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Bible Encyclopedias

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica


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the chief town of Syria, and the capital of a government province of the same name, 57 m. from Beirut, situated in 33° 30' N., and 36° 18' E.


The origin of the city is unknown, and the popular belief that it is the oldest city in the world still inhabited has much to recommend it. It has been suggested that the ideogram by which it is indicated in Babylonian monuments literally means "fortress of the Amorites"; could this be proved it would be valuable testimony to its antiquity if not its origin. The city is mentioned in the document that describes the battle of the four kings against five, inserted in the book of Genesis (ch. xiv.) Abram (Abraham) is reported to have pursued the routed kings to Hobah north of Damascus (v. 15). The name of the steward of Abram's establishment is given in Genesis xv. 2, as Dammesek Eliezer, which is explained in the Aramaic and Syriac versions as "Eliezer of Damascus." This reading is adopted by the authorized version, but the Hebrew, as it stands, will not support it. There is probably here some textual corruption.

In the period of the Egyptian suzerainty over Palestine in the eighteenth dynasty Damascus (whose name frequently appears in the Tell el-Amarna tablets) was capital of the small province of Ubi. The name of the city in the Tell el-Amarna correspondence is Dimashka. Towards the end of that period the overrunning of Palestine and Syria by the Khabiri and Suti, the forerunners of the Aramaean immigration, changed the conditions, language and government of the country. One of the first indications of this change that has been traced is the appearance of the Aramaean Darmesek for Damascus in an inscription of Rameses III.

The growth of an independent kingdom with Damascus as centre must date from very early in the Aramaean occupation. It had reached such strength that though Tiglath-Pileser I. reduced the whole of northern Syria, and by the fame of his victories induced the king of Egypt to send him presents, yet he did not venture to attack Kadesh and Damascus, so that this kingdom acted as a "buffer" between the king of Assyria and the rising kingdom of Saul.

David, however, after his accession made an expedition against Damascus as a reprisal for the assistance the city had given his enemy Hadadezer, king of Zobah. The expedition was successful; David smote of the Syrians 22,000 men, and took and garrisoned the city; "and the Syrians became servants to David, and brought gifts" (2 Sam. viii. 5, 6; r Chron. xviii. 5). This statement, it should be noticed, has been questioned by some modern historical and textual critics, who believe that "Syria" (Hebrew Aram) is here a corruption for "Edom." There is no other evidence - save the corrupt passage, 2 Sam. xxiv. 6, where "Tahtim-hodshi" is explained as meaning "the land of the Hittites to Kadesh" - that David's kingdom was so far extended northward. However this may be, it is evident that the Israelite possession of Syria did not last long. A subordinate of Hadadezer named Rezon (Rasun) succeeded in establishing himself in Damascus and in founding there a royal dynasty. Throughout the reign of Solomon (r Kings xi. 23, 24) this Rezon seems to have been a constant enemy to the kingdom of Israel.

It is inferred from 1 Kings xv. 19 that Abijah, son of Rehoboam, king of Judah, made a league with Tab-Rimmon of Damascus to assist him in his wars against Israel, and that afterwards TabRimmon's son Ben-Hadad came to terms with the second successor of Jeroboam, Baasha. Asa, son of Abijah, followed his father's policy, and bought the aid of Syria, whereby he was enabled to destroy the border fort that Baasha had erected (1 Kings xv. 22).

Hostilities between Israel and Syria lasted to the days of Ahab. From Omri the king of Syria took cities and the right to establish a quarter for his merchants in Samaria (r Kings xx. 34). His son Ben-Hadad made an unsuccessful attack on Israel at Aphek, and was allowed by Ahab to depart on a reversal of these terms (loc. cit.). This was the cause of a prophetic denunciation (r Kings xx. 42). According to the Assyrian records Ahab fought as Ben-Hadad's ally at the battle of Karkar against Shalmaneser in 854. This seems to indicate an intermediate defeat and vassalage of Ahab, of which no direct record remains; and it was probably in the attempt to throw off this vassalage in 853, the year after the battle of Karkar, that Ahab met his death in battle with the Syrians (r Kings xxii. 34-40). In the reign of Jehoram, Naaman, the Syrian general, came and was cleansed by the prophet Elisha of leprosy (2 Kings v.).

In 843 Hazael assassinated Ben-Hadad and made himself king of Damascus. The states which Ben-Hadad had brought together into a coalition against the advancing power of Assyria all revolted; and Shalmaneser, king of Assyria, took advantage of this in 842 and attacked Syria. He wasted the country, but could not take the capital. Jehu, king of Israel, paid tribute to Assyria, for which Hazael afterwards revenged himself, during the time when Shalmaneser was distracted by his Armenian wars, by attacking the borders of Israel (2 Kings x. 32).

Adad-nirari IV. invaded Syria and besieged Damascus in 806. Taking advantage of this and similar succeeding events, Jehoash, king of Israel, recovered the cities that his father had lost to Hazael.

In 734 Ahaz became king of Judah, and Rezon (Rasun, Rezin), the king of Damascus at the time, came up against him; at the same time the Edomites and the Philistines revolted. Ahaz appealed to Tiglath-Pileser III., king of Assyria, sent him gifts, and besought his protection. Tiglath-Pileser invaded Syria, and in 732 succeeded in reducing Damascus (see also Babylonia And Assyria, Chronology, § 5, and Jews, §§ ro sqq.).

Except for the abortive rising under Sargon in 720, we hear nothing more of Damascus for a long period. In 333 B.C., after the battle of Issus, it was delivered over by treachery to Parmenio, the general of Alexander the Great; the harem and treasures of Darius had here been lodged. It had a chequered history during the wars of the successors of Alexander, being occasionally in Egyptian hands. In 112 B.C. the empire of Syria was divided by Antiochus Grypus and Antiochus Cyzicenus; the city of Damascus fell to the share of the latter. Hyrcanus took advantage of the disputes of these rulers to advance his own kingdom. Demetrius Eucaerus, successor of Cyzicenus, invaded Palestine in 88 B.C., and defeated Alexander Jannaeus at Shechem. On his dethronement and captivity by the Parthians, Antiochus Dionysus, his brother, succeeded him, but was slain in battle by IHaritha (Aretas) the Arab - the first instance of Arab interference with Damascene politics. IHaritha yielded to Tigranes, king of Armenia, who in his turn was driven out by Q. Caecilius Metellus (son of Scipio Nasica), the Roman general. In 63 Syria was made a Roman province.

In the New Testament Damascus appears only in connexion with the miraculous conversion of St Paul (Acts ix., xxii., xxvi.), his escape from Aretas the governor by being lowered in a basket over the wall (Acts ix. 25; 2 Cor. xi. 32, 33), and his return thither after his retirement in Arabia (Gal. i. r7).

In 150, under Trajan, Damascus became a Roman provincial city.

On the establishment of Christianity Damascus became the seat of a bishop who ranked next to the patriarch of Antioch. The great temple of Damascus was turned by Arcadius into a Christian church.

In 635 Damascus was captured for Islam by Khalid ibn Walid, the great general of the new religion, being the first city to yield after the battle of the Yarmuk (Hieromax). After the murder of Ali, the fourth caliph, his successor Moawiya transferred the seat of the Caliphate from Mecca to Damascus and thus commenced the great dynasty of the Omayyads, whose rule extended from the Atlantic to India. This dynasty lasted about ninety years; it was supplanted by that of the Abbasids, who removed the seat of empire to Mesopotamia; and Damascus passed through a period of unrest in which it was captured and ravaged by Egyptians, Carmathians and Seljuks in turn. The crusaders attacked Damascus in 1126, but never succeeded in keeping a firm hold of it, even during their brief domination of the country. It was the headquarters of Saladin in the wars with the Franks. Of its later history we need only mention the Mongolian capture in 1260; its Egyptian recapture by the Mameluke Kotuz; the ferocious raid of Timur (Tamerlane) in 1399; and the conquest by the Turkish sultan Selim, whereby it became a city of the Ottoman empire (1516). In its more recent history the only incidents that need be mentioned are its capture by Ibrahim Pasha, the Egyptian general, in 1832, when the city was first opened to the representatives of foreign powers; its revolt against Ibrahim's tyranny in 1834, which he crushed with the aid of the Druses; the return of the city to Turkish domination, when the Egyptians were driven out of Syria in 1840 by the allied powers; and the massacre of July 1860, when the Moslem population rose against the Christians, burnt their quarter, and slaughtered about 3000 adult males.

Modern City. - Damascus is a city with a population estimated at from 154,000 (35,000 Christians and Jews) to 225,000 (55,000 Christians and Jews), situated near the northern edge of a plain called the Ghutah, at the foot of Anti-Lebanon, 2250 ft. above the sea. The river Barada (the Abanah of 2 Kings v. 12) rises in the Anti-Lebanon, runs for about Io m. in a narrow channel, and then spreads itself fan-wise over the plain. About 18 m. east of the city it loses itself in the marshlands known as the Meadow Lakes. A second river, the `Awaj (possibly the Pharpar of 2 Kings), pursues a similar course. The plain is thus exceptionally well irrigated, and its consequent fertility is proverbial over the East. Damascus is situated on both banks of the Barada, about 2 m. from the exit of the river from the gorge. On the right bank is all the older part of the city, and a long suburb called El-Meidan extending about a mile along the Hajj Road. On the left bank are the suburbs El `Amara and ElSalihia. The waters of the river are carried by channels and conduits to all the houses of the city. The orchards, gardens, vineyards and fields of Damascus are said to extend over a circuit of at least 60 m. In the surrounding plain are one hundred and forty villages, occupied in all by about 50,000 persons (1000 Christians, 2000 Druses).

The rough mud walls in the private houses give poor promise of splendour within. The entrance is usually by a low door, and through a narrow winding passage which leads to the outer court, where the master has his reception room. From this another winding passage leads to the harem, which is the principal part of the house. The plan of all is the same - an open court, with a tesselated pavement, and one or two marble fountains; orange and lemon trees, flowering shrubs, and climbing plants give freshness and fragrance. All the apartments open into the court; and on the south side is an open alcove, with a marble floor, and raised dais round three sides, covered with cushions; the front wall is supported by an ornamented Saracenic arch. The decoration of some of the rooms is gorgeous, the walls being covered in part with mosaics and in part with carved work, while the ceilings are rich in arabesque ornaments, elaborately gilt. A few of the modern Jewish houses have been embellished at an enormous cost, but they are wanting in taste.


Considering the great age of Damascus, its comparative poverty in antiquities is remarkable. The walls of the city seem to be Seleucid in origin; some of the Roman gateways being still in good order. The Derb el-Mistakim, or "Straight Street," still runs through the city from the eastern to the western gate. At the north-west corner is a large castle built in A.D. 1219, by El-Malik el-Ashraf, on the site of an earlier palace. It is quadrangular, surrounded by a moat filled by the Barada. The outer walls are in good preservation, but the interior is ruined.

The church of St John the Baptist constructed by Arcadius on the site of the temple was turned by Caliph Walid I. (705-717) to a mosque which was the most important building of Damascus. It was a structure 431 ft. by 125 ft. interior dimensions, extending along the south side of a quadrangle 163 108 yds. Except the famous inscription over the door - "Thy kingdom, 0 Christ, is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth throughout all generations" - every trace of Christianity was effaced from the church at its conversion. It was destroyed by fire on the 4 th of October 1893, and though it was subsequently rebuilt, much that was of archaeological and historical interest perished. It is estimated that there are over two hundred mosques in Damascus.

Products, Manufactures, &c

Damascus occupies an important commercial position, being the market for the whole of the desert; it also is of great importance religiously, as being the startingpoint for the Hajj pilgrimage from Syria to Mecca, which leaves on the 15th of the lunar month of Shawwal each year. This of course brings much trade to the city. Its chief manufactures are silk work, cloths and cloaks, gold and silver ornaments, &c., brass and copper work, furniture and ornamental woodwork. The bazaars of Damascus are among the most famous of their kind. It is connected with Beirut and Mezerib by railway, and at the end of the past century the great undertaking of running a line to Mecca was commenced. In the surrounding gardens and fields walnuts, apricots, wheat, barley, maize, &c. are grown. Its commercial importance is referred to by Ezekiel (xxvii. 18), who mentions its trade in wines and wool. The climate is good; in winter there is often hard frost and much snow, and even in summer, with a day temperature of Too F., the nights are always cool. Fever, dysentery and ophthalmia, chiefly due to exposure to heavy dews and cold nights, are prevalent. Though still the market of the nomads, the surer and cheaper sea route has almost destroyed the transit trade to which it once owed its wealth, and has even diminished the importance of the annual pilgrim caravan to Mecca. The Damascene, however, still retains his skill as a craftsman and tiller of the soil. The chief imports are cloths, prints, muslins, raw silk, sugar, rice, &c.

The value of exports and imports in certain specified years is shown in the following table: - Most of the Christians belong to the Orthodox and Roman Catholic (United) Greek Churches; and there are also communities of Melchites, Jacobites, Maronites, Nestorians, Armenians and Protestants. There are Protestant missions, founded 1843, and a British hospital.

Authorities. - Lortet, La Syrie d'aujourd'hui, p. 567 f. (Paris, 1884); Von Oppenheim, Vom Mittelmeer zum Persischen Golf, i. 49 f. (Berlin,1899); G. A. Smith, Historical Geography of the Holy Land; Encyclopaedia Biblica, art. "Damascus"; Consular Reports; Baedeker-Socin, Handbook to Syria and Palestine. For the Great Mosque see Dickie, Phene Spiers, and Sir C. W. Wilson in Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement, Oct. 1897. (R. A. S. M.)

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Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Damascus'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.