Watercolor of Damascus from a postcard


Damascus has a long and rich history, dating well into antiquity. It is one of the only continuously inhabited cities for over 5,000 years. Since it served as the capital of the second Islamic Empire of the Umayyads, Damascus was a wealthy city filled grand mosques, immense libraries, and many scholars and artisans. It was therefore an enticing conquest for the Mongols.

In 1260, after sacking Baghdad, the Mongol army led by Hulegu marched through Syria. Hulegu conquered Aleppo and captured Damascus, but did not destroy the latter. In the same year, after they defeated the Mongols in the battle of ‘Ain Jalut, Damascus fell under Egyptian Mamluk rule. During this time Damascus prospered, growing with scholars and merchants who fled Mongol atrocities in the East.

Damascus watercolor landscape

A twentieth century postcard depicting Damascus in pastel watercolors. Image courtesy in the Travelers of the Middle East Archive.

In 1400 Damascus was again subjected to foreign invasion, and this time it would prove deadly.  Timur Leng, the brutal Turkic-Mongol conqueror laid siege on Damascus. The Mamluk sultan in Cairo sent a delegation to meet with Timur in the hopes of negotiating a withdrawal from the city. A member of this delegation was none other than the Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun from North Africa. Ibn Khaldun was unable to save Damascus. He did, however, persuade Timur to avoid Africa, thereby saving the Mamluk capital in Cairo.

Timur Leng sacked Damascus, burning mosques and taking captives. Many artisans were taken as slaves to Timur’s capital Samarkand in Persia. Most of Damascus’ inhabitants were subject to a worse fate. They were brutally slaughtered and decapitated, their heads piled up outside the city walls. Even today, a city square outside the walls is called burj al-ru’us meaning “Tower of Heads,” forever commemorating this horrific event.