The Ancient City of Damascus

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Ancient Cities

  • Damascus is in southwest Syria about 150 miles northeast of Jerusalem.
  • It is one of the oldest cities in the world.
  • It is known as the oldest continuously populated city in the world.
  • It is now the capital of Syria, and has a population of 1,600,000
  • Most think the word “Damascus” comes from a Semitic language, though scholars are at a loss as to how to translate it.
    • Various translations have included: "a settlement in water-rich surroundings," or "the town of chalky clay."

Under Egyptian Rule

  • Damascus was a key city in the ancient world because it was on a trade route that linked Egypt with the nations of Mesopotamia.
    • These included highways known as “the way of the Sea,” and “the King’s Highway.”
  • The earliest references to “Damascus” date from the 13-14th centuries BCE where it shows up in inscriptions from Egyptian Pharaohs.
    • Scholars aren’t positive this is the same Damascus of later centuries, but it is quite likely.
    • This period is known as the Late Bronze Age, and the Egyptians controlled a vast area.

Under Aramean Rule

  • By 1200 BCE, the Egyptians had weakened to the point that the Arameans were able to take over much of their territory, including Damascus.
  • During the first half of the first millennium, Damascus was the capital of the Aram kingdom and was generally referred to as Aram Damascus.
  • According to a story in 2 Sam 8:3-12, David claimed to have defeated the Arameans in Damascus.
    • Readers might logically assume, then, that for a while Damascus was part of David’s extended kingdom.
  • However, this did not last long. The Aramean king, Rezon, declared his independence during the time of Solomon.
    • Several Old Testament texts suggest relations between Rezon and Solomon were always adversarial in nature.
  • Rezon’s successors took advantage of the confusion wrought by the division of the Davidic kingdom after Solomon’s death and successfully attacked several cities in northern Israel.
  • By 800 BCE, Aram Damascus was known as the leading city in the region of Syria and Palestine.
  • From 853-845 BCE, the Arameans and Israel joined forces to thwart various Assyrian attacks led by Shalmaneser III.
    • This alliance is recorded in Assyrian documents of this period. (Though some scholars think these battles actually occurred decades later.)
  • In 843 BCE, an Aramean (Hazael) usurped the throne in Damascus and turned against the king of Israel.
  • With Assyria in a period of decline, Hazael dominated much of Syria and Palestine and captured a lot of Israelite territory.
    • This changed dramatically in 805 BCE, when Assyria regained its strength and began to attack the Arameans.

After Aramean Rule

  • Jehoahaz was able to break free from the Arameans, and by the time of Jeroboam (788-748 BCE), Israel dominated Damascus.
    • Power vacillated back and forth until 734 BCE, when Assyria laid claim to both Aram Damascus and northern Israel.
  • The city was virtually destroyed in 734, and Damascus as a super power was no more.
  • By 539 BCE, however, the city’s fortunes had rebounded, and it was the site of the Persian satrapy. This lasted until the time of Alexander the Great, who then appointed a Greek to govern the city.
  • After Alexander’s death, the city was a pawn between the Ptolemaic and Seleucid kings (ca 200-100 BCE).
  • Unlike the people of Jerusalem, which resisted Hellenization, the people of Damascus embraced it readily.
  • Soon, the city was once again a capital – this time of the Seleucid kingdom.
  • After this, the Nabatean people (southeast of Palestine) used it as their capital while claiming independence (ca 85 BCE). But this was short-lived.

Under Roman Rule

  • By 65 BCE, the Roman general, Pompey, sent troops to reclaim it.
    • Thereafter, the city thrived during the Roman period.
  • It had a large temple and was known for its great thoroughfares (Acts refers to the street called “Straight.”) It was also home to a large population of Jews.
  • Saul of Tarsus encountered the risen Jesus on his way to Damascus.
    • Later, his followers would help him escape by lowering him in a basket outside the city wall.
  • Legend has it that, on the eve of the Jewish War in 66 CE, the Gentiles of the city massacred most of their Jewish neighbors.

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