“Go back as far as you will into the vague past, there was always a Damascus,” wrote Mark Twain, who visited the city in the 1860s. He was right; excavations of the city have uncovered evidence that it was populated as far back as 8,000 BCE and Damascus is considered the oldest continually inhabited city in the world.
During Damascus’s lengthy past, the city has been part of Egyptian, Anatolian, Mesopotamian, Israeli, Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Omayyad, Mongol, Ottoman, and French empires. In 1946, after one hundred centuries of continual unrest, Damascus became the capital of an independent Syria.
Centuries of fighting had taken its toll on the country’s psyche, and the early years of Syrian independence were marked by political instability and successive coups d'etat as the Syrians fought to establish an acceptable government. Political stability was achieved only on the accession to power of President Hafez al-Assad on November 16, 1970.
This hard-won stability changed the face of Syria, and the fragile peace resulted in major industrial, agricultural, and commercial developments. Damascus has continued to grow, and it is estimated that almost five million Damascenes live in the city today.
With one hundred centuries of history under its belt, the city of Damascus features over 125 monuments from different periods of its history.
The best place to start is at the Ancient City of Damascus, a walled city that has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979 and can be accessed by six of its seven gates. A maze of vine-covered alleyways punctuated by tiny doors that lead to a myriad of shops and houses, the Ancient City is also dotted with airy courtyards and markets.
The Souq al-Hamidiyah is a long, covered bazaar just south of the Saladin Monument; its clothing- and handicraft-lined streets lead directly into the heart of the Ancient City: the 8th-century Umayyad Mosque. One of Damacus’s most spectacular sights, the Grand Mosque of Damascus was built on the site of an Assyrian sanctuary and is one of the largest mosques in the world. Take time to explore the beautiful gold and green mosaics of the vast courtyard and its immense prayer hall.
To the west of Damascus is Jebel Qasioun, a small mountain with panoramic views of the entire city. The peak is accessible at any time, although the view is most spectacular at night, when the cityscape lights up and the minarets of the Umayyad Mosque are bathed in green light.
Dining in Damascus comprises cuisines from all over the world, but for a real Damascene experience, visit the city’s many charismatic Syrian restaurants.
The area of Midan lies south of the old city and can easily be reached by walking south from Souq al-Hamadiyah or from Bab Saghir, the Roman Straight Street that bisects the Ancient City. Here you will find the bustling Jazmatiya Street, where you can wander past hundreds of shwarma and falafel stands, Levantine restaurants, and Syrian pastry shops decked out with towers of sweets.
Damascus has an active coffee house and shisha (nargila) smoking scene, but while most of the city's major hotels serve alcohol, the bar scene in Damascus can be fairly limited and is concentrated mostly in the Christian Quarter. Damascenes often head up to Jebel Qasioun at night to watch the city lights, but if you are looking for city-based entertainment, consult a recent travel guide for the most up-to-date suggestions.
Located in an oasis some 215 kilometers northeast of Damascus are the ruins of ancient Palmyra. This famous desert city, whose remains are now a UNESCO World Heritage site, was once an essential stopping point for Silk Road travelers on the road to Damascus.
Palmyra’s prosperity ensured a wealth of elaborate buildings and large scale monuments, but by the 16th century the city fell into a state of disrepair. Today, all that remains is a panorama of crumbled Corinthian columns, eroded archways, theaters, ornate hillside tombs, and temples spread across the landscape. However, many of the ruins are in a surprisingly good state of repair and the ruined city of Palmyra affords an unbeatable peek into the ancient Syrian culture.