An ancient and important city of Syria. Damascus (present-day esh-Sham, or Dimashq) lies at the foot of the Anti-Lebanon Range, with the nearby Arabian-Syrian Desert stretching out before it to the E. (Ca 7:4) To the SW of the city, snowcapped Mount Hermon rises 2,814 m (9,232 ft), marking the southern end of the Anti-Lebanon Range.
The slopes behind Damascus to the W are quite barren, but the cool waters of the Barada River (the Abanah of 2Ki 5:12) come rushing through a gorge in the mountains and flow onto the plain where the city is situated. Thereafter irrigation creates a luxuriant oasis some 16 km (10 mi) wide and 48 km (30 mi) long. This abundant water supply made Damascus a key point on the ancient military and trade routes between the lands of the eastern Mediterranean, the countries of Mesopotamia, and the Orient. Also serving to channel traffic by Damascus are the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon ranges, since these act as a natural barrier to caravan traffic moving toward or from the Mediterranean seaboard.
Northwest of the city there is a break in the Anti-Lebanon range, and from ancient times, this pass connected to the major highway through Coele-Syria (the Beqaʽ) that went S to Hazor, then down along the W side of the Sea of Galilee through the Plains of Megiddo toward the seacoast, and continued S through Philistia and on to Egypt. East of the Anti-Lebanon range, a route went S from Damascus to Hazor and N to Hamath, Aleppo, and Carchemish. Another prominent route, commonly called the King’s Highway (compare Nu 21:22), ran S from Damascus, following the edge of the plateau E of the Jordan on down to the Red Sea and the Arabian Peninsula. These were the roads over which marched the armies of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. In yet another direction, caravans heading for Mesopotamia first went from Damascus E to Tadmor and from there to the Euphrates region.
The plain on which Damascus is situated is a plateau region some 700 m (2,300 ft) above sea level, and the city enjoys a pleasant climate, with average temperatures varying from about 7° C. (45° F.) in winter to 29° C. (84° F.) in summer. The very fertile land produces fine orchards of olives, figs, and apricots, as well as rich grainfields. The city’s prosperity, however, came primarily from the commercial traffic and also because it was a natural trading center for nomadic tribes. Damascus is called a “merchant” of Tyre by the prophet Ezekiel, evidently trading wine from the neighboring city of Helbon and reddish-gray wool in exchange for Tyre’s exports of manufactured articles. (Eze 27:18) The “streets” that Ben-hadad II offered to be assigned to Ahab in Damascus were evidently for the establishment of bazaars, or markets, to promote Ahab’s commercial interests in that Syrian capital.—1Ki 20:34.
History. The initial history of Damascus is unknown. Josephus (Jewish Antiquities, I, 145 [vi, 4]) presents the traditional Jewish view that it was founded by Uz, the son of Aram and grandson of Shem, though there are indications of a more southerly position for the descendants of Uz. (Ge 10:21-23; see UZ No. 4.) Abraham likely passed by or through Damascus on his way to the Promised Land. Eliezer, the servant of childless Abraham, was “a man of Damascus.” (Ge 15:2) To a place N of Damascus called Hobah, Abraham pursued the invading kings to recover his captive nephew Lot.—Ge 14:1-16.
Opposes Israel. Damascus thereafter disappears from the Biblical account for nearly a thousand years, and when it reappears it is generally as an opponent of the nation of Israel. By then it was the center of one of the many Aramaean kingdoms of Syria. When David fought and defeated the king of Zobah, “Syria of Damascus” came to help the losers. David defeated them as well, stationed garrisons in the Damascene kingdom, and made Damascus tributary to Israel. (2Sa 8:3-6; 1Ch 18:5, 6) During Solomon’s reign, however, a fugitive named Rezon from the Aramaean kingdom of Zobah gained control of Damascus, setting himself up as king. His hatred for Israel was vented in acts of aggression.—1Ki 11:23-25.
King Ben-hadad I of Damascus, after first making a covenant with Baasha of the northern kingdom of Israel, sold out to Asa of Judah (977-937 B.C.E.) and invaded his former ally’s territory. (1Ki 15:18-20; 2Ch 16:2-4) At the head of a coalition of 32 allied kings, his successor Ben-hadad II also invaded the northern kingdom of Israel. He tried again, with his troops reorganized under 32 governors, but he suffered defeat both times. (1Ki 20:1, 16-34) Though captured on the second attempt, he was released by King Ahab (c. 940-920 B.C.E.) and later, at the battle of Ramoth-gilead, directed his chariot forces against the combined forces of Judah and Israel, defeating them and causing Ahab’s death. (1Ki 22:29-37) During the reign of Jehoram of Israel (c. 917-905 B.C.E.), Ben-hadad II mounted a final attempt to capture Samaria but was miraculously routed.—2Ki 6:24; 7:6, 7.
Fulfilling the commission given to his predecessor Elijah, the prophet Elisha went to Damascus and told Hazael he would replace Ben-hadad II as king of Syria. (1Ki 19:15; 2Ki 8:7-13) Prior to Ben-hadad’s death, Damascus had been the focal point of Syrian resistance to the expansion of the Assyrian Empire, which was bent on dominating the lands bordering the Mediterranean. As a key junction point on the main route from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean, Damascus was a principal target. At the head of a coalition of neighboring kingdoms, Damascus resisted with some success a series of attacks by Shalmaneser III of Assyria. One of Shalmaneser’s inscriptions records the seizure of the Syrian throne by Hazael. After one major conflict, Shalmaneser bottled up Hazael in Damascus, besieging the city, but was unable to take it.
As king of Damascus, Hazael continued an aggressive policy toward Israel. (2Ki 10:32) Extending Damascene power as far as the Philistine city of Gath, he even invaded Judah, intimidating King Jehoash (898-859 B.C.E.) so that the Judean king paid a huge tribute to spare Jerusalem from Syrian attack. (2Ki 12:17, 18; 13:3, 22; 2Ch 24:23, 24) Under Hazael’s successor, Ben-hadad III, the yoke of Damascus was loosened from Israel’s territory as Jehoash of Israel (c. 859-845 B.C.E.) inflicted three defeats on Syria. (2Ki 13:24, 25) Then Jeroboam II of Israel (c. 844-804 B.C.E.) pushed deep into Syria as far as “the entering in of Hamath,” and “restored Damascus and Hamath to Judah in Israel.” (2Ki 14:23-28) This is generally understood to mean the making of these kingdoms tributary, similar to their position under Solomon.—1Ki 4:21.
Jehovah’s judgments on Damascus. A century later, however, Damascus is shown again in its position as “the head of Syria.” (Isa 7:8) During the reign of King Ahaz of Judah (761-746 B.C.E.), Rezin of Damascus, in league with Pekah of Israel, swept through Judah to Elath on the Gulf of ʽAqaba. This so frightened King Ahaz that he sent a bribe to Tiglath-pileser III of Assyria, asking him to divert Syrian pressure from Judah. With alacrity, the Assyrian attacked Damascus, captured it, put Rezin to death, and exiled many of the Damascenes. (2Ki 16:5-9; 2Ch 28:5, 16) Thereby Jehovah’s prophecies through Isaiah and Amos were fulfilled (Isa 8:4; 10:5, 8, 9; Am 1:3-5), yet Ahaz, on going to Damascus to meet (and likely pay homage to) Tiglath-pileser, senselessly had a copy made of the Damascene altar for false worship he saw there, and later he sacrificed upon it to “the gods of Damascus.”—2Ki 16:10-13; 2Ch 28:23.
Damascus never constituted a threat to Israel thereafter. Though weak militarily, the city evidently regained commercial strength, as is indicated by Ezekiel’s prophecy. (Eze 27:18) But Damascus, once so highly praised, was also foretold by Jeremiah to suffer distress as a result of the bad report coming from Hamath and Arpad in northern Syria, a report likely relating to the harsh conquest of the Aramaean kingdoms by the advancing Babylonian armies of Nebuchadnezzar. (Jer 49:23-27) Damascus, the jewel of the desert, would not escape the effects of that conquest. Still later Damascus is included in an adverse pronouncement through Jehovah’s prophet Zechariah, whose prophecy was written in 518 B.C.E. The prophecy likely found fulfillment in the time of Alexander the Great, who occupied Syria and Phoenicia following his victory at the Battle of Issus in 333 B.C.E.—Zec 9:1-4.
During the Seleucid period, Damascus was replaced by Antioch as the Syrian provincial capital. King Aretas III of the Arabic Nabataean kingdom captured the city in 85 B.C.E. Rome conquered all of Syria in 64-63 B.C.E., and Damascus continued as a Roman city until 33 C.E. It was listed by Pliny (Roman historian of the first century C.E.) as one of the original ten cities of the Decapolis.
In the first century C.E. When Saul of Tarsus headed for Damascus in his campaign of persecuting Christians, the city had a number of Jewish synagogues. (Ac 9:1, 2) It evidently then formed part of the domain of Nabataean King Aretas IV and was ruled by an appointed governor. (2Co 11:32, 33) After his conversion, blinded Saul was led to a home on the street called Straight. (See STRAIGHT.) Paul (Saul) preached for a time in the synagogues of Damascus, but a murder plot made necessary his escape by night through an opening in the city wall.—Ac 9:11, 17-25; 26:20; Ga 1:16, 17.