An ancient city of Asia Minor, situated at the foot of the Anti-Lebanon, 180 miles south by west of Aleppo; now the capital of the vilayet of Syria. In the Old Testament it is called (Dammeseḳ), or (Darmeseḳ, I Chron. xviii. 5 et seq.; II Chron. xvi. 2, xxiv. 23), or (Dummeseḳ, II Kings xvi. 10). The form with "r" is Aramaic, although the Egyptian lists also contain a "Saramaski," which W. Max Müller ("Asien und Europa," p. 227) explains as "Tiramaski." The usual Egyptian transcription is "Timasḳu" (ib. pp. 162, 234). In the cuneiform inscriptions the name reads "Dimashḳi" or "Dimashḳa," the latter form being used also in the El-Amarna tablets (ed. Winckler, 142, 21), where, however, the form "Timashgi" (ib. 139, 63) also occurs. The Arabs called the city "Dimashḳ-al-Sham," for which "Al-Sham" is today usually substituted.


The present Damascus, which is undoubtedly situated on the site of the ancient city, covers the northwestern part of the beautiful and fruitful plain Al-Ghuṭa, south of the Anti-Lebanon. This plain is intersected by numerous mountain streams, one of which, Nahr Barada ("Amana," II Kings v. 12; the "Chrysorrhoas" of the Greeks), on leaving the mountains, separates into seven branches, two of which pass through Damascus. The rich vegetation of the plain, as well as the numerous gardens behind which the city lies half concealed, presents an enchanting view to the traveler approaching from the desert, who now understands why both Jews (Bab. 'Er. 19a) and Bedouins have called the city a paradise.

The situation is particularly favorable to commerce. Caravan routes of great antiquity, stretching from the shores of the Mediterranean, from Arabia, from the Euphrates, and from northern Syria converge at Damascus and serve to make it a commercial center of great importance. That inhabitants of the city, even in ancient times, utilized its favorable location is evident from I Kings xx. 34. Among the articles of commerce, Ezek. xxvii. 18 mentions wine of Helbon and other commodities. Unfortunately, however, these passages, owing to the corruption of the text, are no longer intelligible (compare Cornill, Bertholet, Kraetzschmar, and Toy ad loc.).

In Biblical Times.

That Josephus ("Ant." i. 6, § 4) mentions Uz, the son of Aram, as founder of Damascus, has little value, as the tradition probably reflects later conditions only. Similarly, the statement of Nicholas of Damascus ("Ant." i. 7, § 2), according to which Abraham immigrated to Damascus and ruled there for a time, probably rests upon later combination (compare Justin, xxxvi. 2), and finds no firm support in the ambiguous statement of Gen. xv. 2. The oldest reliable data in regard to the city are found on the Egyptian monuments, to which the El-Amarna tablets may be added. Damascus is mentioned among the cities captured by Thothmes III. From the El-Amarna tablets it appears that under Amenophis III. the Egyptian dominion in these districts began to totter, as the Hittites continually invaded the country. If the identification of Max Müller (see above) is correct, Rameses III. succeeded in conquering the city. At the time of David, Damascus,together with the neighboring territory, was inhabited by Arameans. They endeavored to come to the assistance of their hard-pressed fellow tribesmen of Zobah; but David overthrew them, so that Damascus was compelled to recognize his authority (II Sam. viii. 5 et seq.). Under Solomon the fruits of this conquest were lost. A former subject of the King of Zobah, Rezon (LXX. 'Eσρώμ), the son of Eliadah, declared himself King of Damascus and founded a kingdom which was destined to give the Israelites considerable trouble (I Kings xi. 23 et seq.). The struggles with the Arameans of Damascus, of which the Jewish kings skilfully availed themselves (ib. xv. 18 et seq.), constitute a great part of the history of the Ephraimitic kingdom (ib. xx. 22; II Kings vi., viii. 12, x. 32, xiii.; Amos i. 3). Only when the danger threatening from Assyria became more obvious did a later king, Rezin (or, more correctly, Raẓnn) of Damascus, change his policy. He formed a coalition with Pekah of Ephraim, with whose help he determined to enter upon the conquest of Judah (Isa. vii. 1-16). Ahaz meanwhile summoned the aid of the Assyrians; and the new policy finally led to the conquest of Damascus by an Assyrian army in 732 B.C. (II Kings xvi. 9). Concerning the city and its inhabitants during a period of 200 years there is no information. According to I Kings xx. 34, a quarter of the city was assigned to the Ephraimitic merchants. II Kings xvi. 10 et seq. mentions an altar in the city, of which Ahaz ordered a copy to be made; otherwise information on the religion of the Damascenes is confined to the facts which may be gleaned from the theophorous names of the kings (compare Baethgen, "Beiträge zur Semitischen Religionsgeschichte," pp. 66 et seq.).

In Post-Biblical Times.

After its conquest by the Assyrians, Damascus continued to be of a certain importance because of its favorable position. While little can be gleaned from the references contained in the Later Prophets (Jer. xlix. 23 et seq.; Ezek. xxvii. 18, xlvii. 16 et seq.; Zech. ix. 1), it is clear that the city, like other places in Syria, exchanged Assyrian for Babylonian rule, and this again for that of the Persians and of Alexander the Great. After the battle of Issus (333 B.C.), Damascus, when the Persian king had left behind his harem and his treasure, was treacherously delivered over to Parthenio (Curtius, iii. 13). During the following period, although the Ptolemies occasionally succeeded in exerting dominion over the city, it was principally in possession of the Seleucids; Antioch, however, and not Damascus, was made their capital.

In the history of the Maccabees the city is mentioned several times in connection with the campaigns of Jonathan (I Macc. xi. 62, xii. 32); and upon the division of the Seleucid empire it became for a short time the capital of a smaller kingdom (Josephus, "Ant." xiii. 13, § 4; 15, § 1). But in the year 85 Antiochus XII. was vanquished by the Nabatæan princes, who as a consequence acquired control over Damascus (ib. xiii. 15, §§ 1-2). About 70 B.C. Ptolemy of Chalcis endeavored to take the city, for which reason Aristobulus, son of the Jewish queen Alexandra, marched to its aid (ib. xiii. 16, § 3). But in 65 the Romans put an end to this period of changes by conquering Damascus and incorporating it with the province of Syria. Damascus obtained, however, the relative independence of a Hellenic city, and belonged to the municipal confederation of the Decapolis (Schürer, "Gesch." 3d ed., iii. 118 et seq.). The importance of the district which belonged to Damascus may be seen from the fact that it was adjacent to that of Sidon (Josephus, "Ant." xviii. 6, § 3). For a time the city was again under the dominion of the Nabatæan kings, inasmuch as the Arabian king Aretas (II Cor. xi. 32) had an ethnarch there, the Romans having probably accorded this privilege for the purpose of propitiating him.

In Talmudic Times.

At this time about 10,000 Jews lived at Damascus, governed by an ethnarch (Acts ix. 2; II Cor. xi. 32). The attraction which Judaism exercised at that time over the pagans was so great that many men and women were converted to that religion. Paul succeeded, after a first rebuff, in converting many of the Jews of Damascus to Christianity (49 C.E.). This irritated the Jewish ethnarch to such a degree that he attempted to arrest Paul; and the latter's friends only saved his life by lowering him in a basket out of a window built in the wall of the city. Many Jews were murdered by the pagan inhabitants upon the outbreak of the great war of liberation (Josephus, "B. J." ii. 20, § 2; vii. 8, § 7). Later, Damascus, as the coins show, obtained the title of metropolis; and under Alexander Severus, when the city was a Christian colony, it became the seat of a bishop, who enjoyed a rank next to that of the Patriarch of Antioch. In the fifth century, under the rule of the Eastern empire, being the Talmudic time, Jews were living at Damascus; for the rabbi Rafram bar Pappa went to pray in the synagogue of Jobar (Bab.Ber.50a). During the conflicts between the Byzantines and the Persians the city frequently suffered heavily. When Syria was conquered by the Persians (614), the Jews of Damascus, profiting by the presence of the invaders, joined with their coreligionists of Palestine to take vengeance on the Christians, especially those of Tyre. In 635 Damascus fell into the hands of the Mohammedans; the inhabitants, by their timely and voluntary surrender, succeeding in saving fifteen Christian churches.

Under Arab Rule.

The rule of the Ommiads brought a new period of splendor to the city, which now became the capital of that califate. The Jewish community continued, and certainly existed in 970; "for," says a historian, "Joseph ben Abitur of Cordova, having lost all hope of becoming the chief rabbi of that city, went to Palestine in that year, and settled at Damascus" (Abraham ibn David, "Sefer ha-Ḳabbalah," in Neubauer, "Med. Jew. Chron." i. 69; Conforte, "Ḳore ha-Dorot," 5b). This period terminated with the advent of the Abbassids, and the city suffered during the following centuries from continuous wars. Fortunately for the Jews, it resisted the siege of the Second Crusade (1147). Some time afterward a large number of Palestinian Jews sought refuge at Damascus from the enormous taxes imposed upon them by the Crusaders, thus increasing the community.

G. F. Bu.

Little information exists concerning the Jews in Damascus during the following centuries. The few data are given by travelers who visited the place. In 1128 Abraham ibn Ezra visited Damascus (though compare the note of Harkavy, "Ḳadashim gam Yeshanim," vii. 38). According to Edelmann ("Ginze Oxford," p. ix.), Judah ha-Levi composed his famous poem on Zion in this city; but Harkavy (l.c. p. 35) has shown that "Al-Sham" here designates Palestine and not Damascus. In 1267 Naḥmanides visited Damascus and succeeded in leading a Jewish colony to Jerusalem.

Benjamin of Tudela visited Damascus in 1170, while it was in the hands of the Seljukian prince Nur al-Din. He found there 3,000 Rabbinite Jews and 200 Karaites. Jewish studies flourished there much more than in Palestine; according to Bacher it is possible that during the twelfth century the seat of the Palestinian academy was transferred to the city. The principal rabbis of the city were: Rabbi Ezra and his brother Sar Shalom, president of the tribunal; Yussef Ḥamsi, R. Maïliaḥ, R. Meïr, Yussef ibn Piat, R. Heman, the parnas, and R. Ẓadok, physician.

About the same time Pethahiah of Regensburg was here. He found "about 10,000 Jews, who have a prince. The head of their academy is Rabbi Ezra, who is full of the knowledge of the Law; for Rabbi Samuel, the head of the Academy of Babylon, ordained him" (ed. Benisch, p. 53). It was a Damascus rabbi, Judah b. Josiah, who, toward the end of the twelfth century, was "nagid" in Egypt (Sambari, in "Med. Jew. Chron." i. 133). At a later period another nagid, David b. Joshua, also came from Damascus (Grätz," Gesch." ix., note i.).

Twelfth to the Fifteenth Century.

In 1210 a French Jew, Samuel b. Simson, visited the city. He speaks of the beautiful synagogue situated outside the city (Jobar) and said to have been constructed by Elisha (see below; compare "Oẓar Ṭob," 1878, p. 38; Carmoly, "Itineraires," p. 136).

Under Saladin the city again enjoyed considerable importance; but upon his death the disturbances began anew, until in 1516 the city fell into the hands of the Turks, since which time it has declined to the rank of a provincial town.

It seems probable that Al-Ḥarizi also visited Damascus during the first decade of the thirteenth century. At least he mentions the city in the celebrated forty-sixth "Makamah."

Toward the end of the thirteenth century Jesse b. Hezekiah, a man full of energy, arose in Damascus. He was recognized by Sultan Kelaün of Egypt as prince and exilarch, and in 1289 and in June, 1290, in conjunction with his twelve colleagues, he put the anti-Maimonists under the ban (Grätz, "Gesch." vii. 186-195).

The letters of the rabbis of Damascus and of Acre have been collected in the "Minḥat-Ḳena'ot " (a compilation made by Abba Mari, grandson of Don Astruc of Lunel). No data are available for the fourteenth century. Estori Farḥi (1313) contents himself with the mere mention of Damascene Jews journeying to Jerusalem (Zunz, "G. S." ii. 269). A manuscript of David Ḳimḥi on Ezekiel was written by Nathan of Narbonne and collated with the original by R. Ḥiyya in Damascus, Ab 18, 1375 (Neubauer, "Cat. Bodl. Hebr. MSS." No. 316). The Jewish community of Damascus continued its existence under the sultans (Borgites and Mamelukes) of Egypt, who conquered Syria; for the Jewish refugees of Spain established themselves among their coreligionists in that city in 1492, constructing a synagogue which they called "Khata'ib." The anonymous author of the "Yiḥus ha-Abot" (1537; published by Uri b. Simeon in 1564) also speaks of the beauties of Damascus; and of the synagogue at Jobar, "half of which was constructed by Elisha, half by Eleazar b. 'Arak" (Carmoly, l.c. p. 457; compare similar accounts by Raphael of Troyes and Azulai, ib. p. 487).

Plan of the Modern City of Damascus.(After Baedeker, "Palestine and Syria.")

Elijah of Ferrara (1438) had come to Jerusalem and had a certain jurisdiction in rabbinical matters over Damascus as well. He speaks of a great plague which devastated Egypt, Syria, and Jerusalem; but he does not say in how far the Jews of the firstnamed city suffered (Carmoly, l.c. p. 333). Menahem Ḥayyim of Volterra visited Damascus in 1481, and found 450 Jewish families, "all rich, honored, and merchants." The head of the community was a certain R. Joseph, a physician ("Jerusalem," i. 211).

Obadiah of Bertinoro (1488) speaks in one of his letters of the riches of the Jews in Damascus, of the beautiful houses and gardens (ed. Neubauer, p. 30). A few years later (1495) an anonymous traveler speaks in like eulogistic terms (ib. p. 84). He livedwith a certain Moses Makran, and he relates that the Damascene Jews dealt in dress-goods or engaged in some handicraft. They lent money to the Venetians at 24 per cent interest.

An anonymous Jewish traveler (see "Shibḥe Yerushalayim, "51b; and Graetz, "Hist." Hebrew transl., vii. 27) who arrived a few years after the Spanish immigration, found at Damascus 500 Jewish households; also a Karaite community whose members called themselves "Muallim-Ṣadaḳah"; and a more important Rabbinite community, composed of three groups and possessing three beautiful synagogues. One of these belonged to the Sephardim; another, to the Moriscos (Moorish Jews) or natives; and the third, to the Sicilians. In each synagogue there was a preacher, who read the works of Maimonides to the pious every day after the prayer. The preacher of the Sephardim was Isḥaḳ Mas'ud that of the natives Shem-Ṭob al-Furani, and that of the Sicilians Isaac Ḥaber. There were also two small schools for young students of the Talmud, containing re spectively thirty and forty pupils.

Sixty Jewish families were living in the village of Jobar, one mile from Damascus, who had a very beautiful synagogue. "I have never seen anything like it," says the author; "it is supported by thirteen columns. Tradition says that it dates from the time of the prophet Elisha, and that he here anointed King Hazael [see also Sambari in Neubauer, "Med. Jew. Chron." i. 152]. R. Eleazar ben 'Arak [tannaite of the first century] repaired this synagogue." In order to indicate, finally, that the city was even then under the Ottoman rule, the narrator adds that the people of Damascus had just received a governor ("na'ib") from Constantinople.

In the Sixteenth Century.

The "Chronicle" of Joseph Sambari (finished 1672) contains the names of a number of rabbis of note who lived here during the sixteenth century. He says that the Jewish community lived chiefly in Jobar, and he knows of the synagogue of Elisha and the cave of Elijah the Tishbite. At the head of the community was a certain Abu Ḥaṣirah (so-called from a peculiar kind of headdress which he wore), who was followed by 'Abd Allah ibn Naṣir. Of the rabbis of Damascus proper he mentions Joseph Ḥayyaṭ; Samuel Aripol, author of "Mizmor le-Todah"; Samuel ibn 'Imran; Joseph al-Ṣa'iḥ; Moses Najjarah, author of "Lekaḥ Ṭob"; Ḥayyim Alshaich; Joseph Maṭalon; Abraham Galante ("Med. Jew. Chron." i. 152). In this home of learning there was also a model-codex of the Bible called "Al-Taj" (the Crown; ib. p. 119). In 1547 Pierre Belon visited Damascus in the train of the French ambassador M. de Fumel. He speaks of the large number of Jews there; but makes the singular confusion of placing in this city the events connected with the famous Aḥmad Shaiṭan of Egypt ("Revue Etudes Juives," xxvii. 129).

Among the spiritual leaders of Damascus in the sixteenth century may be mentioned: Jacob Berab, who, in the interval between his sojourns in Egypt and at Safed, lived there for some years (c. 1534); Ḥayyim Vital the Calabrian (1526-1603), for many years chief rabbi of Damascus, and the author of various cabalistic works, including "Eẓ-Ḥayyim"; Samuel ben David the Karaite (not "Jemsel," as Carmoly, "Itineraires," p. 511, has it), who visited Damascus in 1641, mentions the circumstance that the Karaites there do not read the Hafṭarah after the Pentateuch section (ib. p. 526; but see Zunz, "Ritus," p. 56). Moses Nagara; his son, the poet Israel Nagara; and Moses Galante (died in 1608), the son of Mordecai Galante, were also among the prominent men of the sixteenth century. The most celebrated rabbis of the seventeenth century were Josiah Pinto, a pupil of Jacob Abulafia, and author of the "Kesef-Nibḥar" ("Med. Jew. Chron." i. 153; "Ḳore ha-Dorot," 49b), and his son-in-law, Samuel Vital, who transcribed and circulated a large number of his father's cabalistic manuscripts. During the eighteenth century nothing important is known of the community.

Interior of a Damascus Synagogue.(After a photograph.)In the Nineteenth Century.

Some information is obtainable from travelers who visited Damascus during the nineteenth century. Alfred von Kremer, in "Mittel-Syrien und Damaskus" (1853), states that in the municipal government of the city two Christians and one Jew had places; the number of Jews was 4,000, only 1,000 of whom, however, paid the poll-tax; the last Karaite had died there some fifty years previously, the Karaite synagogue being then sold to the Greeks, who turned it into a church ("Monatsschrift," iii. 75). Benjamin II. gives the same number of inhabitants.He describes the synagogue at Jobar (to the north-east of the city) thus:

("Eight Years in Asia and Africa," pp. 41 et seq.)

"The structure of this ancient building reminds one of the Mosque Moawiah; the interior is supported by 13 marble pillars, six on the right and seven on the left side, and is everywhere inlaid with marble. There is only one portal by which to enter. Under the holy shrine . . . is a grotto . . . the descent to which is by a flight of about 20 steps. According to the Jews, the Prophet Elisha is said to have found in this grotto a place of refuge. . . . At the entrance of the synagogue, toward the middle of the wall to the right, is an irregularly formed stone, on which can be observed the traces of several steps. Tradition asserts that upon this step sat King Hazael when the Prophet Elisha anointed him king".

Benjamin II. also speaks of valuable copies of parts of the Bible to be found in Damascus; though the dates he gives (581 and 989) are unreliable. Neubauer mentions a copy of the Bible which belonged to Elisha ben Abraham b. Benvenisti, called "Crescas," and which was finished in 1382 ("Med. Jew. Chron." i. 21).

Damascus has had eight chief rabbis during the last hundred years, namely: (1) Joseph David Abulafia (1809-16). (2) Jacob Antebi (1816-1833). (3) Jacob Perez (1833-48). (4) Aaron Bagdadi (1848-66). (During the next two years the office of chief rabbi was vacant, owing to internal quarrels.) (5) Ḥayyim Ḳimḥi of Constantinople (1868-72). (6) Mercado Kilḥi of Nish (1872-76). (7) Isaac Abulafia (1876-88). (8) Solomon Eliezer Alfandari, commonly called "Mercado Alfandari" of Constantinople, who was appointed by an imperial decree in 1888 (still in office in 1901).

During the nineteenth century the Jews of Damascus were several times made the victims of calumnies, the gravest being those of 1840 and 1860, in the reign of the sultan 'Abd al-Majid. That of 1840, commonly known as the Damascus Affair, was an accusation of ritual murder brought against the Jews in connection with the death of Father Thomas. The second accusation brought against the Jews, in 1860, was that of having taken part in the massacre of the Christian Maronites by the Druses and the Mohammedans. Five hundred of the last named, who had been involved in the affair, were hanged by the grand vizier Fuad Pasha. Two hundred Jews were awaiting the same fate, in spite of their innocence, and the whole Jewish community had been fined 4,000,000 piasters. The condemned Jews were saved only by the official intervention of Fuad Pasha himself; that of the Prussian consul, Dr. Wetzstein; of Sir Moses Montefiore of London, and of the bankers Abraham Camondo of Constantinople and Shemaya Angel of Damascus. From that time even down to the present day, blood accusations have several times been brought against the Jews; these, however, have never provoked any great excitement.

Court-yard of a Jewish Residence at Damascus.(From a photograph by Bonfils.)Situation in 1901.

The present Jewish community of Damascus numbers 11,000 (though in 1894 Socin-Benzinger, in Baedeker's "Palestine," 2d ed., estimated their numberas 6,320) persons in a total population of 160,000 inhabitants. It has eight synagogues, besides the ancient one of Jobar; several of them, according to local traditions, date from the sixteenth century. The entire administration of the community is concentrated in the hands of the chief rabbi, his secretary, and some rabbis. Twice a year, at Passover and at Sukkot, all the families are taxed by the chief rabbi in proportion to their means, and the revenues are collected accordingly. This sum is used to defray the salaries of the chief rabbi, the rabbis who study the Talmud at the yeshibah, and the slaughterers at the butcher-shops; also to relieve the poor of the community. The chief rabbi ("ḥakam bashi") represents the community in affairs with the government. There is also a spiritual chief to decide in religious questions, the incumbent in 1901 being Isaac Abulafia. On the peculiarities of the ritual, which Damascus has in common with other Syrian communities, see Zunz, "Ritus," pp. 55, 56.

There are four Jewish benevolent societies in Damascus: (1) "Aḥe-Ezer" (mutual help), distributing money and food to the needy Jews of the city; (2) "Yishma' Yisrael," furnishing dowries for poor young girls; (3) "Biḥḳur Ḥolim," for relief of the sick poor; (4) the Ladies' Society, helping indigent families and women in childbirth.

The majority of the Jewish population are engaged as engravers on copper and wood, or as weavers, carpenters, and smiths. There are a few bankers and some small merchants. Four or five Jews are employed in the government offices, among them being Jacob Ades Effendi, inspector-general of real estate on the civil list in the vilayet of Damascus. But the mass of the population lives in misery. The members of the rabbinate, who form a kind of corporation, study in the yeshibot or in libraries belonging to pious families. Isaac Abulafia, the spiritual leader, is the only rabbinical author of the present time. Of the eight works which he has written, five are entitled "Pene-Yiẓḥaḳ"; one, "Leb-Nishbar"; and two are collections of discourses. Some of these books are still in manuscript.

Aside from the synagogues mentioned above, there is a yeshibah containing many books and an ancient genizah. In 1880 the Alliance Israélite Universelle founded a boys' school (which in 1899 had 229 pupils on its roll), and in 1883 a school for girls (298 on the roll in 1899). Two of the most important Talmud Torahs are now under the supervision of the Alliance: in 1899 they had 419 on their rolls. The Anglo-Jewish Association also contributes to the support of all these schools.

In 1902 a dispensary for the Jews was opened in Damascus by Edward D. Stern of London ("Jew. Chron." Jan. 2, 1903, p. 24).

  • Nöldeke, in Schenkel's Bibellexicon, s.v.;
  • Robinson, Neuere Biblische Forschungen, pp. 578 et seq.;
  • Porter, Five Years in Damascus, 1855;
  • Baedeker, Palästina und Syrien, pp. 329 et seq.;
  • Kremer, Topographie von Damaskus, in Schriften der Wiener Akademie, Phil.-Hist. Classe, v., vi.;
  • Schürer, Geschichte, des Jüdischen Volkes, iii. 117 et seq.
G. M. Fr. G.