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).
courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque is paved with marble.
The colonnade that rings the structure clearly draws upon
earlier architectural traditions.
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.
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.
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.
overall plan of the mosaics appears to represent an idealized map
of the empire ruled by the Umayyads.
interior of the Mosque
was largely rebuilt after a fire in 1893.
The original plan was retained.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.