It was Mark Twain who declared that the ancient Indian city of Varanasi was “…older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
He was, of course, very, very wrong.
Despite the fact there are countless cities that have been built over thousands of years through history, there are those who really are older than history and older than both tradition and legend.
To find one of the oldest cities on Earth we travel to Syria.
Commonly known as ash-Sham and nicknamed the “City of Jasmine,” Damascus is believed to be the oldest city on Earth. While this claim is heavily disputed in the archaeological community, there is evidence to support the claim.
In addition to being one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world with a rich history that dates back thousands of years, Damascus is an important cultural and religious center of the Mediterranean Levante.
“Damascus is… a symbol. One might call it a bunch of symbols. It is a symbol of the permanent physical conditions that run throughout history; the permanent geographical limits of human settlement, government, and war.”—Hilaire Belloc
The name of Damascus first appeared in the geographical list of Thutmose III as 𓍘𓄟𓊃𓈎𓅱/𓍘𓄟𓈎𓅱𓈉 T-m-ś-q in the 15th century B.C. We find early reports of Damascus from the 1350 BC Amarna letters when the city of Damascus was ruled by king Biryawaza.
According to Carbon-14 dating performed at the site of Tell Ramad, located just outside of Damascus, the site was most likely occupied since the second half of the seventh millennium BC, sometime around 6,300 BC.
However, as noted by experts, there is strong evidence that a settlement existed in the Barada Basin which dates back to as early as 8,000 to 10,000 BC. Damascus is one of the oldest cities in the Middle East. In the Middle Ages, it was the center of a flourishing craft industry, specializing in swords and lace.
However, and despite the fact that there is clear evidence of the city being inhabited for tens of thousands of years, the site was not documented as an important city until the Aramaeans arrived in the 11th century BC. This is one of the main reasons why experts have doubts about Damascus being the oldest of them all.
The Aramaeans who entered the city of Damascus without having fought a battle for it adopted the name “Dimashqu” for their new home.
Some authors argue that, despite archeological evidence pointing otherwise, there wasn’t really any meaningful evidence in that is now Damascus until the second millennium BC.
The Aramaeans developed the city creating a network of channels that would increase the agricultural value of the region.
The ancient city of Damascus was also the capital city of the Umayyad caliphate, which extended from Portugal to India.
In its long history, Damascus has been in Roman, Arab and Ottoman possession, but it is also noted as being one of the cities conquered by Alexander the Great.
The ancient city of Damascus was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979.
In total, the old city occupies an area of 135 hectares surrounded by a Roman wall, from which the north and east sides and part of the south side still remain standing. In total there are eight gates, of which the oldest Bab Sharqi, dates back to the Roman period.
Despite the fact the city still retains ancient Roman and Byzantine vestiges, most of the 125 buildings and monuments included in the UNESCO declaration correspond to Islamic times.
The ancient city of Damascus is also mentioned in Genesis 14:15 as existing at the time of the War of the Kings.
According to the 1st-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in his twenty-one volume Antiquities of the Jews, Damascus (along with Trachonitis), was founded by Uz, the son of Aram. In Antiquities i. 7, Josephus reports:
Nicolaus of Damascus, in the fourth book of his History, says thus: “Abraham reigned at Damascus, being a foreigner, who came with an army out of the land above Babylon, called the land of the Chaldeans: but, after a long time, he got him up, and removed from that country also, with his people, and went into the land then called the land of Canaan, but now the land of Judea, and this when his posterity were become a multitude; as to which posterity of his, we relate their history in another work. Now the name of Abraham is even still famous in the country of Damascus; and there is shown a village named from him, The Habitation of Abraham.
The worst part of everything is that the city is in grave danger. In October 2010, Global Heritage Fund named Damascus one of 12 cultural heritage sites most “on the verge” of irreparable loss and destruction.