Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria on the Indus - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Damascus after Alexander

Whether Alexander was in Damascus, either after the Battle of Issus or on his way from Egypt to Gaugamela, is a debate on its own which I will not tackle here. For now, I’m interested in Damascus after the disintegration of Alexander’s Empire and the imprints left by his successors as well as by the Romans afterward.

Main competitors in Syria after Alexander’s death in 323 BC were Seleucos and Ptolemy, two of his generals who fought for their share of his empire during which Damascus regularly changed hands. Seleucos I Nicator established his capital in Antioch, today’s Antakya in Turkey, whereby the power of Damascus was annihilated. Later on, however, Demetrius III Philopator rebuilt Damascus according to the Hippodamian plan and renamed it Demetrias

But in 64 BC Roman Emperor Pompey conquered the western part of Syria and occupied Damascus. He added the city to the others belonging to the Decapolis ( a group of ten cities on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire) as he considered it to be an important center for Greco-Roman culture. In 37 AD, however, Caligula gave Damascus to the Nabataeans simply because he didn’t know what to do with it. So it happened that the Nabataean King Aretas IV Philopatris ruled Damascus from his own capital, Petra, till in 106 the kingdom was finally added to the Roman Empire. Damascus fell under the supervision of Rome and in 222, it was promoted to “Colonia” by Septimus Severus. The city prospered during the Pax Romana and played its role as a caravan stop on the trade routes from southern Arabia, Palmyra, and Petra to and from the Silk Road to China. Damascus was the turning table for all the luxury goods that were in high demand in Rome.

It is a rainy day in Damascus when I finally leave the souks, which are darker, dirtier and stuffier than the bazaars of Istanbul. I’m happy to see familiar Corinthian columns and Roman arches from the 2nd-3rd century amidst the many stalls with fruit and vegetables seeking shelter under white and bright blue tarps – a highly disturbing factor in my photographic eye. The open space after the souks looks pretty confusing partly because of the merchants offering their goods and partly because of the ruins that don’t seem to match any pattern. Traffic of cars, carts, scooters and lots of people with heavy plastic bags fill the square in a hectic cohesion. You don’t know where to look to move across to the opposite side.

The opposite side is, in fact, the exterior wall of the Umayyad Mosque that matches the old precinct of 385 x 305 meters that held the colossal Roman Temple of Jupiter. The massive limestone blocks on the lower part are unmistakably Roman. Obsolete entrance gates have been blocked up, often leaving only the refined earlier frame-decorations. On top of the eastern wall there even is a Babylonian feature, the so-called merlons, a step-pyramid-like architectural decoration. Each corner of this precinct used to have a defense tower, but when the temple was turned into a mosque only two towers remained, serving as the base for its square minarets: the Cat Bey Minaret and the Eesa Minaret. This last one is the tallest and is also called the Minaret of Jesus because many Muslims believe that Jesus will appear here on the Day of Judgment. Later on, a third square minaret was added, the Arus-Minaret, i.e. the Minaret of the Bride.


Today, the mosque has its own entrances, the most beautiful one being reserved for the male believers, whereas the women have to use the side door. Curious tourists like me are led to the back-door, of course. The famous Umayyad Mosque occupies indeed a very special spot as it has been erected on top of the old Temple of Hadad (1000 BC), the local Semite god of storms and lightning. Under Roman rule during the first century AD, a new temple dedicated this time to Jupiter was built right on top, making it the largest sanctuary in the east. In Byzantine times in the late 4th century, the Christians replaced the temple by a cathedral consecrated to John the Baptist, and it is said that his head is kept inside in its own precious shrine. 

Originally nothing changed much after the Muslim’s conquest of 636 as the cathedral was simply shared by the believers, the Muslims using the eastern side of the church and the Christians praying on the west side. But during the reign of Caliph Al-Walid I of the Umayyads, this arrangement changed. He thought that the church became too small for his congregation and he concluded an agreement with the Christians to purchase their cathedral before taking it down. And so it happened that between 706 and 715 the present mosque was erected. The construction was inspired by the Mosque of Prophet Mohamed in Medina. It became a place for personal and collective worship, religious education, political meetings, administration of justice, and help the sick and poor. It sounds strange to hear the Caliph asking the Emperor of the Byzantium for 200 skilled craftsmen to work on the decoration of his mosque – a Muslim asking a Christian for works of art – but that’s what he did. The Caliph’s request was granted and the result is this construction that definitely shows Byzantine influences. In the end, thousands of craftsmen were involved, not only Byzantine but also Coptic, Persian, and Indian. In those days, the mosque was the most impressive and the largest in the Islamic world. It was considered as being one of the wonders of the ancient world.

I know the inner courtyard and mural mosaics only from pictures and I’m totally unprepared for what I’m about to see. The vast courtyard is surrounded on three sides by an arched gallery supported by a mix of pillars that mostly lost their marble covers and by Corinthian columns. On the fourth side runs the entire length of the mosque itself. The stunning mosaics representing paradise or possibly the oasis Ghouta made by the Byzantine craftsmen cover the upper part of the walls of the gallery. The quality of their work is absolutely superb. They used a combination of colored glass, stones and marble enhanced with pieces of silver and gold to depict idyllic houses amidst lush green trees and plants along an imaginary stream. It was considered as being the largest mosaic in the ancient world, covering over 4,000 m2. The four meters high wall below the mosaics has generally lost its veined marble, leaving sore holes where the marble plates once were fixed to the rough wall. A separation band decorated with reliefs of vines and grapes separated the marble part from the mosaics, but only a few fragments have survived. Because of that strong Byzantine influence, I often have the feeling of walking in Istanbul instead of Damascus!

In a corner of this huge courtyard stands the octagonal Treasury resting on shortened Corinthian columns. Its walls are entirely covered with mosaics similar to those on the walls, and also applied on a gold background so typical in Byzantine art. It dates from the same time as the construction of the mosque. The libation fountain, however, is more recent and definitely is pure Islamic with its elegant curved roof.

I am very much impressed by this space. The rain has stopped by now and a shy sun is trying to light up the courtyard adding sparkles to the mosaics, but it is mainly the reflection of the entire complex on the wet marble floor that is so unique. I would never have thought that rain could add so much to the beauty of the place!

By now, it is time to turn to the magnificent Umayyad Mosque itself, whose outside walls match exactly the Roman Temple of Jupiter, 157 meters long and 100 meters wide. The façade carries a Byzantine design especially around the main entrance which is decorated with similar mosaics to those on the surrounding walls. The mosque is crowned with a cupola that has nothing Islamic but looks rather Byzantine. A very unusual but most pleasant combination.
When I step inside, the true size of the mosque really hits me. It’s huge and surpasses any mosque I’ve seen before. I even find it more powerful spacious than the Aya Sophia in Istanbul for instance; this may be due to my mental match with the earlier Temple of Jupiter or the rectangular shape of the sanctuary which automatically creates an optical space. The prayer-hall in divided into three aisles, supported by tall Corinthian columns re-used from the previous Temple of Jupiter and from the Church of Mary in Antioch. The interior reminds me of our Christian churches but here the columns support long wooden beams and a row of short columns on top of them with small arches above the larger ones underneath. I wonder if the Roman temple had a similar wooden ceiling – could be.

This was one of the first mosques using this kind of layout (the other was the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem) where the visitors can easily see the mihrab, the minbar as well as each other. The interior is generally kept all white, with here and there a few mosaics and geometric motives. This Umayyad Mosque has been rebuilt several times after serious fires broke out, in 1069, 1401 and 1893, this last one damaging most of the large mosaics. What we see today has been partially restored.


Here, the Muslim women generously can move freely through the entire left aisle with a special corridor leading to the shrine of John the Baptist and the baptismal font. The men evidently can wander through the largest part, the central and right aisle. The tourists are truly privileged in this case for they can walk freely throughout the entire mosque. According to one of the legends, the head of John the Baptist was found when the Christian cathedral was demolished, complete with skin and hair. It has been placed in a wrought shrine and since it is supposed to possess magical power, people still flock around the shrine to touch the metal grille that surrounds it. The floor is, as usual, entirely covered with carpets muffling the sounds, which adds to the serenity of the place. Through an open door, I catch a glance of the courtyard, a contre-jour picture framing a couple of women staring outside. Such a peaceful scene.

In fact, there is nothing left in Damascus that could refer to Hellenistic times as all traces generally have been erased and supplanted by Roman constructions anyway. We know however that the Romans used Greek and Aramaic foundations to layout Damascus, covering an area of approximately 1,500 x 750 meters, inside its protective walls. Damascus counted seven city gates, but only the Bab Sharqi on the east side has survived.

Although built according to the Hippodamian plan with straight streets and crossroads, only one such street remains: the “Street Called Straight” or “Via Recta” running east-west through old Damascus from the Bab Sharqi Gate to the Suq Madhat Pasha Gate, actually 20 meters north of the Bab al-Jabiya Gate at the western end. However, in those days, the street was 26 meters wide and 1.5 km long, flanked by covered porticos with shops. I think it must have looked prettier than the modern souks! Today’s Via Recta is much narrower and lays 4-5 meters above ancient levels.

The monumental Roman arch (or Gate of Sun), approximately 700 meters west of Bab Sharqi was excavated in 1947 and reconstructed at the present street level, on the exact spot where the Decumanus (now Via Recta) and the Cardo (north-south road) met. On both sides of the Via Recta, remains of the dug-out Roman columns have been put back in place – a very revealing sight! The city gate has kept its Roman features with a central wide arch for the carts traffic and two smaller arches on each side for the pedestrians. The ancient city walls are generally well preserved but it is hard to figure out which parts are still Roman and which have been added later on. They are a complete mixture of stones, bricks, blocked entrance doors and opened windows from the houses that have been built afterwards against the wall.

This about summarizes the Greek and Romans remains of the city. There definitely must be more ruins hidden five meters underground as the excavated city gate and columns along the Via Recta have proven, but if or when future digs will be considered and carried out is a totally different story. Today Damascus counts 1.7 million inhabitants and the very core of the city (within the ancient walls) is very densely populated. I can’t see by what magic archeologists will ever be able to map out the remains of so many superposed layers of occupation, spreading over hundreds of centuries. Not anytime soon anyway.

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