DAMASCUS (in Arabic, “Dimashq”) is the capital and chief city of SYRIA, with a population of 1.7 million people (2002). The ancient city is also known in Arabic as “as-Sham” meaning “the Northern,” indicating its geographical position north of the traditional Arab homelands. Damascus is situated in the Ghutah Oasis on a plateau 2,263 ft (690 m) above sea level in southwestern Syria. The city is bisected by the Barada River, which separates the old city to the south from the newer, more modern city to the north. It lies just northeast of Mount Hermon (7,164 ft or 2,184 m), the highest point in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains that form part of Syria’s eastern border with neighboring LEBANON. To the east of the city lies the DESERT.
Damascus is only a two-hour drive from the MEDITERRANEAN coast, which is just beyond the Anti- Lebanon and Lebanon mountains to the east. Annual rainfall in the area ranges between 6 in (15 cm) and 7.87 in (20 cm), falling mainly between November and February. Although temperatures in the summer can exceed 104 degrees F (40 degrees C), the summer average is around 80.5 degrees F (27 degrees C) at the most. Winters are generally cold, averaging 41 degrees F (5 degrees C).
Damascus has been inhabited since prehistoric times and is considered by some to be the oldest continuously occupied city in the world. The first mention of Damascus is in Egyptian records, when the Pharaoh Thutmosis III conquered the city in the 15th century B.C.E. In 333 B.C.E., Damascus was conquered by one of Alexander’s lieutenants, who took it from the Persians. From 661 to 750 C.E., Damascus was the center of Islam and capital of the Great Omayyad Empire that stretched from Spain to India. In 1260 the city fell to the Mongols under Hulagu Khan, then fell again to the Mamluks following the Mongol withdrawal. In 1516, the city was captured by the Ottoman Sultan Salim I and remained part of the Ottoman Empire for the next four centuries. At the end of World War II, the city was freed from Ottoman control by an Arab contingent under the command of the British. Damascus became the capital of an independent Syria (from FRANCE) in 1941, although it did not officially take effect until 1946.
Damascus is made up of a sizeable old city, divided into the market area, the Muslim area, the Christian area and the Jewish area. The greatest part of the city, including the rectangular ancient city, is on the south bank of the Barada River, while the newer more modern suburbs lie to the north. Damascus has more than 200 mosques, but only 70 are still in use today. Of these, the Umayyad or Grand Mosque is the most famous, located just east of the Citadel and north of the Azem Palace in the old city. Damascus is famous for its bazaars—streets lined with shops, talls, and cafes. One such bazaar called “Street Straight” (in contrast to the typically narrow, crooked layout) is even mentioned in the Bible in connection with St. Paul’s conversion to Christianity.
Damascus has long been an important commercial center. In former times it was famous for dried fruit, wine, wool, linens, silks, and damask, a type of patterned fabric, named for the silk fabrics woven in Damascus. The city was also notable for the manufacture of damascened steel, the exceptionally hard and resilient steel used in making sword blades. Today the city is the trading center for figs, almonds, and other fruit produced in the surrounding region. Industries in Damascus include handicrafts, such as the weaving of silk cloth and the making of leather goods, filigreed gold and silver objects, and inlaid wooden, copper, and brass articles. Among the city’s other manufactures are processed textiles, metalware, refined sugar, glass, furniture, cement, leather goods, preserves, confections, and matches.