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Volume 24, Number 5September/October 1973

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The Imperial Capital

If Paradise be on earth, Damascus must be it; if it is in heaven, Damascus can parallel and match it. Ibn-Jubayr.

Written by Philip K. Hitti
Illustrated by Penny Williams-Yaqub

Philip K. Hitti, who retired in 1954 from Princeton University, where he was Professor of Semitic Literature and Chairman of the Department of Oriental Languages, is the author of numerous books on the Arabs and Islam, including the classic History of the Arabs, now in its 10th edition (Aramco World, July-August 1971).

"The Imperial Capital" is an abridged chapter of Dr. Hitti's Capital Cities of Arab Islam, published this year by the University of Minnesota. It is, explains Dr. Hitti, "an attempt to view the highlights of Arab history through the windows of the cities where those events were enacted ... The six cities treated were more than capitals; they left their indelible imprint not only on the subsequent history of the Arabs and Moslems but on the development of civilization at large."

Chapters deal with Mecca, the religious capital; Medina, the caliphal capital; Damascus, the imperial capital; Baghdad, the intellectual capital; Cairo, the dissident capital and Cordova, the European capital.

Damascus is the gift of the Barada. The river gushes forth almost full grown immediately below Anti-Lebanon's watershed, rushes 23 miles down the slope, fans out into six main streams to irrigate a desert area and convert it into "one of the three earthly paradises." The 16 by 10 miles of gardens and orchards thus created, and named Ghutah, set the city like a pearl in an emerald girdle of green—a sight especially appreciated by peoples of barren lands. From the time of Naaman, the Syrian general of the mid-ninth pre-Christian century, to the present day, Damascenes have not ceased in poetry and prose to sing the beauty of their river and the fertility of their city. It is the favorite theme of their poets since Umayyad days. In fact, considering the length of service and the measure of usefulness, few cities have as much reason to be thankful to their rivers as Damascus has.

The Hebrews called the Barada (which in Arabic suggests the idea of ice-cold) Abana (stony). Classical writers had a more appropriate epithet for it, Chryshorrhoas (gold-pouring). The other Damascus river mentioned in 2 Kings 5:12, Pharpar, is now called al-A'waj. The A'waj, a confluence of several streams, rises in Mount Hermon, pursues a tortuous course (whence its Arabic name) and irrigates the plains southeast of the city.

But Damascus is more than an agricultural post. It is a desert port. Situated at the east end of a west-to-east trade route, it is itself a center of route radiation northward to its only rival in Syria—Aleppo—and thence to Asia Minor, southward to Palestine and on to the Hijaz, and eastward through an almost lifeless 500-mile desert to Baghdad, and through Baghdad to Mesopotamia and Persia. This makes of the oasis a trade and industry post. On the local scene Damascus provides a market of exchange for the Bedouins of the Syrian Desert.

Its people call it Dimashq, a term that presumably goes back to a prehistoric non-Semitic origin. Recent excavations indicate an urban settlement of the fourth millennium B.C. on the site. In 1595 B.C. a Hittite monarch penetrated in Syria south to Damashunas, which sounds suspiciously like Damascus. But its first clear stepping on the threshold of written history comes a century and a half later when the Egyptian Thutmose III conducted several campaigns against Syria and listed Timashu or Damasku among the conquered towns. This gives it a life-span justifying its claim of being the longest continuously inhabited city known—a record of about 3,500 years with no known lapse to a village status.

Damascus made its debut on the royalty stage toward the end of the second millennium B.C. It then became the capital of an Aramaean kingdom that in its heyday extended from the Euphrates, through eastern Syria and Transjordan, to the Dead Sea . . . and which rose to power contemporaneously with the Hebrew kingdom and contiguously to it. The two soon became foes involved in intermittent warfare. This, unfortunately for both, synchronized with the rise of a more formidable power to the north, Assyria . . . With one hand Damascus had to ward off Assyrian aggression, and with the other Hebrew advances. King David reached and for a time occupied and garrisoned Damascus (2 Sam. 8:5; I Chron. 18:5-6), but the division of his monarchy in 922 worked to the Aramaean advantage . . . For a time the kingdom of Israel became nominally a Damascus vassal, . . . but in 733 B.C. Tiglath-pileser III moved against Damascus (Dimashqa in cuneiform inscriptions) and King Rezin, after a battle, took to flight and, in the words of the Assyrian bulletin, "like a mouse he entered the gate of his city," where he was finally slain (2 Kings 6:9). The city's inhabitants were deported (cf. Is. 17:1), the trees of its orchards—its pride through the ages—were cut down, "not one escaped." Its 16 provinces with their 591 cities were, again to borrow the words of the Assyrian invader, destroyed "like mounds left by a flood." Assyria was determined that no more should a power challenge her right to supremacy in the Fertile Crescent.

The Aramaean kingdom of Damascus passed away, but the Aramaean heritage passed on. In the course of the two centuries of Damascus' ascendancy, Aramaean merchants came near monopolizing the hinterland trade as their Phoenician rivals had monopolized the maritime trade. What turned out to be its most enduring export, however, was language. By 500 B.C. Aramaic had established itself as the language of commerce, culture and government from the Mediterranean to the Tigris. More than that it replaced the vernaculars. Christ's mother tongue was Aramaic. Hebrew was reserved for synagogue and school use. In its Syriac dialect, Aramaic still figures in the liturgies of Eastern Churches, including the Maronite of Lebanon. Jews carried Aramaic with them to Arabia, Egypt, Persia, and other lands of the Diaspora. Darius I (522-486) made it the inter provincial language of his empire. Aramaic remained the lingua franca of the entire area until the conquest of Alexander the Great. With the spread of language went the alphabet. Borrowed from their Phoenician neighbors, this ingenious system of writing was transmitted by Aramaeans to the Hebrews, the Arabians, the Persians, the Hindus, and other peoples of the East . . .

The conquest of Syria in 333 B.C. by Alexander the Great marked the opening of a new era for the entire region—an era of Greco-Roman dominion and cultural infiltration that was not to end until the rise of Islam a thousand years later.

On the occupation of Syria by the Romans in 64 B.C., Damascus was bypassed in favor of Antioch . . . and other neighbors of Damascus: Beirut (Beyrytus) and Baalbak (Ba'labakk, Heliopolis), the "city of the sun." Roman rule over Damascus was briefly interrupted by the North Arabian Nabataeans, based in Petra, who held the city at the time of Paul's conversion. The "street called Straight" (Acts 9:11) bears today the name of Midhat Pasha, a 19th-century Ottoman governor, and the place on the city wall near the cast gate from which the apostle took to flight is still pointed out to curious tourists. In A.D. 395, when the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine) achieved its final separation from the West, Damascus was made capital of a minor district embracing Homs (Emesa), Baalbak, and Tadmur (Palmyra). For its , full rejuvenation it had to wait until the rise of Islam.

Mu'awiyah's choice of Damascus in 661 as the capital of his caliphate was perhaps the most pregnant fact in its entire history. It started the city on its way to becoming, for 89 years (661-750), mistress of the Moslem realm and key city in world affairs. Its distance from the sea and its location in the shadow of a double mountain wall were—in the absence of an Arab fleet—an advantage. The mountain did, however, shut off the cooling vapor-laden westerlies, leaving the city an average of 10 inches of rain and giving it a summer heat exceeding 100°F.; but the mountain compensated by originating Barada and al-A'waj and reducing humidity . . .

Mu'awiyah's name became as inextricably associated with Damascus as Muhammad's with Mecca and 'Umar's with Medina. He was the father of its dynasty—the Umayyad; the founder of its tradition; and the architect of its imperial institutions. Mu'awiyah the caliph built on his experience as governor, and his experience had the Byzantine model to follow. Under him Islam began to breathe more of the Mediterranean and less of the desert.

The Damascus caliph's starting point was, predictably, the military. Hitherto, the unit in warfare as in peace was the tribe, each under its own shaykh. Soon after the occupation of Syria, Mu'awiyah realized the archaic character of the system and started updating it in the manner of the Byzantine army. The new units consisted of trained, disciplined men of varied tribes, receiving higher and more regular pay and accepting orders from professional officers.

But in other areas he made no changes at all. He kept the Syrian Christian members of the family of St. John, whose father had in 635 secretly opened the city gates to the Arabian besiegers, in charge of the treasury. Greek was maintained as the language of the books. In the eastern half of the empire, Persian was not disturbed. What else could a new ruler—lacking the personnel and tradition—do? For administrative purposes the old provincial divisions in both the Byzantine and the Persian realms were, with some modifications, maintained . . . The pre-Arabian currency throughout the caliphate was kept with no change. Some time had to pass before Arab coinage was struck.

For years the Damascus court was to an extent dominated by Christians. Mu'awiyah included in his harem a daughter of a South Arabian Christianized tribe domiciled in the Syrian Desert . . . And his poet laureate, al-Akhtal, was likewise a Christian. Al-Akhtal would enter the caliphal palace with the cross dangling from his neck. Almost all the caliph's subjects in the Fertile Crescent and in Egypt were, it should be recalled, still Christians. The religious barrier in those days did not loom high, and the caliph's tolerant policy made it look lower. Chroniclers report debates in the caliphal court on the relative merits of the two religions. Among the writings of St. John (d. 740) were two dialogues between a Christian and a "Saracen" intended as a manual for Christians' guidance in their arguments with Moslems. For his tolerance Mu'awiyah was repaid in undivided loyalty by his Christian subjects.

The caliph displayed no less ability in handling tribal affairs. The following words attributed to him sum up his philosophy of rule: "I apply not my lash where my tongue suffices, nor my sword where my whip is enough. And if there be one hair binding me to my fellow men I let it not break. If they pull I loosen, and if they loosen I pull." The honorific title of "one of the four Arab geniuses" bestowed on him by posterity was indeed well deserved.

With the realm relatively pacified though not consolidated, the Damascus caliph felt in a position to renew the holy war interrupted by the civil disturbances. Therewith the second wave of conquest began. The eastern sector Mu'awiyah entrusted to his lieutenants . . . while he concerned himself primarily with the West, where enemy number one lurked. His aim was no less than the capture of Constantinople, haughty headquarters of Greek Orthodoxy and an impregnable land and sea base . . . But Islam had to yield the highly coveted prize to late recruits, the Turks, and wait almost eight centuries to see the crescent and star replace the cross over Santa Sophia.

The glory that was Damascus covered the regimes of the fifth caliph ' Abd-al-Malik (685-705) and his son al-Walid (705-715). This was the time in which the definite subjugation of Transoxiana (in Russia) was accomplished, the reconquest and pacification of North Africa achieved, and conquest of Spain undertaken. It was also the time in which the Arabicization of the state administration was effected and the earliest monumental structures erected. Never before and never after did the Syrian capital reach such a peak of power and glory.

'Abd-al-Malik started his career under unpromising conditions . . . but after he had restored Hijaz to the Umayyad fold, his general, al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf proceeded to do likewise with the rest of Arabia and with Iraq, a hot bed of Shi'ism. The former schoolteacher of Ta'if became in Iraq the mailed fist of the Umayyad caliphate. No measure was too ruthless for him to take against secessionists and deviationists, no head too high to reach, no neck too stiff to wring . . . The second civil war therewith came to an end. Iraq was pacified. The stage was set for a third wave of conquest, following those of 'Umar and Mu'awiyah.

It was al-Hajjaj as viceroy and his lieutenants and successors who brought about the final reduction of what had been in the east overrun in Mu'awiyah's time. It was in reality a reconquest followed by expansion through Turkestan, Baluchistan, and Punjab . . . The acquisition of Turkestan gave Islam the religion a permanent lodging in central Asia, and Islam the state the control of the so-called silk route, an international highway linking the Far to the Near East . . . India, into which Islam expanded later, offered the conquerors contact with a developed religion, Buddhism, and access to fabulous mineral resources and warm hospitality for their faith. Today Islam claims the allegiance of about 57,000,000 in India proper, and in Pakistan, independent since 1956, about 96,000,000. From Turkestan and Hindustan—to use India's Arabic name—the new religion penetrated by peaceful methods to Indonesia, which today claims about 100,000,000 Moslems, comparable to the number of all Arab Moslems.

The last decade of the seventh century marked the attainment of maturity by the Moslem state. It was time to nationalize its institutions and Arabicize its administration. The step was conditioned by the availability of Arab manpower, and necessitated by the pressing need for increasing the common denominator for a heterogeneous society. Accordingly Christian officials in the chancellery, exchequer, and courts were replaced by Arabic-speaking, Arabic-writing officials. In Persia, then ruled from Basrah and Kufah, Persian was replaced likewise by Arabic. In Egypt Arabic again was substituted for the native language, Coptic.

But 'Abd-al-Malik's most conspicuous monument lay in another field, that of building. When the two Holy Cities of the Hijaz were still in an anti-caliph's hands, the caliph commenced building a mosque that would divert pilgrimage to Jerusalem, outshine its Holy Sepulcher, and provide Believers with a place of worship worthy of their new position as masters of a world. Result: The Dome of the Rock, a gem of architecture still unsurpassed in grandeur and majesty anywhere in Arab lands.

Al-Walid continued in the building tradition of his father. He renovated the Haram (Sacred Enclosure) of Medina, enlarged and beautified that of Mecca, and erected schools, hospitals, and other public buildings in Damascus. In the first year of his reign, in 705, he began in his capital the erection of a mosque now called Umayyad Mosque . . . The minarets of the new mosque, the first of their kind, were modeled after the church tower and in turn served as a model for muezzin's towers from Syria to Spain . . . Considered the fourth sacred sanctuary after those of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, this mosque is the most enduring monument of this caliph. The Palestinian geographer al-Maqdisi visited the city about 985, when it was ruled from Egypt, and left us a vivid description of the decoration:

"The walls of the mosque, to a height of two men, are faced with multicolored marble, and from there to the ceiling with mosaics bearing representations of trees and towns and displaying inscriptions, all the ultimate in beauty, elegance and artistry. Hardly a known tree or town does not figure on the walls. The column capitals are covered with gold; portico arches are ornamented with mosaics . . . The mihrab and its surroundings are covered with carnelian and turquoise stones of the largest possible size. To the left of it is another mihrab, reserved for the use of the sultan who, at a cost—I was told—of 500 dinars, renovated it."

In the military field, al-Walid's reign has as much to take pride in as in the building field. For it was then that Islam conquered and held the first European country. In North Africa as in central Asia, so loose was the first Umayyad hold on the conquered territory that it had to be reconquered before it could be pacified, integrated, and used as a stepping-stone for further conquests. That was what 'Uqbah's two successors under 'Abd-al-Malik and his successor, undertook. They pushed the frontier to the Atlantic, opening the way to the invasion of Europe . . . Under al-Walid's successors the Pyrenees were crossed, and raids into France reached in 732 the neighborhood of Tours. In no other time, ancient or medieval, did a realm assume such dimensions—from the Chinese border to the Atlantic.

But the pole on which Damascus climbed to the summit turned out to be a slippery one. Between the zenith and the nadir (both terms of Arabic etymology) there was room for no more than one generation. Of the eight caliphs in the period (715-750), two only were worthy of the heritage generated by Mu'awiyah and enriched by 'Abd-al-Malik and al-Walid. The remaining six, three of whom were sons of slave mothers, were incompetent, some dissolute if not degenerate.

Other elements of weakness were inherent in the structure of the caliphal system, based on the assumption that the realm could be held together under the Arab scepter, with religion serving as the binding force . . . By an irony of which history seems to be fond, the greater the success the empire achieved the deeper it dug its grave. The more Persians, Turks, Hindus, Berbers, and Spaniards were added the more disproportionate the numbers of Arabs and non-Arabs became, and the weaker the structure.

More specific factors came at last into play. Decline in the central authority made potential foes activists. Shi'ites, who had never acquiesced in the established order and considered all Umayyads impious usurpers, came out with their candidate, a descendant of 'Ali. Pietists, shocked by the worldliness of Umayyad caliphs, charged them all with deviation from puritanical Islam. Socially and economically discontented, the neo-Moslems—particularly newly converted Persians and Iraqis—were ready to join any rebellious leader. Thus all necessary ingredients were there, with only one lacking: a catalyst.

The catalyst before long appeared in the person of Abu-al-'Abbas, a descendant of al-'Abbas, Muhammad's uncle. Abu-al-'Abbas had good credentials, descending from a clan closer of kin to the Prophet and earlier in conversion to Islam. The new claimant made Iraq his headquarters and had his agent start the uprising in Persia. In October 749, public homage was paid him as caliph in the Kufah mosque. Three months later his troops met a Syrian army at the Great Zab, an affluent of the Tigris, and dealt it a crushing blow. The commander in chief Marwan (744-750) entered the battle as the 14th Umayyad caliph; he left it as the last of the line.

In sharp contrast to the treatment accorded the family of his predecessor, Abu-al-'Abbas embarked on a policy of extermination against the fallen house. His generals pursued its members throughout the land . . . and only one prince escaped, . . . 19-year-old descendant of the 10th caliph. It was this 'Abd-al-Rahman who dramatically escaped from his 'Abbasid pursuers and, in disguise, trudged across Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa, landing five years later, in 755, in Spain. There single-handedly the refugee succeeded, after trials and tribulations, in establishing himself at Cordova as the master of the peninsula and the founder of a new dynasty. Dead in Damascus, the Umayyad dynasty was born in Cordova.

The blackout that enveloped Damascus was total and prolonged. The torch passed on to Baghdad, where it shone brilliantly at times and flickered faintly at others, but never penetrating the Syrian border. Damascus' two predecessors, Mecca and Medina, inherited Prophetic charisma and an annual pilgrimage to sustain them indefinitely. The Syrian capital inherited neither grace.

Only once did Damascus come near seizing the opportunity to restore some of its past glory. In 1154 Nur-al-Din, originally a Turk from Mosul and already a master of Aleppo, wrested Damascus from the hands of other Turks (Saljuqs) and made it his seat for attack on the Crusaders' kingdom of Jerusalem. For the first time since Umayyad days, Damascus began to function as a capital, albeit of a tiny state. The city entered upon a brief period of renaissance. Nur enriched it with new buildings, religious and educational, that are still among its showplaces. One building he started houses today the prestigious Arab Academy. On Nur's death in 1174, his former vassal and now hero of the anti-Crusades, Salah-al-Din (Saladin), occupied Damascus and made it a joint capital with Cairo of his Syro-Egyptian realm. The partition of the kingdom on Salah-al-Din's death (1193) among his brothers, sons and nephews extinguished all hope Damascus might have cherished of recapturing its past position.

In 1250 the Mamluks fell heirs to the dynasty founded by Salah-al-Din and in 1517 passed it on to the Ottoman Turks. Toward the end of the century, when international trade began to assume new dimensions, Aleppo beat Damascus to becoming the new commercial center of the area. By the 17th century Venetians, French, English, and Dutch had established in it consulates and trade offices. Imports from Europe, such as cloth, metals, chemicals, and glass, arrived via Alexandria or Tripoli (Lebanon) to be exported from Aleppo to Asia Minor, Kurdistan, and Persia. In the meantime the English East India Company had virtually monopolized the spice trade of India, besides tapping the silk resources of China, and was making full use of the Aleppine market on its land trade route. At the termination of the French mandate in 1943 Damascus for the first time in 1200 years had its first full chance of becoming the capital of an independent state.

This article appeared on pages 18-23 of the September/October 1973 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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