The Umayyad Mosque - Damascus' Crowning Glory
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
From the dawn of Islam, Damascus and its Umayyad Mosque, one of the most sacred structures in the Muslim world, have been synonymous. For hundreds of years, this great house of worship, the fourth holiest spot in the Muslim world, has been the city’s most magnificent historic building – its emblem par excellence. The pride of Arab-Islamic architecture, it was once the finest work of art to be found any place on earth. Through the centuries, it has always been the symbol of a glorious period in Arab history – the time when Damascus was the capital of a vast Muslim empire.
Erected on one of the longest established holy spots in the world, it is truly a living history of man. Within its walls are incorporated three faiths, three civilizations and four eras in human history. The mosque replaced the Christian basilica of Saint John the Baptist, which itself was erected on the site of the Roman Temple of Jupiter. An even earlier temple built about 1,000 B.C. and dedicated to Haddad, the Aramean god of thunder, once stood on the same location.
After the Islamic conquest in 635 A.D., Muslims and Christians agreed to partition the church between them, and they began to perform their rituals side by side. For 70 years the Christians and Muslim prayed in the same structure. In 705, when the Muslim congregation grew in size, the Umayyad Caliph, al-Walid, took over the whole building and, in exchange, built for the Christians four churches. He then commenced to construct the mosque, which became the first monumental expression of Muslim devotion. A huge number of craftsmen including Greeks, Indians, Persians and Syrian Christians spent years embellishing the first sumptuous mosque in Islam.
It took ten years and eleven million gold dinars to build what was to become the token of Muslim political supremacy and moral prestige. The artisans who decorated the mosque thought of Damascus as the Garden of Eden and, hence, implanted by way of murals, inlaid with gold, precious stones and coloured glass, motifs duplicating the best elements in nature and man-made structures. These duplicated real and imaginary rivers, bridges and splendid palaces emerging from a forest of green trees against a background of gold. Added to the glittering mosaics, the multi-colored marble marquetry and gold plating combined to give the mosque a magnificent sense of colour design.
When it was finished, in beauty and splendour, the mosque surpassed the greatest churches in Christendom. G.T. Rivoira in his book Moslem Architecture writes that in its first centuries people called the mosque one of the palaces of paradise. He goes on to say that the Abbasid caliphs, al-Mahdi and al-Ma’mun, even though their family detested its builders’, the Umayyads, were enthralled with this handiwork of their enemies. After seeing the mosque, they both agreed that it was unrivalled and the most wonderful building in the world.
In the subsequent centuries, the style of al-Walid’s creation was reproduced by architects of mosques throughout the Muslim lands, especially in North Africa and Arab Spain. Its square minaret, believed to have been copied from earlier Christian churches, became the trademark of the Muslim houses of worship. Even today, this type of minaret is still to be found throughout North and West Africa.
Some historians believe that al-Walid’s minaret was later adopted by the European Christian churches and became the square church steeple one sees in western lands. In the eastern Muslim world, after the demise of the Umayyad Dynasty, the
structure and style of the mosques changed, especially during the Ottoman period. However, Damascus’s Umayyad Mosque continued to retain much of its maiden character, including one of the square minarets, and original shape.
Built on an area of 161 m (528 ft) by 97 m (318 ft), this brilliant handiwork of the Umayyads is one of the world’s largest Islamic houses of worship. Its dome, minarets, columns and arches are constructed in such a way as to give it purity of form. The richness of building materials and exquisite geometrical decorations, for centuries, reflected the opulence and charm of Umayyad architecture and drew visitors from the four corners of the world. According to Dr. Afif Bahnasi, a well-known Syrian archaeologist, “It is the greatest of mosques in its spaciousness and elegant architectural design.”
In 1069 A. D., much of the mosque was destroyed by fire and, in 1260, it was sacked by the Mongols. Again, in the early 15th century, Tamerlane, the scourge of Asia, burnt the whole of the inside, and finely in 1893, in the Ottoman era it was almost entirely consumed by fire. It was rebuilt following each destruction as closely as possible the original plans.
The mosque one sees today is the reconstruction by the Ottomans, after the last fire. A few decades ago, from the outside, one could barely make out the walls – homes and shops
covered almost every inch. However, at the beginning of the 1990s a huge renovation program began to transform the whole Mosque. The homes and shops covering the walls have been removed. Today, it appears like a huge historic fortress being recast in the heart of old Damascus. On-going renovation is continuing on both the outside and inside – every day the splendour of its past is slowly creeping back.
The mosque has three minarets: the al-‘Arous (Bride), dominating the courtyard, dates back to the Umayyad period; the Minaret of Jesus, the most famous, because according to Muslim tradition Christ, just before the Last Judgement, will return through it to fight the Antichrist; and the slender minaret of Sultan Quait Bey, built by an Egyptian Mameluk ruler.
In the past, before loudspeakers, the voices of 75 muezzins (criers to prayer) would resound from these minarets. Today only on feast days does the real voice of the muezzin float above the city from these ancient towers. At other times, recordings played from loudspeakers attached to the minarets carry the cry of Islam.
Stepping into the enormous courtyard from the bustle and clamour of the surrounding souks is like walking unexpectedly into another world. Inside, it is an oasis of coolness, calmness and silence. In its great marble spaces, people feel they have
left their worries and stresses at the doorway. The overwhelming sense of serenity in its spacious tranquillity is a moving experience, not found in many other religious structures.
At one end, near the main entrance, is the courtyard’s gem, a small domed building supported by tiny slender Corinthian columns and pictorial-mosaic decorated walls. This tiny structure, considered as one of the finest examples of Muslim art, was once the Umayyad treasury where the nation’s public funds were kept.
On the opposite side of the courtyard, in a small room, worshippers pay homage to a tomb in which it is believed the head of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, is entombed. A never-ending stream of pilgrims, mostly Iranians come to be blessed by this revered member of the Prophet’s family.
On three sides of the courtyard, known in Arabic as the sahn, are arcades, which consist of columns and piers, topped by horseshoe or Roman arches. Parts of these are inlaid with colourful mosaics – the remains from a time when all these covered walks were gilded. The fourth side runs along the front of the prayer hall, parts of which are inlaid with marble panels topped with beautiful murals – a fantastic glazed mosaic of Arabesque, much of it newly renovated.
The prayer hall, 135 m (443 ft) by 37 m (121 ft), which is the throbbing heart of the mosque, has an impressive dome and towers above the courtyard. It is a pillared chamber consisting of three aisles with two-tiered rows of arches resting on Corinthian columns, standing on pedestals. On one side, there are three exquisitely tiled mihrabs (niches) and a superb mimbar (pulpit); and near the opposite side the Mausoleum of John the Baptist – known to the Muslims as the Prophet Yahya.
The domed shrine contains the head of this Saint and is the focal point of the whole mosque. Considered a masterpiece of Islamic art, it is venerated by both Christians and Muslims and has been the object of pilgrims since the earliest days of Islam.
The prayer hall, mihrabs, mimbar, arches, columns and the vast carpeted floor with the worshippers kneeling in prayer, blend harmoniously together and create an ocean of calmness. The emotional impact created by the soothing surroundings produces an atmosphere conducive to communicating with the spiritual power.
The mosque, open to every sect in the Muslim community, is utilized for worship and as a resting or meeting place. Non-Muslims can visit at any time the whole or any part of the mosque, except the prayer hall on Fridays, during the hours of devotion. On entering, visitors pay an admission fee, then everyone takes off their shoes and the women are given cloaks, after which all can roam the mosque at will.
There is no doubt that to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, a visit to this first Great Mosque in Islam is a never-to-be-forgotten experience. Incorporating within its renovated walls a world of beauty, peace and gentleness, it remains a jewel in the world of Islamic architecture, conveying to both worshipper and visitor the true majestic quality of Islam and its message.