How the Ottomans won over Damascus: A graphic short story

A while back, a book chapter of mine was published in the volume The Mamluk-Ottoman Transition. Continuity and Change in Egypt and Bilād al-Shām in the Sixteenth Century, edited by Stephan Conermann and Gül Şen. In this I investigated architectural policies of the Ottoman sultan Selim immediately following his occupation of Damascus.

I still stand by most of the points I made in this publication. But I was unhappy that the illustrations into which I had put so much work were printed rather small. Thus, this post brings them back and, on their basis, retells the story of how the Ottomans not only conquered but won over Damascus.

The maps presented here are based on Dorothée Sack’s maps which can be viewed and downloaded on archnet

In short, my argument in my contribution “Sultan Selīm in Damascus: The Ottoman appropriation of a Mamluk metropolis (922-924/1516-1518)” was that the Ottomans built upon the existing sacred landscape of the city and adapted it in small but decisive ways. During the Ayyubid-Mamluk period, the Umayyad Mosque had been the central point of orientation towards which the entire sacred landscape gravitated (see map 1). Two large clusters of religious/educational institutions grew west and north of the central mosque.

Moreover, the Mamluks had early on incorporated both religious and imperial buildings to create axes through the city, along which processions would take place. This combination served, among other things, as a legitimation strategy. It also communicated clearly to contemporaries who was on top and who was not. 

If we look at the wider Damascene context, this method is epitomized in an axis which connected the Umayyad Mosque, on the one hand, with the imperial monuments of the citadel inside the old city and the Qasr al-Ablaq outside it, on the other hand (map 2).

The Ottomans followed similar concerns but chose their own ways in communicating them. Particularly noteworthy is in this respect that with Damascus they conquered a predominantly Muslim city and one that had already been ruled by Muslim rulers. Thus, instead of erecting their own imperial structures, they opted for an approach which used religious institutions, thus making use of established forms to display their own charity and generosity to their new subjects.

At the same time, this offer of generosity came with the same expectation of submission to their rule. The first structure which they adapted after their conquest was the Ḥanafī Nūriyya Madrasa, which became kind of the headquarters of the sultan for his sojourn in Damascus and also housed the Ottoman treasury (see map 3). The choice against the Qasr al-Ablaq should be seen as intentional, as it signaled not only a different approach to ruling but also clearly the end of Mamluk rule over the city.

A more lasting effect was achieved by the construction of Selim’s own mosque, later known as Salimiyya Mosque or the Mosque of shaykh Muhyi al-Din. The second name derives from the locality which was chosen to build that mosque, directly above the grave of the Great Master, the sufi Ibn al-Arabi. For this construction, the Qasr al-Ablaq and the governor’s residence in the citadel were scrapped for luxurious materials. 

With the opening of this mosque, a new axis emerged which built upon the Mamluk axis emanating from the Umayyad Mosque but extending it to Salihiyya . With the deterioration of the Qasr al-Ablaq, one could speculate whether that sight was meant to communicate something to Damascenes, as well: This is what happens if you stand against the Ottomans. However, already Selim’s son Sulayman replaced the Qasr with a structure of his own, the Takiyya Sulaymaniya, which stands until this day (map 4). 

This axis continued to matter at least until the 18th century. It was a common procession route for governors. It is important to note that the architectural element was only one aspect of the Ottoman efforts after the conquest. At least as important was how they filled them with meaning. This was mainly achieved through ostentative displays of charity.

The sultan or his high officers and officials would distribute food or money, and they chose the places where they did that deliberately. Thereby, they were able to realign the sacred landscape of Damascus within a few years and created new patterns that would survive centuries to come.

Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "How the Ottomans won over Damascus: A graphic short story", in Damascus Anecdotes, December 8, 2019,


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