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Sunset over Damascus in 2011
Aerial view of the Umayyad Mosque in 1930

Damascus (Arabic: دِمَشق, Dimašq) is the capital of Syria, the oldest capital in the world and, according to some, the fourth holiest city in Islam. Known colloquially in Syria as aš-Šām (الشَّام) and dubbed, poetically, the "City of Jasmine" (مَدِيْنَةُ الْيَاسْمِينِ Madīnat al-Yāsmīn), Damascus is a major cultural centre of the Levant and the Arab world.



Painefull Peregrinations (1640)

William Lithgow, Rare Adventures & Painefull Peregrinations (Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1906)
  • Damascus is the Capitall Citie of Syria, called by Turkes, Shamma, and is situated on a faire Plaine, and beautified with many Rivers on each side, (especially Paraphar and Abdenah) excellent Orchards, and all other naturall objects of elegancy: That for situation, Artizens, all manner of commodities, and varietie of fruits, in all the Asiaticall Provinces it is not paralelled. By Turkes it is called, the Garden of Turkie, or rather their earthly Paradice, because of a fenced Garden there, where a Garison of Turkes lie continually keeping that tree Mouslee, whereon as they alledge the forbidden Aple grew, wherewith the Serpent deceived Eve, and shee Adam, and from whence the great Turke is also styled, keeper of the terrestriall Paradice.
    • Damascus is called Shamma.
  • Some hold this Citie was built by Eleazer the servant of Abraham; and other say it is the place where Caine slew Abel, where indeed it is most likely to be so: for hard by Damascus I saw a pillar of Brasse erected there for a commemoration of that unnaturall murther of Cain executed upon his innocent brother. But howsoever I perswade thee, it is a pleasant and gallant Citie, well walled, and fortified with a strong Castle, wherein the Bassaw remaineth: the most part of the streets are covered, so that the Citizens are preserved in Summer from the heat, and in Winter from the raine.
    The like commoditie (but not after that forme) hath Padua in Lombardy: Their Bazar, or Market place is also covered, so are commonly all the Bazars or Bezestans in Turky: The best Carobiers, Adams Apples, and Grenadiers that grow on the earth is here: neare unto the Bazar there is a Moskie called Gemmah, wherein my Guide shewed me the Sepulcher of Ananias, and the Fountaine where he baptized Paul: In another street, I saw the house of Ananias, which is but a hollow Celler under the ground, and where the Disciples let Paul downe through the wall in a basket: In the street where they fell their Viæno, my Interpreter shewed me a great gate of fine mettall, which he sayd was one of the doores of the Temple of Salomon, and was transported thence, by the Tartarians, who conquered Jerusalem about three hundred and eighty yeares agoe, who for the heavy weight thereof, were enforced to leave it here, being indeede a relicke of wonderfull bignesse: And I saw also such aboundance of Rose-water here in barrels, to be sold, as beere or wine is rife with us.
    • The antiquitie of Damascus.
  • This Paradisiat Shamma, is the mother City, and most beautiful place of all Asia, resembling every way (the tectures of her Houses excepted being platforme) that matchlesse patterne and mirrour of beauty, the City of Antwerp. The onely best Shables, or short crooked swords, that be in the world are made here; and so are all other their weapons, as halfe Pikes, Bowes, and Arrowes, and Baluckoes of steele, that Horse-men carry in their hands: their shafts being three foot long, their heads great and round, and sharply guttered; wherewith they use to braine or knocke downe their enemies in the field. The Beglerbeg or Bassa of Damascus, is the greatest of commandement of all other Bassaes in Asia: Having under his authority (as he is under his Emperour) twenty two Sanzacks, and they conducting under all the aforesayd three, forty thousand Timariots or Horse-men, besides two thousand Janizaries, which are the guard of the Bassa, and Garrison of the Citty. His Beglerbership extendeth over the greater halfe of Syria, a part of the two Arabiaes Fœlix and Petrea, Phenicia, Galilee, Samaria, Palestina, Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and al the Northerne parts of Arabia Desartuous, even to the frontiers of Egipt.
    • The forces of the Bassa of Damascus.

Five Years in Damascus (1855)

Josias Leslie Porter, Five Years in Damascus, 2 vols. (London: John Murray, 1855)
  • No Scripture site is more surely identified than that of the ancient Damascus; and few possess a greater interest for the theologian, the historian, or the antiquary. ... It has outlived generations of cities, and has been a witness of the stirring events of full four thousand years. It has in succession formed an important part of the most powerful empires of the world. The monarchs of Nineveh, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, have conquered it; and it has prospered under every dynasty, and outlived them all. It was for a time the capital of the vast dominions of the Khalifs; and now the Osmanlis, its present rulers, are fast declining, and ere long it may be forced to acknowledge other masters. Damascus thus remains a connecting link between the most remote antiquity and modern times.
  • The buildings of Damascus are almost all of snowy whiteness, and this contrasts well with the surrounding foliage. The gardens and orchards, which have been so long and so justly celebrated, encompass the city, and extend on both sides of the Barada some miles eastward. They cover an area at least twenty-five miles in circuit, and make the environs an earthly paradise. The varied tints of the foliage, and of the blossoms and fruit in their season, greatly enhance the beauty of the picture. The sombre hue of the olive and the deep green of the walnut are finely relieved by the lighter shade of the apricot, the silvery sheen of the poplar, and the purple tint of the pomegranate; while lofty cone-like cypresses appear at intervals, and a few palm-trees here and there raise up their graceful heads. The variously coloured foliage thus surrounding the bright city, and the smooth plain beyond, now bounded by naked hills, and now mingling with the sky on the far-distant horizon, and the wavy atmosphere that makes forest, plain, and mountain tremble, give a softness and an aerial beauty to the whole scene that captivates the mind of the beholder.
  • To those accustomed to the capitals of Europe, with their broad streets, spacious squares, and splendid buildings, this city must appear filthy, irregular, and even half ruinous. The streets are narrow and tortuous; the houses on each side like piles of mud, stone, and timber, heaped together without order. A plain portal, or a gaudy fountain, or a mosk rich in the minute details of Saracenic architecture, is the only thing that gives any variety. On approaching the centre of the city, however, the stranger's eye is soon attracted by the gay bazaars, and by the picturesque groups that, in their gorgeous costumes, crowd them, or lounge in the open cafés. Every Eastern nation and tribe has there its representative; and the whole resembles a bal costumé more than a scene of every-day life.
  • A blood feud existed between the Kurds and the Druzes; and the former, being irregular troops in the pay of the Government, were scouring the plain of Damascus, attacking and murdering little parties of Druzes wherever they could find them. The Pasha was either unable or unwilling to prevent these base and cowardly deeds; and thus, when it was the interest of the Government to conciliate the rebels, whom they were unable to subdue, and while they were compelled to supplicate foreign interference and mediation to aid them in their difficulties, they were permitting their own soldiers to perpetrate crimes which could not but excite the Druzes to revenge, and at the same time disgust those whose mediation they were soliciting


  • The burden of Damascus. Behold, Damascus is taken away from being a city, and it shall be a ruinous heap.
    The cities of Aroer are forsaken: they shall be for flocks, which shall lie down, and none shall make them afraid.
    The fortress also shall cease from Ephraim, and the kingdom from Damascus, and the remnant of Syria: they shall be as the glory of the children of Israel, saith the LORD of hosts.
  • Damascus is waxed feeble, and turneth herself to flee, and fear hath seized on her: anguish and sorrows have taken her, as a woman in travail.
    How is the city of praise not left, the city of my joy!
    Therefore her young men shall fall in her streets, and all the men of war shall be cut off in that day, saith the LORD of hosts.
    And I will kindle a fire in the wall of Damascus, and it shall consume the palaces of Benhadad.
  • And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the LORD, went unto the high priest,
    And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.
    And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven:
    And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
    And he said, Who art thou, LORD? And the LORD said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.
    And he trembling and astonished said, LORD, what wilt thou have me to do? And the LORD said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.
    And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.
    And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus.
    And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.
    And there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and to him said the LORD in a vision, Ananias. And he said, Behold, I am here, LORD.
    And the LORD said unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and enquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prayeth,
    And hath seen in a vision a man named Ananias coming in, and putting his hand on him, that he might receive his sight.
    Then Ananias answered, LORD, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem:
    And here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name.
    But the LORD said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel:
    For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name's sake.
    And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the LORD, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost.
    And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized.
    And when he had received meat, he was strengthened. Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus.
    And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God.
    But all that heard him were amazed, and said; Is not this he that destroyed them which called on this name in Jerusalem, and came hither for that intent, that he might bring them bound unto the chief priests?
    But Saul increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews which dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is very Christ.
    And after that many days were fulfilled, the Jews took counsel to kill him:
    But their laying await was known of Saul. And they watched the gates day and night to kill him.
    Then the disciples took him by night, and let him down by the wall in a basket.
  • “From what city art thou?” “From Damascus,” replied Nur al-Din; and Abu Nowas said, “By Allah, thou art from a blessed city, even as saith of it the poet in these couplets:—
      Now is Damascus a garth adorned · For her seekers, the Houris and Paradise-boys.”
    • "Nur al-Din Ali of Damascus and the Damsel Sitt al-Milah"
    • Richard Francis Burton, tr., Supplemental Nights, Vol. 2 (1886), p. 154
  • The mid-day sun, with fiercest glare,
    Broods o’er the hazy, twinkling air;
      Along the level sand
    The palm-tree’s shade unwavering lies,
    Just as thy towers, Damascus, rise
      To greet yon wearied band.
    The leader of that martial crew
    Seems bent some mighty deed to do,
      So steadily he speeds,
    With lips firm closed and fixed eye,
    Like warrior when the fight is nigh,
      Nor talk nor landscape heeds.
    What sudden blaze is round him poured,
    As though all Heaven’s refulgent hoard
      In one rich glory shone?
    One moment,—and to earth he falls:
    What voice his inmost heart appalls?—
      Voice heard by him alone.
    For to the rest both words and form
    Seem lost in lightning and in storm,
      While Saul, in wakeful trance,
    Sees deep within that dazzling field
    His persecuted Lord revealed
      With keen yet pitying glance;
    And hears the meek upbraiding call
    As gently on his spirit fall,
      As if th’ Almighty Son
    Were prisoner yet in this dark earth,
      Nor had proclaimed his royal birth,
    Nor his great power begun.
    “Ah! wherefore persecut’st thou me?”
    He heard and saw, and sought to free
      His strained eye from the sight:
    But Heaven’s high magic bound it there,
    Still gazing, though untaught to bear
      Th’ insufferable light.
  • A silver javelin which the hills
      Have hurled upon the plain below,
    The fleetest of the Pharpar’s rills,
      Beneath me shoots in flashing flow.
    I hear the never-ending laugh
      Of jostling waves that come and go,
    And suck the bubbling pipe, and quaff
      The sherbet cooled in mountain snow.
    The flecks of sunshine gleam like stars
      Beneath the canopy of shade;
    And in the distant, dim bazaars
      I scarcely hear the hum of trade.
    No evil fear, no dream forlorn,
      Darkens my heaven of perfect blue;
    My blood is tempered to the morn,—
      My very heart is steeped in dew.
    What Evil is I cannot tell;
      But half I guess what Joy may be;
    And, as a pearl within its shell,
      The happy spirit sleeps in me.
    I feel no more the pulse’s strife,—
      The tides of Passion’s ruddy sea,—
    But live the sweet, unconscious life
      That breathes from yonder jasmine-tree.
    Upon the glittering pageantries
      Of gay Damascus’ streets I look
    As idly as a babe that sees
      The painted pictures of a book.
    Forgotten now are name and race;
      The Past is blotted from my brain;
    For Memory sleeps, and will not trace
      The weary pages o’er again.
    I only know the morning shines,
      And sweet the dewy morning air;
    But does it play with tendrilled vines,
      Or does it lightly lift my hair?
    Deep-sunken in the charmed repose,
      This ignorance is bliss extreme;
    And whether I be Man, or Rose,
      O, pluck me not from out my dream!
  • Languidly the night-wind bloweth
      From the gardens round,
    Where the clear Barrada floweth
      With a lulling sound.
    Not the lute note’s sweet shiver
      Can such music find,
    As is on a wandering river,
      On a wandering wind.
    There the Moslem leaneth, dreaming
      O’er the inward world,
    While around the fragrant steaming
      Of the smoke is curled.
    Rising from the coffee berry,
      Dark grape of the South;
    Or the pipe of polished cherry,
      With its amber mouth.
    Cooled by passing through the water,
      Gurgling as it flows—
    Scented by the Summer’s daughter,
      June’s impassioned rose.
    By that rose’s spirit haunted
      Are the dreams that rise,
    Of far lands, and lives enchanted,
      And of deep black eyes.
    Thus with some sweet dream’s assistance,
      Float they down life’s stream;
    Would to heaven, our whole existence
      Could be such a dream!
  • Four great gates has the city of Damascus,
      And four Grand Wardens, on their spears reclining,
    All day long stand like tall stone men
      ⁠And sleep on the towers when the moon is shining.
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