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Volume 42, Number 2March/April 1991

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Visions of Damascus

Written by Lynn Teo Simarski

Damascus, possibly the oldest continuously inhabited city still standing, has inspired legends, visions, and literary tributes for millennia. Centuries of visitors, from the early Arab geographers to European merchants and travelers, have sketched the spiritual and natural dimensions of Damascus, honored as "The Garden of the World."

Despite its long history, the city today still seems as freshly-scented, resplendent and sensual as when the traveler Ibn Jubayr beheld her in the 12th century, "ringed by her orchards as a halo rings the moon." Behind Damascus rises rugged Mt. Qasiyun, with the ancient suburb of Sali-hiya clinging to its slopes; below, on the plain, stretch the old city and the Ghuta, a flaring skirt of orchards. Canals flow with the mountain water of the Barada River, threading through the city to the gardens beyond. Night transforms the panorama, swept by soft jasmine-scented breezes, into a scattering of star-like lights across the plain, dimming into the dark oasis beyond. At a turning point in modern history, T.E. Lawrence once surveyed Damascus at dawn: "The silent gardens stood blurred green with river mist, in whose setting shimmered the city, beautiful as ever, like a pearl in the morning sun."

Damascus wears gracefully the many titles bestowed for her beauty - "Right Hand of Syrian Cities," "Bride of the Earth," "Queen of Cities" - and in Arabic she is called "al-Fayha," "the Fragrant," for her scent. The Emperor Julian saw Damascus as "the eye of the whole East." To al-Idrisi, writing in 1154, Damascus was "the most delightful of God's cities"; centuries later, to Lawrence, she was still "a lodestar to which the Arabs were naturally drawn."

The aura of a holy city clings to Damascus. She is one of three or four earthly paradises venerated by Arab writers, and many regard her as the loveliest. "Nothing attributed by way of description to the heavenly paradise is not found in Damascus," wrote the great geographer Yaqut in the 13th century.

The city is rich in sacred sites, with venerable links to prophets and religious figures. Abraham's steward Eliezer was a Damascene, and an ancient legend holds that Cain slew Abel in a cave atop Mt. Qasiyun. The Qur'an, in Sura XXIII, "The Believers," tells how Jesus and Mary found a lofty refuge with shelter and springs, and tradition - unsubstantiated by any historian -locates the site on a mountain top near Damascus.

The waters of Damascus are another source of pride and legends. Even down to the beginning of this century, Damascenes held that their water could cure leprosy.

St. Paul is believed to have stayed at a house on the Street Called Straight, which still bisects the old city, and was visited by Ananias, whose chapel can be seen near the city gate Bab Tuma, or Thomas's Gate. Paul himself was later threatened, and escaped only by night, lowered in a basket through an opening in the city wall where St. Paul's Gate now stands.

Damascus also holds special significance for Muslims. The city was the capital of the Umayyad state, which ruled during an important part of Islam's greatest cultural flowering. It is one of three main gathering places, along with Baghdad and Cairo, for pilgrims to Makka. And a Damascus cemetery holds the grave of Bilal, the Prophet's muezzin (See Aramco World , July-August 1983).

Local folklore holds that, on Judgment Day, Jesus will descend to earth upon the eastern minaret, named for him, of Damas-cus's Umayyad Mosque - a belief that recently caused consternation, during renovation in the old city, among Christian merchants forced to vacate their shops near the minaret and thus relinquish proximity to the site of the Second Coming. Another local tradition, however, specifies the place of Jesus's return as the minaret at Bab al-Sharqi, the Eastern Gate.

Accounts of Damascene miracles and prophecies have been passed down through the ages, but as for detailed description of the city itself, very little exists before the ninth century of our era. Damascus became part of the Islamic empire in the year 635, and more than two centuries later, about 869, a historian named al-Baladhuri wrote the earliest surviving account of the Muslim conquests. During the siege of Damascus, he wrote, the great general Khalid ibn al-Walid camped outside Bab al-Sharqi, still today the terminus of the Street Called Straight, while at Bab Tuma to the north waited the troops of Amr ibn al-'As, the future con-querer of Egypt.

Arab geographers and historians journeying across the Islamic world soon began registering a wealth of impressions about Damascus. Most accounts praise the natural beauty of the city's setting, with its bountiful water system, scented air, and lush Ghuta. One of the first Arabic geographical handbooks - written by one merchant, al-Istakhri, in 951, and edited by another, Ibn Hawkal, in 978 - describes Damascus, "the most glorious" of Syrian cities, with the wide Barada River flowing through it, "so deep that a rider cannot ford it. Below the city, again, the river waters all the villages of the Ghuta. But from above, the water is conducted into all the houses and streets and baths of the city."

Writing in Baghdad at about the same time, the geographer and traveler al-Muqaddasi also left a portrait of Damascus. Born in Jerusalem, he performed the pilgrimage to Makka at age 20, and later traversed the entire Islamic world except for Spain. In Damascus, he reported, prices are moderate, fruits and snow abound, and the products of both hot and cold climes are found. Nowhere else will be seen such magnificent hot baths, nor such beautiful fountains, nor people more worthy of consideration.

Unlike many other writers whose records survived, the famous geographer al-Idrisi, writing in Sicily in 1154, apparently never visited Damascus, but instead compiled his account of the Crusader-era Holy Land from books and returning travelers. He mentioned the Valley of the Violets, stretching from Damas-cus's western gate for 12 miles and planted with various fruit trees. He also described the city's water system, including Nahr Yazid, named after the Umayyad caliph who reconstructed the canal which still flows across the foot of Salihiya.

Damascus during the era of Saladin is described in flowery detail in the diary of Ibn Jubayr, a Spanish Arab who traveled to Egypt, Arabia, and Iraq. He arrived in Damascus from the north on the morning of July 5, 1184, and his description of the city he surveyed is often quoted:

Its rivulets twist like serpents through every way, and the perfumed zephyrs of its flower gardens breathe life into the soul. To those who contemplate her she displays herself in bridal dress, calling to them, 'Come to the halting-place of beauty, and take midday repose.'

Its ground is sickened with the superfluity of water, so that it yearns even for a drought, and the hard stones almost cry out to you, 'Strike with thy foot: here is water wherein to wash, cool and refreshing, and water to drink.' [The Qur'an, Sura XXXVIII, Verse 42]... To the east, its green Ghuta stretches as far as the eye can see, and wherever you look on its four sides its ripe fruits hold the gaze.

On the Barada's banks to the west of the city, where the Ottoman takiyya or pilgrim Inn now stands, lay two green maydans -the Sultan's polo fields, "like pieces of rolled-out silk brocade, for their greenness and beauty," with the river flowing between and poplar trees all around. Here the famous Mamluk sultan Baybars later constructed Qasr al-Ablaq, his magnificent black-and-ochre stone palace.

As more Europeans came to Damascus in the following centuries, they too left their impressions. In a famous account of a journey through Ottoman Syria - from Aleppo to Jerusalem in the spring of 1697-Henry Maundrell told of his first, captivating glimpse of Damascus:

We continued a good while upon the precipice, to take a view of the city.... It exhibits the paradise below as a most fair and delectable place, and yet will hardly suffer you to stir away, to go to it: thus at once inviting you to the city, by the pleasure which it seems to promise, and detaining you from it by the beauty of the prospect.

The domes and minarets rising above the orchards gave the Englishman the sense of a "noble city in a vast wood." While exploring the Ghuta, wrote Maundrell, "You discover ... many turrets, and steeples, and summer-houses, frequently peeping out from amongst the green boughs.... On the north side of this vast wood is a place called Solhees [Salihiya]; where are the most beautiful summer-houses and gardens."

Visitors lavished long passages on the splendors of Damascus's Umayyad Mosque. In the 10th century, al-Muqaddasi praised the mosque's opulent decor:

The Mosque of Damascus is the fairest of any that the Muslims now hold.... The whole area is paved with white marble Even to the very ceiling are mosaics of various colors and in gold, showing figures of trees and towns and beautiful inscriptions.... Both within the mihrab, and around it, are set cut-agates and turquoises of the size of the finest stones that are used in rings On the summit of the dome of the mosque is an orange, and above it a pomegranate, both in gold.

Al-Muqaddasi also reported that to build the mosque two centuries before, when Umayyad Damascus ruled the Islamic world, the caliph al-Walid had commissioned artisans from Persia, India, West Africa, and Byzantium, spending seven years of Syria's earnings and 18 shiploads of Cypriot gold and silver.

In the 12th century, the mosque impressed the Spanish Arab Ibn Jubayr just as strongly, particularly the cupola over the mihrab, which dominated the old city's skyline then just as it does today. "From whatever quarter you approach the city," he observed, "you see this dome, high above all else, as though suspended in the air." One day at dawn, Ibn Jubayr climbed with some friends to the top of the dome -and thus was able to confirm the adage that said, "No spiders ever spin their webs in the mosque, nor do any swallows ever nest there."

The mosque courtyard at the time, during the epoch of Saladin, was a lively center of social life. "There is always a concourse of townspeople, coming to meet and converse pleasurably every evening," said Ibn Jubayr. "You may see them coming and going from east to west ... walking and talking."

About 1300, when Syria was ruled by the Mamluks of Egypt, the cosmographer Muhammad ibn Abi Talib - called al-Dimashqi, after his native city - described the mosque during the middle of the month of Sha'ban, when it was lit with 12,000 lamps. About a quarter-century later, Damascus was visited by one of history's great travelers - Shaykh Abu 'Abd Allah of Tangier, better known as Ibn Bat-tuta (See Aramco World , January-February 1978). He left a record of the Umayyad Mosque's decoration prior to its burning during the conquest of Timur, or Tamerlane: The interior was embellished with gold and multi-colored mosaic, 74 stained-glass windows, and marble columns - and the mosque employed 70 muezzins.

Visitors fortunate enough to be in Damascus at the time of the Hajj, or Muslim pilgrimage, witnessed a colorful spectacle. About 1430, the French knight Bertrandon de la Brocquiere recorded the return of a 3000-camel pilgrims' caravan from Makka, which traditionally arrived at the maydan, or open space, south of the city near the village of Qadam. The caravan included "Moors, Turks, Barbaresques, Tartars, Persians, and other sectaries of the Prophet Muhammad," while the Qur'an, wrapped in silk, was borne upon a camel covered in silk trappings, preceded by drummers, trumpeters, and musicians.

Four centuries later, the famous traveler Charles M. Doughty sketched Damascus at pilgrimage time in Travels in Arabia Desert a:

There is every year a new stirring of this goodly Oriental city in the days before the Haj In the markets there is much taking up in haste of wares for the road. The tent-makers are most busy in their street.... The curriers in the bazaar are selling apace the water-skins and leathern buckets and saddle-bottles. ... Already there come by in the streets, passing daily forth, the akkams [drivers] with the swagging litters mounted high upon the tall pilgrim-camels. ...

Damascus's rich bazaars impressed travelers with the variety of goods and the excellence of craftsmanship. Al-Dimashqi, in the early 14th century, extolled Damascus's rose water, which was exported to the Hijaz, India, and China, and concocted at the village of al-Mazza - today a modern apartment district of Damascus. Some years later, Ibn Battuta described the bazaars; one passed, he wrote, through the southern gate of the Umayyad Mosque, called Bab al-Ziyada, into a fine coppersmiths' bazaar that lined the mosque's southern outer wall. "Where the bazaar now stands was formerly the palace [called al-Khadra, or the Green Palace] of the [Umayyad] Caliph Mu'awiya, and the houses of his people," Ibn Battuta related. "The Abbasids pulled it down and transformed the place into a bazaar." On another side of the mosque, Ibn Battuta explored the bazaars of the jewelers, booksellers, glassblowers, and papermakers.

The fine damascened swords were praised about a century later by de la Broc-quiere; they were so highly polished that "when anyone wants to arrange his turban, he uses his sword for a looking glass. Its temper is perfect, and I have never seen swords that cut so excellently."

About 1850, under the Ottomans, a "deputation to the East" sent by the Malta Protestant College visited the bazaars, finding that the saddlery [located just north of the citadel] is in high repute. Damascus is also celebrated for its gold and silver tissues, and striped silk and cotton stuffs; unset precious stones, especially pearls and turquoises, are abundant; every sort of gold and silver trimming is also plentiful and cheap.

The mission also judged Assad Pasha's great khan, or inn-storehouse, to be the most splendid structure of the kind in the East, being built of alternate layers of black and white marble, having several tiers of large galleries, with nine domes, and the centre of the court ornamented with an immense fountain. It is used as an exchange.

In recent years, the khan, under restoration, has stood empty and open to the sky.

Many travelers have painted vivid portraits of Damascus's people, who have long held a strong sense of identity as citizens. They have also enjoyed renown for their elegance and taste for cultivated living, as expressed in their opulently appointed homes with fountains, Persian carpets, inlaid ivory and mother-of-pearl furniture, and damask silk textiles. In the 12th century, Ibn Jubayr noted their gracious manners:

When one meets another, instead of giving the ordinary greeting he says respectfully, 'Here is your slave,' or 'Here is your servant at your service.'... Their style of salutation is either a deep bow or a prostration, and you will see their necks at play, lifting and lowering, stretching and contracting. Sometimes they will go on like this for a long time, one going down as the other rises, their turbans tumbling between them.

Many centuries later, T.E. Lawrence, with his characteristically deft pen, summed up Damascenes: They "were as extreme in thought and word as in pleasure." He witnessed the city's wild celebration as the Arab troops arrived:

Every man, woman, and child in this city of a quarter-million souls seemed in the streets, waiting only the spark of our appearance to ignite their spirits. Damascus went mad with joy. The men tossed up their tarbushes to cheer, the women tore off their veils. Householders threw flowers, hangings, carpets, into the road before us: their wives leaned, screaming with laughter, through the lattices and splashed us with bath-dippers of scent.

The 20th century also brought two great woman travel-writers to Syria. A Friday in Damascus around 1905, wrote Gertrude Bell, was a sight worth traveling far to see. All the male population dressed in their best parade the streets, the sweetmeat sellers and the auctioneers of second-hand clothes drive a roaring trade, the eating shops steam with dressed meats of the most tempting kind, and splendidly caparisoned mares are galloped along the road by the river....

She was also invited into the graceful atmosphere of a great Damascus house:

We entered through a small door in a narrow winding street by a dark passage, turned a couple of corners and found ourselves in a marble court with a fountain in the centre and orange trees planted round. All the big rooms opened into this court.. .and coffee and sweetmeats were served by the groom of the chambers, while I admired the decoration of the walls and the water that bubbled up into marble basins and flowed away by marble conduits. In this and in most of the Damascene palaces every window sill has a gurgling pool in it, so that the air that blows into the room may bring with it a damp freshness.

Freya Stark, who followed in 1928, lived in Damascus's old city for some time, and her Letters from Syria chart a rising enchantment with the city. From her house's flat roof, she watched cloud shadows sweeping over the city's domes and hills; "The light is lovely, so pure and brilliant... There is nothing on these naked hills to interfere with its lovely play, and they change like water with the reflections of the sky." When sunset heralded the end of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, she observed,

Such a business in the bazaars, shopping for the feast. It lasts three days. We went on to the roof to hear the muezzin: it is extraordinarily moving, voice after voice ringing out from the high steeples to declare the greatness of God to the people below.

Even present-day Damascus, with industries sprawling outward into the Ghuta and apartment blocks creeping up the slopes of Mt. Qasiyun, continues to captivate travelers. The most engaging modern eulogy to the city - an account of life in the old town interwoven with history - is Mirror to Damascus, written in 1967 by the English poet and novelist Colin Thubron. The savoir-vivre of Damascenes, in his eyes, dates back to the glorious era of the Umayyads:

The grace of the Damascenes is still spoken of, their love of fine clothes and food, their passion for music. It is probably absurd to ascribe this spirit to the pleasure-loving eighth-century caliphs, yet if they returned to the East tomorrow, I believe that Damascus would be the city of their choice still.

Palpably haunted by kings and past glories, even 20th-century Damascus inspires travelers to visions, as when Thubron saw an apparition - the caliph Yazid of Umayyad times:

Some cities oust or smother their past. Damascus lives in hers. Her marble courtyards stir the mind to strange fancies, glimpsed the end of a joyous procession: [Yazid] had passed by in his silken hunting dress, cheetah at pommel, hawk on wrist....

In a breath of Jasmine, asplash of rose water, the play of a fountain - or the lilting rise of the Damascene drawl - the many splendored city continues to enchant.

Lynn Teo Simarski, a writer and editor specializing in the Middle East, lived in Syria for two years.

This article appeared on pages 20-31 of the March/April 1991 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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