Photograph by Christopher Herwig, Aurora

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Merchants and craftsmen have sold their wares outside the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus for hundreds of years.

Photograph by Christopher Herwig, Aurora

Ancient City of Damascus

Site: Ancient City of Damascus

Location: Syrian Arab Republic

Year Designated: 1979

Category: Cultural

Reason for Designation: The ancient site preserves the architecture, art, and ambience of what may be the world’s oldest city.

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Even in a land as ancient as the Middle East the city of Damascus stands out. Founded in the third millennium B.C., Damascus vies for—and just might own—the title of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city.

The city has changed hands countless times over the centuries. Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Nabataeans, Romans, the Umayyad caliphate, Seljuk Turks, Mongols, Ottomans, French and many others all once held sway here. Each group left echoes behind that became part of the city’s rich tapestry—then vanished. The city itself, though, thrived as it does today at the heart of an independent Syria.

Damascus’ rich history is alive in the historic quarter, where narrow lanes wander through warrens of ancient buildings, pass lively markets, and reveal historic sites—all surrounded by remnants of venerable walls and legendary gates.

The Umayyad Mosque is Islam’s earliest great mosque and ranks in holiness below those of Mecca and Medina. As befits Damascus, the mosque site was once home to temple of Syria’s ancient Aramaean people, then to a Roman temple honoring Jupiter (part of the facade remains adjacent to the mosque) and a Christian church in the era of Constantine. The Arab conquest of Damascus eventually precipitated construction of the mosque, which dates to the early eighth century. A shrine reported to house the head of John the Baptist lies inside the mosque walls.

Next to the mosque’s north gate sits the tomb of Salah al-Din ibn Ayyub (Saladin) the legendary warrior-sultan who defeated the Crusaders in several decisive battles and drove them from Jerusalem.

A modern (by Damascene standards) piece of history can be found in Souq al-Hamidiyya, where an ancient street was converted into a lively covered market during the late-19th-century Ottoman era. The bazaar is only one of the old city’s many suqs, where sellers peddle spices, sweets, rugs, and all manner of tempting wares as they have for centuries.

Traditional Damascene homes are often unassuming from the street, but their interiors, built around lush courtyard gardens, are artistic and architectural treasures often filled with fine things. Some outstanding examples are open to the public, such as the mid-18th-century Azem Palace, built for the governor of Damascus but now home to the Museum of Arts and Popular Traditions.

The ancient section of Damascus has seen populations decrease in recent years as residents seek more modern housing. This trend has led to some empty buildings, which paired with government redevelopment plans, may threaten some of the city’s historic legacy.