Around 2500 BC, migrating Semitic tribes from the Arabian desert occupied northern Syria where they became known as Amorites (the westerners). From 2000 to 1800 BC, the Amorites established a multitude of small principalities over most of Mesopotamia before expanding westward as far as the Nile delta where they established the Hyskos kingdom around 1700 BC. Finally, Atmose I, who founded the 18th Egyptian dynasty expelled them around 1550 BC.
Syria was then successively dominated by the Hurrians, by the related Mitanni, by the Hittites from Anatolia, by the Assyrians and finally by Aramaean tribes whose language, Aramaic, became the lingua franca of the fertile crescent for centuries, surviving the invasion of Persian, Greek and Roman influences before being replaced by Arabic in the 7th century AD.
In 661, Damascus became the capital of the first great Muslim dynasty the Umayyads whose armies conquered North Africa and Spain in the west and lands as far as India. Corruption led to their replacement by the Abbasids who moved the capital to Baghdad in 750 and further extended Islam eastward. The next moment of glory came in 1190 when the Kurd Saladin defeated the invading crusaders to found the Ayyubid dynasty that ruled the Muslim empire from Egypt until 1260. Then came the Mameluks, the Mongols, the Ottoman Empire in 1516 and, in 1920, the French who held on tightly until 1945.
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From Baalbek I took a minibus to Chtaura, a service taxi across the border to Damascus and a local taxi to reach the Place des Martyrs that marks the centre of the capital. The old city, which is really worth visiting, is only a short distance south of here.
I stayed here at the Hotel Najmet Ash-Sharq, one block from Place Des Martyrs, where I had a very nice room with bathroom for 10 $US.
Naturally, the first thing I did after dropping my bag was to roam around the neighbouring streets to get a feel for the place. I had been here before but it was so long ago (1966), that I did not remember much except the colourful souq.
The area around Place Des Martyrs, like this small market, is surprisingly unpretentious and friendly for the centre of a capital.
Still in the same area, this smiling shopkeeper did not object to my taking a picture of his glittering brassware.
The friendly brothers, Emad and Ayman Marsa, ran an internet cafe nearby.
Once again I was pleased to see that the duty of hospitality towards strangers is very real in the Islamic world. I have noticed time and time again from Morocco to Khazakstan that Muslims have been much more friendly to me than we westerners are to them or even than we are to each other. I do condemn their attitude towards women but as a man, I have found it much safer to travel in the northern Muslim part of West Africa than in the southern Christian part.
I know some of you will charge me with religious bigotry for writing this but I'm just telling it as I see it. I don't take sides, I personally don't believe in any religion.
There was an urban settlement on the site of Damascus as early as 5000 BC but the city's main claim to fame was its role as the capital of the Umayyad dynasty that was responsible for Islam's expansion westward to the Atlantic and eastward to the Indus valley.
The Umayyad Caliph Aloilid ben Abdulmalek built this great mosque in 705 over a Byzantine cathedral which had occupied the site of a Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter.
Here is another view of the western minaret of the great Umayyad mosque. This photo, the previous one and the two following are all composites that I had to assemble from two photos because my camera does not have a wide angle lens.
This is the mosque with its 45 meter high dome on the southern side of the courtyard.
And here is the Al-Arous minaret over the colonnade that forms the northern side of the courtyard.
One of the several small rooms inside the mosque. This one holds the much revered head of Al-Hussein (a Muslim saint).
And finally, the huge main hall of the mosque. On the left, the shrine of the prophet Yahya under the dome.
The holiest spot of a mosque is the mihrab niche in the wall next to the minbar from which prayers are said at the top of the stairs.
The old city around the mosque is a maze of narrow passages and alleys worth exploring. This part of Damascus had not changed during the 38 years since my last visit. Here is an antique shop and below, two typical streets.
I really enjoyed the couple of hours I spent in the Nureddine hammam being steamed, washed, coddled and massaged by experts. This is the resting room where men swathed in huge bathrobes relax before going out to face the harsh outside world.
Trains leaving the Hejaz station carried pilgrims all the way to Mecca when it was built by the Ottoman Turks in the 19th century but now they only go as far as Amman in Jordan. Most trains use the Khaddam station inconveniently located 5 km south-west of town.
Damascus University is another important landmark along the way from the Umayyad Mosque to the National Museum.
A few hours in the National Museum is a must for any visitor of Damascus. Taking pictures inside was not allowed so all I can show you is the facade which is the relocated entrance of a desert fortress near Palmyra.
Nobody stopped me from taking a picture of this lion in the museum's garden but I can't tell you where it came from because I didn't write it down.
I can however assure you that the big mosque behind, the Takiyya Ash-Suleimaniyya, and the nearby military museum are both worth visiting.