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Damascus, in Syria, is one of the oldest cities in the world. According to Flavius Josephus it was founded by Us, grandson of Shem. It is mentioned in the Bible at the time of Abraham (Genesis 14:15; 15:2); also on the pylons of Karnak, among the Syrian cities captured by the Pharaoh Touthmes III.

Kingdom of damascus

Damascus allied itself with Soba against David, was conquered and obliged to receive a Jewish garrison (2 Samuel 8:5; 1 Chronicles 18:5), but under Solomon it became the capital of an independent kingdom, established by Razon or Rasin (1 Kings 11:24). From this time Damascus was frequently at war with the kings of Israel, while it leaned on those of Juda, who sought with its aid to weaken their rivals of Samaria. The most famous of these enemies of Israel was Hazael, who had ascended the throne of Damascus with the help of Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 19:17; 2 Kings 8:28; 10:32; 13:3). His successors were less fortunate. Jeroboam II, King of Samaria, captured Damascus (2 Kings 14:28). When not engaged in mutual conflict the kings of Damascus and Samaria entered into alliances with the neighbouring princes against the powerful kings of Assyria, hence Damascus, usually at the head of the confederation is often mentioned in cuneiform inscriptions. In 734 B.C. Damascus and Samaria nearly ruined Jerusalem. But Achaz, King of Juda, invoked the help of the Assyrian King Tiglath-Pileser III (Theglathphalasar), who defeated the allies, captured Damascus after a siege of two years, and put an end to the Kingdom of Syria (2 Kings 16:9-12).

The Greek city

Thenceforth Damascus seems to have lost its autonomy. Jeremias (49:27) threatens it with new chastisements, a proof that it had risen from its decay; however, it appears only occasionally in the history of the Jews, Greeks and Romans. After the battle of Issus (333 B.C.) the city, which held the wives and treasures of Darius, was betrayed to Parmenion. It soon became, next to Antioch, the most important city of Syria. From 112 to 85 B.C. it was the capital of a little Graeco-Roman kingdom, but fell successively into the power of Aretas III, King of Petra, of Tigranes, King of Armenia, and finally of the Roman general Metellus. In 64 B.C. Pompey received there the ambassadors and gifts of the neighbouring kings; in the following year Syria became a Roman province. Herod the Great built a theatre and a gymnasium at Damascus, though the town was outside his dominion. Its population, though Syrian by race and language, was deeply affected by Greeco-Roman culture, and made rapid progress in trade and industry. Then, as now, Damascus was the chief commercial emporium for the nomad Arabs. In the time of St. Paul there were in Damascus about 50,000 Jews. Most of the women in the upper classes of society had embraced this creed. It was on the road to and near the city that Saul, the severe persecutor of the Christians, recognized and worshipped the Jesus whom he had hated so much. Saul was brought to Damascus, lodged at Juda's in the Via Recta (today Souk el-Taouil), was baptized by Ananias (who is thought to have been the first Bishop of Damascus), preached Christ, and was obliged to flee by night to Arabia (Acts 9:3 sqq., 22:6 sqq., 26:12 sqq., Galatians 1:17; 2 Corinthians 11:32). The city then belonged to Aretas, King of the Arabs. Under Nero the heathen slaughtered by treachery 10,000 Jews in the gymnasium of Herod. After the destruction of the Nabatean Kingdom of Petra by Trajan, Damascus became a Roman city. Under Arcadius the great temple of the local god, Rimmon, was transformed into the magnificent church of St. John the Baptist. In 610 the city was used by Chosroes as his headquarters during the long war he then began against Heraclius.

The See of Damascus

Damascus was then the metropolis of Pheenicia Secunda, or Libanensis, with eleven suffragan sees, it was subject to the Patriarchate of Antioch and held the sixth rank in the hierarchy. Lequien (Oriens christ., II, 833) was acquainted (from the first to the sixteenth century) with the names of only fourteen Greek bishops, among them St. Peter, who suffered martyrdom at the hands of the Arabs in the eighth century. Numerous Jacobite bishops are also known. Among the many illustrious men born at Damascus, we must mention:

Early in 635 Damascus was captured by the Arabs under Khalid and Abou Obeidah. Free public worship was allowed to the Christians in several churches, also in the western aisle of St. John's, the eastern aisle being reserved to the Moslems. It was only at the beginning of the eighth century that Abd el-Melek obtained from the Christians the use of the whole building, in return for which he allowed them four churches. From 660 to 753, under the Ommayad caliphs, Damascus was the capital of the Arabian empire; at that date Abu Abbas removed the seat of government to Baghdad. In the following centuries, amid broils and revolutions, Damascus fell into the hands of the Toulounides of Egypt, later into those of the Ikshidites and of the Fatimites. In 1075-1076 it was taken by the Seljuk Turk Aziz. In 1126 the crusaders, commanded by Baldwin of Jerusalem, defeated Prince Toehtekin near and south of the city but were obliged to retreat. Nor were the allied princes, Conrad III of Germany, Louis VII of France, and Baldwin III of Jerusalem, more successful in their siege of Damascus (1148), owing to the treason of the barons of Syria. Nour-ed-Din, Sultan of Aleppo, captured Damascus in 1158. In 1177 Saladin repulsed a new attack of the Christian army. Damascus then became the commercial, industrial, and scientific centre of Syria; it had a school of medicine and an observatory on the Djebel Kasioun. Under Saladin's successors it had to sustain several sieges; in 1260 it opened its gates to the Mongols of Houlagou. It then fell into the hands of Kotouz, Prince of the Mamelukes of Egypt, whose successor, Bibars, rebuilt its citadel. In 1300 it was plundered and partly burnt by the Tatars commanded by Ghazzen Khan. In 1399 Timur-Leng put to death almost all the inhabitants, except the sword-cutlers. These he brought to Samarkand and Khorassan where they continued to make the beautiful damascened blades, the secret of which has long been lost at Damascus. In 1516 Selim I conquered Syria from the Mamelukes, and Damascus belonged to the Ottoman Empire into the twentieth century. Mention should be made of the Egyptian occupation by Ibrahim Pasha (1832-1840), and the frightful slaughter of the Christians (July, 1860) which caused the flight of many thousands and brought about the occupation of Syria by a French army.

The Turkish city

Damascus (Arab. Dimisk es-Sham, or simply es-Sham), the eye or the pearl of the East for the Arabs, is now the capital of Syria. The city stands 2267 feet above sea level and enjoys a very mild climate, owing to the Barada, which runs through it and to its numerous fountains or springs. It is surrounded by the groves and gardens of the Ghouta which stretch about ten miles south and east and include twenty-nine villages, the inhabitants of which are devoted to fruit culture (oranges, lemons, etc. especially plums and apricots). Within the city are the tombs of Noured-Din, Saladin, and Bibars, 850 fountains, 64 hammams (baths), 25 bazaars, a stock exchange for the local trade, a half-ruined citadel, 248 mosques, etc. The mosque of the Ommayads (anciently St. John's church) was burned in 1893, on which occasion many manuscripts and works of art were lost.

Religious conditions

Damascus is a Latin archiepiscopal titular see, and three bishops of the sixteenth century are mentioned in the "Revue benedictine" 1907, (82-85). It is also a metropolitan see for the Catholic (also for the non-Catholic) Melchite Greeks, and for the Catholic Syrians, and finally an episcopal see for the Maronites. Since the sixteenth century the non-Catholic Greek Patriarchs of Antioch have lived at Damascus. The Catholic Greek Patriarch of Antioch, as well as the Syrian Catholic patriarch, also resides at Damascus and governs his diocese through a titular bishop. The Lazarists, who replaced the Jesuits at the time of their suppression, have operated a college there; in 1872, the Jesuits began to occupy the reputed house of St. John Damascene. The Franciscans have the Latin parish church and a school for boys. Other religious orders active in Damascus have included the Sisters of Charity and the Mariamet native sisters.

About this page

APA citation. Vailhé, S. (1908). Damascus. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Vailhé, Siméon. "Damascus." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Tomas Hancil.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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