Damascus—A Desert Jewel
SNUGGLED against the Anti-Lebanon mountains of Syria with the vast Syrian desert stretching out before it, Damascus is a green, sparkling oasis in a desert wasteland. With an abundance of water tumbling down to it from the lofty mountains at its rear it has, from ancient times, been a refreshing stopping place for caravans traveling between Babylon, Palestine and Egypt. As long as there were any people living in this region, the location of Damascus was certain to be the place for a town.
The history of this city reaches back from our present day to the time of Abraham, who lived more than 1900 years before the coming of Jesus Christ. It was from this city that Abraham’s steward Eliezer, came, as revealed in the Bible at Genesis 15:2. It also is mentioned at Genesis 14:15 to indicate how far north Abraham pursued the four kings who carried off Lot, his nephew. In the days of King David, it was captured and garrisoned by David, but under the reign of David’s son Solomon it broke away and became independent.
Because of its rather remote location, it was, more or less, at the mercy of invading armies, especially those coming from the east on their way to Palestine. It was taken by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans. Throughout its long history, it was sacked by invading soldiers repeatedly, and at least twice its prominent citizens were taken away into captivity.
The city sits on a tableland that is about 2,200 feet above sea level. Being well above the hot desert floor, it enjoys a pleasant temperature that ranges from 80° to 87° F. in the summer. Seldom does it drop below 45° F. in the winter. Two mountain-fed rivers water the area around Damascus, decorating it with lush vegetation. To a traveler coming off the hot, dry desert, it was regarded as just about the most beautiful city in the world. Its poets called it “The Pearl of the East,” “The Eye of the Desert.”
In Bible times the two rivers there were called the Abanah and the Pharpar. These were the rivers mentioned by Naaman the leper who came to Elisha from Damascus to be healed. When told to bathe seven times in the muddy Jordan, he felt enraged. “Are not the Abanah and the Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?” (2 Ki. 5:12) Those rivers did more for the land around Damascus than the Jordan could in Palestine, because it runs in deep, rocky channels. So it was natural for Naaman to have a certain amount of pride over the rivers that beautified Damascus.
IMPORTANT TRADE ROUTE
The international trade route coming from Babylon followed the Euphrates River north to a point northeast of Damascus. Then it headed out across the desert for Damascus, about three hundred miles away. When the traders reached this green jewel in a dry wasteland, they could rest and replenish their water supplies. As might be expected, the caravans brought a lot of business to this city as they stopped over on their way to more distant places. This passage trade probably has been more important to it than its other trading.
Heading west from Damascus was a trade route that linked the city with the Mediterranean port city of Tyre. Trade between Tyre and Assyria passed through Damascus. For the manufactured goods coming from Tyre, Damascus could trade such things as wool and wine. The prophet Ezekiel speaks of this, addressing his words to Tyre: “Damascus was your merchant in the abundance of your works, because of the abundance of all your valuable things, with the wine of Helbon and the wool of reddish gray.”—Ezek. 27:18.
Three trade routes began at Damascus and headed south, linking Palestine and Egypt with the well-traveled route between Damascus and the cities near the Euphrates River to the east. The dominant route passed the northwestern end of the Sea of Galilee and worked its way to the seaport town of Joppa, where it joined the great coast road. From there it went south along the coast, passing through the Philistine town of Gaza and on into Egypt through Goshen.
The second trade route branching off from the southern Damascus road passed by the southeastern edge of the Sea of Galilee. It then went south through the center of Palestine, passing through Jerusalem, Hebron, Beer-sheba and finally ending at Memphis in Egypt.
The third route from Damascus was known as the “King’s Highway.” It kept to the eastern side of the Jordan and about eighteen miles inland from the river. It was the main highway through Moab and Edom, the one that the Edomites refused to permit the Israelites to use for passing through their territory in the days of Moses, when they said: “On the king’s road we shall march.” (Num. 20:17) It is thought to have been the highway used by the Elamite-Babylonian kings in Abraham’s day who attacked the kings of Sodom, Gomorrah, Zoar, Admah and Zeboiim, who were located in the vicinity of the Dead Sea. Most likely they followed the usual route across the desert to Damascus and then went south on the King’s Highway.
The King’s Highway linked Damascus with the important Red Sea port, Ezion-geber. From there the route swung due west, crossing the Sinai Peninsula, and entering Egypt to the south of the other routes entering that country. Thus Damascus had three main highways that connected it with Egypt as well as most of Palestine. It was the key city through which trade from the cities of this large area passed to reach the great eastern empires that hugged the Euphrates River. This undoubtedly was the reason why it was included with the ten cities of the Greek Decapolis, although it was quite some distance north of the others. As a place of strategic value economically to the people of the Near East and a refreshingly green oasis in the desert, it earned its reputation as a desert jewel.
It was while Saul of Tarsus was nearing this city of Damascus on a mission of persecution against the Christians there that a bright light from heaven struck him blind and the glorified Jesus Christ reproved him for his course. Just a few days later Ananias, one of the Christians whom Saul had come to put in bonds, was sent by Jesus to restore Saul’s sight and instruct him in The Way. He found him in a house on the street called Straight, which was a magnificent thoroughfare in those days. But after a good many days, when Saul had publicly demonstrated his zeal for his new-found faith by zealous preaching, the Jews in the city schemed to do away with him, and he had to escape at night in a basket lowered through an opening in the city wall.—Acts 9:1-25.
While Damascus has declined in importance as a commercial center, even to this day it has not lost its reputation as a fruitful oasis, nor has it ceased to be a place where faithful Christians preach the same truths that were made known by Ananias, Saul and other faithful Christians there.
[Map on page 669]
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Sea of Galilee