Post-classical history


Damascus (mod. Dimashq, Syria) was the major city of Muslim Syria in the period of the crusades.

The fall of the Umayyad caliphs in 750 left their imperial capital of Damascus as a capital of Greater Syria, a heterogeneous land divided east-west between the desert, the mountains, and the coast, as well as north-south between Egypt and Iraq. Under the Egyptian dynasty of the Tūlūnids (869-905), Damascus was briefly the capital of the whole; but under their successors, the Ikhshidids and the Fātimids (935-1070), it was the capital only of the center and the south. In 1078 it became the seat of Tutush I, the Saljūq conqueror of Syria, but on his departure in 1093, the long-standing importance of Aleppo was reaffirmed with the division of his appanage between his two sons, Duqāq at Damascus and Ridwān at Aleppo. In the period of the crusades, the separate identity of the coast was still more strikingly demonstrated when it fell to the Franks of Outremer, together with the greater part of the mountains. Damascus in the center and Aleppo in the north were then left as the principal cities in Muslim hands.

Damascus is an oasis city, its famous ghūta (garden) formed by the delta of the Barada River, flowing southeastward into the desert from the mountains of the range called the Anti-Lebanon. Its foundation dates from remote antiquity, its site being good for cultivation and trade across the desert to the northeast, and across the mountains to Beirut and Galilee in the west and south. These factors made Damascus the capital of the Aramaeans in the second millennium b.c., but never thereafter an imperial city like Petra and still more Palmyra. Nevertheless they created a major city, patronized by its various foreign rulers. Roman rule from Antioch countenanced an extensive, and monumental, reconstruction involving a castle in the northwest corner, city walls, an aqueduct, streets, baths, a theater, a marketplace, and above all a vast new temple, which later became the cathedral of St. John. This patronage was continued by the Umayyads, who converted the cathedral into their great mosque at the beginning of the eighth century.

Otherwise there is little trace of the Umayyad city, either as the capital of the Arab Empire or that of a jund (military district). The caliph and his Arab armies were largely resident outside, and it is likely that there was no great change either in the population, its religion, or its language until the subsequent ‘Abbāsid period. Damascus was then neglected along with the rest of Syria by the caliphate at Baghdad. When this dark age came to an end in the tenth century, a substantial Muslim population had established itself in the western half of the city, around the mosque and the citadel, with Christians in the northeast and Jews in the southeast. The Muslims had lost any connection with the army and become citizens. As citizens of Damascus, they have played a major role in the modern argument over the nature of the city in Islam: whether it has been simply a place to live in accordance with the prescriptions of the Islamic law or whether it can be said to have had a corporate existence comparable to the cities of antiquity and of medieval Europe. The argument for a place to live has been architectural: the deformation of the grid pattern of antiquity with the encroachment of shops onto the main thoroughfares and private housing onto the back streets, to create quarters in which the population was segregated rather than integrated into a citizen body. The argument for the existence of such a body is derived from the written sources from the tenth century onward. The possibility that some element of the Roman city had survived the Byzantines and the Arabs has been discounted in favor of a renaissance comparable to that of contemporary Italy, beginning in the tenth century with the revival of Mediterranean trade between western Europe and the Islamic east. Certainly the century witnessed the return of Syria to prosperity and saw the appearance of a vigorous city life at Damascus.

The vigor of Damascus was apparent at the time of the Fātimid conquest in the 970s, when the Ikhshidid regime crumbled, and Damascus was left to face the incomers. Between 971 and 983, first under its shaykhs (religious leaders) and then under Qassām, the ra'is (head of the city) and chief of the ahdāth (city militia), it held out with the assistance of its Bedouin allies and refugee Turkish warriors from Iraq. The resistance highlights another aspect of the controversy, as to whether the government of the city was in the hands of its upper classes or in those of lower-class bosses and their gangs. Both were represented here; Qassām was an immigrant villager who had carried sand on his donkey. But it is clear that Damascus was in effect self-governing, even if it required a military champion such as the Turk Aftakin to defend its independence. Two revolts against the Fātimids in 997 and 1021 continued the tradition of popular opposition to imperial rule, and they foreshadowed the final eviction of the Fātimids between 1071 and 1075, with the assistance of the Turcoman Atsiz. Self-government was only briefly suppressed by the Saljûq conquest in 1078; it reappeared after the departure of the conqueror Tutush in 1093, leaving his elder son Duqāq in the care of the atabeg Tughtikin. After the death of Duqāq in 1105, Tughtikin became the first of the Bûrid dynasty, which ruled at Damascus down to its fall to Nûr al-Dīn in 1154. But from 1095 to 1154, the riyâsa (office of ra’is) was held by the Banū’l- Sūfī, from whose point of view the Turkish princes were protectors rather than rulers of Damascus.

From the Būrid point of view, the Banū’l-Sūfī were indispensable. They were notables belonging to the upper classes, but, backed by the ahdāth, they had the support of the populace, the force to impose their authority, and the revenues to maintain it. Fluctuations in their fortunes in conflict with the dynasty were temporary, and ended in their favor. Al- Mufarrij (d. 1136), briefly, and al-Musayyab (exiled 1153) both acted as viziers, the first having been instrumental in the massacre and expulsion of the Ismā‘īlī Assassins after the death of Tughtikin in 1128. Only at the end did they quarrel among themselves, lose the support of the people, and fall together with the Būrids before the advance of Nūr al-Dīn. Their successors were the family of the chronicler ofDamascus, Ibn al-Qalānisī, whose work is its own testimony to civic consciousness, and whose brother, as the new raTs, admitted Nūr al-Dīn into the city on behalf of the populace in 1154.

Under the Būrids, the territory dominated by Damascus stretched some 200 kilometers (130 mi.) from Bosra (mod. Busra, Syria) and the Hawrān in the south toward Homs (mod. Hims, Syria) in the north; to the northeast it reached toward Palmyra. To the west the Golan (Jawlān) Heights and the Bekaa (Biqā‘) Valley formed a buffer zone with the kingdom of Jerusalem, as did the hills and plains of northern Transjordan (Jabal ‘Ajlûn and the Sawād) to the south; treaties to share the revenues of these territories were concluded in 1108 and 1110. But Jerusalem aspired to control of the Hawrān itself, which was held only with difficulty against Frankish invasions conjoined with rebellions by governors at Bosra. To the north, the fall of the city to Nûr al-Din was the climax of fifty years of conflict with the rival city of Aleppo, which was centered upon the fluctuating control of Homs and Hama (mod. Hamāh, Syria). This conflict was overridden between 1110 and 1115 by common opposition to Mosul, whose atabegs threatened to restore the rule of the Great Saljûqs to Syria. But it became acute after 1128, the year of Tughtikin’s death, when the atabeg of Mosul, Zangi, took possession of Aleppo, and attempted to take over Damascus. Threatened by his ambition and that of Jerusalem, the latter marked by the invasions of King Baldwin II in 1126 and 1129, King Fulk in 1134, and the Second Crusade in 1147, the Bûrids were finally forced to call upon Nûral-Din, Zangi’s son and successor at Aleppo, for aid. Seven years later Nûr al-Din occupied Damascus without difficulty, and the city became his capital, stamped with his monuments: a hospital, ahammām (bathhouse), and a madrasa (religious college) known as the Nûriyya, to house his mausoleum at his death in 1174, with inscriptions to proclaim his virtues as a champion of Islam. After the centuries since the building of the Umayyad Mosque, these were the first new civic buildings to affirm the power and authority of the ruler since the days of the caliphs. The practice was continued by Nûr al-Din’s successors, and marked the beginning of a new phase in the social, political, and architectural history of the city.

The new regime was made permanent by the still greater imperialism of Saladin, who usurped the empire of Nûr al- Din at his death. Although Egypt was Saladin’s principal possession, Damascus was central to his operations against the Zangids in Aleppo and Mosul, and against the Franks. By the time of his death and burial at Damascus in 1193, it was in the hands of his son ‘All as part of the Ayyûbid family empire. In 1196, however, the city passed to Saladin’s brother al-‘Adil who left his own son in charge when he took over Egypt in 1200. After the reconstruction of the walls byNûr al-Din, father and son rebuilt the citadel, enlarging it to include a palace as a center of government; the son, ‘īsā, went on to build the ‘Adiliyya madrasa to house the tomb of his father. Fortification continued, notably around 1240, but the defenses were never tested; the last Ayyûbid, al- Nāsir, abandoned the city to the Mongols in 1260. With the defeat of the Mongols at ‘Ayn Jālūt later in the year, Damascus fell into the hands of the Mamlûk sultans of Egypt. Beginning with Sultan Baybars I (1260-1277), these rulers made Damascus the Syrian capital of a very different kind of empire, one centralized on Cairo rather than divided among the princes of a ruling house. The kind of regime installed under Nûr al-Din and the Ayyûbids was nevertheless maintained.

The previous dichotomy between the city and the dynasty came to an end as the patronage of the Zangid and Ayyûbid court reached down into society. The office of rads dwindled away as the likes of the Banfrl-Qahnisi were absorbed into the entourage of the prince. Still more important was the attraction of the court for immigrants into the ranks of the army, the secretariat, and theulamā’ (scholars of the law). It was these more than the princes who were responsible for the pious foundations that became such a feature of the city. Immigration of all kinds was a sign of the prosperity associated with the establishment of the court, and evidenced by the growth of three suburbs beyond the walls. The suburb to the west developed under the patronage of Nûr al-Din to cater for the pilgrimage to Mecca. Meanwhile in 1159 he founded the new town of al-Salihiyya on the slopes of Mount Kassiun 2 kilometers (11/4 mi.) to the north, as a settlement for refugees from Palestine. Further immigration took place in the second half of the thirteenth century, so that in the mid-fourteenth century the total population was perhaps of the order of sixty to seventy thousand. By then Damascus was ruled by Mamlûk governors appointed from Cairo, who replaced the Ayyûbids as its patrons. In the absence of a sovereign, the Mamlûk aristocracy kept its hold on the city by alliance with the various classes and divisions of the population, rich and poor. Damascus thus continued to form a political entity that maintained its civic pride. Ibn ‘Asākir (d. 1176) produced a monumental biographical dictionary of the city, while from the time of Sibt Ibn al-Jawzi in the early thirteenth century down to the fifteenth century, a school of history flourished.

Alliances with the Mamlûks, however, could turn to faction-fighting, as in the warfare over the Mamlûk succession between 1382 and 1422. In other ways, the interests of the city did not necessarily coincide with those of its rulers. Without a rads, or any force of their own, the notables enjoyed the peace and prosperity that the Mamlûk Empire promoted, especially in the first half of the fourteenth century. But faced by Mongol invasion in 1299-1300, and again by the conquerorTīmūr (Tamerlane) in 1400-1401, they preferred to surrender rather than resist, leaving the Mamlūks in the citadel to take the brunt of Tīmūr’s assault. They failed on both occasions, since the city was twice plundered, and the artisans of Damascus deported by Tīmūr to Samarkand in central Asia. The decline in the prosperity of the city from the middle of the fourteenth century, lasting down to the Ottoman conquest in 1517, can only have been accelerated.

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