DAMASCUS: The Generous City


When he reached Damascus, the Moroccan traveller, Ibn Battuta (b. Tangier 1304; d. 1368-9) is struck by the dedication of its population to all forms and manners of religious charitable foundations. There were so many foundations that it became difficult for him to count them. He cites as examples legacies by people who could not travel to Mecca to pay others to do Hajj; foundations aimed at providing girls from poor backgrounds with all the requirements for their marriage; foundations devoted to purchasing the freedom of Muslim prisoners; others for paying the maintenance of roads, and so many more. Once, he saw a young boy dropping a porcelain plate, which broke. The passer-bys told the boy to take the pieces to the foundation for utensils. Consequently the boy got a refund for the value of a new plate. The people of Damascus, in their great numbers, also provided waqfs* for schools, hospitals and mosques. It was a city, as Ibn Battuta tells us, where the social spirit was at its optimum.



Umayyad Masjid (Source: Wikipedia)


Damascus is not just historically generous with its wealth, it is generous by nature. It is possibly the city which offered the most welcomes to refugees, more than any other in history. This brief outline by Bianquis captures this. In the 12th century, we find the Andalusian refugees chased from Spain by the Christian re-conquest; former inhabitants of Napluse in Palestine fleeing the Franks, the new masters of Palestine; the 13th century witnesses the arrival of Iraqi and Iranian refugees fleeing the Mongol onslaught, and again more refugees from Spain. In the 16th century, it is more refugees from Spain, both Muslim and Jewish, seeking the protection of the Ottoman empire, then in the 19th century it is refugees from the Caucasus, Kurds, and Turks fleeing the advance of the Russian armies. In the same century, it is the Algerians refusing French colonisation who arrive in large numbers, and so do the Albanians and other Balkan Muslims fleeing nationalist Christian risings.


Damascus was also at the forefront in providing assistance for education. Nur al-Din, the founder of schools, gave large collections of books to the various libraries. Towards the end of his life, the Damascus doctor Muhaddab Eddin Al-Dawhar, who was childless, transformed his house which was located south of the Mosque of the Ummayads into a madrasa for the teaching of medicine. He attributed to it waqfs to secure its running, the payment of teachers’ salaries and also grants for students and he himself taught there before his death. He requested that, after his death, Saraf Eddin Ali Ibn Rahbi (d. 1268) – the son of a well known doctor – should be appointed Professor there. During his visit to Damascus, the traveller, Ibn Jubair reported the high number and varied facilities for foreign students and visitors at the Umayyad Mosque, and he himself encourages students from Spain to go east for education. Ibn Jubair holds that



Gate of Damascus (Source:Pixabay.com)


`Anyone in the West who seeks success, let him come to this city (Damascus) to study, because assistance here is abundant. The chief thing is that the student here is relieved of all worry about food and lodging, which is a great help.’


Madrasahs in Damascus:

The madrasas, the precursors of our modern university colleges, were first established by the Seljuk leader Nizam al-Mulk (murdered by the Ismailis in 1092). Following his death, madrasas spread so rapidly that at some point in the medieval times, according to Tawtah, there were 73 colleges in Damascus alone (41 in Jerusalem, 40 in Baghdad, 14 in Aleppo, 13 in Tripoli, 9 in al-Mawsil and 74 in Cairo, in addition to numerous institutions in other cities.) A later author, writing around 1500, counted about 150 madrasas in Damascus alone.


Shalaby offers an excellent description of one such illustrious madrasa: the al-Nuriyyah al-Kubra in Damascus founded by Nur al-Din, and which was described by Ibn Jubair as one of the best colleges in the world.

`It is situated in Khatt al-Khawwasin which is now called `al-Khayyarin’ and it is about half a mile south West of the Umayyad Mosque. The school has a `monumental’ entrance: an arch with an outer door, and a broad passage leading to the court with a second door halfway along. The lintel of the outer door is adorned with the endowment tablet. The school had its ‘Iwan’, which then, was the most important place in the Muslim school. It is the equivalent of the modern lecture room, and there where the halaqat were held. Not far from the Iwan was the mosque, which took the significant place in a medieval school. The mosque was also open to other worshipers, and it was thus normal that it was remote from the Iwan. The school also included eight lodges for the students, and the caretaker’s lodgings, the latrines, and also a kitchen and dining hall, the food store and the general store for the building. This madrasa, in most parts, still stands up to now.’


The First Known Hospital in Islam

Ibn-Jubair writing about his visit to Damascus in 1184, also said:

“There is in this city an old and a new hospital. The old hospital was constructed on the same plan as the new one, but it is not as well furnished as the new one. It is situated west of the al-Mukarrem mosque. Both of these constitute a true glory of Islam.”

The first known hospital in Islam was built in Damascus in 706 C.E. by the Ummayad Caliph: al-Walid Ibn Abd al-Malik. It was to cater for various sorts of patients including the blind, but also the lepers (then, in Europe, and for centuries thereafter, lepers were burnt to death by royal decree.) This hospital was well equipped and well staffed, and was to serve as the model for other hospitals to follow in the region. This is very certainly the first Muslim hospital to have been built. Al-Walid appointed physicians to staff the hospital and paid them for their services; he ordered that lepers be isolated so that they would not contaminate the other patients in the hospital.


History of Hospitals in Damascus

Under the Seljuks was added another hospital, located in the quarter known as Bab al-Barid, west of the great mosque, founded by the Seljuk leader Duqaq, towards the end of the 11th century. In the 13th century, it was still standing as Izz Eddin Ibn al-Suwaydi (d. 1291) was working there.


The most important hospital of the city was to be built much later in 1156 C.E., by Nur al-Din Zangi and it was known as Al-Nuri Hospital. The revenues of the hospital according to al-Maqrizi were due to the fact that Nur-al-Din had made prisoner a European king and had planned to have him executed. But the king paid as his ransom, four forts and 500 000 dinars, and hence he was released.


On this hospital, the 13th century medical historian, Ibn abi Usaybi’ah wrote:

“When Nur-al-Din built the Grand Bimaristan he appointed as the director Abul Majd al-Bahilli. This physician went regularly to the hospital to care for the patients, to examine them and to give the necessary orders to the attendants and servants who worked under his direction. After that this physician went to the citadel to examine the dignitaries and the noblemen that were ill. This task completed he returned to the hospital, sat in the liwan (vestibule hall) richly furnished, and commenced his lectures.”


Under the direction of the physician Abu al-Majid al-Bahili, Nur ad-Din equipped the hospital with adequate supplies of food and medication, and donated in addition a large number of medical books to be housed in a special hall serving as library. Eminent physicians worked at the hospital. Muhadhib ad-Din Ibn an-Naqqash (d. 1178) headed an-Nuri hospital besides serving King Nur ad-Din as chief physician. His son Najm ad-Din served in the same hospital, then was promoted to the rank of wazir for the Ayyubiyyah. Early in the thirteenth century, the physician ad-Dakhwar first served in an-Nuri hospital at a low salary, then, as he increased in fame, his income from private practice brought him much wealth and he started a medical school in the city. In the hospital, too, teaching and discussions on topics related to medicine were conducted. Many renowned physicians taught at the hospital’s medical school, which it is said had elegant rooms, and of course the library mentioned previously. The physicians and practitioners assembled before Nur Eddin Zangi to discuss medical subjects and to listen to the lectures that Abul Majd gave his pupils; these would last three hours. A number of Muslim physicists graduated from there. Among the well-known students are Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah (1203-1270), the famous medical historian and ‘Ala ad-Din Ibn an-Nafis (d.1289) whose discovery of the lesser circulation of the blood marked a new step in better understanding of human physiology and was the earliest explanation until William Harvey (1628).


At the hospital, health provision was universal as noted by Ibn Abi Usaybi’a who relates the story of an eminent Syrian doctor of the 12th century who, after examining the sick in the hospital, went to court to treat the people belonging to the elite.


The hospital also innovated in the keeping of patients’ records. Ibn Jubayr praised the way in which the administrator kept a register of the patients, probably the earliest of its kind in the history of hospitals. Beside each name, the physician daily listed the patient’s requirement of diet and medication after he had made his rounds.


Al-Qalgashandi (1355-1418) affirms that the administrator of an-Nuri hospital in his time was given, as a token of his prestige, title of honour, Shihab ad-Din. He was authorized to exhort the employees to render better service to the patients and each department to execute its duties faithfully and efficiently.


Khalil ibn-Shahine al-Zahiri told about his visit to Damascus:

`I was accompanied by a distinguished and affable Persian. When he visited the al-Nuri hospital and saw the diets, the utilities and the comforts to be found there, he decided to see for himself, what being a patient was like in that hospital. He pretended illness and was admitted to the hospital. There the medical chief visited him every day and took his pulse and prescribed his diet, consisting of a variety of meats, fat chickens, candies and drinks and fresh fruits. On the third day the doctor told him that such patients were not allowed to stay more than three days, and asked him to leave.’


It is worth noting that fragments of this hospital’s original building which served in promoting public medical care for about seven centuries remain to this day, and is reconstructed to its original design and structure.


A final scholarly institution here is the observatory. At the same time as observations were developed in Baghdad (9th century), they were equally so in Damascus, where another observatory was set up on the outskirts of the city on Mount Qasiyun. The best able astronomers of the era were brought together at the expense of the sovereign, charged most particularly with proving the data in Ptolemy’s Almagest, and of making observations of the sun and the moon for one year. The superintendent at the observatory of Damascus was the scholar Abu Mansur (b. 885). At that early stage, already, large instruments were gradually being introduced, which in Damascus include a 20 ft quadrant and a 56 ft sextant.


* Waqf means putting aside the original property and donating its benefits for the sake of Allaah. What is meant by the original property is something from which benefit may be derived whilst its essence remains, such as houses, shops, gardens, etc. What is meant by benefits is beneficial produce that comes from the original property, such as crops, rents, provision of shelter, etc. (Definition from Islamqa.com)