Said to be the world's oldest inhabited city, Damascus today is a thriving modern capital. Three thousand years ago it was the capital of the Aramean Kingdom and was later conquered by Alexander the Great, when it became an important Greek city. It was also a major city of the Roman Empire and fell to the Muslims in 635A.D. The Mongols sacked the city in 1200A.D. and the Ottomans and the Mamelukes occupied it during the Middle Ages.
Damascus is situated at the Ghouta Oasis, fed by the waters of the Baruda River. It was this oasis which first made settlement possible, as the surrounding area would otherwise be uninhabitable.
The old city of Damascus is surrounded by what was once a Roman wall, much rebuilt at various times during the past two millennia. The section between the Gate of Safety (Bab as-Salama) and Thomas Gate (Bab Touma) is the part of the wall. Other Roman remains include the western gate of the Temple of Jupiter, all that remains of this huge structure from the 3rd century BC. The Temple gate is situated at the far end of the Souk al-Hamadiyyah and consists of two vast Corinthian columns supporting a decorated lintel.
Worth visiting are the Science and Medical Museum just off the Souk al-Hamadiyyah, which is housed in a 12th century as a hospital, and the Museum of the Arts and Popular Traditions of Syria, housed in the eye-catching black-and-white Azem Palace, built of black basalt and limestone.
The National Museum is situated at the entrance to the Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi, a military camp outside the city near Palmyra. It contains a fascinating and varied collection of statuary, frescoes, glassware, old surgical instruments, coins, jewelry and a collection of Q'rans dating back to the 13th century. It is unfortunate that many of these exhibits are unlabelled, or have labels in Arabic only.
The most impressive mosque in Damascus is the Omayyad Mosque. This dates back to 705A.D., although the site is much older, probably by another 2,000 years. The grandeur and peace of the mosque is a welcome relief from the heat and hurly-burly outside. Non-Muslims are welcome to visit and to take photographs, but visitors must don the black robes provided before entering the mosque.
The Via Recta is to be found in Damascus. Mentioned in the Bible as the "Street called Straight", it is the famous refuge of Saint Paul, after his vision on the road to Damascus, and today marks the boundary of the city's Christian quarter. St. Paul's Chapel is to be found in Bab Kisan, on the spot where St. Paul was lowered from a window in a basket to make his escape from the city.