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Damascus – history, arts and architecture

Capital city of Syria and one of the chief cities of the Middle East.

The 3 minarets of the Great Mosque of Damascus: Qaitbay (built 1488), Bride (~9–12th c.) & Jesus (9–13th c.)

The 3 minarets of the Great Mosque of Damascus: Qaitbay (built 1488), Bride (~9–12th c.) & Jesus (9–13th c.)

Damascus is located in southern Syria on the banks of the Barada river. The area of Damascus forms an oasis on the edge of the Great Syrian desert. The name Damascus is pre-Semitic and is mentioned in Egyptian texts of the second millen-nium BCE. The oldest standing remains date from the Roman period and include parts of the city wall, columns marking the lines of street, and the enclosure on which the Umayyad mosque is built. During the Umayyad period Damascus was established as capital of the Islamic world which stretched from Spain to Central Asia. With the establishment of the Abbasid caliphate based in Iraq and later the Fatimid caliphate in Egypt the status of the city declined. In 1154 Nur al-Din established it as his capital, and under his successors the Ayyubids it was once again one of the principal cities of the Islamic world. The Mongol raids of the second half of the thirteenth century reduced the city to a secondary role with Cairo established as the Mamluk capital. The Ottoman conquest in 1516 restored the prosperity which was reinforced by its position as starting point of the Ottoman Hajj caravans. During the eighteenth century the city was eclipsed by the commercial prosperity of Aleppo, though Damascus remained the political capital. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 Damascus was re-established as an Arab capital.

Mud brick and wood are the principal materials of construction for traditional houses. The lower parts of houses have thick walls made out of mud brick which are strengthened at the corners with wooden stakes laid horizontally. The upper parts of the houses are often cantilevered over the street on wooden beams. The walls of the upper part are made out of a wooden framework with bricks laid in between often in a herringbone pattern. The more important monuments are made of stone with baked brick or stone rubble used for domes and vaulting. A characteristic of the monumental masonry of Damascus is the use of ablaq (alternating courses of dark and light masonry) made out of white limestone and black basalt.

There are few standing remains from the Umayyad period with the exception of the Great Mosque which is the oldest major mosque still preserved in its original form. Little was done to alter the pre-Islamic plan of the city and many of the Byzantine buildings were simply converted; thus the caliph’s palace, behind the Great Mosque, was formerly the residence of the Byzantine governors. The plan of the city at this time formed a roughly rectangular shape along the banks of the Barada river, a shape which was retained until the expansion during the sixteenth century.

In the three centuries following the fall of the Umayyads Damascus suffered a state of near anarchy. In 1076 strong rule was restored by the Turkoman chief Atsiz ibn Uvak and for the next eighty years the city was ruled by Turkish chiefs or Taabegs. During this period a hospital was built and seven madrassas were established.


With Nur al-Din’s capture of Damascus in 1154 the city became the centre of activity directed against the Crusaders who had seized Palestine. During this period there was a great deal of military and religious building. The walls of the city were strengthened with new gateways such as the Bab al-Seghir whilst the older gateways were reinforced. The citadel was also remodelled with a new gate and a large mosque. The number of mosques and madrassas were increased in order to promote orthodox Sunni Islam against both Shi’is and the Christianity of the Crusaders. Other important buildings included the maristan, or hospital, of Nur al-Din and the madrassa and tomb of Nur al-Din. The hospital, which also functioned as a medical school, has a magnificent portal which is a mixture of Roman, Iranian and Mesopotamian styles.

Directly above the door is a classic Roman pediment above which there is an arch with a muqarnas archway. The top of the structure is crowned with an Iraqi-style conical dome. Inside the hospital is built like a madrassa with four iwans opening on to a central courtyard with a fountain in the centre. One of the iwans is a prayer hall whilst the other is a consultation room. The tomb of Nur al-Din is located on the corner of his madrassa and comprises a square chamber covered with a muqarnas dome resembling that of the hospital and ultimately the conical domes of Iraq.

Under the Ayyubids the madrassa became the main form of religious building with more than twenty examples recorded by Ibn Jubayr in 1184. Most of these tombs were commemorative structures which usually had the tomb of the founder attached. The standard form of Ayyubid tomb was a square room covered with an octagonal zone of transition made up of squinches and blind arches; above this there was usually a sixteen-sided drum which was pierced with windows and arches. The domes are usually tall, slightly pointed structures with broad fluting. The interior of the tombs was usually decorated with painted stucco designs. Important examples include the tomb of Badr al-Din Hassan and the mausoleum of Saladin in the Madrassa Aziziya. The cenotaph of Saladin is made of carved wooden panels whilst the walls were covered with polychrome tiles by the Ottomans in the sixteenth century. Another feature of Ayyubid architecture was the introduction of ablaq masonry.

The Mongol invasion of 1260 put an end to the most brilliant period of Damascus’s post-Umayyad history. Although the Mamluks continued to develop the city it was no longer the foremost capital in the region. Baybars, the first Mamluk sultan, was particularly fond of the city and refur-bished the citadel as a royal residence for himself. To the west of the city he built another palace known as the Qasr Ablaq which was built out of alternating courses of black and ochre-coloured masonry. Madrassas continued to be built although not on the same scale as before. There was a proliferation of mausoleums and to this period may be ascribed the invention of the double mausoleum where two mausoleums were included within a single complex. Examples of this type of building include the tomb of the Mamluk sultan Kit Bugha and the tomb of the Muhajirin commemorating a Mamluk who had fought the Mongols. The form of these double mausoleums was of two symmetrical domed tombs, with a monumental portal between them which would lead to the madrassa or memorial mosque.

In the later Mamluk period there was a development in the outward appearance of buildings characterized by the growth in the number of decorative octagonal minarets. These towers were decorated with blind niches, muqarnas corbelling elaborate finials and stone inlays. There was also a development of the markets outside the city centre and to this period may be ascribed the development of the suqs known as Taht Qal’a (below the citadel).

The Ottoman conquest of the early sixteenth century re-established Damascus as a regional capital, a position which was reinforced by its position at the start of the Hajj (pilgrimage) route to Damascus. New facilities both religious and practical were built to accommodate the vast numbers of pilgrims coming from Anatolia, Syria and even from Iran. The most important monument was the Tekiyya of Sulayman the Magnificent designed by his architect Sinan and completed in 1555. The Tekiyya is built on the river bank on the site of the old Mamluk palace, Qasr Ablaq. The Tekiyya comprises a mosque, kitchens and a camping ground for pilgrims. The mosque is built in the classical Ottoman style with a prayer hall covered by a large dome and a double arcade running round it on three sides. The twin minarets are tall pencil-like structures with sharp pointed roofs. The pure Ottoman appearance of the building is modified by the use of alternating black and white (ablaq) masonry. Other Ottoman mosques of the period also display a mixture of local and Ottoman features, thus the Sinaniya (after Sinan Pasha the governor of Damascus, not the architect) mosque has a large central dome in the Ottoman style but the use of ablaq masonry and the monumental muqarnas portal resemble earlier Mamluk buildings.

Khan As'ad Pasha

Khan As'ad Pasha – Old City of Damascus

The Ottoman conquest also brought a fresh impetus to the trade of the city with the establishment of numerous khans. One of the earliest Ottoman examples is Khan al-Haria built in 1572 around a square courtyard with stables and store rooms on the ground floor and accomodation above. In eighteenth- century khans the central courtyard was often smaller and covered with domes. The most famous example of this later type is the As’ad Pasha Khan which is a square building covered with eight small domes and a large central dome supported on marble columns. The eighteenth century also saw the development of domestic architecture influenced by buildings such as the Azzam palace which was built around a courtyard in the traditional Syrian manner but with decoration that recalls the mansions of Istanbul.

Further reading:

R.S.Humphreys, ‘Politics and architectural patronage in Ayyubid Damascus’, Essays in Honour of Bernard Lewis: The Islamic World from Classical to Modern Times, ed. C. E.Bosworth, C.Issawi, R.Savory and A.L.Udovitch, Princeton, NJ 1989. J.G.De Maussion, Damas, Bagdad, capitales et terres des

califes, Beirut 1971. J.Sauvaget and M.Ecochard, Les Monuments Ayyubides de Damas, Damascus 1938-50.

About the Author
Dr.Andrew Petersen is Director of Research in Islamic Archaeology at the University of Wales Lampeter. He has carried out fieldwork in many parts of the Islamic world including Iraq, Oman, Jordan, Palestine, UAE and Qatar. His current research interests include Islamic urbanism, pilgrimage routes and fortifications. For the last two years he has been working on the archaeology of coastal settlement in northern Qatar in collaboration with the Qatar Museums Authority and the Qatar Islamic Archaeology and Heritage project.
2 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. Im so cool im related to the ppl of the ottoman empire hahahaha

  2. I got a lot of knowledge the writer wished me ti have, very obvious & simple to learn & understand brief about architecture of these periods thanks

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