Umayyad Mosque (Great Mosque of Damascus)

By the Editors of the Madain Project

The Umayyad Mosque (الجامع الأموي), also known as the Great Mosque of Damascus (جامع بني أمية الكبير), located in the old city of Damascus, is one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world. It is considered by some Muslims to be the fourth-holiest place in Islam. Its religious importance stems from the eschatological reports concerning the mosque, and historic events associated with it.

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After the Muslim conquest of Damascus in 634 CE, the mosque was built on the site of a Christian basilica dedicated to John the Baptist, honored as a prophet by Christians and Muslims. A legend dating to the sixth century holds that the building contains the head of John the Baptist.

The Great Mosque of Damascus, constructed between 705 and 715 CE under the Umayyad Caliph al-Walid I, has its roots in ancient history. Originally, the site housed an ancient Aramaean temple dedicated to the deity Hadad. With the spread of Hellenization, the temple was rededicated to Zeus, and during the first century BCE, the Romans transformed it into the Temple of Jupiter Damascenus. In 391 CE, Emperor Theodosius converted the temple into the Christian Cathedral of Saint John. The construction of the mosque by Caliph al-Walid I was heavily influenced by these earlier structures. The significance and implications of this transition—from a Roman temple (with scant information about its Aramaic predecessor) to a Christian cathedral and finally to an Islamic mosque—are profound. This transformation raises questions not only about art and architecture but also about the religious continuity of sacred spaces over time.

The Umayyad Mosque is one of the few early mosques in the world to have maintained the same general structure and architectural features since its initial construction in the early eighth century CE and its Umayyad character has not been significantly altered.

Umayyad Mosque in Damascus

Brief History

circa 700 CE

Umayyad Mosque in Damascus

The sixth Umayyad caliph, al-Walid I (reigned 705–715 CE), commissioned the construction of a mosque on the site of the Byzantine cathedral in 706 CE. Prior to this, the cathedral was still in use by the local Christians, but a prayer room (musalla) for Muslims had been constructed on the south-eastern part of the Roman period temple of Jupiter. al-Walid, who personally supervised the project, had most of the cathedral, including the musalla, demolished. The construction of the mosque completely assimilated the layout of the existing building. According to tenth-century CE Persian historian Ibn al-Faqih, somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 dinars were spent on the project, but this is most probably just speculation. Coptic craftsmen as well as Persian, Indian, Greek, Byzantine and Moroccan laborers provided the bulk of the labor force which consisted of 12,000 people.

Architectural Elements

circa 700 CE

Umayyad Mosque in Damascus

Interior (Prayer Hall)
The main prayer hall of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria, is a majestic space that exemplifies the architectural and spiritual significance of one of the oldest and most revered mosques in the world. Located at southern side of the mosque complex, the prayer hall is designed to accommodate a large congregation of worshipers, reflecting the mosque's role as a central hub for religious and communal activities. In the center of the sanctuary with a larger, higher arcade that is perpendicular to the qibla (direction of prayer) wall and faces the mihrab (niche in the wall which indicates the direction of qibla towards Mecca) and the minbar (pulpit).

Architecturally, the prayer hall of the Umayyad Mosque features a grand, open-plan layout with a series of arched bays supported by columns adorned with intricate capitals, taken from various earlier structures. These columns and arches create a sense of spaciousness and grandeur, while also facilitating natural ventilation and acoustic enhancement during prayers.

The interior of the prayer hall is embellished with ornate decorations, including marble panels, Quranic inscriptions, and intricate mosaics that adorn the walls and ceilings. These artistic elements, dating back to the Umayyad period and subsequent renovations, reflect a blend of Byzantine, Roman, and Islamic artistic influences, creating a visually stunning environment conducive to worship and contemplation.

circa 710 CE

The mosaics of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus are among the most stunning and historically significant examples of early Islamic artistry. Dating back to the early 8th century CE, these mosaics adorn the interior walls and ceilings of the mosque's prayer hall, showcasing a blend of Byzantine, Roman, and Persian influences. Skilled Byzantine artisans were employed to create the mosaics, still visible, which depict landscapes and buildings in a characteristic late Roman style.

Muhammad al-Idrisi relates, "In Damascus there is a mosque that has no equal in the world, not one with such fine proportion, nor one so solidly constructed, nor one vaulted so securely, nor one more marvellously laid out, nor one so admirably decorated in gold mosaics and diverse designs, with enamelled tiles and polished marbles".

One of the most renowned mosaic panels is the "Tree of Life" located on the Treasury Dome, situated in the courtyard. This intricate artwork features a lush, stylized tree with intertwined branches and vibrant foliage, symbolizing spiritual growth and abundance. The Tree of Life mosaic is surrounded by geometric patterns and Quranic inscriptions, creating a harmonious blend of decorative elements that enhance the mosque's spiritual ambiance.

Major subject of the expansive mosaics within the Umayyad Mosque is the depiction of paradise, characterized by lush gardens, flowing rivers, and pavilions adorned with colorful tiles. These mosaics serve not only as artistic expressions but also as visual representations of Islamic concepts of paradise and spiritual fulfillment.

circa 710-800 CE

The domes of the Umayyad Mosque are integral to its architectural identity and functional needs. Situated at various sites within the sprawling complex of the mosque, these domes reflect a blend of historical influences and architectural styles spanning centuries.

One of the most prominent domes is located over the central prayer hall, known as the Dome of the Eagle. This dome, adorned with intricate geometric patterns and Quranic inscriptions, rises elegantly above the prayer space, symbolizing spiritual transcendence and divine protection. Its construction dates back to the Umayyad period, showcasing early Islamic architectural techniques and artistic craftsmanship.

The Treasury Dome is another one of the most important dome of Umayyad Mosque where the treasury funds and some Greek and other historic manuscripts used to be stored until late seventeenth century CE. It was constructed by the Abbasid governor of Damascus, al-Fadl ibn Salih ibn Ali, nine years after the construction of the mosque concluded. The intended purpose of the Dome of the Treasury was to house the mosque's funds and other valuable holdings.

circa 790 CE

Shrine of Yahya's Head
The Shrine of John the Baptist (known in Arabic as the "Maqam Ra's-i Nabi Yahya") is a domed shrine inside the main prayer hall of the Umayyad Mosque. According to Islamic, originally from Christian tradition, Saint John's head was buried there. Ibn al-Faqih relays the story that during the construction of the mosque, workers found a cave-chapel which had a box containing the head of Saint John the Baptist, or Yaḥyā ibn Zakarīyā in Islam. Upon learning of that and examining it, caliph al-Walid I ordered the head buried under a specific pillar in the mosque that was later inlaid with marble.

circa 790 CE

There are four gates of the Jami Umavi al-Kabir, each in one of the four walls. hese gates have evolved over centuries, reflecting the architectural styles and cultural influences of different periods in Islamic history.

One of the most notable gates is the Gate of Paradise (Bab al-Jinan), located on the southern side of the mosque complex. This gate, adorned with intricate geometric patterns, serves as a ceremonial entrance for worshipers and visitors. It is named after the concept of Paradise in Islamic tradition, symbolizing the spiritual journey and purification that occurs within the mosque's sacred precincts.

Another significant gate is the Gate of the Clock (Bab al-Sa'at), situated on the eastern side of the Umayyad Mosque. This gate derives its name from the clock tower installed nearby during the Ottoman era, which became a prominent feature in the mosque's surroundings. The Gate of the Clock, like other entrances to the mosque, features architectural elements such as arches, columns, and decorative motifs that blend Ottoman influences with the mosque's original Umayyad design.

The Bab al-Barid, also known as the Gate of the Post, is a significant entrance to the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria. Located on the northern side of the mosque complex, this gate holds historical and cultural importance dating back centuries well in to the pre-Roman periods.

circa 850-1488 CE

Minaret of Jesus (right), Umayyad Mosque in Damascus

The minarets of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus are iconic symbols of Islamic architecture and cultural heritage, standing as testament to the mosque's historical and religious significance. Dating back to the early Islamic and medieval periods, these minarets are among the oldest surviving examples of Islamic architecture in the world, showcasing the architectural prowess and innovations of their time.

The most renowned among the minarets of the Umayyad Mosque is the Minaret of Jesus (Minaret of Isa), named for its association with the Abrahamic figure of Jesus, who is revered in Islam as a prophet. This minaret stands prominently near the southwestern corner of the mosque's courtyard, characterized by its distinctive square base and octagonal upper levels adorned with somewhat intricate stonework. The Minaret of Jesus is not only a visual landmark but also serves as a historical link to the mosque's diverse cultural influences, reflecting the Umayyad Caliphate's policy of incorporating local traditions into Islamic architecture.

In addition to the Minaret of Jesus is the Minaret of Qaitbay, named after the Mamluk Sultan Qaitbay who renovated it in the fifteenth century CE. This minaret features a cylindrical shaft and a conical roof, typical of Mamluk architectural style at the time of its construction, which blends harmoniously with the Umayyad Mosque's overall design. Together, these minarets stand as enduring symbols of Damascus' cultural and religious heritage, attracting visitors and scholars alike to marvel at their architectural splendor and historical significance within the context of Islamic civilization.

The third and last minaret of the mosque is th eMinaret of the Bride (also known as the Minaret of the Bride of the Umayyad Mosque) is a distinctive architectural feature located within the Umayyad Mosque complex in Damascus, Syria. This minaret is named in honor of the wife of Caliph al-Walid II, who commissioned its construction during the early eighth century CE. Standing approximately 40 meters tall, the Minaret of the Bride is notable for its slender, elegant design, which differs from the more robust structures of other minarets in the region. It is characterized by a square base with intricate geometric patterns and decorative elements that reflect the artistic influences of the Umayyad period. The upper levels of the minaret are octagonal in shape, adorned with ornate stonework (most of which is now lost), showcasing the craftsmanship and architectural sophistication of the time.

The Minaret of the Bride holds historical and cultural significance within the Umayyad Mosque complex, serving both functional and symbolic roles in the daily call to prayer and as a visual marker of the mosque's prominence in Damascus.

circa 1300 CE

Replica of ibn Shatir's sundial

Sundial of Ibn Shatir
Replica of the Ibn Shatir's sundial, developed by ibn Shatir, atop the Madhanat al-Arus (The Minaret of the Bride) in Umayyad Mosque. Constructed by the astronomer and engineer Ibn Shatir in the fourteenth century CE (who was working as a muwaqeet, a timekeeper, at the mosque), this sundial exemplifies the sophisticated knowledge and technological advancements of its time. Original sundial was removed in the eighteenth century CE, short time afterwards, an exact replica was installed atop the first built Madhanat al-Arus (The Minaret of the Bride) in Umayyad Mosque. The sundial was designed as part of his larger work on astronomical instruments and calculations, contributing significantly to the field of Islamic astronomy.

The Sundial of Ibn Shatir is noted for its precision and complex design, which integrates geometric principles and mathematical calculations to accurately measure time based on the position of the sun. It consists of a series of concentric circles and radial lines carved into a stone platform, ingeniously calibrated to cast shadows that indicate both the time and the seasons throughout the year.

Notable Structures in the Vicinity

circa 50 CE

Propylaea of the Temple of Jupiter
The remains of the Roman propylaea lie to the west of the mosque complex, at a distance of some 30 meters. The propylaea is preserved up to a length of approx. 23 meters.

circa 1193 CE

Tomb of Salah al-Din Ayyubi
The mausoleum of Saladin stands in a small garden adjoining the north wall of the mosque. The tomb was constructed shortly after Salah al-Din's death in 1193 CE, by his son, al-Adil I. It is situated within a serene setting of archaeological remains of previous buildings, the structure exemplifies traditional Islamic architectural styles of the time, featuring a dome-covered mausoleum surrounded by peaceful courtyards and ornate marble decorations. It was once part of the al-Aziziyah madrasa, but nothing remains of the school.

Notable Incidents

circa 1893 CE

Fire of 1893 CE
The Fire of 1893 was a devastating event that significantly impacted the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria. Occurring on October 10, 1893, the fire erupted in the mosque's southeastern corner, resulting in widespread damage to its architectural features, mosaics, marble panelling, and historical artifacts. The fire also destroyed the inner fabric of the prayer hall and caused the collapse of the mosque's central dome. The blaze, believed to have started accidentally, quickly spread due to the mosque's wooden structures and flammable materials.

The fire engulfed several parts of the mosque, including its iconic prayer hall and numerous adjoining buildings within the complex. The damage was extensive, affecting the mosque's centuries-old mosaics, wooden ceilings, and ornate decorations. Efforts to contain the fire and minimize the destruction were severly hampered by the lack of modern firefighting equipment and infrastructure at the time.

In response to the tragedy, immediate restoration efforts were initiated to salvage what remained of the Umayyad Mosque's cultural and architectural treasures. Skilled craftsmen and artisans were employed to repair and reconstruct the damaged sections, aiming to preserve the mosque's historical integrity while incorporating modern techniques where necessary.

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