The Woe of Damascus: from Islamic Masterpiece to Hellish Warzone

Damascus has become synonymous with suffering, misery and evil. The greatest bastion of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, this great capital has been subjected to waves of offensives and counter-offensives since the Syrian Civil War began in March 2011. One of the greatest tragedies of the war is the widespread destruction of many parts of the once opulent city. The contrast between contemporary Damascus and its glorious past are illuminated by a recent New York Times article and an account by the great 14th century Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta.

Here is how Anne Barnard and a New York Times colleague in Syria described Damascus on 10th February 2013:

Soldiers have swept through city neighborhoods, making arrests ahead of a threatened rebel advance downtown, even as opposition fighters edge past the city limits, carrying mortars and shelling security buildings. Fighter jets that pounded the suburbs for months have begun to strike Jobar, an outlying neighborhood of Damascus proper, creating the disturbing spectacle of a government’s bombing its own capital.

Swathes of Damascus lie in ruins. Its historic centre becomes increasingly threatened
Swathes of Damascus lie in ruins. Its historic centre becomes increasingly threatened

For months, this ancient city has been hunched in a defensive crouch as fighting raged in suburbs that curve around the city’s south and east. On the western edge of the city, the palace of the embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, sits on a steep, well-defended ridge.

In between, Damascus, with its walled Old City, grand diagonal avenues and crowded working-class districts, has remained the eye of the storm. People keep going to work, even as electric service grows sporadic and groceries dwindle, even as the road to the airport is often cut off by fighting outside the city, and even as smoke from artillery and airstrikes in suburbs becomes a regular feature on the horizon.

Near the Qadam railway station last week, many of the government soldiers, their hair and beards untrimmed, wore disheveled or dirty uniforms and smelled as if they had not had showers in a long time. Some soldiers and security officers even appeared drunk, walking unsteadily with their weapons askew — a shocking sight in Syria, where regimented security forces and smartly uniformed officers have long been presented as a symbol of national pride.

Soldiers on both sides engage in undisciplined drunkeness
Soldiers on both sides engage in undisciplined drunkeness

Unkempt government soldiers, some appearing drunk, have been deployed near a rebel-held railway station in the southern reaches of this tense capital. Office workers on 29th of May Street, in the heart of the city, tell of huddling at their desks, trapped inside for hours by gun battles that sound alarmingly close.

Shells and airstrikes kept raining on the neighborhood, sending dust and smoke into the air, higher than the minarets on its mosques.

What is particularly notable about this vivid description is how the increasingly disheveled appearance of Damascus is matched by the appearance of its citizenry. The capital, once a symbol of pride, has become something stained and pitiful. People cower in fear amid their ruined citadel. Spirals of smoke climb higher than the gorgeous minarets that once ruled the skyline unchallenged, serving as a poignant metaphor for Damascus’ decline.

Ibn Battuta had a different experience when he visited Damascus as a young man in 1326. An important trading hub at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East, Damascus had a population of over 100,000 by the beginning of the 14th century. Even though it had become a vassal state of the Egyptian-based Mamluk Empire, it retained a degree of independence and was a renowned centre of Islamic scholarship.

Ibn Battuta was the medieval world's most extensive traveller
Ibn Battuta was the medieval world’s most extensive traveller

Ibn Battuta wrote:

As for Damascus, she is the Paradise of the Orient, and dawning-place of her resplendent light, the seal of the Islamic lands which we have explored, and the bride of the cities which we have unveiled. She hath adorned herself with flowers of sweet-scented herbs, and displayed herself in brocaded vestures from her gardens; she hath occupied an assured position in the site of beauty, and hath decked herself in her bridal chair with fairest adornment. She is ennobled by the fact that God Most High gave a refuge to the Messiah [Jesus] (upon Him be peace) and His Mother [Mary] in it… Her soil is sated with abundant water … and places cry to thee ‘Stamp thy foot; here is a cool spring for thee to wash thyself and to drink’.

He described the 8th century Umayyad Mosque at the city’s centre as:

the greatest mosque on earth …, the most perfect in architecture, and the most exquisite in beauty…In this mosque also there are a great many students who never leave it, occupying themselves unremittingly in prayer and recitation of the Koran . . . The townsfolk supply their needs of food and clothing, although students never beg for anything of the kind from them.

The Umayyad Mosque retains its splendor but for how long?
The Umayyad Mosque retains its splendor but for how long?

As for the citizens of Damascus:

All strangers amongst them are handsomely treated and care is taken that they are not forced to any action that might injure their self-respect. The variety and expenditure of the religious endowments at Damascus are beyond computation. There are endowments in aid of persons who cannot undertake the pilgrimage to Mecca, out of which are paid the expenses of those who go in their stead. There are other endowments for supplying wedding outfits to girls whose families are unable to provide them, and others for the freeing of prisoners. There are endowments for travellers, out of the revenues of which they are given food, clothing, and the expenses of conveyance to their countries.

Damascus' citizens were described as generous, pious and intelligent
Damascus’ citizens were described as generous, pious and intelligent

Such descriptions seem almost paradisical, with the wonders of the city matched by the benevolence of the populace. The city’s appearance of grandeur is certainly a far cry from the scenes so evident some 780 years later.

It is fortunate that Damascus’ ancient centre remains relatively intact yet its status as a UNESCO world heritage site will not protect it forever. Whilst the human suffering of the Syrian people has rightly dominated world news, the threat to the country’s historical and cultural treasures is almost equally concerning. Their destruction would break the link between Syria’s present and past, a crucial component of national identity, something the Syrian people will have to strive to regain if they can ever free themselves from their perpetual struggle.


  • ‘Damascus on Edge as War Seeps into Syrian Capital’, Anne Barnard
  • ‘The Travels of Ibn Battuta’, H A R Gibb (ed.)

Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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