Damascus: Treasured city of the Umayyad Caliphate

Travel Contributor
© Ali Sulima | Dreamstime.com

As I stated in one of my previous columns, one of the major contributions of Islamic culture to the progress of civilization across the world is the building of numerous great cities. Some of them have been much talked about in the West. Because of various reasons including tourism, international relations, and strategic diplomacy. Baghdad, Cairo, Tehran, Isfahan, etc. are household names. There are, however, several other cities that are no less vibrant in Islamic culture. Damascus, for example, is considered to be one of the oldest continuously living cities in the world. At present, the capital of Syria, Dimushk, as it was called in medieval times has a fascinating history.

Damascus during Greek and Roman rule

Damascus has been documented to be a city of importance as early as the 11th century BCE. It has gone through both Greek and Roman rule. While Alexander III of Macedon conquered the city in 323 BCE. Roman general Pompey annexed western Syria in 64 BCE. And included Damascus in the league of ten important cities, called Decapolis. The areas of Syria and Palestine, and therefore the city of Damascus also, came firmly under Islamic rule in 636 CE. That is within four years of Prophet Muhammad’s passing away, conquered by the forces of general Khalid Ibn al-Walid. In 661 CE Caliph Mu’awiya made Damascus the capital of the entire Umayyad Caliphate. And thus began the real prosperity of the city for several centuries to come.

Great Mosque of Damascus

The next Caliph to assume power was Abd al-Malik in 685 CE. He introduced a new Islamic coinage system in the city. And ensured that all the surplus revenue of the vast Umayyad caliphate flows into the treasury at Damascus. With this began the decorating of the city along with the building of great monuments. Abd al-Malik’s successor Al-Walid began the construction of the huge mosque. Known as the Umayyad Mosque or the Great Mosque of Damascus. It incorporated within it a basilica dedicated to John the Baptist. To this day Muslims and Christians revere this mosque equally. Muslims believing that one day Jesus Christ will return here. The tomb of Al-Nasir Salah al-Din Yusuf Ibn Ayyub, the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria, is also located inside the premise.

Ottoman rule of 16th Century

The city came under the control of the Abbasid dynasty when on August 25, 750 CE. The Umayyads were beaten in the battle of the Zab. For the next three centuries, Damascus’ sun of fortune was eclipsed under the Abbasid rule, as the capital shifted to Baghdad. This changed when in 1079 CE, Abu Said Taj ud-Dowla Tutush I, belonging to the Seljuk Turk clan took control of Damascus. Within a century Damascus once again rose as a major center of Islamic learning and culture with the building of great madrassas and Bimaristans (hospitals). The city came under Ottoman rule in 1516, and over the next four hundred years, it remained an important Ottoman city. Several important monuments, including the famous Tekkieyeh al-Sulaimaniyeh mosque complex (built-in 1560) and the stunning Al-Hamadiya souk, or bazaar (1884), were constructed during the long Ottoman rule.

Today Damascus offers to the tourists an amazing mixture of several cultures, great historical monuments, and fascinating colorful bazaars.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)

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