Five days after entering Syria from Turkey, we finally reached the capital city Damascus, after a quick tour of Aleppo, Crusader castles near Hama, and the ruins in the Syria Desert. Also known as the City of Jasmine, Damascus is one of the most important cultural centre in the Arab world, and one of the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Large settlement within the city walls dated back to the second millennium BC. The city’s status rose to its peak when it was chosen as the capital of the Umayyad Caliphate, the centre of the Islamic world, from 661 to 750 AD. Today, Damascus is the capital and largest city in Syria. Since ancient times, Damascus has been a melting pot of different Middle Eastern cultures and religions. While Islam is the prominent religion, Christians (Syriac Orthodox, Catholic, Greek Orthodox Church, etc) represent about one fifth of the population. There was also a small Jewish community dating back to ancient times. Nowhere in the Syrian capital can illustrate the complex religious traditions better than Umayyad Mosque, one of the largest, oldest and holiest mosques in the world.
After checking in at Al Rabie Hotel, we ventured out immediately to explore Damascus. We walked through the busy streets and congested traffic, passed by the citadel, stroll through a covered souk, and at last reached the Umayyad Mosque. We took off our shoes and reached the huge courtyard. The marble floor was clean and smooth but quite hot. The Umayyad Mosque (Great Mosque of Damascus) was built in early 8th century by the Umayyad Caliphate. In the Roman times, the site was home to a large and famous Temple of Jupiter. In the 4th century, Theodosius I converted the temple into a church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. In 706 AD, construction work began to convert the church into Umayyad Mosque. Christian and Muslim pilgrims continued to come and pay respect to St. John the Baptist. The small shrine which housed John’s head still exists today inside the mosque.
Adjacent to the mosque we found our way to the Mausoleum of Saladin, the famous and powerful Muslim knight who fought off the Crusades and recaptured Palestine from the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Mausoleum is a small stone building in which Saladin’s coffin is covered with a green textile.
Probably built in the 10th century, the Minaret of the Bride on the northern wall is the first minaret built for the Umayyad Mosque.
Located at the southwest corner, the 1488 Minaret of Qaitbay shows a strong Egyptian Islamic influence.
Completed in 715 AD upon alterations from the earlier church, the Umayyad Mosque was meant to establish a jama masjid (congregational mosque or Friday mosque). With a height of 118 feet, the Dome of the Eagle sits atop the main prayer hall.
It was said that about 12,000 craftsmen and workers from Coptic Egypt, Persia, India, Greece and Morocco served as the main construction force. Byzantine artisans were hired for the decorative and architectural details, including the mosaics.
The Umayyad Mosque is a rare example of mosque architecture still maintaining the original design features and structure since the 8th century.
In 1979, the old city of Damascus was included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Out of the 125 monuments in the city, the Umayyad Mosque is considered to be the most spectacular.
Mosaic was a common form of art in the Roman and Byzantine era. Along with Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, the mosaics of the Umayyad Mosque is one of the best preserved mosaic art of the Umayyads in the world.
Due to various fire incidents in history, the surviving mosaics only represent a portion of the original mosaics. Most mosaics we see today were plastered over by the Ottomans. First uncovered in 1929, little has been changed to the mosaics since the 8th century.
There are three domes in the main courtyards, including the Fountain for Ablutions in the centre.
Constructed in 780, the Dome of the Clock or Zeynel Abidin Dome at the eastern end of the courtyard. Later erected by the Abbasids in 1247, the Minaret of Jesus (Isa) at the back is the tallest among the three minarets.
Built in 790s, the Dome of Treasury was used to house the mosque’s endowment funds and old manuscripts.
The courtyard is a pleasant open space even just for sitting around to absorb the historic atmosphere.
The outer columns of the main prayer hall contain some beautiful marble decorations.
Other than the main prayer hall, the courtyard is bounded by a series of colonnades.
Decorative marble inlays can be found at both exterior and interior of the mosque. Some columns in the complex were actually recycled from the earlier church at the same site.
This early mosque borrowed a number of features from earlier Roman and Byzantine designs, including the dome, vaults and colonnades. Beautiful windows provide another pleasant feature to the interior of the prayer hall.
The qibla wall with the mihrab niche indicates the direction to Mecca.
The main prayer hall contains three aisles stretching to east and west.
Serving as a pilgrimage site for both Muslims and Christians, the shrine of Saint John the Baptist (Prophet John in Islam), almost like a small building within the prayer hall, situates at the central aisle.