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EARLY ISLAM

Syria was a centre for early Christianity, and also played a critical role in the history of Islam.  Syria quickly fell to Muslim armies who expanded from the Arabian peninsula after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.  The battle of Yarmouk in 636 - on the Syrian-Jordan border - led to the defeat of Byzantine armies and a rapid change in religion. Under the Umayyad dynasty (661-750), there seems to have been little effort to require conversion to the new religion, and there was no resentment directed towards Islam.  Syria was long a centre of high civilization, and the centre of the Muslim world soon shifted to Damascus. Along with the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (built in 691) the Umayyad mosque is one of the most important monuments of Islam.  The site was used for religious structures as early as the 2nd millennium BC, and there are ample remains of the temple devoted to Hadad (Jupiter) about the mosque.  Emperor Theodosius (379-395) of Byzantium converted the temple into a church of St. John the Baptist.  The Islamic conquest led to two congregations, Christians and Muslims, sharing the compound for about seventy years.  Under Caliph al-Walid (705-715) the compound was converted into a grand assembly point for the growing Muslim population of Damascus.  As compensation churches were built in other parts of the city.  Considering the massive scale of the structure it was quickly completed in a few years (between 708-715).


The courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque is paved with marble.  The colonnade that rings the structure clearly draws upon earlier architectural traditions.

The main entrance to the Umayyad Mosque is richly decorated with mosaics.  There is still debate as to who made them, as they are in a Byzantine style.


The treasury is raised above the ground to enhance security.  The columns are recycled from earlier structures, while the mosaics are probably 14th-15th century restorations of those commissioned by the governor of Damascus in 788.

It is difficult to ascertain the date of the mosaics in the mosque because many were restored.   They all reflect Muslim prohibitions against depicting animals, though structures as well as plants are acceptable. In antiquity much more of the mosque would have been decorated.


The overall plan of the mosaics appears to represent an idealized map of the empire ruled by the Umayyads.

The interior of the Mosque was largely rebuilt after a fire in 1893.  The original plan was retained.


Shrine in the Umayyad mosque that reputedly holds the head of John the Baptist built after the fire of 1893 (replacing a wooden shrine destroyed by fire).  The saint is recognized as one of the Prophets by Islam (along with Jesus) and there are legends that Caliph Walid (705-715) found the head of St. John in this place and had a commemorative pillar installed there.

The Umayyad rulers, perhaps reflecting their nomadic beduin ancestry, preferred not live in cities.  They are known instead for palaces in the desert.  In fact the palaces were richly appointed, and contained the greatest luxuries of the day. At the same time they tended to control critical trade routes that were so important for state revenue.  The best example in Syria is Qasr al-Heir Al-Sharqi. The name can be translated as "The Walled Castle to the East", and it lies 120 kilometres Northeast of Palmyra. It has been described as the most startling Umayyad monument in existence.


Minaret with the Eastern Castle in the background. The castle is clearly of an eclectic form, and above the gate there is a ‘Mesopotamian frieze’ of baked mud brick.  The minaret was built with the same well-dressed stone as the castle and was clearly taller in antiquity.

Detail of the ‘Mesopotamian frieze’ above the main gate. This area of the castle preserves the tradition of working in baked mud brick instead of stone.  The latter is much harder than the former, though not nearly as amenable to elaborate decoration.


The castle was originally part of a sprawling walled garden of 850 hectares surrounded by a wall 22 kilometres in diameter.  The complex included another castle, of which there are few remains after Mongol attacks and earthquakes. The doorway of the Western Castle is now the entrance of the National Museum, Damascus. Both structures date to the reign of Caliph Hisham (724-743) near the end of the Umayyad period (661-750). Under the Abbasids (750-968) the castles declined in significance. They were built on a Byzantine plan, with high round towers and walls of alternating layers of stone and brick. The Eastern Castle is made up of two structures, the larger one is 167 x 167 metres square, with a mosque in the Southeast corner. Forty metres East of the main structure, and originally connected to it by a bridge, is a smaller structure 70 x 70 metres in extent, believed to be a caravanserai. Between the two structures is what appears to be a minaret.  But if that is a minaret, where is the mosque? The minaret has been associated with the mosque in the SE corner of the castle, yet it is out of keeping with other minarets in that it stands alone. It has been billed as the third oldest minaret in the Islamic world, if it can be assumed to date from the time of Caliph Hisham. Legend suggests that when the khan was converted into a garrison under the Abbasids, the structure was damaged.

A minaret refers to a tall tower that is built as part of a mosque or shrine.  It was, before the Islamic period, a place where light was used to guide travellers. Minarets were apparently absent from early mosques, and it has been assumed it was a tradition taken from churches, particularly in Syria. It is now often called a Ma'zaneh, which means a place for calling people to prayer. From an elevated platform the call could be heard from a greater distance. A minaret in a mosque in Kairouan, Tunisia, has been identified as the first, and is dated to 703.  This would place it considerably after the Medina mosque that was in the house of Muhammad (622). The literature suggests that minarets were erected by 665.  The earliest mosques, Medina, Kufa and Basra, have been reconstructed so many times it is now almost impossible to suggest a date for their minarets. The result is the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus has perhaps the oldest securely dated minarets in Syria.

Recent excavations by the Department of Antiquities in Palmyra have begun to solve the nagging problem of the lone minaret at Qasr al-Heir al-Sharqi.  Perhaps not surprisingly, it can indeed be associated with a mosque that surrounds it, though it is of a later date than the foundation of the complex.  It is probable that the mosque was built over an earlier structure that remains to be excavated. If so, it could provide important evidence of the earliest phases of Islamic architecture as well as shed light on the transition between two dynasties. One of the main reasons for the Abbasid revolution was the secularism of the Umayyad period, which is well expressed in their eclectic architecture. The Umayyads were a wealthy clan based in Mecca that had originally opposed Muhammad.  In contrast, the Abbasids derive from a paternal uncle and Companion of the Prophet. The Abbasids relied heavily on non-Arab Muslims. Well stratified material evidence from this period can answer a number of questions. The first is the nature of mosques. As the Koran was revealed, rules were established regarding prayers. While simple at first, over time mosques became more complex, but as a rule they were the first structures to be built (or re-built from churches) after the Muslim conquest. Rooms were added for different functions, such as for different social classes, professions, and the sick and elderly. It is significant to assess the functions of the various rooms in this mosque.  As it has not been continuously rebuilt, an era of this turbulent age has been effectively frozen. Perhaps even more significant, does an even earlier mosque lie beneath the Abbasid one? Can the foundation of the minaret be associated with Hisham?  Further excavation is eagerly awaited.

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DR. MURRAY EILAND

ARCHAEOLOGIST

UNIVERSITY OF DAMASCUS

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