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History of Damascus

Colorful spices in the Souk El-Hamidiyeh in Damascus, Syria
Above: Colorful spices in the Souk El-Hamidiyeh in Damascus, Syria

by Anthony Horrobin - 29 July 2010

Damascus, the ‘City of Jasmine’ is the largest city and also the Capital City of Syria. Damascus has an estimated population of around 1.7 Million and is located on a plateau 680 metres above sea level.

Recent carbon dating at Tell Ramad close to Damascus suggests that the area has been populated since 6300 BC, however settlements in other parts of Syria show evidence of been populated since 9000 BC. Although no major settlements were present until 2000 BC.

In 1259 BC, Damascus and the rest of Syria became a major battleground between the Hittites led by Hattusili from the North and the Egyptians led by Ramses II from the South. This battle ended with both parties signing a peace treaty where the Ramses II was given control of the Damascus area.
Damascus is also mentioned in the Bible (Genesis 14:15) as existing at the time of the ‘’War of Kings’’.

It wasn’t until the 11th Century BC and the arrival of the Aramaeans, Semitic Nomads from Mesopotamia that Damascus became an important city. By the start of the 10th Century several Aramaic Kingdoms had been formed as the Aramaeans had abandoned their nomadic lifestyles in favour of establishing Federated Tribal States. One of these many Kingdoms was known as Aram-Damascus which was located around it’s capital city ‘Damascus’. Many of the Aramaeans who settled in the city, adopted the name ‘Dimashqu’ for their new home town. It was also the Aramaeans who first noticed the cities agricultural potential and began establishing the cities water distribution system fed by water from the River Barada. This water system was later improved by the Romans and the Umayyads and it still forms part of the water system for Old Damascus today.

Aram-Damascus had constant conflict with the Israeli Kingdom but managed to ward off invasion for many years. By the 8th Century BC however, the city was practically engulfed by Assyrians and the city entered a Dark Age which lasted until 727 BC when the Assyrians finally assumed complete control of the country. Despite the Assyrians being in control of the country it brought a period of peace to the Syrians and other benefits such as trade from the spice and incense routes travelling to and from Arabia. By the beginning of the 5th Century BC the Assyrian authority was beginning to fade and much of the country was under the control of Pharaoh Necho II.

During the Campaign of Alexander the Great, which swept through the Near East, Syria gained it’s first western ruler. After the death of Alexander in 323 BC, the control of Damascus became very unstable passing from ruler to ruler, namely the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires. Seleucus I Nicator made Antioch the capital of his vast empire which led to the decline of Damascus’ importance when compared with other Seleucid cities such Latakia in Northern Syria. Later, Demetrius III Philopator rebuilt the city in the Greek Hippodamian way and the city was now known as Demetrias.
In 64 BC, Pompey the Roman General began to occupy Damascus and incorporated this into their league of ten cities known as the Decapolis. The Romans considered Damascus to be an important centre for Greco-Roman culture.

By the year 222 Damascus had become a major metropolis and the emperor Septimius Severus upgraded the city to a ‘Colonia’. During the Pax Romana, a period of peace within the Roman Empire, the country of Syria had begun to prosper. Damascus was now an important caravan city taking advantage of the trade routes from the southern empires of Arabia, Palmya and Petra and the silk routes from China.

Following the Roman Rule, Damascus entered a period of Islamic Arab rule which lasted from the 7th to the 11th Century. During the Arab period, many changes were made such as the introduction of Arabic as the official language, this gave the Arab minority a distinct advantage of the Greek speaking Christians in all administrative affairs. During this period an Islamic coinage system and many important buildings were constructed such as the Grand Mosque of Damascus which is today known as the Umayyad Mosque. Various Arab kingdoms ruled Damascus/Syria until the 11th Century.

With the arrival of the Seljuk Turks in the late 11th Century, Damascus once again became a prosperous and important city. The Seljuks established a court in Damascus which saw the expansion of religious institutions and hospitals, Damascus now also became an important centre for propagating Islamic thought throughout the Muslim world.

Ayyubid rule came to an end in 1260 when the Mongols invaded, Damascus then became the provincial capital of the Mamluk Empire which was ruled from Egypt. Unfortunately in 1348-1349 the Black Death wiped out almost half of the cities population. In 1400 the Turco-Mongol conqueror Timor, invaded Damascus and took many men and women into slavery, burnt the Umayyed Mosque and the cities Artisans were taken to Timur’s Captial at Samarkand. Many citizens were slaughtered and their heads were piled up outside the north-east corner of the city, this part of the city still bears the name ‘Burj al ru’us’ – the tower of heads. Damascus then continued as the Mamluk provincial capital until 1516.

In 1516 the Ottoman Turks began a campaign to conquer the Mamluk Empire. The Ottomans assumed control of the city but little changed, simply one army had replaced another. A year later the Ottoman Sultan returned to Syria and ordered the construction of the first Ottoman monuments; The Tekkiye Mosque and the Mausoleum at the shrine of Shaikh Muhi al-Din ibn Arabi.
The Ottoman’s reigned supreme in Syria for the next 400 years. Under the Ottoman rule, Christians and Jews were considered Dhimmis and they were allowed to practice their own religions.

In 1840 an incident known as the ‘Damascus Affair’ occurred where members of the Jewish community were accused of Ritual Murder. Following this, in 1860 thousands of Christians were massacred due to fighting between Druze and Maronites.
The beginning of the twentieth century saw much conflict in Syria. In 1918, Prince Faysal led a revolt against the Turks and following intervention from the British, the Turks eventually accepted defeat, a military government under Shukri Pasha was named and Faisal ibn Hussein was named King of Syria.

In 1920 the French Army, commanded by General Mariano Goybet entered Damascus and named it their League of Nations Mandate of Syria. In 1925 the Druze Revolt crossed into Damascus and the French brutally suppressed it by bombing much of the Old City. As a result of this Damascus saw many deaths and much of the old city was burned to the ground. On 21st June 1941 the Allies of the Syria-Lebanon Campaign captured Damascus from the French. Following this, in 1945 the French once again bombed the city but on this occasion the British forces stepped in and forced the French to withdraw. In 1946, Syria then declared it’s independence and the city has prospered ever since.

Today, Damascus attracts many tourists due to it’s wealth of historical sites and the fact that Damascus acts as a gateway to other countries such as Lebanon and Jordan makes it extremely accessible.

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