‘If Paradise be on Earth, it is, without a doubt, Damascus.” The city today is worlds away from this 12th-century description by Ibn Jubayr; it is gripped by fear. Once more in its turbulent history it faces the threat of destruction, as the fight to control Syria’s capital approaches the endgame. Will the battle that began with an ever tightening stranglehold on the suburbs conclude by choking the lifeblood from the centre? The human suffering that such a drawn-out struggle would entail is incomprehensible. What has already happened in Homs, Hama and Aleppo, not to mention other cities and towns across the country, gives us a sickening foretaste.
The material risks are clear: designated a Unesco world heritage site in 1979, Damascus boasts Syria’s greatest concentration of historic monuments. Continuously inhabited since the fourth millennium BC, the city has survived earthquakes, fires and conquerors eager to control its well-watered oases and lucrative trade routes. A melting pot of peoples from Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, Asia Minor, Persia, Greece and Rome, Damascus in its Roman heyday was 10 times bigger than Paris. Even today, the intact walls of its Old City encircle an area of 346 acres, far more than the equivalent ancient centre of any European capital.
Unique, too, is its collection of historic private houses. Cities such as Cairo and Istanbul have preserved their mosques, madrasas and palaces but have lost almost all their early residential architecture. The Ottoman Yearbook of 1900 recorded 16,832 houses within Damascus’s Old City. Half are estimated to be still standing, many with richly decorated rooms and courtyards.
Thousands of families displaced from their homes in the “hot” outlying areas have crowded into the safety of such houses, whose seamless exteriors in the maze of narrow lanes present only an inscrutable facade. My own house in the Muslim quarter is among them, a refuge for friends from all walks, united in poverty. Danger seems further away in alleys where tanks cannot penetrate, though the artillery now stationed on Mount Qassioun could easily target the Old City.
A few steps north from the biblical “Straight Street”, where the blinded Paul was led after his conversion, sits the eighth-century Umayyad mosque, the spiritual heart of the city. Sacred to Arameans as the Temple of Haddad, to Romans as the Temple of Jupiter and to Christians as the Cathedral of John the Baptist, the mosque is, like every mosque and church in Syria, open to all. Every race, nationality and religion is welcome. It is a building whose power transcends religion, the very essence of Damascus. Burnt down twice in accidental fires, the mosque was also torched by Tamerlane during his sack of Damascus, but it survives. Round the arcades of its courtyard, echoes of Paradise can still be sensed in the green and gold shimmering of its wall mosaics, the largest such passage in the world, extending over an acre and outshining those of its Umayyad precursor, Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock.
In one of Syria’s countless examples of religious blending, Islamic tradition holds that Jesus, revered as a great prophet in the Qur’an, will descend from its “Jesus minaret” at the Last Judgment to fight the Antichrist. Nearby, in the Christian Melkite cathedral the words of Patriarch Gregorios III embody the strong sense of community that has existed here for millennia: “We are a church of Arabs. No war is a religious one.” His prayers are for national unity and reconciliation in “dangerous times”. Even before the current crisis reduced it to bankruptcy, Damascus had neither the bureaucratic freedom nor the finance needed to deal with such recent threats to its heritage as Iran buying up property round the Sayyida Ruqiyya shrine to bulldoze for busloads of pilgrims. War is not the only danger.
Whatever physical destruction to the city lies ahead, the deep and complex weave of its historical, cultural and spiritual fabric will survive, as will its social fabric – torn, but not shredded to pieces. If the regime falls in the coming months, there will be suffering and material loss on a terrifying scale. Yet Damascus will be battered but not defeated. The place it occupies in the regional psyche as a symbol of Syria’s kaleidoscope is too strong not to endure.
Diana Darke is the author of the Bradt travel guide, Syria (Bradt) and is working on a new book about her house in Damascus, its role in the war and what its restoration taught her about Syria.