Once Upon a Time in Damascus

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"No recorded event has occurred in the world but Damascus was in existence to receive the news of it," wrote Mark Twain after visiting Syria's capital -- known colloquially as al-Sham -- in the 1860s. "She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies."

Over the centuries, Damascus has been conquered by a string of foreign invaders that extends from King David of Israel -- chronicled in the Old Testament -- straight through to the French, who occupied the city until 1945. In between, Damascus fell to a list of conquerors that includes the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Romans, Umayyads, Egyptian Mamluks, and Ottoman Turks. But now, roiled by the Arab Spring, the invasions are internal, with Syrian tanks and troops rolling into restive cities.

After the Umayyad conquest of Damascus in the seventh century, the Umayyad Mosque (seen above, circa 1900) was constructed on the site where a Byzantine church, a Roman temple, and before that an Aramean temple to the god of thunder and rain once stood.


Taken in the early 1900s, this photo shows travelers in Damascus's Cemetery of the Meidan on horseback. Once considered a pilgrimage site and often used by families as a picnic location, it is largely abandoned now.  

Throughout history, cemeteries like this one have been a point of contention between orthodox and "popular" strands of Islam that incorporated rituals and beliefs beyond those defined by Islamic legal doctrine. Because they were places of congregation and posed significant challenges to enforcing social norms -- particularly norms related to gender segregation -- they often became associated with iconoclast or subversive religious movements. In a way, cemeteries were "in between" spaces -- in between the dead and the living, and in between freedom and social control.


Above, the south aisle of the Umayyad Mosque, circa 1940. During the reign of the first Umayyad caliph -- before the transformation from Byzantine church to Umayyad mosque had been completed -- Muslims and Christians worshipped side by side on its eastern and western halves, respectively. It was in this spirit of religious tolerance that Pope John Paul II made the first papal visit to a mosque in history, touring the Great Mosque as part of a pilgrimage to Syria in 2001.


A Damascene shopkeeper poses with his wares in the early 1900s. Brassware, tapestries, and hand-crafted furniture can still be found in a Damascus souk today. But since the outbreak of the "problems" earlier this year, salesmen in this city have done little except play backgammon, drink tea, and fret over lost business, according to the Washington Post.


Solemn and forbidding, the Sultan Selim mosque in Damascus is seen in 1914. The mosque, completed in 1516, is named for the man who commissioned it -- a 16th century Ottoman sultan known colloquially as Yavuz, the inflexible or cruel.


Above, women escape the heat in a market near the Sultan Selim mosque circa 1956. Cooled by white marble tiles and shaded by Islamic archways, Damascus's markets are a haven during the hot summer months.


Above, a donkey cart rolls beneath a green canopy of leaves on a boulevard in Damascus, circa 1900. Mark Twain once described Damascus as a "billowy expanse of green foliage" and "an island of pearls and opals gleaming out of a sea of emeralds." As population growth has pushed the city's limits outwards, however, many of the orchards that once ringed Damascus have been razed to make way for additional housing. Even so, Twain's description of the city's beauty rings true a century and a half later.

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