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Ancient and Biblical Damascus

As you walk the streets of Damascus (or ‘the city of Jasmine’), it is not hard to accept that it is “the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world”. Indeed, parts of it trace back to 8000 BC.

Over the millennia, Damascus has evolved layer-by-layer — building up with each foreign occupier. During the 2nd millennium BC, early settlers chose this 680m-high plateau to be the capital of what was the Umayyad Caliphate region. Then the Greeks and Aramaeans staked their foundations besides the Ghouta oasis before the Romans arrived. But when they did, they upstaged everyone with seven-gated city ramparts. Today, only the eastern gate of Bab Sharqi remains, while most of its Roman and other foundations lay buried 3-to-5m beneath the sandstone.

At the Medhat Pasha Souk you will experience the most intoxicating market hubbub on what’s left of the 1,500m Roman thoroughfare, the Street Called Straight of St. Paul. It is claimed that there are more than 2,000 mosques in Damascus, with the Umayyad Mosque (715 AD)  thought to be the oldest place of continuous prayer since the rise of Islam. It is certainly one of the world’s largest Mosques, containing a shrine of the remains of St. John the Baptist. Also in the grounds is the mausoleum of Saladin.

Palmyra; taken by the desert

In 1678 two English merchants rediscovered the Roman-named city of Palmyra. The sand-entombed oasis city was ‘five days journey from civilization’. Since then, tourists, surveyors and archaeologists have journeyed to this ‘Bride of the Desert’.

Palmyra is one of the world’s most extraordinary historical sites consisting of colonnades, temples and limestone monuments. The settlement was founded in the 2nd Century BC, was originally named Tadmor, and became a vitally important caravan stop for travellers and traders crossing the Syrian desert. The huge temple of Ba’al is said to be the most important religious building of the 1st century AD in the Middle East. Of the same period, Palmyra’s theatre has nine rows of seating remaining from its original twelve.

During the 1st and early 2nd centuries, the Romans came and renamed their newfound oasis Palmyra (City of Palms). During the reign of Emperor Tiberius (14 –37 AD), Palmyra was assimilated into the Roman province of Syria. It grew in importance as a trade route and linked China, India and Persia to the Roman Empire. In 129, Emperor Hadrian visited the city and declared it to be Palmyra Hadriana. It became one of the wealthiest cities of the Near East. The Palmyrenes lived alongside Rome without being ‘Romanised’ — they simply pretended to be Romans.

Over the millennia however, Palmyra declined as a city. Finally, in 273, after years of fighting for control of the area, the Roman Emperor Aurelian finally restored Roman control and Palmyra was besieged and sacked. It was never to recover to its former glory. Then Khaled ibn al-Walid’s Muslim Arab army seized Palmyra in 634, and its population considerably diminished.

During the Crusades in 1132, the Burids fortified the Temple of Ba’al where only villagers thrived. What was left was further distressed by the Ottomans; reduced to an oasis village with a small garrison. The once great city endured earthquakes and was blanketed by sandstorms. As the 16th century dawned, Palmyra lay buried and abandoned.

The Roman Theatre City of Bosra

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bosra was, at its most populous, a city of 80,000 inhabitants. Today it stands planted atop blackened basalt lava from extinct volcanoes. Its earliest settlement was marked in records from the 14th century BC, although our earliest tangible evidence dates from the 4th century BC’s Byzantinian and Arabic basalt. According to the Book of Genesis, the Amalekites lived here. They are thought to have descended from Amalek, the son of Eliphaz and his wife — a Horite woman.

In the 2nd century BC, Canaanite hordes — the Nabataeans — took Bosra. By 71 BC it was the capital of the Nabatean Kingdom. Then the Romans conquered and named it Nova Trajana Bostra. With this came huge prestige, and the city became the trading capital of the entire Arabia Petraea. By 106 AD, ‘Bostra’ was resplendent with porticoes, public baths, an imposing citadel and a magnificent theatre. In the 7th century, the Byzantines — Sassanid Persians — grasped this desirable place. Finally, in 634, the Battle of Bosra brought Islam to the city as Rashidun Caliphates reigned supreme.

Today, Roman, Byzantine and Muslim eras are recorded in Bosra’s black basalt-built Nabatean and Roman ruins. Mosques, churches and madrasahs (places of education) are among the astoundingly preserved structures. The Al-Omari Mosque is one of Islam’s oldest surviving mosques. It was founded by Caliph Umar, leader of the Muslim conquest of Syria and completed in 721.

The Ayyubids — a Muslim dynasty of Kurdish origin — renovated and extended the Al-Omari Mosque in the 12th and 13th centuries — notably, they also fortified the Roman theatre and baths. Consequently, the 2nd century Roman theatre is the best preserved and most complete in the Middle East - its upper-gallery covered porticos attest to this. Accommodating up to 15,000 spectators, it was linked to the city’s ‘circus’ centre by a colonnaded street.

During centuries of neglect, desert storms filled most of the theatre’s voids with protective sand. Digging it out was a massive undertaking; this and other restoration absorbed the years between 1947 and 1970. Today it’s an exciting venue for actors and musicians, and it is proud host to the annual Bosra Festival.