Damascus and Aleppo were two cities situated at the center of the Silk Road, a key intercontinental trade route that linked the Roman Empire to China. Caravans traveling on the Silk Road traded in silk, perfumes, and spices in the Far East.
The city of Aleppo, for example, lay at the crossroads of two trade routes, one from India and the other from Damascus. They were important trading centers of caravan traffic and powerful centers of urban culture. Both regions are situated near the Mediterranean coast (about 62 miles from the sea).
The two towns contain agricultural land and nomad territory. Both Damascus and Aleppo suffered earthquakes, epidemics, and internal strife throughout history but were able to regain their prominence successfully after every adversity.
Damascus (Dimashq as-Sham in Arabic) is one of the oldest cities in the world that is still inhabited. The ancient city of Damascus lies within city walls. Excavations reveal that the earliest inhabitants lived there sometime between 10,000 and 8000 b.c.e. The city of Aleppo, on the other hand, was inhabited from 1800 b.c.e., according to archaeological records. After 800 b.c.e. the Assyrians, the Persians, and then the Greeks, in 333 b.c.e., ruled Aleppo.
Damascus only achieved prominence in 1100 b.c.e. after the coming of the Semitic peoples known as the Aramaeans. The Aramaeans built up the infrastructure in the city in the form of canals and tunnels linked to the Barada River. The water distribution system was then improved upon by later rulers of the city, the Romans who conquered Syria in 64 b.c.e., and members of the Omayyad dynasty.
Because of their similarities, Damascus and Aleppo were rivals, and comparisons were often made of them. Even though Aleppo was more successful in economic terms, it seems that Damascus thrived even more as a center of Islam. Islamic intellects often congregated in Damascus, and Islamic art flourished in the city.
Conditions in Damascus were very well suited for the flourishing of the intellectual and artistic milieu, as it had been the center of large empires of those who ruled over it. Damascus was after all the base for the Muslims against the crusaders in the seventh century c.e. During that time it was the center of administration of the caliph.
Damascus became the military and political base of Muslim fighters against the crusaders. Nuraddin first acquired Damascus and Aleppo in 1154, followed by Saladin after his death. In 1260 Mongols attacked the cities, which fell to the hands of the Mamluks in 1317. Damascus continued to enjoy political prominence under the Mamluks as the capital of the Mamluk Empire until 1516, though this period witnessed another Mongol invasion of Damascus in 1400.
Damascus occupies an important position in Sunni tradition as one of the holiest Muslim cities along with Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, because landmarks events in Islamic history occurred there. It is the birthplace of Abraham and is also where Moses was buried.