The Great Cities of the Bible #1: Damascus

(Photo: Unsplash)

By Elizabeth Prata

This begins a 4-part look at some of the Great Cities of the Bible. Cities are cities, but they are also seats of Empires, also they can be backdrops or even characters in the Biblical narrative. I chose the cities of Damascus, Babylon, Rome, and finally, Jerusalem to take a closer look at.

Damascus is one of the first cities mentioned in the Bible and the oldest continuously lived-in city in the world. Babylon dominated the Near East during its time, but also is symbolic of the struggle since the Fall of man vs. God. Its backdrop flows from Genesis to Revelation! Rome was at its height during the New Testament times, was the site of 4 Epistles written there, and perhaps will be at another height again if the prophecy about a Revived Empire will indeed be Rome as many interpret. And of course I chose Jerusalem because God set His name upon it, and it will be remade new as our eternal future home!

Modern Day Damascus is in Syria. It is the capital of Syria, and people have been living there since about 8000BC. When the Arameans arrived in about 3000 BC it went from villages to a notable city. That’s old!

We may think of that area of Asia as dry and dusty desert, but Damascus is considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world, as well as being ancient and notable. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. To be sure, its dry and desert-y east is bordered by the Syrian-Arab desert and the west is bordered by the mountains of Lebanon. The mountains bar much rain from dropping on Syria. The mighty Euphrates, which represents more than 80 percent of Syria’s water resources, flows through far to the east of Damascus. Therefore, for Damascus to stay hydrated, the even more important river Barada River is the river on which the city of Damascus relies. Irrigation from the Barada River by aqueducts built during Roman times helps things along.

This river is divided into numberless channels and is distributed throughout Damascus and the region immediately about it. In almost every house there is a fountain, and one can stand still almost anywhere and listen to the murmur of the hidden streams that pass under and through the city. Source: Earthly Footsteps of the Man of Galilee, p. 274.)

Barada is identified as Abana. This river is mentioned in the Old Testament (2 Kings 5:12), when Naaman argued that its waters would be better than the Jordan for curing his leprosy.

The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia for the ‘Abanah’ AKA Barada says-

A few miles southeast of Suk Wady Barada the volume of the stream is more than doubled by a torrent of clear, cold water from the beautifully situated spring ‛Ain Fijeh (Greek, “fountain”), after which it flows through a picturesque gorge till it reaches Damascus, whose many fountains and gardens it supplies liberally with water. In the neighborhood of Damascus a number of streams branch off from the parent river, and spread out like an opening fan on the surrounding plain”.

Speaking of those gardens, we read from the 1894 book “Earthly Footsteps of The Man of Galilee and the Journeys of His Apostles”:

“No wonder the Moslems look upon Damascus as an earthly paradise. It is encompassed by gardens and orchards. These cover an area of over twenty-five miles in circumference. Here grow olive, fig, walnut, apricot, poplar, palm, cypress and pomegranate trees. In the above view we have a scene taken from the Jerusalem road in the western part of the city, and looking to the north a ridge of Anti-Lebanon is seen straight before us. In the richness of its soil, in the salubrity and semi-tropical character of its climate, in its varied vegetation, we find the reason for the constant association of Damascus with the thought of gardens.”

“It has been for four thousand years a garden. It is surrounded for miles with this splendor of verdure. Its gardens and orchards and far-reaching groves, rich in foliage and blossoms, wrap the city around like a mantle of green velvet powdered with pearls. The apricot orchards seem to blush at their own surpassing loveliness, and the gentle breezes that rustle softly through the feathery tops of the palms are laden with the perfume of the rose and the violet. Tristram, in his account of what he saw, says:”

“Tall mud walls extended in every direction under the trees, and flowing streams of water from the Barada everywhere bubbled through the orchards, while all was alive with the song of birds and the hum of bees. The great apricot trees were laden and bent down under strings of ripe golden fruit.” Whatever changes may be made by the hand of man in Damascus, whatever changes in government and in commercial activities, the city is sure to be for all time a paradise of fertility and beauty.”

In the Bible, Damascus is first mentioned in a casual comment in Genesis 14:15 (early!). It was the situation when Lot was taken prisoner and Abram had to go rescue him.

And he divided his men against them by night, he and his servants, and struck them and pursued them as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus.

Damascus is mentioned again in the very next chapter, Genesis 15:2. Abram noted that the only heir he had was his servant Eliezer. And Abram said, “O Lord Yahweh, what will You give me, as I go on being childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?

I mentioned the Arameans above, that Damascus in Syria didn’t become notable as a city until the Arameans settled it. According to Pulpit Commentary, “The Syrians of Damascus are known in the Hebrew, AramDammesek; that is, Aram-Damascus. The inhabitants of these regions and of Mesopotamia were descended from Aram, the son of Shem, son of Noah. (Genesis 10:22)”. See how old this region is? It is really amazing.

Damascus in mentioned frequently throughout the Old and New Testaments. Damascus played a major role in waging wars against Israel. From around 900 to 721 BC Syria was a terrible fearful opponent of Israel David was much occupied with subduing uprisings and incursions from Damascus, Syria throughout his Kingship. He eventually subjugated the Arameans but they rose again after the death of Solomon.

At various times, Israel and Judah made pacts with those who controlled Damascus (1 Kgs 15:18–20). War between Asa of Judah and Baasha of Israel led Asa to use the treasury of the temple and his personal wealth to pay for the support of Damascus against Israel (1 Kgs 15:19, 20).” Source The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Lexham Press.

When you look at the city in terms of the entire history of the Old Testament, you see how much of a role the Lord had Damascus play in the intertribal wars, alliances, rising and falling of kingdoms, and all impacting the Israelites. In fact, Damascus and Israel joined forces around 734 BC to attack Judah. The war almost destroyed Jerusalem, and evil King Ahaz of Judah asked Assyria’s king Tiglath-pileser to come defend Judah from the attack.

Eventually, Damascus was conquered by Alexander the Great and the city’s fortunes declined. It was taken over in 64BC in Roman times by Pompey. That is when the aqueducts were built that shuffled water from the critically important Barada river to water the great gardens and continue cultivating the crops.

In the New Testament Damascus is mentioned several times but always relative to Saul/Paul, his trip to Damascus, and his conversion. (Acts 9:1–25; 22:5–11; 2 Cor 11:32, 33)

However, despite the 8000 years of history we can trace back to Damascus and the nation of Syria itself, there is one stark piece of prophecy which we can possibly say has not come to pass within all that history yet: Isaiah 17:1 says that Damascus will be destroyed. Never has that ancient city been uninhabited. The prophecy says that the city will be razed and made into rubble, so that no one will live there.

Behold, Damascus will cease to be a city and will become a heap of ruins. The cities of Aroer are forsaken: they shall be for flocks, which shall lie down, and none shall make them afraid.(Isaiah 17:1-2).

Was this prophecy completely fulfilled during 732 B.C. when the Assyrians under Tiglath-pileser subjugated Syria? Has the city ever been so deserted that wild animals feel safe to wander about and even lie down?

Or was it a partial fulfillment, the rest to come at a future time? Whatever the answer, we know that 2 chapters later, the Lord promised good to that region of the world. In that day…Isaiah 19:24-25 says,

In that day Israel will be the third party with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom Yahweh of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed is Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel My inheritance.”

Barnes’ Notes, “That is, the three shall be united as one people. Instead of being rival, hostile, and contending kingdoms, they shall be united and friendly; and instead of having different and jarring religions, they shall all worship the same God. The prophecy rather refers to the spread of the true religion, and the worship of the true God.”

And what a day that will be! The tumultuous epochs of this ancient, beautiful but war-like city shall finally find peace, and so shall all the inhabitants of the earth.