In the Old City of Damascus, Damascus, Syria
Hegira 87–96 / AD 706–715
Al-Walid ibn 'Abd al-Malik (r. AH 86–9 / AD 705–15).
The Umayyad Mosque was built on the site of the Roman Temple of Jupiter, converted into the Church of St John the Baptist in AD 379. After the Islamic conquest of Damascus, the holy site was shared between the Christians and the Muslims of the city. By the succession of the Umayyad Caliph al-Walid bin Abd al-Malik, the church was demolished and a vast congregational mosque constructed instead. The outer wall of the mosque is formed by the Roman temenos, an oblong enclosure with pilastered walls, measuring 158 m x 100 m. Of the mosque's three minarets, the one on the southeastern corner is known as the Jesus Minaret, and the one in the centre of the northern wall is known as Minaret of the Bride; both are dated to the early AH 5th / AD 11th century. The southwest minaret was rebuilt by Sultan Qaytbay after the fire of AH 884 / AD 1479.
The 122.5 m-long and 50 m-wide rectangular courtyard of the mosque is surrounded by a colonnaded portico (riwaq) on three sides. Along the southern wall is a triple-aisled 136 m-long and 37 m-wide prayer hall, a layout reminiscent of Byzantine churches. It is divided by two rows of arcades supported by re-used antique columns with Corinthian capitals. A lavish domed transept cuts the arcades into two equal halves; its court façade distinguished by a monumental gabled entrance in the centre, again evoking Byzantine palaces. At one time glass and gold-leaf mosaics covered all the facades in the courtyard. Only the “Barada mosaic” is preserved, so named after the Barada River in Damascus, depicting a landscape with rivers, trees and architectural structures.
The portico walls were covered with a 3.5 m-high, coloured marble decoration. Today only a few marble slabs in the corner of the southeastern portico are preserved. It was once topped by the karma frieze; a long, undulating vine stem of acanthus scrolls carrying grapes, echoing that of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The fine mosaic, stone carving and marble decorations are all antique elements, revealing continuity with Greco-Roman artistic traditions as well as Byzantine architectural features. These features were combined with an Islamic consciousness predicating the lack of human representation in religious spaces. Such 'conscious eclecticism' is the hallmark of the new Umayyad architectural language.
The speed of construction of this monumental Umayyad Mosque, along with its brilliant decorations and its rich materials, stood as a challenge to the finest Christian churches and an awe-inspiring status-symbol for the Muslim believers. Like the Mosque at Córdoba, a similarly early masterpiece of sacral Muslim architecture, it became a prototype for the “hypostyle mosque” consisting of a simple, spacious courtyard (sahn) articulated by a colonnaded portico (riwaq) on three sides, and a covered area for praying (haram). The division into three aisles and the transept also became influential for mosque architecture throughout Syria, as well as Egypt, Tunisia and Spain.
When the Caliph al-Walid ibn Abd al-Malik decided to build the first monumental mosque in Islamic history he used the most lavish material at his disposal and set the standard for subsequent religious monuments. Situated on top of an ancient sanctuary in old Damascus, the mosque has a courtyard, 122.5 x 50 m, surrounded by a colonnaded portico and a domed transept along the southern wall reminiscent of Byzantine churches. It was completed in AH 96 / AD 714–15 and some of its original marble panels and magnificent mosaics in blue, green and gold still survive along the western portico of the courtyard, particularly the 'Barada Panel'.
The foundation inscription no longer exists but the text was preserved by the medieval Arab historian, traveller and geophrapher Ali ibn al-Husayn al-Mas'udi in his Muruj al-dhahab wa-macadin al-djawhar [Meadows of Gold and Treasury of Jewels], written in 332–45 / 943–56.
Creswell, K. A. C., A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture, Cairo, 1989, pp.46–73.
Finster, B., “Die Mosaiken in der Umayyadenmoschee von Damaskus”, Kunst des Orients, 7/2, 1970–1, pp.83–141.
Flood, F. B., The Great Mosque of Damascus: Studies on the Makings of an Umayyad Visual Culture, Leiden-Boston-Köln, 2001.
Grabar, O., The Formation of Islamic Art, New Haven and London, 1973, pp.104–38.
Hillenbrand, R., Islamic Architecture, Edinburgh, 1994, pp.68–72.
Ibn Asakir (499–571 / 1105–76), Tarikh madinat Dimashq [History of Damascus], (S. Munajjid, ed), Damascus, 1954.
Ibn Jubayr (540–614 / 1145–1217), The Travels of Ibn Jubair (De Goeje, ed), 2nd revised edition, Leiden, 1907.
Masudi, Ali ibn al-Husayn (written 332–45 / 943–56), Muruj al-dhahab wa-macadin al-djawhar [Meadows of Gold and Treasury of Jewels], n.d.
Verena Daiber "Umayyad Mosque" in Discover Islamic Art, Museum With No Frontiers, 2019. 2019. http://islamicart.museumwnf.org/database_item.php?id=monument;isl;sy;mon01;11;en
Prepared by: Verena DaiberVerena Daiber
Verena Daiber has been a researcher at the German Archaeological Institute in Damascus since 2002, where she is preparing her Ph.D.thesis on 'Architectural and cultural history of Damascus in the 18th century'. She graduated from the Free University of Berlin where she studied Near Eastern archaeology and Arabic literature. In 1990 she obtained her MA degree with a study of medieval pottery from the citadel of Aleppo. She participated in numerous excavations in Sheich Hamad and Aleppo in Syria and Baalbek, Lebanon. She edited the third volume of the 'Raqqa' series, a compilation of studies conducted by several scholars on the site. Her latest publication is a study of the fine medieval pottery from Baalbek. In addition to her research she works as a translator for German and Arabic.
Copyedited by: Mandi Gomez
MWNF Working Number: SY 15
Islamic Dynasties / Period
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