city.
This historical city produced many impressive personalities. Bassianos (an emir of Homs), through his daughter’s marriage to the Roman emperor, Septimium Severus, who ruled Rome from 193 to 211, sired three rulers, Caracalla, Heliogabalus and AlexanderSeverus.The city was the birthplace of the famous Syrian philosopher, Longenius, counselor to Queen Zenobia, and of the famous physician, Marlian.
Among the most significant historic constructions remaining in Homs is the mosque of Khaled Ibn al-Walid, the great commander of the Muslim Arab armies. Two very tall white-stone minarets lend lightness to the imposing structure. The slender colonnade in black and white stone horizontal rows is representative of traditional Syrian architecture.
Many churches still stand in Homs from the days of early Christianity in Syria. One of these churches is said to possess the girdle of the Blessed Virgin.The church of St.Elian is unique for its collection of fine frescoes discovered in 1970.These bear inscriptions in Greek and Arabic, and date back to the end of the 12th century. The Nuri mosque also dates back to the 12th century, distinguished for its beautiful entrance
Palmyra is in the heart of the Syrian desert, and is often described as ‘the bride of the desert’. Its magnificent remains tell of a heroic history during the reign of Queen Zenobia.
The ‘oasis’ as it sometimes called, is located near a hot-water spring called Afqa. It was mentioned in one of the Assyrian tablets of the 20th century B.C. It was also mentioned in the tablets of Mari. Palmyra was an ideal halt for the caravans moving between Iraq and al-Sham (present-day Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan), trading in silk from China to the Mediterranean.
Palmyra lies 210 km northeast of Damascus and 155 km east of Homs. A tour among the ruins, which cover an area of 6 sq. km, requires a full day in order to form an adequate idea of the beauty of the architectures which has remained. Worth visiting are the Baal temple, the Arch of Triumph, the amphitheatre, the baths, the ‘Straight Street’, the Congress Council and the Cemeteries.