DAMASCUS (da-măs'kŭs, Gr. Damaskos). For more than four thousand years the capital of one government after another, a prize for which nation after nation went to war, a city whose boast for centuries has been, “The world began at Damascus, and the world will end there.” It is a modern focal point between the Christian and the Muslim worlds, center of tourist interest and of international unrest. Damascus is the capital of Syria, a small region of unique geological formation, lying between Mount Hermon and the Syrian Desert. It is watered by the Barada and the Wady Awaj, Abana, and Pharpar of the OT (
Damascus and Syria played an important part in biblical history. By the time of Abraham, Damascus was well enough known to be a landmark (
A strong kingdom was developed under Ahab, with merchants in Damascus (
During NT days, Damascus was an important center, ruled by Arabia under Aretas (
DAMASCUS də măs’ kəs (Gr. Δαμασκός, G1242; Heb. דַּמֶּ֨שֶׂק, and perhaps מֶ֣שֶׁק;
Damascus is located in a plain of about 2200 ft. elevation surrounded on three sides by mountains: Mt. Hermon and the Anti-Lebanon range on the W, a ridge jutting from the range on the N, and Jebel Aswad (Mt. Aswad) which separates it from the fertile Hauran (Biblical Bashan) on the S. Toward the E marshy lakes and low hills separate the region from the desert. Rainfall is a sparse ten inches per year so that agriculture must depend upon irrigation waters from the streams flowing off the Anti-Lebanon (El-Barada, The Cool, Biblical Abana) and from Mt. Hermon (El-Awaj, The Crooked, Biblical Pharpar). By careful usage these transform the plain into a green garden surrounded by barren, brown hills and desert sands. Agricultural products include olives, various fruits, almonds, walnuts, pistachios, grains, tobacco, cotton, flax, and hemp.
Prior to 1200 B.C. Earliest history of Damascus is known only from occasional references in documents of surrounding peoples and by inferences from the general state of affairs. The general region (called Abina, Apina, Aba, Abu, Api, Upe, etc.) is referred to in the Egyp. Execration texts (18th and 19th centuries b.c.) and in the Mari Letters (c. 18th cent. b.c.). Biblical “Mesheq” may be a name for Damascus from the time of Abraham (
From 1200 B.C. to the Assyrian Conquest (732 B.C.).
The extensive migrations of people of the late 13th cent. b.c. jolted Egypt and destroyed the Hitt. empire. They left the Hebrews, the Aramaeans, the Philistines, and numerous other peoples settled in new homelands. They set the stage for the Biblical conflicts between the Hebrews and the Aramaeans, esp. those of Damascus. The Heb. tribes lay directly across the trade routes extending SW from Damascus, thus assuring enmity between the two. Likewise Damascus was a threat to Assyrian trade routes to the Mediterranean.
Saul fought against Aramaean kingdoms such as Zobah (
History of Damascus now turns on three kings, Ben-hadad I (i.e. Hadad-ezer or Adadidri; 883-843 b.c.), Hazael (843-c. 801 b.c.), and Ben-hadad II. Their policies were (1) suppression of the Hebrews in order to keep the southeastern trade routes open, and (2) maintenance of an anti-Assyrian coalition of Syrian states—including the Hebrews whenever possible.
Under Ben-hadad I, Damascus dominated Syria and was easily able to intervene in Heb. affairs (cf.
The role of the prophet Elisha in Hazael’s rise to power (
Ben-hadad II was defeated both by the Hebrews and the Assyrians. Adad-Nirari III of Assyria boasts of besieging Damascus and receiving tribute. Then a revitalized Israel, under Joash and
The end for Damascus came when Ahaz of Judah called for Assyrian help against Israel under Pekah and Damascus under Rezon (Biblical Rezin;
Under Foreign Rule (732 B.C.-A.D. 636).
Damascus’ economic importance endured through Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian rule until Antioch became the commercial leader of Syria in the Hel. Age. Warfare between the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids left Damascus under Seleucid control. However, after Rom. intervention Damascus was at various times controlled by the Nabateans (c. 85 b.c. and the time of Paul), by Herod, and even by Cleopatra. Other times Damascus was a “free” member of the Decapolis, but finally became a part of the Rom. empire under Nero after being temporarily controlled by Augustus and Tiberius. With the division of the Rom. empire, Damascus became one of the major frontier cities of the Byzantine empire.
Arab rule (A.D. 636-present).
Arab rule began with the Battle of Yarmuk in 636. Since then Damascus has generally retained her economic importance and at times has added an important political and cultural role. Her period as capital of the Umayyad Empire (639-744) and the 14th cent. under the control of the Egyp. Mamelukes was brilliant. Her most serious disaster was the sacking at the hands of Timur’s Mongols in 1401. In modern times, Damascus has regained her role as leading city and capital of Syria though her former economic importance is shared with Aleppo.
Description and remains.
Modern Damascus combines clean, wide thoroughfares with the narrow, crowded lanes of the older quarters of the city. Traditional handicraft industries can be seen within walking distance of the site of the annual Damascus trade fair.
Historic remains and sacred sites abound in the region. Moslem pilgrims can visit Adam’s Cave at Jebel Qasiyun, the Cave of Blood where Abel was murdered, the Cavern of Gabriel, and Moses’ Tomb. The Umayyad Mosque built on the site of the basilica of St.—which in turn occupied the site of a classical temple of Jupiter—still shows some elements of the old pagan temple. Moslem tradition asserts that the Prophet Jesus (i.e. Jesus of Nazareth) will return to the Minaret of Jesus of this mosque to fight the Anti-Christ.
For the Christian there is the street called Straight, the place in the wall—including the very window—from which Paul was lowered in a basket, the site of Paul’s vision, and the house of Ananias. All of these are of dubious authenticity.
For the historian there are the Citadel chiefly from the 13th cent. but built on the site of a Rom. fortress, portions of the city wall, and the National Museum. For the student of Biblical backgrounds, the Museum features the Mari Room with an outstanding collection of statues and objects, and the Aram, Aramaeans.Room containing the major finds from Ugarit. Also of interest is the reconstruction of the Dura Europa synagogue and the objects from Palmyra (Tadmor). See
“Damascus,” HDB (1900); BASOR, 87 (1947), 23-29; M. F. Unger, Israel and the Aramaeans of Damascus (1957); “Damascus,” Encyclopedia of Islam (1965); M. F. Unger, “Damascus,” The Biblical World (1966); C. Thubron, Mirror to Damascus (1967).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
1. The Name
2. Situation and
3. The City Itself
4. Its History
(1) The Early Period (to circa 950 BC)
(2) The Aramean Kingdom (circa 950-732 BC)
(3) The Middle Period (732 BC-650 AD)
(4) Under Islam
The English name is the same as the Greek Damaskos. The Hebrew name is Dammeseq, but the Aramaic form Darmeseq, occurs in
2. Situation and Natural Features:
Damascus is situated (33 degrees 30’ North latitude, 36 degrees 18’ East longitude) in the Northwest corner of the Ghuta, a fertile plain about 2,300 ft. above sea level, West of Mt. Hermon. The part of the Ghuta East of the city is called el-Merj, the "meadow-land" of Damascus. The river Barada (see Asana) flows through Damascus and waters the plain, through which the Nahr el-Awaj (see Pharpar) also flows, a few miles South of the city.
Surrounded on three sides by bare hills, and bordered on the East, its open side, by the desert, its well-watered and fertile Ghuta, with its streams and fountains, its fields and orchards, makes a vivid impression on the Arab of the desert. Arabic literature is rich in praises of Damascus, which is described as an earthly paradise. The European or American traveler is apt to feel that these praises are exaggerated, and it is perhaps only in early summer that the beauty of the innumerable fruit trees--apricots, pomegranates, walnuts and many others--justifies enthusiasm. To see Damascus as the Arab sees it, we must approach it, as he does, from the desert. The Barada (Abana) is the life blood of Damascus. Confined in a narrow gorge until close to the city, where it spreads itself in many channels over the plain, only to lose itself a few miles away in the marshes that fringe the desert, its whole strength is expended in making a small area between the hills and the desert really fertile. That is why a city on this site is inevitable and permanent. Damascus, almost defenseless from a military point of view, is the natural mart and factory of inland Syria. In the course of its long history it has more than once enjoyed and lost political supremacy, but in all the vicissitudes of political fortune it has remained the natural harbor of the Syrian desert.
3. The City Itself:
Damascus lies along the main stream of the Barada, almost entirely on its south bank. The city is about a mile long (East to West) and about half a mile broad (North to South). On the south side a long suburb, consisting for the most part of a single street, called the Meidan, stretches for a mile beyond the line of the city wall, terminating at the Bawwabet Allah, the "Gate of God," the starting-point of the Haj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. The city has thus roughly the shape of a broad-headed spoon, of which the Meidan is the handle. In the Greek period, a long, colonnaded street ran through the city, doubtless the "street which is called Straight" (
Part of it is still called Derb el-Mustakim (""), but it is not certain that it has borne the name through all the intervening centuries. It runs between the Jewish and Christian quarters (on the left and right, respectively, going west), and terminates in the Suk el-Midhatiyeh, a bazaar built by Midhat Pasha, on the north of which is the main Moslem quarter, in which are the citadel and the Great Mosque. The houses are flat-roofed, and are usually built round a courtyard, in which is a fountain. The streets, with the exception of Straight Street, are mostly narrow and tortuous, but on the west side of the city there are some good covered bazaars. Damascus is not rich in antiquities.
The Omayyad Mosque, or Great Mosque, replaced a Christian church, which in its time had taken the place of a pagan temple. The site was doubtless occupied from time immemorial by the chief religious edifice of the city. A small part of the ancient Christian church is still extant. Part of the city wall has been preserved, with a foundation going back to Roman times, surmounted by Arab work. The traditional site of Paul’s escape (
The charm of Damascus lies in the life of the bazaars, in the variety of types which may be seen there--the Druse, the Kurd, the Bedouin and many others--and in its historical associations. It has always been a manufacturing city. Our word "damask" bears witness to the fame of its textile industry, and the "Damascus blades" of the Crusading period were equally famous; and though Timur (Tamerlane) destroyed the trade in arms in 1399 by carrying away the armorers to Samarcand, Damascus is still a city of busy craftsmen in cloth and wood. Its antiquity casts a spell of romance upon it. After a traceable history of thirty-five centuries it is still a populous and flourishing city, and, in spite of the advent of the railway and even the electric street car, it still preserves the flavor of the East.
4. Its History:
(1) The Early Period (to circa 950 BC).
The origin of Damascus is unknown. Mention has already been made (section 1 ) of the references to the city in Egyptian inscriptions and in the Tell el-Amarna Letters. It appears once--possibly twice--in the history of Abraham. In
(2) The Aramean Kingdom (circa 950-732 BC).
Whether Rezon was himself the founder of a dynasty is not clear. He has been identified with Hezion, father of Tab-rimmon, and grandfather of Ben-hadad (
On the renewal of hostilities three years later Ahab fell before Ramoth-gilead, and his death relieved Ben-hadad of the only neighboring monarch who could ever challenge the superiority of Damascus. Further light is thrown upon the history of Damascus at this time by the Assyrian inscriptions. In 854 BC the Assyrians defeated a coalition of Syrian and Palestine states (including Israel) under the leadership of Ben-hadad at Karqar. In 849 and 846 BC renewed attacks were made upon Damascus by the Assyrians, who, however, did not effect any considerable conquest. From this date until the fall of the city in 732 BC the power of the Aramean kingdom depended upon the activity or quiescence of Assyria. Hazael, who murdered Ben-hadad and usurped his throne circa 844 BC, was attacked in 842 and 839, but during the next thirty years Assyria made no further advance westward. Hazael was able to devote all his energies to his western neighbors, and Israel suffered severely at his hands. In 803 Mari’ of Damascus, who is probably identical with the Ben-hadad of
Tiglath-pileser III (745-727 BC) pushed vigorously westward, and in 738 Rezin of Damascus paid tribute. A year or two later he revolted, and attempted in concert with Pekah of Israel, to coerce Judah into joining an anti- Assyrian league (
(3) The Middle Period (circa 732 BC-650 AD).
Damascus had now lost its political importance, and for more than two centuries we have only one or two inconsiderable references to it. It is mentioned in an inscription of Sargon (722-705 BC) as having taken part in an unsuccessful insurrection along with Hamath and Arpad. There are incidental references to it in
(4) Under Islam.
Damascus has now been a Moslem city, or rather a city under Moslem rule, for nearly thirteen centuries. For about a century after 650 AD it was the seat of the Omayyad caliphs, and enjoyed a position of preeminence in the Moslem world. Later it was supplanted by Bagdad, and in the 10th century it came under the rule of the Fatimites of Egypt. Toward the close of the 11th century the Seljuk Turks entered Syria and captured Damascus. In the period of the Crusades the city, though never of decisive importance, played a considerable part, and was for a time the headquarters of Saladin. In 1300 it was plundered by the Tartars, and in 1399 Timur exacted an enormous ransom from it, and carried off its famous armorers, thus robbing it of one of its most important industries. Finally, in 1516 AD, the Osmanli Turks under Sultan Selim conquered Syria, and Damascus became, and still is, the capital of a province of the Ottoman Empire.