Syria is located in a desert oasis east of Lebanon and northwest of Mt Hermon. It is situated on a plateau 680 metres above sea level, bordered by the Anti-Lebanon Mountains to the west, and the desert to the east. It is at the northern end of the King’s Highway and is the connection to the Near East Damascus is situated at the Ghouta Oasis, fed by the waters of the Barada River. It was this oasis which first made settlement possible, as the surrounding area would otherwise be uninhabitable.
The old city of Damascus is surrounded by what was once a Roman wall, much rebuilt at various times during the past two millennia. The section between the Gate of Safety (Bab as-Salama) and Thomas Gate (Bab Touma) is the best preserved part of the wall.
Other Roman remains include the western gate of the Temple of Jupiter, all that remains of this huge structure from the 3rd century B.C. The Temple gate is situated at the far end of the Souk al-Hamadiyyah and consists of two vast Corinthian columns supporting a decorated lintel.
Damascus has the reputation of being the oldest city in the world though there are no actual records of when Damascus was founded – as records were not kept by its early inhabitants. More recent discoveries suggest that Damascus was first settled ca. 6,000 B.C. but some discoveries suggest that it is older than 8,000 B.C. but we don’t know exactly who ruled Damascus at that time. An old story says that its name “Sham” was derived from “Shem” the eldest son of Noah because he chose to live there after the flood.
There is no real knowledge, however, of what Damascus was like at that time. It is unclear what the lifestyle of its peoples was. The documented history of Damascus starts half-way through the second millennium B.C., in the Amorite period. At that time the city became the capital of a small, Aramaean principality. The Aramaeans were Arab people who spoke a northern Arabian dialect of Arabic called Syriac, originated in the Arabian peninsula. Damascus became a focal point for the Aramaean kingdoms, as documented in the Old Testament.
Damascus has a wealth of historical sites dating back to many different periods of the city’s history. Since the city has been built up with every passing occupation, it has become almost impossible to excavate all the ruins of Damascus that lie up to 8 feet below the modern level. The Citadel of Damascus is located in the northwest corner of the Old City. The street called straight (referred to in the conversion of St. Paul in Acts 9:11), also known as the Via Recta, was one of the main streets of Roman Damascus, and extended for over 1500 meters.
Today, it consists of the street of Bab Sharqi and the Souk Medhat Pasha, a covered market. The Bab Sharqi street is filled with small shops and leads to the old Christian quarter of Bab Touma (St. Thomas’s Gate). Souq Medhat Pasha is also a main market in Damascus and was named after Medhat Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Damascus who renovated the Souq. At the end of the Bab Sharqi street, one reaches the House of Ananias, an underground chapel that was the cellar of Ananias’s house.
The Umayyad 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. A shrine in the mosque is said to contain the head of John the Baptist.
The Walls and Gates of Damascus
The old city of Damascus is surrounded by ramparts on the northern and eastern sides and part of the southern side. There are 7 extant city gates, the oldest of which dates back to the Roman period. These are, clockwise from the north of the citadel:
- Bab al-Faraj (“the gate of deliverance”),
- Bab al-Faradis (“the gate of the orchards”)
- Bab al-Salam (“the gate of peace”), all on the north boundary of the old city
- Bab Touma (the “Touma” or “Thomas gate”) in the north-east corner, leading into the Christian quarter of the same name,
- Bab Sharqi (“eastern gate”) in the east wall, the only one to retain its Roman plan
- Bab Kisan in the south-east, from which tradition holds that Saint Paul made his escape from Damascus, lowered from the ramparts in a basket; this gate is now closed and a chapel marking the event has been built into the structure,
- al-Bab al-Saghir (the small gate) in the south.
In addition, the names of the two former gates in the east, Bab al-Jabiya at the entrance to Souq Midhat Pasha and Bab al-Barid near the entrance to Souq al-Hamidiyya, are still recalled by Damascenes, the former being used commonly to refer to the area at the entrance to the souq. Two other areas outside the walled city also bear the name “gate”: Bab Mousalla and Bab Sreija , both to the south-west of the walled city.