Here we have two wonderfully evocative early panoramic photographs of the city of Damascus. Both photographs have been hand colored to enhance their features and general aesthetic. This was not an uncommon practice in the early decades of the 20th century, especially when it came to photographs intended as memorabilia or souvenirs for tourists, as we must presume this set was. The set provides two splendid views of the Syrian capital at a time when the modernization of cities in the old Ottoman provinces had only just begun.
We have not been able to identify the person behind the photographs, nor indeed the exact date of their publication. Being titled in both French and Arabic, we may safely assume that these were published during the early years of the French Mandate in Syria, which spanned from 1923 to 1945. The content and nature of the photographs nevertheless suggest that these images were taken only shortly after the collapse of Ottoman power in the region, and possibly even before. While our efforts have not yielded an unequivocal result, the photographs themselves remind us of the great photographic oeuvre of Felix Bonfils, an early French photographer obsessed with documenting the ‘Orient’. But Bonfils died in 1885, long before these images were taken, and so we have a bit of a mystery on our hands….
Damas No. 1
In the first image, we are treated to a view of the Old City, with historic monuments like the Damascus Citadel and the Umayyad Mosque featuring at the center of the skyline. In the left corner we see the so-called Martyrs’ Square, more commonly known as Marjeh Square, with its prominent bronze telegraph column (with a tiny modeled mosque crowning it) as the central monument. While the square itself was constructed by the Ottomans in the late 19th century, this iconic monument was not erected until 1921. The monument was created by Italian architect Paolo Rossini and was meant to commemorate the establishment of modern transportation and communication infrastructure between the Hijaz and Istanbul. In the square we also see several of the trams that were introduced by the Ottomans. Damascus’ electric tramway opened for service in February of 1907 and the carriages seen in our panorama are still the original open wagons from this period. Photographs taken during the early 1920s confirm that the original carriages remained in service at that time.
Marjeh Square is, of course, a place of reckoning, being the site of politically motivated executions under the Ottoman, French, and Syrian governments alike. This is where the Ottoman wali of Greater Syria, Jamal Pasha (also known as ‘the butcher’) hanged seven national activists after a mock trial in 1916. After the French took over, they continued the practice and among other things used the square for the execution of Fakhri Hassan al-Kharrat, the son of the Great Syrian Revolt’s leader, in 1926. And in 1965, it was the scene for the hanging of now famous Israeli spy, Eli Cohen.
During Ottoman times, most of the area south of Marjeh Square was dominated by the Seray or Ottoman military headquarters, parts of which we see in the right side of the view. Preceding them (i.e. slightly lower) we find the military barracks associated with the Seray. Even today, Marjeh Square houses the Syrian Ministry of the Interior, which among other things oversees the much feared secret police. Under the French Mandate, Marjeh Square was dominated by the central post office – one of the first buildings in Damascus to be constructed of concrete and steel. This institution of modernity also figures prominently at the front and centre of this first view. Also located on the square was the main courthouse and the elegant Hotel d’Ville. The invisibility of the latter and the proximity of the new Post Office reveals that the most likely vantage point for the photographer must have been the roof of the Hotel d’Ville.
Just right of center, we see a large thoroughfare extending towards the Old City. This monumental avenue, known as Nasr Street, constituted the main approach to the Old City from the south. It retained this function for decades, and to some degree still does today. Photographs from around 1900 and well into the 1930s depict an avenue equipped with tram lines, lined with trees and flush with strolling urbanites; a worthy competitor to almost any grand French avenue in the world. While today it has been much reduced in size, beauty, and function, Nasr Street remains the main modern road that links the ‘new’ city to the ‘old’. It extends from the Hijaz Railway Station, past the Palace of Justice, to the main gate of Suq al-Hamidiyyeh.
Within the urban sector that Damascus is most famous for – the Old City itself – we see the minarets and large dome of the Great Mosque dominating the skyline. This is one of the oldest monumental mosques in the world, dating to the late 7th century, and to this day remains an architectural marvel. In its courtyard we find the first depictions of the Muslim Paradise, mounted in gilded glass mosaics on the walls of the colonnaded courtyard. Beyond the Old City, little has been built up yet and the woodlands of the Barada Valley are clearly visible in the distance. Dominating the horizon is the massive outcrop of Mt. Qasioun, which to this day remains one of Damascus’ most important landmarks and an unrivaled vantage point for sweeping views of the city.
A final note should be made on the inserted pictorial medallion at the bottom centre of the panorama. Being entirely distinct from the rest of the image, we here see a classical Ottoman Friday Mosque, with its multiple domed levels and four thin pencil minarets. Clearly this is not a structure found in Damascus itself, or even in Syria for that matter. The great Ottoman architect, Sinan, built a large complex known as the Tekkiye Suleymaniye, in Damascus, which was commissioned by Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (1494-1566) in the 16th century and served as an important station on the Hajj route between Istanbul and the Hijaz. While this complex is an extraordinary architectural achievement, it does retain the monumentality of the mosque shown in the medallion. While it is difficult to identify with certainty, it is most likely the great Süleymaniyye Mosque Complex in Istanbul. Such a reference would not be unusual in an Ottoman product, but is perhaps a little misplaced in a French one. An explanation for its presence could be that the photographs originally were issued under Ottoman rule and then reproduced for a French audience once the Mandate came into effect.
Damas No. 2
In the second image we are treated to a somewhat rarer view of the city at this important time period. Instead of looking across the heart of the Old City, the photographer seems to have turned 180 degrees in order to capture all the important landmarks behind him. In addition to providing an extremely interesting view of less documented parts of the city, this also means that the two sets of photographs that were combined to create these panoramas presumably were taken from the same vantage point – that is the rooftop of the Hotel d’Ville on Marjeh Square – and presumably at the same time. When combined, the panoramas more or less constitute a full 360° vista of the city around 1920. This makes our pair of images extremely rare and one of the best photo-documents that we have come across of Damascus at the beginning of the French Mandate period.
The most important architectural element of the second panorama is found at the center of the view, right above the title. Here we see the Takkiye Süleymaniyye Complex built by Ottoman Master architect, Mimar Sinan (1490-1588), for his glorious patron, Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. As mentioned, this complex was built as a homage to the Sultan, but also on his orders, and was meant as the last major stopping point on the Istanbul Hajj route before hitting the desert. Despite being significantly less monumental than Sinan’s creations in Istanbul and Edirne, the Takkiye Süleymaniye is a true masterpiece of Ottoman architecture. The site of its construction also has an extraordinary history.
The complex was ordered by Süleyman as an act of penance following the execution of his own son and heir, Mustafa. It was built on the remains of his father’s palace in the city, which in turn stood on the remains of the Mamluk Sultan Baybars’ great Ablaq Palace, which was destroyed by Timur (Tamerlane) during his siege of the city in 1400 CE. The Takkiye Complex consists of a central mosque, the dome and two minarets of which are visible in the photograph. Fronting the mosque we find a large open courtyard flanked on all sides by a series of smaller buildings, each of which is domed in the traditional style of Sinan’s complexes.
To the left of the Takkiye we find another great Damascus landmark, namely the Hejaz Railway Station. This large pink building was built directly out of the large roundabout today known as Hijaz Square, which linked the different approaches to the city and also extended into the prestigious and beautiful avenue, Nasr Street. The railway station was of course built as part of a grand railway line that was meant to connect Ottoman Istanbul with the Sacred Cities of the Hijaz. In addition to serving the underlying and always popular purpose of pilgrimage, the railway was also seen as bringing both connectivity and modernity to Arabia, and as a means for mobilizing troops more quickly against rebellious Arabian tribes. It was, in other words, a hugely ambitious and symbolically loaded project that saw its completion in 1913, just one year before the eruption of the Great War, which in turn effectuated the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The Station Building itself was designed and built by a Spanish architect, Fernando de Aranda, and constituted one of the new beacons of modernity in the oldest city of the world. It was linked to a series of stations extending through the Transjordan and into the Hijaz, and was seen by the Turks as a project so beneficial that it might help quell the growing dissent among the Arab population there. This did of course not happen. Rather, the Hijaz Railway became one of the main targets for the Great Arab Revolt (assisted by Lawrence of Arabia).
Behind the grand station building, we see the train lines that culminated here, and fronting it is the grand avenue of Nasr Street, which extends towards Damascus Citadel and out of the image in the lower left corner. Along Nasr Street, one the barrack buildings of the Seray is visible, with numerous trucks and cars parked inside the walls. On the right side of the image, we are treated to a magnificent view of Suq Saroujah and the el-Hboubi and Abu-Roumaneh districts.
Final remarks and census
Ultimately, what we are treated to here is a rare full 360° view of Damascus at the beginning of the 20th century. In this format, the photographs are clearly intended as souvenirs for a French/European public, but they may in fact have been taken at a time while Syria was still under Ottoman rule. It is an extremely rare set, the likes of which we have not been able to identify in any institutional collection anywhere.