Islam House

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Great Mosque of Damascus (Umayyad Mosque)

Damascus is believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world and the Umayyad Mosque stands on a site that has been considered sacred ground for at least 3,000 years.

It was 1000 BC at the latest when the Arameans built a temple here for Hadad, the god of storms and lightening. A basalt orthostat dating from this period, depicting a sphinx, has been discovered in the northeast corner of the mosque.

In the early first century AD, the Romans arrived and built a massive temple to Jupiter over the Aramean temple. The Roman temple stood upon a rectangular platform (temenos) that measured about 385 meters by 305 meters, with square towers at each corner. Parts of the outer walls of the temenos still survive, but virtually nothing remains of the temple itself.

In the late fourth century, the temple area became a Christian sacred site. The Temple of Jupiter was destroyed and a church dedicated to John the Baptist was built in its place. The church was (and is) believed to enshrine the head of the Baptist, and the site became an important pilgrimage destination in the Byzantine era.

Initially, the Muslim conquest of Damascus in 636 did not affect the church, as the building was shared by Muslim and Christian worshippers. It remained a church and continued to draw Christian pilgrims; the Muslims built a mud-brick structure against the southern wall where they could pray.

Under the Umayyad caliph Al-Walid, however, the church was demolished and the present mosque was built in its place between 706 and 715. An indemnity was paid to the Christians in compensation. According to legend, Al-Walid himself initiated the demolition by driving a golden spike into the church.

At that time, Damascus was one of the most important cities in the Middle East and it would later become the capital of the Umayyad caliphate. The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus was accordingly a magnificent structure. The work of thousands of craftsmen of Coptic, Persian, Indian and Byzantine origin, the Umayyad mosque complex included a prayer hall, a vast courtyard and hundreds of rooms for visiting pilgrims. The layout was based on the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina.

The triple-aisled prayer hall, 160 meters long, was covered with a tiled wooden roof and supported on reused columns taken from Roman temples in the region as well as the Church of Mary at Antioch. The facade of the courtyard and its arcades were covered in colored marble, glass mosaic and gold. The mosque may have had the largest golden mosaic in the world, at over 4,000 square meters. The minaret structures of the mosque developed out of the corner towers of the ancient Roman temenos.

The Umayyad Mosque has been rebuilt several times due to fires in 1069, 1401 and 1893. The marble paneling dates from after the fire of 1893, which was especially damaging to the great mosaics. In 2001 Pope John Paul II visited the mosque, primarily to visit the relics of John the Baptist. It was the first time a people paid a visit to a mosque.
The Umayyad Mosque is still one of the most impressive in the Islamic world, with a grand courtyard and spacious prayer hall. Some of the original 8th-century mosaics still remain: on the north outer face of the transept, under the gable; on the arcades and back of the west portico; and on the arches of the vestibule.

The minarets date from the time of al-Walid with some reconstruction around 1340 and 1488. The minaret in the southeastern corner is called the Minaret of Jesus, because of a Muslim tradition that this is where Jesus will appear on the Day of Judgment.

Sheltered inside the mosque is the small chapel and shrine of John the Baptist (Prophet Yahia to the Muslims) where tradition holds that the head of John is buried. One legend says that when the church was demolished, his head was found underneath, complete with skin and hair. This head is believed by some to possess magical powers and continues to be the focus of the Mandaeans' annual pilgrimage, when they press their foreheads against the metal grill of the shrine and reportedly experience prophetic visions.

Adjacent to the prayer hall, along the eastern wall of the courtyard, is the entrance to a finely tiled shrine chamber. According to different traditions this shrine holds the head of Zechariah, the father of St. John the Baptist or the head of Hussein, the son of Imam Ali (the son-in-law of Muhammad and the forth of the ‘Rightly Guided Caliphs’).

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