Sunday, October 7, 2007

Ash Sham (aka Damascus)

Four and a half million people live in Damascus and they do so 600 metres above sea level.

Today I feel like being historical. Apologies to those affected or offended if I'm wrong or oversimplifying.

So it appears, Abraham hung out here for awhile before moving south to Canaan. Later, from about 1100 BC, Damascus was the capital of an independent state called Aram Damascus which got into fights with the Israelites. With the Northern Israelites, it shared a common enemy in Assyria, a far larger Kingdom than either, to which both ultimately lost their independence and a large part of their populations in the eighth century BC, since it was a custom of Assyria to deport its conquered peoples and resettle them. Certainly, the notion that over 25 thousand Northern Israelites were moved east is the axiomatic belief underlying the indefatigable idea of the hidden, abidingly significant, existence of the 'Lost Ten Tribes of Israel'. Regarding the Aram Damascenes, it seems they were moved by one Tiglath-Pilsener III, whose name obviously suggests he'd have done better brewing beer, south to the Moabite town of Kir, near the Dead Sea, or to Al-Karak, as it's now known in Jordan.

Then, after the Assyrian domination, like so many places in this part of the world, Damascus was controlled first by Babylonia, then by Persia, Greece, Rome and finally by Byzantium.

During the Greek era under the Seleucids, it shone less significantly as a cultural centre than Lattakia and Antakya (Antioch) to the north, but under the Romans it became a more important city at last, as the northernmost member of the Decapolis, a union of 10 semi-independent cities; and then from AD 37 as part of the quasi-independent Kingdom of the Nabateans. Christocentric as ones education is, during this time one might say the most notable event to have occurred in Damascus was Paul's decision, courtesy of a celestial vision, to stop persecuting Christian Jews and become one himself. Before long he would take the message of the Gospel to the gentiles. A formative moment in the history of the Gospel and the world one might to say. And for good or ill too, depending on your opinion.

During the Islamic period Damascus' most important era was when it was the capital city of the first Ummayad Caliphate (Islamic Kingdom essentially) from 665 to 750, when Islamic hegemony reached to Northern Spain and the Punjab in Pakistan. Until the Abbasids and Baghdad usurped the supremacy, as Dynastys and cities do, since when Damascus has never been as important. After the Abbasids, Damascus yielded to the successive overlordship of the Fatimids from Cairo, the Seljuk Turks, the Ayyubids from Cairo- including Saladin - though some of these ruled from Damascus, the Mamlukes (from Cairo), whose rule was interrupted by the Mongols for awhile, the Ottoman Turks from Istanbul, and finally, after two years of a fledgeling independence, to the French of all people, whose twenty six year period of control finally ended in 1946 .

I didn't get to explore much beyond the Old City and the area of the new city directly to its west. Though I did find the time to get to Qasion, a mountainous area of bars and restaurants offering impressive views of the city. Though I'd probably have seen more and had a better time if it wasn't dark when I was there and hadn't been so windy.

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