The most important monument in Damascus (دمشق), and perhaps the entire country, is the magnificent Umayyad Mosque (الجامع الاموي). No single historic site symbolizes the rich and varied cultural heritage of Syria as does this remarkable mosque. It has served as a place of worship continuously for several millennia, a holy place for over a thousand years even prior to the arrival of Islam. While significantly altered throughout its long history, the mosque survives as the greatest monument of the Umayyad period and one of the most extraordinary places of worship in the Muslim world.
The earliest known use of this site for religious purposes was under the Aramaeans, who maintained a state with Damascus (دمشق) as its capital from the late 12th century BCE until 732 BCE. At that time, a temple at the site was used to worship Hadad, the Semitic god of storms and rain. The building likely followed typical Semitic architectural design, consisting of a walled courtyard with a small chamber for worship and a tower symbolizing a high place of the gods. As the region fell under control of the Greeks, Hadad was likely assimilated into the Greek god Zeus.
The Romans conquered Damascus (دمشق) in 64 BCE and subsequently redeveloped the temple on an extravagant scale for worship of their equivalent god, Jupiter. Local architect Apollodorus was responsible for the project, and he greatly expanded the temple while maintaining much of the original design. The temple featured a large courtyard with a centralized cella and an image of Jupiter. There was a tower at each of the courtyard’s four corners. These were used for Semitic rituals where sacrifices were performed at high places. The temple was later restored and redecorated under the rule of Septimius Severus (193-211 CE). At this time, the complex was significantly larger than the present day mosque and was the largest temple in Roman Syria. It featured two sets of walls, and several traces of the outer walls can still be found in the surrounding neighborhoods of the old city. The temple was converted into the Cathedral of Saint John under Theodosius, who ruled from 379 until 395 CE. Under Byzantine rule, the cathedral served as the seat of the Bishop of Damascus, who ranked second within the Patriarchate of Antioch after the patriarch himself. It appears that the association with John the Baptist originated in the 6th century, with local legend claiming that the head of John the Baptist was buried here.
Damascus (دمشق) was captured by Muslim forces under Khalid Ibn al-Walid (خالد ابن الوليد) in 634. The building initially remained a church, however, serving the Christian population for several more decades. That changed under the sixth Umayyad caliph, al-Walid I (الوليد), who ruled from 705 until 715. After unsuccessful negotiations with the Christian population of the city, he ordered construction of a mosque on the site in 708. To accommodate the growing Muslim population with a large congregational mosque, the reconstruction completely altered the layout of the original building. In order to compensate the city’s Christian population, who protested the project, al-Walid I (الوليد) ordered all other churches that had been confiscated by the state be returned. The construction of the mosque was completed in 715, shortly after the death of al-Walid I (الوليد). According to historical records, the project cost seven years of the state’s revenue. The labor force reportedly consisted of 12,000 people including Coptic craftsmen and Persian, Indian, Greek and Moroccan laborers. Byzantine artisans created the mosaics, some still surviving, which depict landscapes and buildings in a characteristic late Roman style.
After Umayyad rule came to an end in 750, the Abbasids moved the capital to Baghdad (Iraq) and Damascus (دمشق) was largely neglected. The Abbasids were responsible for some additions to the mosque over their several centuries rule, however. Under al-Fadel Bin Saleh Bin Ali (الفضل بن صالح بن علي), governor of the city, the Dome of the Clock (northeast section of the courtyard) was constructed in 780 and the Dome of the Treasury (northwest section of the courtyard) was built in 789. The Abbasids are also credited with construction of the northern minaret, known as the Minaret of the Bride, under the rule of Abdullah al-Mamoun (عبدالله المأمون) in 831. There were few other changes to the mosque until the collapse of Abbasid rule in the 10th century. The city came under authority of the Fatimids in 970, and the mosque was damaged during an uprising against their rule in 1069. The Seljuqs took control of Damascus (دمشق) in 1078, and Abu Said Taj al-Dawleh Tatash al-Seljuqi (أبو سعيد تاج الدولة تتش السلجوقي) ordered a major restoration of the Umayyad Mosque (الجامع الاموي). Further work was performed in the 12th century under Nur al-Din Mahmoud Zenki (نور الدين محمود زنكي), including construction of a monumental clock. The mosque was damaged by fire in 1173, and restorations were performed under Salah al-Din Yousef Bin Ayoub (صلاح الدين يوسف بن أيوب). The southeastern minaret, known as the Minaret of Jesus, was constructed by the Ayyubids in 1247 after a siege in 1245 destroyed an earlier tower.
During the period of Mamluk rule over the city, Damascus (دمشق) suffered several invasions that inflicted significant damage to the city and to the Umayyad Mosque (الجامع الاموي). An alliance of the Mongols and the Crusaders captured the city in 1260, but their occupation was short-lived. After driving their forces out of the city later that year, al-Zahir Rukn al-Din Baibars al-Bandaqdari (الظاهر ركن الدين بيبرس البندقداري) ordered extensive restorations of the mosque, focusing on its marble and mosaics. The mosque suffered from another Mongol invasion in 1300, and was restored again from 1326 to 1328 during the rule of al-Nasr Mohammed (الناصر محمد) under his governor of Syria, Tankiz (تنكز). Fires in 1339 and 1392 caused some additional damage to the mosque, but the greatest destruction came in 1400 when the city was sacked by the Mongols under Timur. He ordered the entire city be burned, including the mosque, and the population massacred. The Mamluks contributed to the expansion of the mosque with the southwestern minaret, which was constructed under the rule of Qaitbay (قايتباي) and is sometimes referred to as the Minaret of Qaitbay. This minaret is by far the most richly decorated of the three. Under the relatively stable period of Ottoman rule that followed the Mamluks, the mosque did not see major construction work until after a devastating fire in 1893 that destroyed much of the inner prayer hall. The mosque has seen several restorations take place in the last century, both under the French Mandate and after independence.
Today, the mosque covers a rectangular area measuring 97 meters by 156 meters. A large open courtyard occupies the northern section of the complex, with the prayer hall to the south. The courtyard in enclosed by arcades on its western, northern and eastern sides. These arcades are supported by alternating stone columns and piers. Three arcades make up the interior of the prayer hall. The arcades are supported by two rows of stone Corinthian columns and each arcade contain two levels. The first level consists of large semi-circular arches, while the second level is made up of double arches. The three interior arcades intersect in the center of the prayer hall with a larger, higher arcade that is perpendicular to the qibla wall and faces the main mihrab and the minbar. The central transept divides the arcades into two halves, each with eleven arches. Four mihrabs line the sanctuary’s rear wall, the main one being located roughly at the center of the wall. The largest dome of the mosque is located atop the center of the prayer hall. The original wooden dome was replaced by one built of stone following the 1893 fire. With a height of 36 meters, the dome rests on an octagonal substructure with two arched windows on each of its sides. It is supported by the central interior arcade and has openings along its parameter.
At the eastern end of the prayer hall is a shrine dedicated to John the Baptist. This marble monument was constructed during the Ottoman period, after the earlier mausoleum was destroyed in the 1893 fire. It is assumed by local tradition to be the burial place of the head of John the Baptist. At the eastern end of the courtyard is a domed chamber containing a shrine dedicated to Hussein Bin Ali (حسين بن علي), an important site of pilgrimage for Shia Muslims. After his death in the Battle of Karbala (Iraq), the head of Hussein (حسين) was brought to Damascus (دمشق) along with the women and children taken captive. Tradition holds that the head was kept in this chamber by the the Umayyad ruler Yazid Bin Maawiyeh (يزيد بن معاوية), who sought to ridicule Hussein (حسين) and other followers of his father, Ali Bin Abi Talib (علي بن أبي طالب). It is disputed whether the head of Hussein (حسين) was buried here or later taken to Medina (Saudi Arabia) for burial.
The mosque features three minarets. The northern minaret, the Minaret of the Bride, is the oldest, dating back to the Abbasid period. The upper levels of the minaret were constructed in 1174. There are 160 steps leading to a platform near top of the minaret, where the muezzin would traditionally make the call to prayer. The southeastern minaret, the Minaret of Jesus, is the tallest of the three. The present structure dates back to an Ayyubid construction of 1247, but the original structure was built in either the Umayyad or Abbasid period. The uppermost section was added by the Ottomans. Local tradition holds that Jesus will descend from heaven before the Day of Judgement through this minaret, hence the name. This idea was originally promoted by a prominent Muslim scholar in the 14th century. The southwestern minaret, sometimes known as the Minaret of Qaitbay, was constructed in 1488. Is is octagonal in shape and features the most intricate decoration of all three minarets.
The mosque is open to visitors from the mid-morning until the conclusion of evening prayers. While the prayer hall is also open for pre-dawn prayers, the mosque does close after those prayers conclude and visitors are discouraged at that time. There is a modest entrance fee for non-Muslims.
Getting There: The Umayyad Mosque (الجامع الاموي) is in the old city of Damascus (دمشق), slightly northwest of center. The old city’s main marketplace, Souq al-Hamidiyeh (سوق الحميدية), ends at the western entrance to the mosque.
Coordinates: 33°30’42.00″N / 36°18’24.00″E
Transliteration Variants: None
Rating: (10 / 10)