by Pastor George Van Alstine

Damascus, the modern capital city of Syria, is believed to be the oldest, continuously occupied city in the world. When Abraham and his family traveled through the region in about 2000 BC, on their way to the land God had promised them, the small trading community had already hosted travelers from various parts of the world for up to 7,000 years. It was a natural stopping point for merchants traveling between Egypt, Europe, and from as far away in Asia as China. Abraham would certainly remember this strategic city in years to come.

When the Israelites were settling in the Promised Land after their deliverance from their Egyptian captivity, the tribal states around them were in constant opposition. One of their most persistent enemies was the country of Syria (also called Aram) to the northeast, with its capitol city of Damascus. Struggles between the Syrians and the Israelites continued during the 13th through the 6th centuries BC.

At the high point of its power under King David, Israel conquered and controlled Syria (2 Samuel 8:5-6). Ezekiel actually included Damascus within the boundaries of his idealized State of Israel (Ezekiel 47:15-17). But the subsequent weaker rulers of Israel found themselves once again threatened by a stronger Syria. Various Biblical prophets over three centuries pronounced judgment on Damascus and Syria (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Zechariah).

Surprisingly, Damascus pops up as an important part of the New Testament story about the beginning of the Church. It was here in this stronghold of pagan belief that the young, zealous rabbi Saul (later called Paul) experienced his life-changing encounter with the risen Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 9:1-22). Apparently, he spent most of the next fifteen years in the environs of Damascus, as the Lord reshaped his understanding and his character in preparation for his calling to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth (see Galatians 1:13-2:1). Damascus — an interesting incubator for the faith that will change the world!

The Church grew and became the dominant religion of the Mediterranean region, and Damascus emerged as an important center of theological education and influence. After the division between the Western (Roman Catholic) and Eastern branches of the Church, Damascus became very prominent in the growth of the Eastern Orthodox, or Byzantine expression of the faith.

But in AD 610 Mohammed received the first of his visions a few hundred miles away from Damascus, and within twenty-five years the city was conquered by Muslims. Rather than wiping out the Orthodox Christians and other faith groups, the Muslim leaders of Damascus have usually found ways to make room to co-exist with them. The city has been ruled by Muslims ever since that time, though they have had to deal with threats from the Christian Crusades in the late Middle Ages and have endured being pawns in two Twentieth Century World Wars.

Muslim leadership in Damascus has undergone many changes through the centuries. There have been numerous intrigues and power struggles between various dynasties. Some of the events unfolding before us today have their roots in tensions between Islamic traditions that go back hundreds of years.

As we read the newspapers and watch TV news on the latest horrific event in Syria, let’s think of the spiritual history of the people of Damascus, rooted in the Bible since the time of Abraham. Say a prayer for one family living in the heart of the world’s oldest city.