The buildings in the picture are a mosque complex apparently from the Mamluk era (which includes the period 1348-1415) situated in the Al-Salihiyya quarter of Damascus. Al-Salihiyya was founded in the Ayyubid/Crusader period by Muslim refugees from Jama'il village in Palestine, and by the mid-14th c. it was considered to be something of a 'holy' settlement owing to the countless religious and educational institutions (madrasas, mosques, Sufi convents, etc.) operating there. Also, it was an important centre of the strict Hanbalite legal school of Sunni Islam. Located at the foot of Mount Qasiyun, Al-Salihiyya was originally regarded as a separate town, but as Damascus expanded, Al-Salihiyya gradually obtained the status of a quarter of the city. In the period we study, it had a somewhat ambiguous status, with some authors treating it as a town in its own right, and others referring to it as a city quarter. Photo: Balazs Major.
Zoltan Szombathy
(Eotvos Lorand University, Budapest)

Damascus (1348-1415)

In this whole period, Damascus forms an integral part of the Mamluk state of Egypt, of which Damascus is the second most important city. After the defeat of both Crusaders and Mongols, a golden period (to about 1388) ensues, but it is followed by a period of rebellions by the governors of Damascus against the central authority, and the increasing power of the zuccar, local militias turned lawless bandits. The reign of Barquq (1382-1399) brings some stability, but Damascus then falls prey to Timur Lenk, who devastates the city in 1401. Damascus recovers to a great extent under the relatively peaceful and prosperous reign of Sultan Barsbay (1422- 1438). 

Damascus expands well beyond the original city walls, with most Mamluk monuments built extra muros. Al-Salihiyya suburb grows, as do nearby villages in the Ghuta oasis. The period sees lively economic activity, with Damascus still a hub of commerce on the trade routes through the Middle East; e.g. Europeans bring cloth from Flanders, and export silk, brocades, copperwork, glassware, etc. Damascus produces high-quality luxury goods, including items of book culture (manuscript copying, bookbinding, etc.) Festive occasions are very frequent in the city, and the Mamluks sponsor the construction of countless new buildings (mausoleums, mosques, madrasas), preferring a very ornamental style (e.g. ablaq, colourful striped masonry).

Texts: Ibn Kathir, al-Bidaya wal-Nihaya; Ibn Qadi Shuhba, al-Iclam bi-Tarikh al-Islam; Ibn Hijja: Yaqut al-kalam fi-ma nab al-Sham; Ibn al-cImad, Shadharat al-dhahab.

The Educated Elite

Cultural contacts with Egypt (and beyond) grow in importance, reflecting political integration. (E.g. cUddat al-hisn al-hasin by Ibn al-Jazari is translated into aljamiado Aragonese within a decade or two of its composition.) Many intellectuals (e.g. members of the al-Subki family of Damascus) hold posts in Cairo during their lives; and intellectuals from Egypt and the Muslim West often visit and sojourn in Damascus, perhaps the most notable among them being Ibn Khaldun. The greatest single blow to Damascene culture is the Timur's carrying away most of the local intelligentsia to Iran and Samarqand, his capital. 

Damascus is dominated by the Sunni élite, but Shia minorities exist too. Among the Sunnis, the Shafici school is predominant. The institutionalisation of religious life and education continues, with madrasas, Sufi convents (khanaqah) and charitable endowments (awqaf) proliferating, the latter often serving to support religious and educational institutions. Typical genres of scholarly culture include teaching manuals, fatwa collections, and other works of Islamic jurisprudence.

Hanbalite influence is also strong despite the opposition of the Mamluk regime, as evidenced by such outstanding intellectuals as Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1350), and his disciple Ibn Rajab (d. 1393). Intolerance of perceived 'heresies' and reprehensible 'innovations' grows, but Sufism also flourishes.  

Texts: Ibn Battuta: Rihla; Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya's works; Taj al-Din al-Subki (d. 771/1370): Tabaqat al-Shaficiyya al-kubra; Ibn Rajab: al-Dhayl cala Tabaqat al-Hanabila; Ibn Baydakin: Kitab al-lumac; Taqi al-Din al-Subki: al-Fatawa.


The period is characterised by relatively little innovation and a perceptible decadence with the overwhelming use of stylistic embellishments. Poetry, in particular, shows little innovation in this period, the audience preferring abundant word-play, puns and a plethora of tropes. Many poets and writers are highly educated scholars too. Very characteristic of the age are huge, comprehensive works that seek to integrate all available knowledge in a particular field. Two outstanding authors are al-Safadi (d. 1362), a scholar, biographer and poet; and Ibn Hijja al-Hamawi (1366-1434), who focused more on belles-lettres and poetry. 

Great Damascene chroniclers of the period include al-Kutubi (d. 1363; author of cUyun al-tawarikh), Shams al-Din Muhammad al-Dhahabi (d. 1348 or 1352-3; Tarikh al-islam and Kitab al-cibar fi khabar man ghabar), and Ibn Kathir (d. 1373; author of al-Bidaya wal-Nihaya). Another important genre of the period is that of huge biographical manuals (e.g. al-Safadi's al-Wafi bil-wafayat; al-Kutubi's Fawat al-wafayat; and al-Dhahabi's Tabaqat al-mashahir wal-aclam, Tadhkirat al-huffaz and Tabaqat al-qurra'. The same synthesising effort is obvious in some comprehensive works on poetics, like Ibn Hijja's Khizanat al-adab. Many works from this period would continue being used well into late Ottoman times.

Texts: Hajji Khalifa, Kashf al-zunun; al-Sakhawi: al-Daw' al-lamic fi acyan al-qarn al-tasic; al-Kutubi, Fawat; al-Safadi, Wafi; Ibn Hijja al-Hamawi: Khizanat al-adab and Thamarat al-awraq; al-Safadi: Tawshic al-Tawshih; and individual poetic oeuvres.