Damascus, as you may know, is the capital of Syria and is a major cultural centre of the Levant and the Arab world. Know locally as the “City of Jasmine”, Damascus is home to almost three million people. Carbon dating suggests the site of the city has been occupied since around 6300 BC and the city itself from the second millennium BC. Egyptian records tell us King Biryawaza ruled Damascus in the 14th century BC and, after a war, it fell into the hands of Ramesses II in 1259 BC.
Damascus is first mentioned in the Bible in the Book of Genesis.” During the night Abram divided his men to attack them and he routed them, pursuing them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus.” (Genesis 14:15) Abram, later Abraham, is in the process of rescuing his nephew Lot who has been carried off by Kedorlaomer king of Elam, Tidal king of Goyim, Amraphel king of Shinar and Arioch king of Ellasar who attacked and looted the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah in what is known as the War of the Kings. King Kedorlaomer wanted to show the neighbouring territories his strength; fortunately, Abram was around to defeat him and recover the goods and his family.
The following chapter of Genesis tells us Abram’s servant came from Damascus. “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus? You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” (Genesis 15:2-3) There is, however, no mention in the Bible about how Damascus came to exist.
According to the 1st-century AD historian Flavius Josephus, Uz, the great-grandson of Noah, founded Damascus. Of Abraham, Josephus states: "Abraham reigned at Damascus, being a foreigner, who came with an army out of the land above Babylon, called the land of the Chaldeans … Now the name of Abraham is even still famous in the country of Damascus; and there is shown a village named from him, The Habitation of Abraham.”
The next Biblical reference to Damascus is during the reign of King David. “When the Arameans of Damascus came to help Hadadezer king of Zobah, David struck down twenty-two thousand of them. He put garrisons in the Aramean kingdom of Damascus, and the Arameans became subject to him and brought tribute. The Lord gave David victory wherever he went.” (2 Samuel 8:5-6) The Arameans had arrived during the 11th century BC and established one of their kingdoms in Damascus. Their presence prevented the Kingdom of Israel from spreading northwards, which led to a clash and inevitably war.
“When David destroyed Zobah’s army, Rezon gathered a band of men around him and became their leader; they went to Damascus, where they settled and took control.” (1 Kings 11:24) Although David had defeated the Arameans, one man Rezon deserted from King Hadadezer and rose his own army. Throughout the reign of King Solomon, Rezon was an adversary and was constantly hostile towards Israel.
The Book of Kings records the rulers of Judah and Israel but also gives the names of the kings of neighbouring territories. Chapter 15 tells us that Hezion was the king of Aram-Damascus during the reign of King Asa of Judah. In chapter 19, the Lord instructed the prophet Elijah to “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram.” Unfortunately, this did not stop the hostilities against Israel.
Conflicts continued until the 8thcentury BC when Ben-Hadad II was captured by Israel under King Ahab and granted them trading rights in Damascus. “I will return the cities my father took from your father,” Ben-Hadad offered. “You may set up your own market areas in Damascus, as my father did in Samaria.” (1 Kings 20:34)
Following this, Damascus entered a mini Dark Age and very little is known about the period, however, it was soon taken over by the Assyrians. This was encouraged by King Ahaz of Judah. “The king of Assyria complied by attacking Damascus and capturing it.” (2 Kings 16:9) This fits with prophecies written by three people:
· Isaiah 17:1 - “See, Damascus will no longer be a city but will become a heap of ruins.”
· Amos 1:4-5 – “I will send fire on the house of Hazael that will consume the fortresses of Ben-Hadad. I will break down the gate of Damascus”
· Jeremiah 49:24 – “Damascus has become feeble, she has turned to flee and panic has gripped her; anguish and pain have seized her, pain like that of a woman in labour.”
Damascus was conquered by Alexander the Great and was under his rule until his death in 323 BC. Following that, the city was fought over by the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires, until the Romans came along in 64 BC. Damascus became one of the cities that made up the Decapolis along with Gerasa (Jordan), Scythopolis (Israel), Hippos (Golan Heights), Gadara (Jordan), Pella (Jordan), Philadelphia (Amman, Jordan), Capitolias (Jordan), Canatha (Syria) and Raphana (Jordan).
Much of the historic parts of Damascus resemble the Roman period since much of it had to be rebuilt after the previous wars. When Caesar Augustus gave Herod the Great land in 23 BC, Damascus may have been included. Following his death, the city was given back to Syria. When Paul wrote his letters to the Corinthians, he recorded, “In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me.” (2 Corinthians 11:32) It is not certain when Aretas IV Philopatris of Nabatea gained Damascus, however, he was King of the Nabataeans from 9 BC to 40 AD. Some speculate Emperor Caligula may have gifted it to the king around 37 AD.
The Apostle Paul, or Saul as he was originallynamed, was near Damascus when he underwent his conversion. “As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’” (Acts 9:3-4) Paul was left blind by this initial contact and the Lord called on a disciple called Ananias to come and find him. “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.” (Acts 9:11-12)
Judas of Damascus was a Messianic Jew who gave Saul/Paul lodgings when he was suffering from blindness. It is at his house on Straight Street, now known as Sultany or Queen’s Street that Ananias found Saul. This is the main street of the city. Following his return to full sight, Saul/Paul spent several days with the disciples and began to preach about Jesus. In Acts 22, Paul recounts his story of conversion to the people of Jerusalem and in Acts 26, he told King Agrippa the same in an attempt to persuade him to be a Christian.
In his letter to the churches in Galatia, Paul reveals he once returned to Damascus. “I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.” (Galatians 1:17) He remained there for three years before finally moving on to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and James, the brother of Jesus. Although he did not meet the other apostles in Jerusalem, it is believed Thomas may have lived in or near Damascus.
The next big change Damascus saw occurred in 634 AD when it was invaded by Muslim forces. For hundreds of years, various Islamic countries fought each other for land and Damascus was passed from army to army until 1516 when the Ottoman Turks captured the city. For 400 years, the Ottoman’s controlled Damascus, however, they allowed Muslims, Christians and Jews to live amongst each other peacefully. By 1867, approximately 140,000 people lived in the city, 30,000 of which were Christian (mostly Catholic), 10,000 Jews and 100,000 “Mohammedans”.
From the beginning of the 20th century, life in Damascus became more political. During the World Wars, France, who made the city the capital of their League of Nations Mandate for Syria, owned Damascus. Eventually, Damascus was freed from French control in 1946 and Syria became an independent nation.
Today, Sunni Islam is the main religion in Damascus, however, around 20% of the population identify themselves as Christian. There are three Christian districts in the city, each full of churches, including the Chapel of Saint Paul, House of Saint Ananias, Mariamite Cathedral of Damascus and Saint George’s Syriac Orthodox Cathedral.
The main road of the old Roman city, Straight Street, where the conversion of Paul occurred is a key historical tourist attraction. Interestingly, the Grand Mosque of Damascus claims to contain the body of St John the Baptist.
In 2008, Damascus was chosen as the Arab Capital of Culture. It has also been twinned with five cities around the world: Toledo, Spain; Córdoba, Spain; Yerevan, Armenia; São Paulo, Brazil; and Istanbul, Turkey.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon