The world’s oldest continuously inhabited city is Damascus

You might think Jerusalem or Athens was the world's oldest continuously inhabited city, but Damascus, Syria, holds that honor.

You might think Jerusalem or Athens was the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, but Damascus, Syria, holds that honor.

Damascus, founded in the third millennium B.C., was an important cultural and commercial center due to its geographical location at the crossroads of the Orient and the occident, between Africa and Asia. Damascus is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. Damascus was inhabited as early as 8,000 to 10,000 BC, according to excavations at Tell Ramad on the city’s outskirts. However, it is not documented as an important city until the arrival of the Aramaeans. During the Medieval period, it was the center of a thriving craft industry, with different areas of the city specializing in specific trades or crafts.

The city is rich in evidence of the civilizations that built it: Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic. The Umayyad caliphate, in particular, established Damascus as its capital, laying the groundwork for the city’s ongoing development as a living Muslim, Arab city, on which each succeeding dynasty has left and continues to leave its mark.

Credit: UNESCO

Despite Islam’s dominance, traces of earlier cultures, particularly Roman and Byzantine, can still be found in the city. Thus, the city today is based on a Roman plan and retains the aspect and orientation of the Greek city, with all streets oriented north-south or east-west, and is an important example of urban planning.

The earliest visible physical evidence is from the Roman period, and it includes the extensive remains of the Temple of Jupiter, various gates, and an impressive section of the Roman city walls. The city served as the seat of the Umayyad Caliphate. Aside from the incomparable Great Mosque, which was built on the site of a Roman temple and overlaid a Christian basilica, there is little visible dating from this important period in the city’s history. The current city walls, the Citadel, and some mosques and tombs date from the Middle Ages, but the majority of the city’s built heritage dates from after the Ottoman conquest in the early 16th century.

Great Mosque of the Umayyads
Credit: UNESCO

Criterion I Damascus attests to the civilizations that built it’s unique aesthetic achievement. The Great Mosque is a masterpiece of Umayyad architecture, as are other major monuments from different periods such as the Citadel, the Azem Palace, madrasas, khans, public baths, and private residences.

Criterion (ii): Damascus was crucial in the development of subsequent Arab cities as the capital of the Umayyad caliphate – the first Islamic caliphate. With its Great Mosque at the heart of a Graeco-Roman grid-based urban plan, the city served as a model for the Arab Muslim world.

Criterion (iii): Historical and archaeological evidence point to origins in the third millennium BC, and Damascus is widely regarded as one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. The incomparable Great Mosque is a rare and extremely significant Umayyad monument. The current city walls, the Citadel, and some mosques and tombs date from the Medieval period, while the majority of the city’s built heritage, including palaces and private houses, dates from after the Ottoman conquest in the early 16th century.

Credit: UNESCO

Criterion (iv): The Umayyad Great Mosque, also known as the Grand Mosque of Damascus, is one of the world’s largest mosques and one of the oldest continuous prayer sites since Islam’s inception. As such, it represents a significant cultural, social, and artistic development.

Criterion (vi): The city is inextricably linked with significant historical events, ideas, and traditions, particularly from the Islamic period. These have contributed to the city’s image and the impact of Islamic history and culture.

Integrity (2009) (2009)

The property’s boundary is formed by the line of the old city’s walls. Although areas outside the walls, which represent the city’s expansion since the 13th century, are considered related to the old city in terms of historical significance and provide its setting and context, the key attributes of Outstanding Universal Value are contained within the boundary. These include the city’s plan and dense urban fabric, city walls and gates, and 125 protected monuments such as the Umayyad Mosque, madrasas, khans, the Citadel, and private houses.

The attributes are threatened by a lack of traditional approaches to maintenance and conservation, as well as the use of traditional materials, while its setting and context are threatened by a lack of conservation policy for the historical zones outside the walled city, as well as regional planning projects.

Ancient City of Damascus (Syrian Arab Republic)
Credit: UNESCO

Authenticity (2009) (2009)

The morphological layout and spatial pattern of the historic fabric have remained essentially unchanged since the property’s inscription, and the key discrete attributes have survived. Commercial and semi-industrial activities, on the other hand, are spreading into the residential areas of the walled city and its suburbs, eroding the value of the attributes relating to the urban fabric and their interrelationships in some places.

Protection and management needs (2009)

Two government departments (the Commission for Safeguarding the Old Town and the General Directorate for Antiquities and Museums) are in charge of planning control and management of the old city (DGAM). The Ministry of Local Administration and Environment works with international organizations to provide technical assistance for projects and programs aimed at improving the city. The conservation policy’s effectiveness is dependent on the full participation of various interests within the city, such as public/private partnerships, all levels of government, the financial community, and citizens.

Ancient City of Damascus (Syrian Arab Republic)

The Antiquities Law 222, as amended in 1999, provides legal protection, as does Ministerial Order No. 192 of 1976, which designates the walled city as part of Syria’s cultural and historical heritage. Parliamentary Act N° 826 for the Restoration and Reconstruction/Rebuilding of the City Within the Walls has been reviewed in light of changing conditions, needs, and opportunities, with the goal of establishing new conditions for the walled city.

A Committee for the Protection and Development of Old Damascus has been formed, with representatives from various bodies coordinating planning and construction activities as well as being in charge of strategic planning for the Old City.

The draft of the old city’s Integrated Urban Plan was formally approved by Ministerial Decision N° 37/A in 2010. A buffer zone has also been established but has not yet been formally approved.

Once approved and implemented, the plan must clarify the various levels of protection to be applied to the various parts of the urban fabric, as well as the appropriate interventions.


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