|The interior of the eighth century Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria [GALLO/GETTY]|
Syria ushered in 2008 with its capital named the Arab Capital of Culture by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).
Damascus has been recognised by Unesco’s Cultural Capitals programme – which first included the Arab world in 1998 – for its ancient, Islamic and cultural heritage.
According to the UN, the programme promotes the cultural aspects of development and increased international co-operation.
Year-long celebrations to mark the honour started on January 10, with Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, hailing the selection as recognition of the city’s “resistance culture”.
“Damascus is the capital of resistance culture by symbolising Arab culture – the culture of freedom and defending freedom,” he said.
The president told attendees at the opening that the tradition of Damascus was to strive for peace “with dignity and pride” and added that his country will “lead a dialogue among civilisations at a time when Arab and Islamic culture faces unprecedented challenges”.
Damascus is the capital of the Syrian Arab Republic.
Its current population is estimated at about 1.67 million.
In Arabic, the city is called Dimashq ash-Sham, meaning land of the north. Arabs in the Middle East often shorten it to either Dimashq or ash-Sham. Ash-Sham is an Arabic term for north and for Syria.
About 75 per cent of the population of Damascus is Sunni Muslim.
There are some Christian districts, such as Bab Tuma, Kassaa, and Ghassani, with many churches, most notably the ancient St Paul‘s.
Damascus is popular for its cafe culture, serving traditional Turkish coffee, tea and arghilehs (water pipes). It is common to see locals playing card games, backgammon and chess in the cafes.
Nizar Tawfiq Qabbani, a Syrian diplomat, respected poet and publisher, was born in Damascus. He is known for his poetic style that combined simplicity and elegance in exploring themes of love, eroticism, feminism, religion and Arab nationalism.
Recognised as one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, excavations at Tell Ramad, on the outskirts of the city, confirmed that Damascus has been inhabited since as early as 8000 to 10,000 BC.
By AD 661, the city had become the seat of the powerful Umayyad caliphs and it has remained one of the most important and impressive cities in the Muslim world.
During its long history it has faced numerous conquests, from Alexander the Great to the Ottoman empire. But one of the most brutal was that of the Mongol conqueror Timur who took the city in 1400. Many of the inhabitants of old Damascus were forced into slavery while others were slaughtered and their heads piled for display.
The field where the heads were displayed is now in the city square, bearing the name Burj al-Ruus (Tower of Heads).
The Umayyad Mosque, one of the oldest and largest in the world, was burnt down under Mongol rule.
Under Ottoman rule, which started in 1516 and lasted for the next 400 years, the most notable incident was the massacre of Christians in 1860.
Fighting between Druze and Maronite Christians in Mount Lebanon spilled over into Damascus, resulting in the Christian quarter of Damascus, including a number of churches, being burnt down and thousands of Christians killed.
Some Christians were saved by the intervention of Abd al-Qadir, an Algerian exile, and his soldiers, while Christian inhabitants of the poor Midan district outside the city walls were protected by their Muslim neighbours.
The majority of the city’s inhabitants are Sunni Muslims and it has more than 2,000 mosques. But it is also home to many Christians and various churches, notably the ancient St Paul’s.
Al-Assad said: “Damascus, Arab Capital of Culture, embodies a living example of the dialogue and coexistence of cultures; it represents a symbol of diversity within unity and an attribute of the beauty of the rainbow of human life. Through all this, Damascus provides definite proof that the notion of the conflict of civilisations is both null and void.”
Koichiro Matsuura, Unesco’s director-general, said that the purpose of the Arab Capital of Culture events was not only to enrich knowledge of Arab culture, but to enrich dialogue between eastern and western cultures.
He said: “[Syria is] a hospitable country where the greatest ancient civilisations met, and which forms a meeting point between Africa, Asia and Europe.”
For now, Damascus has been turned into a busy workshop as its medieval buildings are renovated and streets repaired in preparation for the year-long festival to celebrate this latest step in Syria’s long and rich history.