At the heart of the old city of Damascus, or shall I say *the* heart of the old city, is the Umayyad, or Great, Mosque, one of the first monumental buildings of Islam (finished in 715, only 83 years after the death of Mohammed), on a site that has been a place of worship since at least 900 BC (and perhaps much further back–the history of Damascus goes back to perhaps 5000 BC). A history of the mosque is a history of Damascus itself, and in some ways a history of the world.
The most obvious way to reach the Great Mosque is through the Hamidiye Souk, the biggest market in the old city of Damascus. Although the broad, uniform market that you see today dates from Ottoman times, the street itself and its existence as a commercial thoroughfare dates from (at least) the Roman period, when a colonnaded street led directly to the western entrance to the Temple of Jupiter that was located on the present site of the Great Mosque.
Typical scene, Hamidiye Souk
Remains of Roman arches outside the western (main) entrance to the mosque
After the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its state religion in the fourth century AD, the Temple of Jupiter was converted into a Christian church dedicated to John the Baptist. Walking around the mosque to the south wall you see a remnant from the Christian church, above a doorway that is now blocked. In Greek, the language of the eastern Roman (or Byzantine) empire, an inscription of Psalm 145 reads, “Your Kingdom, Christ, is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations.”
[picture to come]
But the Christian Byzantine Empire’s hold on Damascus did not endure. In 636, just a few years after Mohammed’s death, Arab Islamic power seized Damascus, which joined an empire that would stretch all the way from now Spain to Central Asia. And in 661, with the start of the Umayyad dynasty, which temporarily transformed the caliphate (or head of the Islamic world) into a hereditary, quasi-monarchical institution, Damascus became the capital of the Arab Empire (a status it would hold for a bit under a hundred years, when the caliphate moved east to Baghdad).
Initially, relatively little changed in the life of the newly conquered cities, which were set in their well-established historical patterns. Greek and other non-Arabic languages remained in wide use, and Jews and Christians were allowed to continue to worship according to their own customs, with few limitations (Islam respects Judaism and Christianity as predecessor faiths in the same tradition and to the same god). But as Islamic power became more established the empire wanted to express its prestige in the form of Islamic architecture (not least of all to match the tremendous Christian architecture that was already all over the Levant and the Byzantine Empire). In 691, Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik built the Dome of the Rock, on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Caliph al-Walit, son and successor to al-Malik, wished to endow Damascus with a similarly magnificent structure and negotiated with the local Christian community for the site of the Church of John the Baptist. In 715, the Great Mosque of Damascus was completed.
Arab control over now Syria has also been interrupted. In the eleventh century, the Crusaders landed on the coast, and thrice attacked but never captured Damascus, in the twelfth century. Just to the north of the Grand Mosque is the tomb of the leader Saladin, who defeated the Crusaders in the late 12th century to restore Arab Islamic control over the eastern Mediterranean. Saladin, who was ethnically Kurdish, was renowned by all not only for his military victories but his sense of fairness and mercy in his treatment of conquered Christians (unlike some of the Crusaders, who committed horrible atrocities against conquered Muslims). After a period of Mamluk control, the Ottoman Empire ruled over Damascus until the end of the first World War, when the French controlled Syria under a quasi-colonial “mandate.” Syrian independence arrived after World War II.
Saladin’s marble tomb on right, with tomb of his secretary on left
Let us enter the mosque. Islamic sites (like Hindu sites and those of other religions, I suppose) differ on whether non-Muslims may enter. Generally in Syria, we have found that all are welcome, even in the holiest sites such as the Umayyad Mosque and its shrines.
Looking in from the northern door
Of course, proper attire is required, which for some women (including improperly dressed Muslim women) means the borrowing of a rather ugly brown robe, giving the impression that a group from some Druid cult is visiting the mosque.
The Great Mosque was one of the largest buildings of its time and is said to have cost a tremendous sum, inviting criticism of the lavish spending by the Umayyad leaders. The center of the mosque is a large courtyard surrounded by columns, some of which date from the previous Christian, and even pagan, structures at the site. Most of the surfaces surrounding the courtyard were covered with rich mosaics. The many remaining or restored mosaics in place today give a true splendor to the courtyard, although sadly most of the originals were destroyed in various disasters (Mongol invasions, earthquakes and fires).
Courtyard, facing west
While mosques are of course places of worship, as a theological matter they are more like convenient gathering places than consecrated ground, and you can find family and youth using the courtyard of the Great Mosque as something like a public park or playground, lending the space a levity of spirit matched by the lightness of the reflective marble floor. Plenty of children seek to interact with the foreign tourist, girls shyly peeking while boys ask to have their picture taken.
On the north side of the courtyard (left, on the picture of the courtyard above) lies the prayer hall, topped at the center by a high dome. The prayer hall itself is a cavernous space, with three “aisles” formed by large transverse arches. The feeling of the space is much like a basilica (perhaps because the layout is not dissimilar from that of the former Church of John the Baptist), but worship is not oriented along the aisles toward an altar but across the narrow width, to face the mihrab, or prayer niche facing Mecca, which is the central feature of all mosques. Central courtyard plus “church-like” interior prayer hall is the typical Arabic mosque style, to be distinguished from Turkish or Iranian styles. Reflecting the continuity from Christianity to Islam, and from Christian church to Islamic mosque, one of the largest features of the prayer hall of the Great Mosque is a shrine that is said to contain the final resting place of the head of John the Baptist, where it is venerated by Muslims and Christians alike. The relic was reportedly found in a crypt when the Great Mosque was constructed in the 8th century.
Shrine of John the Baptist, prayer hall
Another reminder that Islam sees itself as the successor to Jewish and Christian tradition is that Islam considers Jesus to be a prophet (along with the notables of the Old Testament). Built in the 13th century while the city was under Mamluk control, the Minaret of Jesus stands on the southeastern corner of the Great Mosque.
Minaret of Jesus, seen above a Roman arch
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Great Mosque is that, like so many other sites of worship, it has been a sacred place for so many different faiths. Religious worship is oddly conservative–even as the gods and the dogma change radically, holy sites persist, sometimes along with forms of worship. Presumably, much of this is due to “new” religions adopting sites and practices of older faiths, which had held places of prestige and reverence in local populations for centuries prior. While in the case of the Great Mosque of Damascus, some of the reason was likely practicality–nowhere else in the heart of the city was there such a large, open site, prebuilt with walls and other structures–continuity of places of worship is such a common phenomenon that other factors were also likely at play. It is an interesting pattern indeed, and perhaps one I will cover in a future post.