Greco-Roman history of Damascus

Damascus: the Jupiter temple (III A.C.) in front of Omayyad mosque

The term “Greco-Roman world” refers to geographical areas and empires that historically were directly and closely influenced by the language, government, religion, and culture of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Damascus is one such example.

Founded in the 7000-9000 BCE, Damascus was an extraordinary commercial and cultural center, by its geographical position at the crossroads of the orient and the occident, between Asia and Africa. The old city of Damascus is held to be among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Excavations at Tell Ramad on the outside of the town have confirmed that Damascus was populated as early as 8,000 to 10,000 BCE. However, it is not recorded as a famous city until the advent of the Aramaeans.

Despite Islam’s commanding influence, traces of earlier cultures, particularly the Roman and Byzantine, continue to be seen in the city.

Let’s explore the history of Damascus in the Greco-Roman period.

Damascus was captured by Alexander the Great. After Alexander died in 323 BCE, Damascus became the site of a struggle between the Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires. The authority of the city frequently passed from one realm to the other. Seleucus I Nicator, one of Alexander’s officers, made Antioch the center of his vast empire, which led to the dissolution of Damascus’ fame compared with new Seleucid towns such as Latakia in the north. Later, Demetrius III Philopator restored the city according to the Greek Hippodamian system and renamed it “Demetrias.”

In 64 BCE, the Roman officer Pompey annexed the westernmost part of Syria. The Romans conquered Damascus and consequently incorporated it into the league of ten cities known as the Decapolis, which themselves were included in the territory of Syria and awarded autonomy.

The Romans entirely redesigned the city of Damascus after Pompey captured the region. Today, the Old Town of Damascus maintains the rectangular shape of the Roman town, with its two main axes: the Decumanus Maximus and the Cardo (north-south), the Decumanus being about double as long. The Romans built a majestic gate that still survives at the eastward end of Decumanus Maximus. The gate originally had three arches: the central dome was for chariots while the side arches were for strollers.

In 23 BCE, Herod the Great was gifted lands managed by Zenodorus by Caesar Augustus, and some researchers believe that Herod was granted control of Damascus as well. Damascus’s control returned to Syria either upon the death of Herod the Great or was part of the properties given to Herod Philip, which were given to Syria with his death in 33 CE.

It is theorized that control of Damascus was obtained by Aretas IV Philopatris of Nabatea between the death of Herod Philip in 33 CE and the end of Aretas in 40 CE, but there is no tangible evidence against Aretas controlling the city before 37 CE and many reasons why it could not have been a gift from Caligula between 37 and 40 CE. All these theories arise not from any actual evidence outside the New Testament but rather “a certain understanding of 2 Corinthians 11:32,” and in reality, “neither from secular-historical sources, scientific evidence, nor New Testament texts can Nabatean sovereignty over Damascus in the first century CE be proven.”

Damascus became a municipality by the beginning of the 2nd century, and in 222, it was upgraded to a Colonia by the Emperor Septimius Severus. In general, Damascus and the Roman province of Syria began to rise during the Pax Romana. Damascus’s value as a caravan city was visible with the trade routes from southern Arabia, Palmyra, Petra, and China’s silk routes, all converging on it. The city satisfied the Roman demands for eastern luxuries. Circa 125 CE, the Roman emperor Hadrian, promoted Damascus to “Metropolis of Coele-Syria.”

Little remains of the Romans’ architecture, but the town planning of the old city did have a permanent effect. The Roman architects brought together the Aramaean and Greek foundations of the city and fused them into a new layout measuring approximately 4,920 by 2,460 ft, enclosed by a city wall. The city wall included seven gates, but only the east gate, Bab Sharqi, remains from the Roman period. Roman Damascus extends mostly at depths of up to 16.4 ft below the modern city.

The Biblical Street called Straight of Damascus

The old district of Bab Tuma was established at the dawn of the Byzantine/Roman era by the local Eastern Orthodox community. As stated in the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Thomas and Saint Paul both lived in that community. Roman Catholic researchers also deem Bab Tuma to be the hometown of several Popes such as Gregory III and John V. Accordingly, there was a population of Jewish Christians who converted to Christianity with the advent of Saint Paul’s proselytization.

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