Homs, the third largest city in Syria, speaks of itself with its significant location, mild climate and the famous sense of humour of its people. Located in mid-Syria, it is the meeting point of the North-South and East-West roads, open to the Mediterranean through Tripoli in the west, connected with Palmyra in the east (where the Syrian desert lies). The Orontes river passes by the western and eastern parts of the city.
Homs has a distinctive landscape and a moderate climate most of the year. Homs Gapis open towards the western coastal, Lebanese mountains, along with Lake Homs (Qattinah lake) and Orontes River. The area receives heavy rains in winter and cool air in summer and so with the desert climate in the east, this maintains a good level of humidity. The ancient history, the weather and the geographic location has always inspired people there, the thing which made them a compliment element to such a significant city. In 1970, the population of Homs was 206.242 and it reached 850.000 in 2007. People of Homs are known for their intelligence, simple life and spirit and with their facetiousness. They became famous for celebrating their Wednesdays that some scholars think it might be attributed to several historical events; the first one in 550 A.D. when people played fools as a form of worshipping, and the other was in 600 A.D. when Homsis agreed on doing the Friday prayer service on Wednesdays.
Chronicle history of Homs
I. Before the Roman Era
It is thought that the beginning of the city as a residential place started in the archaeological mount of Homs (Krak des Chevaliers now) about 2300 B.C. The artificial mount emerged on a natural hill which formed a flat platform over the flood level of Orontes river. It has almost a circular shape with 275 m. diameter and 29 m. height, the thing which made it the highest surface in Homs. The ditch surrounding the castle in the past was full of the Orontes’s water used for protection. Unpublished French and Syrian expedition reports on the castle show that the deep layers of the mount go back to the third millennium B.C.
There is a lack of solid information about that period of the city history, but it is likely that some scattered tribes lived in Homs before the Roman era and that the city was less important at that time. However, around 2000 B.C. and the period that followed, Hittites settled in Homs and conquered Egypt after they had established their powerful kingdom, nevertheless; fierce wars flared up when Egyptians grew tired of the Hittites’s attacks and the fighting lasted for years without a decisive victory for either party. One of the famous victories for the Egyptians over the Hittites though, was The Battle of Kadesh during the reign of Ramesses II after 15 years of war and that is when Ramesses made a treaty with the Hittites and married their princess.
It is thought that Homs continued to be a residential city until 1900 B.C. However,residential city life was interrupted during the Bronze Age (1900-1550 BC). During that period, Kingdom of Qatana, Mary and Kadesh have flourished. Homs hill continued to be a permanent settlement after 1550 BC until the first millennium BC.
II. During the Greek Era
Homs used to be in contact with the Egyptian, the Assyrian and the Greek civilizations and the latter was during Alexander’s reign after he took power over the region. When he stopped by the plain of Homs near Kadesh, he ordered for the dam to be fixed (Qattinah Dam now) though this information has not been provedyet. After the death of Alexander the Great, his student Seleucus I Nicator started to rule in Syria and he worked hard on developing his state.Many Syrian cities had become well-known during his days such as Antakya, Seleucia, Apamea and Arethusa (Al-Rastan). The Seleucid Empire granted Syrians an administrative independence under the authority of the empire, demanding that they pay their tribute. Later, Syria gained total administrative independence and self-autonomous states emerged eventually in Homs, Byblos and Edessa. Trade movement was active in Homs during the Seleucid era and had reached all the way Europe. The official language at that time was Greek. Commercial and agricultural importance of the city had made the Seleucids more interested init, so they built the first dam on Orontes river and The Lake Homs emerged and it served to water the lands and produce the water energy needed.
In the second century B.C., Arab tribes started to settle in Homs and then took power over the city in 96 B.C. Besides being the guardians of the Sun Temple, these tribes were known for their wealth, minting coins and interest in agriculture. Most famous among their rulers was the second prince Shamsigram whose tomb with his sons was the last building from this dynasty known as The Silo and which was demolished in 1911 A.D.
Between 80 B.C. and 80 A.D., Homs was an autonomous state famous for its agriculture which surpassed the Egyptians’ at that time. Many studies confirm that all the lands in the eastern part of the city until Furqlus were planted with olive trees based on the millstones found in the area, in addition to the former reputation of Homs’s orchards, farmlands and the densely growing trees on the banks of Orontes.
On the Hill of Homs on the other hand, shards of pottery were discovered thatbelong to The Hellenistic period, but no remnants of settlement buildings were found there.
III. During the Roman Era
Along the Hellenistic era, Homs remained isolated and did not expand outside of the Hill like other cities until the beginning of the Roman period, when it turned into an organized city and then into a very important central city. This took more time probably due to the swamps which were cleaned after the construction of the dam and controlling the water of Orontes river. Some geological studies support this reason in addition to aerial shots and some archaeological documents. After becoming part of the Roman empire, the city attained a high rank in the Roman lifestyle to the extent that some Roman emperors were from Homsi origins since after Emperor Septimius Severus passed by Homs and married Julia Domna; the daughter of the city High Priest, some of his sons of Homsi blood succeeded him and the city moved up to a very important position until it became the capital of Phoenicia in Syria.
Besides that position at that time, under the rule of the Roman emperor Elagabalus (grandson of Julia Miza; sister of Julia Domna), the Black Rock was moved from the Sun Temple in Homs to Rome and the city witnessed an architectural and civic renaissance; new stone-paved streets were constructed between Homs and other neighboring cities, the trade products were imported to the European markets, high level of agricultural development was achieved so the Qattinah dam was renewed and the lands were distributed equally each about 50 hectares, among small farmers and those who retired from the Homs military battalion. Such prosperity and organization lasted for about 1000 years. Some marks of the land borders can be seen in the western parts of Homs, especially in the basalt lands.
During that era, Homs was considered a caravan city although there is no historical document that supports this information other than its location. It was a trade station not less important than Palmyra since they were both connected with the trade roads. According to some writings found on rocks from the city, some Aramean figures from Palmyra resided in Homs in addition to some Roman families who worked in trade and protected the Roman borders.
During the times of emperor Antoninus Pius (138- 161 A.D), Homsis had the right to mint their coins independently. During the turmoil in the Roman empire, Septimius’s family appeared in Palmyra and was supported by the people of Homs. Very important historical figures belonged to this family such as Zenobia, wife of Septimius Udaynath (Odaenathus), who astonished the world with her courage and resilience, Palmyra became a very prosperous city during her rule. Zebda, the military leader of Zenobia, found a shelter for him and his army behind the walls of Homs after the battle of Antakya against the Romans. Zenobia lost her battle (275 – 270 A.D) against Aurelian and was captured and taken in golden chains to Rome. Upon Zenobia’s defeat, the Roman leader Aurelian stopped at Homs and killed some people from Palmyra who were living there.
Not much left of the city’s position after the fall of Palmyra, other than its agricultural lands, this incident explains the end of Homs as a trade station. The architectural ruins of the city which belong to that era can be hardly identified now except some rocks discovered in the foundation of The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in the southern entrance and the eastern side. Expeditions also uncovered some antiques that belong to the Roman era and they are kept in the Museum of Homs.
IV. During the Byzantine era
By the end of the fourth century, Syria was divided into several territories. The northern part included two of them; The First Syria in the north and The Second Syria in the middle. Similarly, Phoenicia was divided into two parts; The First Phoenicia with its capital Saidon, and The Second Phoenicia and its capital was Homs.
Homs is considered one of the prophets’ cities since both prophets Peter and John passed by it and preached Christianity, part of its population embraced Christianity as a result. Despite the conservative pagan community and the prosecution of the first Christians there, the new religion spread widely and the first believers practiced their religion in secret places, first of which was the house of a devout widow called Barbara, which became the first church in Homs and was called after her.
After Christianity spread broadly in Homs, some Christian men from the city participated in the Second Christian Conference which was held in the second half of the fourth century in Antakya. By the fifth century, Homs became a patriarchal center in the Phoenician Lebanon, and with the Empire turning into Christianity, it is thought that the Temple of the Sun in Homs had become a church just like what happened in Damascus with The Temple of Jupiter by the end of the fourth century.
Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine was interested in Homs and built a church there in 326 A.D. The church was mentioned in the book of Al-Masudi as an architectural wonder. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find the exact location of the church, however it is likely to be the location of The Great Mosque of al-Nuri, which was previously a Roman temple.
The city contains many Christian ruins that go back to the sixth century: an underground grave with a worshipping room decorated with Fresco crosses found in Bab Alsebaa, some buildings which belong to the Byzantine days such as Mar Elias Church that contains a Fresco from the 12th century, Saint Mary Church of the Holy Belt (Um Azzinar Church) which contains the holy belt of Virgin Mary in addition to other churches that were built in different periods of that era.
However, the most important heritage related to the Byzantine period was the Catacombs discovered in the late 1950's in Al Dreib Gate. There are long corridors in a maze form dug by the early Christians to bury their dead and martyrs, practice their religion and as a shelter during prosecution. Catacombs were well-known since the first century of Christianity in several places around the world such as Rome, Toscana, Malta, Greece, Algeria, Libya, France, Palestine and Egypt. In Homs, some vaults of those catacombs reached ten meters long and were very narrow and supported by side walls and arches. Just like the catacombs in Rome, the ceilings of the catacombs in Homs included holes for sunlight to pass through, and they are decorated with colourful Frescos on different religious themes.
V. During the Islamic period
The Byzantine Homs was protected with strong forts and walls that resisted the Islamic conquests until Abo Obaids Al-Jarrah entered the city. An important protracted battle took place there between the Arab and the Byzantines.
In 995 A.D. during the rule of the Byzantine emperor Basil II, the city was set on fire and destroyed after his failure to conquer it. Even after the fall of the city in 999 A.D., he ordered to burn it again.
After that, Homs became a military camp against The Crusaders and Muslim forces came from different neighbouring regions and stored their weaponry and supplies there.
During the Hamdanid dynasty, Homs was a state ruled by Abu Firas al-Hamdani along two periods.
The city has the grave of the infamous Islamic leader Khalid ibn al-Walid.
It is said that Yazid ibn Mu‘awiya used to visit Homs when he was living in Huwwarin city.
An uprising started in the city during the rule of Marwan II, which was finished by a harsh punishment and all the city walls were destroyed.
During the Abbasid reign, Homs maintained its form and status despite moving the capital to Baghdad. There are no buildings remained in Homs from the Umayyad and Abbasid periods except The Grand Mosque of Al-Nuri, which was at first built by using half the building of Saint John church before it was rebuilt following the Umayyad architectural style, but the construction work didn’t happen until late time of the Umayyad period, not before 11th century, where it was destroyed by the earthquake that hit the area in 1157. The golden mosaic at its entrance is thought to belong to the Umayyad or Abbasid dynasty. In 1112 A.D., Seljuk immigrants came to Homs and settled in the city and in the countryside. Most of them were Turkmans and Circassians.
The information about Homs during the Islamic period will focus here on the Ayyubid, Mamluk and Ottoman periods since most of the archeological sites that are still in the city go back to those three dynasties such as Az-Zahrawi palace, Mufid al-Amin House, the old markets, Khalid Bin Al-Walid Mosque, Al-Fadael Mosque, Al Dalati Mosque, The Ottoman Hammam and others.
1. The Ayyubid Dynasty
Salah ad-Din al-Ayubi (Saladdin) conquered Homs in 570 A.H. (1193 A.D.) and gave it to his cousin Muhammad Ben Shirkuh. During the Ayyubid period, the city was under an extreme pressure by The Crusaders who holed up in the Krak des Chevaliers at that time. The Ayyubids fought for the city and protected its walls and castle which suffered a lot from the attacks. Asad ad-Din Shirkuh bin Shadhi (Shirkuh) also ruled Homs though he wasn’t directly related to Saladdin’s blood line. The Crusaders’ attacks intensified during the rule of Al-Mansour Ibrahim, so the walls and the city gates were strengthened, and the destroyed parts were rebuilt. The Mongols occupied Homs in 637 A.H. (1260 A.D.) and its last Ayyubid rulers Al-Ashraf Muzzafar was guaranteed their protection. After that, the city lost its political position, turned into a military camp and was thrown into chaos.
2. The Mamluk Dynasty
Munzer Ad-Din Aybek ruled Homs during Mamluk dynasty for a short term before Nour al-Din al-Zengi took over the city in 531 A.H. (1154 A.D.). During that period, Baibars maintained the Ayyubid schools and graveyards, renewed the tomb of Khalid Ben AL-Walid in 664 A.H. (1266 A.D.) which was likely to be a shrine according to two scripts kept inside the mosque. He also renewed parts of The Grand Mosque.
One of the Sultan’s mamluks also ruled Homs from its castle and was helped by a supervisory board, a senate and a council of the Islamic Sharia.
An official post center was found using homing pigeons to send posts to Al-Rastan, Hama and Damascus across the city of Qara. Wool and silk textiles were famous in the city at that time.
3. The Ottoman Dynasty
In 893 A.H. (1516 A.D.), Homs was turned into a district consisting of five sub-districts affiliated with Tripoli. By that time, it had lost its shine and most of its civic and architectural characteristics.
In 897 A.H. (1520 A.D.), the ruler of Damascus Janbirdi al-Ghazali announced independence from the Ottoman Empire and consequently extended his independent state until Tripoli, Homs and Hama. In 1208 A.H. (1831 A.D.), Homs was conquered by Ibrahim Basha, representative of Muhammad Ali Basha; the Ottoman governor of Egypt, and after a riot took place in the city, he attacked and destroyed the castle.
During the days of Nazem Basha, Wali of Damascus under Sultan Abdul Hamid II, Khalid Bin Al-Walid Mosque was finished in its current shape which is similar to the mosques in Istanbul, Turkey after the original mosque was destroyed.
During that period, Homs was popular with dairy products because of the Turkmans who settled there, in addition to its agricultural products. People started growing rice and producing silk as well since some areas near Homs used to grow mulberry trees and silk worms. The city contained about 4560 spinning wheels when the population was 20 thousand.The Homsi textiles were distinctive at that time, especially embroidered and golden fabrics which used to be exported to Istanbul.
Eng. Mariam Bachich