1902 Encyclopedia > Damascus, Syria

Damascus, Syria

DAMASCUS (Arabic, Dimeshk esh-Sham), the capital of Syria, and of a pashalik of the same name, an ancient town, 57 miles from the seaport of Beyrout, in 33° 30' N. lat. and 36° 18' E. long. It occupies a site of singular beauty. On the eastern side of the range of Antilibanus is a plain of vast extent, reaching far out into Arabia, and having an elevation of 2200 feet above the sea. The Biver Barada, the Abana of the Bible, rises in the centre of the mountain range, descends through a sublime ravine, enters the plain, flows across it eastward for 20 miles, and empties itself into a lake, which in the heat of summer becomes a morass. On the banks of the Abana, about a mile from the mouth of the ravine, stands Damascus. The river intersects the city, in a deep rapid current, averaging 50 feet wide. On its northern bank is a large and com-paratively modern suburb; but the whole of the ancient walled city, and the principal buildings, are spread over the plain on the south. The Abana is the life of Damascus, and has made it perennial. By an admirable system of channels and pipes, many of them apparently of high antiquity, its waters are not only conveyed through every quarter, but into almost every house, supplying that first requisite of Eastern life and luxury. The river is also extensively used for irrigation. Canals are led off from it at different elevations above the city, and carried far and wide over the surrounding plain, converting what would otherwise be a parched desert into a paradise. The orchards, gardens, vineyards, and fields of Damascus cover a circuit of at least 60 miles, and they owe their almost unrivalled beauty and luxuriance to the Abana. The area irrigated and rendered fertile by it is upwards of 300 square miles in extent, and the Biver Awaj, the ancient Pharpar, irrigates nearly 100 more. There was truth, therefore, in the boastful words of Naaman (2 Kings v. 12), "Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel 1"

The view of Damascus from the crest of Antilibanus is scarcely surpassed in the world. The elevation is about 500 feet above the city, which is nearly two miles distant. The distance lends enchantment to the view ; for while the peculiar forms of Eastern architecture do not bear close inspection, they look like an Arabian poet's dream when seen from afar. Tapering minarets and swelling domes, tipped with golden crescents, rise above the white-terraced roofs ; while in some places their glittering tops appear among the green foliage of the gardens. In the centre of the city stands the Great Mosque, and near it are the gray battlements of the old castle. Away on the south the eye follows a long suburb, while below the ridge on which we stand is the Merj, the Ager Damascenus of early travellers—a green meadow extending along the river from the mouth of the ravine to the city. The gardens and orchards, which have been so long and so justly celebrated, encompass the whole city, sweeping the base of the bleak hills, like a sea of verdure, and covering an area more than 30 miles in circuit—not uniformly dense, but with open spots here and there. Beyond this circuit are large clumps of trees, dotting the plain almost to the horizon. The varied tints of the foliage greatly enhance the beauty of this picture.

The population of Damascus is estimated at 150,000. Of these about 19,000 are Christians, 6000 Jews, and the rest Mahometans. Of the Christians 8000 belong to the Greek or Eastern Church, and an equal number to the Catholic ; and there are besides small communities of Syrians, Maronites, Armenians, and Protestants. In the plain round Damascus, watered by the Abana and Pharpar, there are 140 villages, with an aggregate population of 50,000, of whom about 1000 are Christians, and 2000 Druzes.

Until the capture of the city by Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt, in 1832, no foreign consul was permitted to enter it, and no Christian or Jew was suffered to ride through the streets. The massacre of 1860 showed that the spirit of the people had not changed, and was only kept in check by Turkish troops. A few of the Mahometans, however, are now more enlightened, and have gained a high position as merchants. The Christians are enterprizing and industrious, and a large proportion of the trade of the city is in their hands, Until the massacre they were rapidly advancing in numbers, wealth, and influence ; but that event gave a fatal blow to their prosperity. The Jews are the leading bankers and money-dealers. Both Christians and Jews occupy distinct quarters of the city.

The manufactures of the city consist principally of silks, which are exported to Egypt, Baghdad, and Persia; coarse woollen cloth for the abbas, or cloaks, worn by the peasants of Syria ; cotton cloths, chiefly for home use; gold and silver ornaments, arms, and household utensils. An exten-sive trade is carried on with the Bedouins of the Arabian desert. The bazaars are always crowded ; and on Friday, the market day, it is difficult to pass through them. On the arrival of the great pilgrim caravan, in going to or returning from Mecca, the city presents a gay and animated appearance. Vast multitudes of Persians, Circassians, Anatolians, and Turks throng the streets, and each pilgrim is a merchant for the time being, buying or selling as the case may be.

The bazaars have long been celebrated, and are among the best in the East. They are narrow covered lanes, with ranges of open stalls on each side. Each department of trade has its own quarter or section, where may be seen Manchester prints, Persian and Turkish carpets, French silks, Sheffield cutlery, amber mouth-pieces for pipes, antique China, Cashmere shawls, Mocha coffee, Dutch sugar, Damascus swords, and tobacco from Lebanon and Baghdad.

The khans of Damascus are spacious, and some of them splendid buildings. They are public marts where the leading merchants meet, and expose their wares for sale. The largest is Khan Asad Pasha, situated in the Bizuriyeh, or " Seed Bazaar." It was erected about 125 years ago, and bears the name of its founder. The gate is a noble specimen of Moorish architecture. The interior is a quadrangle, with a gallery, and a domed roof supported on massive piers. Bound it are ranges of small chambers, like cells, in which the goods are stored. All the khans are upon the same plan.

The private houses are the admiration of every visitor. No contrast could be greater than that between the exterior and interior ; the rough mud walls give poor promise of splendour within. The entrance is usually by a low door, and through a narrow winding passage which leads to the outer court, where the master has his reception room. From this another winding passage leads to the harem, which is the principal part of the house. The plan of all is the same—an open court, with a tesselated pavement, and one or two marble fountains ; orange and lemon trees, flowering shrubs, and climbing plants give freshness and fragrance. All the apartments open into the court; and on the south side is an open alcove, with a marble floor, and raised dais round three sides, covered with cushions; the front wall is supported by an ornamented Saracenic arch. The decoration of some of the rooms is gorgeous, the wails being covered in part with mosaics and in part with carved work, while the ceilings are rich in arabesque ornaments, elaborately gilt. A few of the modern Jewish houses have been embellished at an enormous cost, but they are want-ing in taste.

Antiquities.—Although Damascus is one of the oldest cities in the world, its antiquities do not present such a striking appearance as those of many other places of far less note. This is in some measure owing to the fact that the old materials have been largely used in the erection of modern houses. The walls which inclosed the old city are about three miles in circuit, and their foundations are probably of the age of the Seleucidse. Some of the Boman gateways are in tolerable preservation. Through the centre of the city, from the east to the west gate, ran the Via Recta, " the street called Straight," lined on each side with a double colonnade. It is now mostly built over, but many fragments of columns remain in situ.

The castle, which stands at the north-west corner, on the bank of the river, is a quadrangle 280 yards long by 200 wide, surrounded by a moat. The exterior walls are in good preservation, but the interior is a heap of ruins. It is not easy to determine the date of its erection, or to say whether Bomans, Byzantines, or Saracens contributed most to it. The foundations are not later, and may be earlier, than the Boman age. A few vaults beneath the exterior battlements are used as magazines, and contain some pieces of old armour, with bows, arrows, and other weapons.

The Great Mosque is the most important building in the city. It stands near the castle, and is now, unfortunately, so closely hemmed in with bazaars and houses that its exterior is concealed from view. It occupies a quadrangle 163 yards long by 108 wide, facing the cardinal points. Along the north side is an open court surrounded by cloisters, resting on pillars of granite, marble, and lime-stone. The mosque itself extends along the whole southern side, and its interior dimensions are 431 feet by 125 feet. It is divided into three aisles of equal breadth, by two ranges of Corinthian columns 22 feet high, supporting round arches. In the centre is a dome resting on four massive piers. Underneath is said to be a cave in which the head of John the Baptist is preserved in a golden casket. The mosque has three minarets, one of which is 250 feet high, and upon it, according to Moslem tradition, Jesus will descend on the day of judgment.

The style and workmanship of three periods are distinguishable in the building. There are the massive founda-tions and exterior colonnades of a Greek or Boman temple. There are next the round-topped windows and ornamented doorway of an early Christian church. Over the door is an inscription in Greek to the following effect:—" Thy kingdom, O Christ, is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth throughout all generations." Then there are the minarets, dome, and arcades of Saracenic origin.

Bound the mosque are traces of a court, 1100 feet long by 800 feet wide, encompassed by colonnades similar to those of the temple of Herod in Jerusalem, and the temple of the sun at Palmyra. It seems highly probable that this was the site of the temple of Bimmon, mentioned in 2 Kings v. 18, and that it became in .after times the seat of the worship of Jupiter. In the 4th century it was converted into a church, and dedicated to John the Baptist; and in the beginning of the 8th century it was seized by the Mahometans.

There are many other mosques in the city, some of them large and beautiful. Among them are the Tekiyeh, on the bank of the Abana at the western end of the city, founded by Sultan Selim, in 1516, for the accommodation of poor pilgrims, the graceful dome of which, flanked by two slender minarets, is seen from afar, and the Senaniyeh, in the centre of the city, distinguished by a minaret coated with green tiles, for the manufacture of which Damascus was once celebrated. It was built by Senan Pasha in 1581, and has a splendid cloistered court. There are also small and richly decorated chapels, connected with the tombs of Saladin, Bibars, and some other great princes. Among the traditional holy places of Damascus are the sanctuary of Abraham, at Burzeh, three miles north of the city ; the I house of Naaman. now a leper hospital; the scene of Paul's conversion, near the east gate ; the house of Ananias; and the spot where the apostle was let down from the wall.

The Raj, or pilgrim caravan, is one of the great sights of Damascus. It starts for Mecca each year on the 15th of the month Shawall. The muhmil, a canopy of green silk containing the new covering sent by the sultan for the Kaabah, is carried on the back of a dromedary, and is followed by the pasha, and great dignitaries of the city, escorted by the military. The streets and house-tops along the line of the procession are crowded with people. The caravan returns after an absence of four months. It is rapidly declining in numbers and importance.

The history of Damascus reaches far back into the mists of antiquity. Josephus says the city was founded by Uz, the son of Aram; and the name of its territory, as given in the Bible, namely, Aram Damesk (2 Sam. viii. 6), is almost identical with its modern Arab name, which means " Damascus of Syria." It was already a noted place in the days of Abraham, whose steward was " Eliezer of Damascus " (Gen. xv. 2). Some centuries later, it became, under the rule of the Hadads, the rival of Israel (1 Kings xv., xx., and xxii.). During that period it was the scene of the romantic story of the leper Naaman (2 Kings v.). A change of dynasty took place in the time of the prophet Elisha, when Hadad was murdered by Hazael (2 Kings viii.); but it was soon afterwards captured byTiglath-pileser, and its people carried away to Assyria (2 Kings xvi. 9 ; Isa. xvii. 1-3). Colonies from Assyria were then placed in the city, and it continued for many centuries a dependency of that empire. It was taken by Alexander the Great, and after his death was attached to the kingdom of the Seleucidas. In 64 B.C. the Bomans under Pompey captured it, and under their rule it remained till 37 A.D., when Aretas, king of Arabia, taking advantage of the death of the Emperor Tiberius, seized and held it during the time of St Paul's visit (2 Cor xi. 32 ; Acts ix.).

Christianity appears to have spread rapidly in and around Damascus, as its metropolitan, with seven of his suffragans, was present at the Council of Nice in 325 A.D. About seventy years later the great temple was converted into a Christian church. In 634 the city fell into the hands of the Mahometans; and a few years later it became for a short period the capital of the Mahometan empire. The caliphs who ruled it adorned the city with many splendid buildings, and changed the cathedral into a mosque. A stormy period of four centuries now passed over Damascus, and then an unsuccessful attempt was made to capture it by the crusaders under Baldwin. The reigns of Noureddin, and his more distinguished successor Saladin, form bright epochs in the history of the city. Two centuries later came Tamerlane. Arab writers call him " the Wild Beast," and he deserves the name. After the city had surrendered to him, and every male had paid the redemption money which he himself had assessed, he urged his soldiers to an indiscriminate massacre. Never had the city so fearfully experienced the horrors of conquest. Its wealth, its stores of antiquities, and rich fabrics were seized ; its palaces were pillaged and left in ashes ; its libraries, filled with the literature of the period of the caliphs, and with the writings of the fathers of the Eastern Church, were destroyed. Tradition says that of the large Christian population only a single family escaped.

A century later Damascus fell into the hands of the Turks under Sultan Selim, and has since acknowledged their supremacy. In 1832 it was taken by the Egyp-tians under Ibrahim Pasha, the celebrated general and son of Mehemet Ali, and this conquest is chiefly remark-able for the effect it produced on the inhabitants. The city was then opened for the first time to the representatives of foreign powers. The British consul entered it mounted, and in full costume, escorted by Egyptian soldiers ; and the first effectual check was given to Moslem fanaticism. In 1841 the Egyptians were driven out by the English, and Damascus with the rest of Syria reverted to the direct sway of the Sultan.

A Protestant mission was established in Damascus in 1843, and has succeeded, chiefly by its schools and the distribution of books, in greatly advancing the cause of education in and around the city.

The only incident worthy of record since that time is the massacre of 1860. The Moslem population, taking advantage of disturbances among the Druzes in Lebanon, rose against the Christians on the afternoon of Monday the 9th of July, and on that and the two following days burned the whole Christian quarter, and massacred in cold blood about 3000 adult males. But no estimate of the numbers actually murdered can give any adequate idea of the
terrible results of the massacre. Thousands who escaped the sword died of wounds, or famine, or subsequent privation. The Christian quarter has been mostly rebuilt, but many of the most eminent and enterprizing Christian merchants removed to Beyrout and Egypt. Yet notwithstanding the fanaticism of its people, and the misgovernment of the Turks, Damascus is progressing. Schools have been established; the streets have been cleared of rubbish, and widened ; sanitary regulations are enforced; and the fine new road recently made by a French company over Lebanon to Beyrout has given a great impetus to trade and manufacture. (j. L. P.)

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