DAMASCUS

Settled since before the fourth millennium B.C., Damascus is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, bearing the indelible marks of a long succession of ancient civilizations: Amorite, Aramean, Assyrian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Umayyad, Ayyubid, Mameluk, Crusader, Ottoman and French. Marking the divide between the fertile Anti-Lebanon range from which the waters flow that feed Damascus, and the harsh Syrian desert, Damascus is a rich oasis that once served as a natural hub for trade on the silk route. Today, Damascus is the natural starting and ending point for any visitor to Syria.

At night, from the summit of Jebel Qassioun a spectacular view of Damascus spreads itself out before you. The twinkling green minarets of its mosques trail towards the horizon in the direction of Mekka, a reminder of this city’s significance in Islam.

The Umayyad Mosque, named for Islam’s first ruling dynasty, is one of the great monuments to the ingenuity of early Islam. It occupies the site of sacred temples going back to the second millennium B.C. – first a temple to the semitic god Hudod, the Greek god Zeus, and the Roman god Jupiter, then a Christian Church dedicated to John the Baptist, and finally a mosque. For a time the site was even shared by both Christian and Muslim worshippers.

The walls of Damascus’ old city also contain a myriad of other points of interest: the legendary Street Called Straight mentioned in the Bible, which spans the old city’s length from East to West; the Azem Palace, the luxurious home of the Ottoman governor; the Chapel of St. Ananias and St. Paul’s Window, from which Paul the evangelist was lowered to escape the Romans; Souq Al Hamidiyeh, the bustling covered bazaar that fills the senses with colors and life; the Mausoleum of Saladin, the great leader who liberated Jerusalem from the Crusaders; and Bab Touma, the Christian quarter with its charming alleyways and handicraft shops.

Near the old town on the banks of the Barada, the National Museum of Damascus invites visitors to the finest collection of archeological artifacts from around the country. Among its treasures are a fragment of the oldest known alphabet in the world, unearthed at Ugarit, and an 1800 year-old synagogue transported piece by piece from Dura Europos on the Euphrates River. Nearby are the Tikkieh Sulimaniyeh, a mosque designed in the Turkish style by Sinan Pasha, the architect of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid, and the handicrafts market, where visitors may sample mosaic boxes, jewelry, oriental carpets, and more.