by Jihad Sulaiman

While the music filled the ether with powerful tones, the fervent singing to one of the songs of the composer Ziad Rahbani resounded from the throats of twenty thousand fans in the Citadel of Damascus. The audience longed for this live song. It was also essential for Rahbani that his first ever appearance in front of his Syrian audience took place in the context of the events of “Damascus – The Arab Capital of Culture in 2008”.

I, myself, was grateful that my first memory of the citadel in Damascus was so heartwarming, because I knew that the events this citadel had witnessed throughout history have been also associated with painful experiences. That evening, the Citadel was a place of celebration and joy, however once it was also a place where people had been deprived of their freedom, such as the journalist, Najeeb Al-Rayes, during the French mandate period. Just as the Citadel used to be a source of prestige and power for the dynasties who ruled Damascus, the Citadel also had witnessed the decline of power of these dynasties. It had been destroyed, rebuilt and fortified several times. I saw before my eyes the soldiers defending the citadel while Mongolian soldiers, under Hulagu Khan’s leadership and after him, Timur Lenk, loudly attacked, destroying most of its parts and setting them on fire.

These events testify that no one can walk through Damascus and learn about the history of this city without visiting the northwestern corner of the ancient city where the Citadel is located. The Citadel is on the same level as the city itself; not located higher. According to some sources, the construction of the first fortress on the site of the Citadel, which has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1979, dates back to Roman times. The present structure of the castle dates back to two main periods: the Seljuk and Zengid periods.  Also, the following Ayyubid epoch shaped the appearance of the Citadel of Damascus.

In 1071, the Fatimids called on the Seljuk leader Atsiz ibn Uvaq to help them suppress the revolts in Palestine. Atsiz used this opportunity to seize Damascus and make the city his seat. He expanded the Citadel, which was a royal seat and military base during the Seljuk period. Then it was surrounded with high walls and towers.

In 1154, Nur ad-Din az-Zangi invaded Damascus and made it the capital of the Islamic empire. He inhabited the citadel and strengthened its fortifications.

One of the towers of Damascus Citadel
One of the towers of Damascus Citadel – © Stefan Heidemann (CC-BY-NC-ND)

After az-Zangi death, Salah ad-Din took power. He added another tower to the Citadel. Despite Salah ad-Din’s victory over the Crusaders, the citadel was in a severely neglected and in a weak state due to heavy attacks from Crusader armies.

After an earthquake and the death of Salah ad-Din, his uncle al-Adil began to rebuild the citadel. He extended it with modern military defences. These included slingshots, used to protect the city against the attacks of the Crusaders, who were a great danger to the city at the time.

In 1260 AD, the Mongols, led by Hulagu, conquered Damascus and destroyed most of the Citadel. They were soon driven out by Mamluk Sultan Saif ad-Din Qutuz and his successor Rukn ad-Din Baibars, who rebuilt the Citadel. During this time, new defences were added to the Citadel, such as curtain walls, two-storey battlements and gate fortifications.

Damascus citadel from the inside, round 1930
Damascus citadel from the inside, round 1930 – © Unknown authorship (CC-BY-NC-ND)

In 1516 A.D., the Mamluks handed the fortress over to the Ottomans, who gained control of the city. In the 18th century, the Citadel of Damascus was severely damaged by earthquakes and rebuilt by the Ottoman Sultan Mustafa III. Later, it was neglected because it had lost its strategic function.

It was then used as a barracks and prison. In 1925, French soldiers bombed the old town from the citadel in response to the Great Revolution in Syria against the French mandate.

Since 1984, the Citadel was the subject of restoration work and archaeological excavations and was opened to visitors and researchers from all over the world as an archaeological site and cultural center.

General view of Damascus citadel from northwest
General view of Damascus citadel from northwest – © Peter Heiske (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Today, the Citadel has 12 towers equipped with battlements and embrasures. It also has important architectural features, such as the so called Ayyubid Hall and other buildings on the south-west side. These buildings have been spread over a rectangular area completely surrounded by a defensive moat filled with the water from the Barada River.

Originally, the Citadel had three main gates. The first, called the Iron Gate, was on the north side and the second was on the east side, connecting the Citadel to the Asruniya Market. The third, in the west, was unknown for a long time until it was discovered by the Syrian-French archaeological mission in 2005. The Citadel also had other secondary gates equipped with mobile bridges.

In addition to the high towers and thick walls carved from large blocks of stone, the Citadel had more than 300 loopholes in its walls. Through them the defenders fired arrows at the attackers. Behind the walls there were huge war machines, such as slingshots for big stones and incendiary bombs.

The North West Tower of Damascus Citadel
View at north-western corner of Damascus Citadel – © Stefan Heidemann (CC-BY-NC-ND)

The mixed feelings that overwhelm the visitor during his visit to the citadel of Damascus remind him, on the one hand, of the multitude of events that have taken place in the city of Damascus over the centuries, and, on the other hand, demonstrate to him that Damascus really is an eternal city, about which the American writer Mark Twain once said: “To Damascus, years are only moments, decades are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time, not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise, and prosper and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality.” (from THE INNOCENTS ABROAD (1869))

Published by Syrian Heritage Archive Project

Joint project for the digitisation of Syrian cultural heritage from Germany (Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin and German Archaeological Institute) in the period 2013-2019

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  1. Nur ad-Din sought to make alliances with his Muslim neighbours in northern Iraq and Syria in order to strengthen the Muslim front against their Crusader enemies. In 1147 he signed a bilateral treaty with Mu’in ad-Din Unur, governor of Damascus. As part of this agreement, he also married Mu’in ad-Din’s daughter Ismat ad-Din Khatun. Together Mu’in ad-Din and Nur ad-Din besieged the cities of Bosra (see Battle of Bosra ) and Salkhad, which had been captured by a rebellious vassal of Mu’in ad-Din named Altuntash, but Mu’in ad-Din was always suspicious of Nur ad-Din’s intentions and did not want to offend his former crusader allies in Jerusalem, who had helped defend Damascus against Zengi. To reassure Mu’in ad-Din, Nur ad-Din curtailed his stay in Damascus and turned instead towards the Principality of Antioch, where he was able to seize Artah, Kafar Latha, Basarfut, and Balat.

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