Geography & history of the Ancient City:
The Ancient City of Damascus is located in the south of Syria, on the western edge of the Damascus basin, and is surrounded by the Qalamun and eastern Lebanon mountains ranges from the north and west, and the volcanic heights of Horan and the Golan from the south and east. The Ancient City of Damascus was established on the southern bank of the Barada River, which is the lifeblood of the city. The mountains to the west of Damascus form a natural barrier to rain coming from the Mediterranean.
Damascus was in the Aramaic period the capital of a small Aramaic province. The Aramean temple (Hadad Temple) was located on the same location of the current Umayyad Mosque, where the site also contained the Roman Temple of Jupiter and the Byzantine Church of John the Baptist. It is likely that the network of drawing water, to irrigate the city from the Barada River, was extended during this period. When Syria fell under the control of Alexander the Great, a classic western urban style spread. During that period, Damascus was a Greek colony, and it was planned along the lines of the Greek cities with straight streets intersecting to form rectangular city blocks.
In the Roman period, Damascus became one of the ten important Roman cities. Damascene trade flourished between East and West, and goods spread everywhere thanks to the Damascene merchants. The commercial wealth was mainly because Damascus was one of the most important Roman cities, and this importance required an expansion and modification of the city to include huge important buildings.
With the fall of the Roman Empire in the late fourth century AD, Damascus became the capital of the Eastern Province of the Byzantine Empire, and during this period Damascus maintained its economic and strategic prosperity. Parts of the city were also fortified militarily to protect the eastern borders of the Byzantine Empire against Persian attacks.
For about a hundred years, and starting from 661 AD, Damascus remained the capital of the Umayyad dynasty. The layout of the city remained close to that of the Byzantine period. The main matter at the beginning of this period was the urgent need for mosques, as they are not only places of worship, but also for political, social and scientific discussions. Therefore, some church buildings in the city were converted into mosques.
Ancient City of Damascus as seen from the roof of the Umayyad Mosque
Al-Qaymariya neighborhood in the Ancient City of Damascus
Alleys in the Ancient City of Damascus
The city remained within the walls and during this period the “twisted narrow lanes” began to appear, and the plan did not remain uniformly grid.The Cathedral of John the Baptist was converted into the Great Umayyad Mosque, around the year 705 AD, which became a model for mosques all over the world. After that, the capital of the caliphate moved from Damascus to Baghdad with the transfer of the caliphate from the Umayyads to the Abbasids around the year 750. Damascus at that time lost much of its importance, and the rivalry between the Umayyads and the Abbasids left severe damage to the city’s facilities.
Church of Saint Hananiya
It is considered the oldest churches in Damascus after the Mariamite Cathedral and it is one of the oldest churches in the world dating back to the Roman era. This church preserved its authenticity despite the succession of centuries, so it remained Damascene soul in its decorations, stone and wood decorations, and in its architectural style, construction and divisions.
It went through many stages of civilization throughout its long history. In the Seljuk era, the Seljuk prince Atsiz ibn Uvaq AD built the citadel in 1076, and the Prince Arslan completed its construction. When the Ayyubids took control of Damascus, the just king, Abu-Bakr Muhammad ibn Ayyub, brother of Sultan Salah El-Din ruler of Damascus, restored the citadel, fortifying it and increasing its towers.
Outstanding Universal Value
Damascus was an important cultural and commercial center, by virtue of its geographical position at the crossroads of the orient and the occident, between Africa and Asia. The old city of Damascus is considered to be among the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. Excavations at Tell Ramad on the outskirts of the city have demonstrated that Damascus was inhabited as early as 8,000 to 10,000 BC. However, it is not documented as an important city until the arrival of the Aramaeans. In the Medieval period, it was the center of a flourishing craft industry, with different areas of the city specializing in particular trades or crafts. The city exhibits outstanding evidence of the civilizations which created it – Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic. In particular, the Umayyad caliphate created Damascus as its capital, setting the scene for the city’s ongoing development as a living Muslim, Arab city, upon which each succeeding dynasty has left and continues to leave its mark.
The earliest visible physical evidence dates to the Roman period – the extensive remains of the Temple of Jupiter, the remains of various gates and an impressive section of the Roman city walls. The city was the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate. However, apart from the incomparable Great Mosque, built on the site of a Roman temple and over-laying a Christian basilica, there is little visible dating from this important era of the city’s history. The present city walls, the Citadel, some mosques and tombs survive from the Middle Ages, but the greatest part of the built heritage of the city dates from after the Ottoman conquest of the early 16th century.
Remains of Roman monuments in Ancient City of Damascus
General view of the Ancient City of Damascus towards the Umayyad mosque
Criterion (i): Damascus testifies to the unique aesthetic achievement of the civilizations which created it. The Great Mosque is a masterpiece of Umayyad architecture, which together with other major monuments of different periods such as the Citadel, the Azem Palace, madrasas, khans, public baths and private residences demonstrates this achievement.
Criterion (ii): Damascus, as capital of the Umayyad caliphate – the first Islamic caliphate – was of key importance in the development of subsequent Arab cities. With its Great Mosque at the heart of an urban plan deriving from the Graeco-Roman grid, the city provided the exemplary model for the Arab Muslim world.
Criterion (iii): Historical and archaeological sources testify to origins in the third millennium BC, and Damascus is widely known as among the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. The incomparable Great Mosque is a rare and extremely significant monument of the Umayyads. The present city walls, the Citadel, some mosques and tombs survive from the Medieval period, and a large part of the built heritage of the city including palaces and private houses dates from after the Ottoman conquest of the early 16th century.
Criterion (iv): The Umayyad Great Mosque, also known as the Grand Mosque of Damascus, is one of the largest mosques in the world, and one of the oldest sites of continuous prayer since the rise of Islam. As such it constitutes an important cultural, social and artistic development.
Criterion (vi): The city is closely linked with important historical events, ideas, traditions, especially from the Islamic period. These have helped to shape the image of the city and impact of Islamic history and culture.
The line of the walls of the old city forms the boundary of the property. Although areas outside the walls that represent the expansion of the city from the 13th century, are considered related to the old city in terms of historical significance, and provide its setting and context, the key attributes of Outstanding Universal Value lie within the boundary. These include the plan of the city and its dense urban fabric, city walls and gates, as well as its 125 protected monuments including the Umayyad Mosque, madrasas, khans, the Citadel and private houses.
The attributes are vulnerable to erosion from a lack of traditional approaches to maintenance and conservation, and use of traditional materials, while its setting and context are threatened by lack of conservation policy for the historical zones outside the walled city and by regional planning projects.
Since the inscription of the property, the morphological layout and the spatial pattern of the historic fabric have remained basically unchanged and the key discrete attributes survive. However commercial and semi-industrial activities are spreading into the residential area of the walled city and its suburbs, in places eroding the value of the attributes relating to the urban fabric and their inter-relationships.
Arch. Lina Kutiefan
Jamous, B. & kutiefan, L., “Sites of the World Cultural Heritage in Syria”, DGAM, Damascus, 2012
Remains of the Temple of Jupiter near the Umayyad mosque
Alleys in the Ancient City of Damascus