Tuesday, 17 February 2015

The Longlist: Umayyad Mosque aka The Great Mosque of Damascus

What's the Longlist? It's the list for all the other great man-made spectacles in the world that haven't quite made my shortlist. I don't feel the need to research them or visit them, but as long as this blog is about the world's best man-made structures, they deserve some kind of mention. Today, Umayyad Mosque aka The Great Mosque of Damascus.

There are a lot of mosques in the world, and so for a mosque bidding to stand out among the crowd, it helps to find a few superlatives. My Wonder quest looks for the best, and for a mosque this might include being among the biggest, or the oldest, or the holiest. The Great Mosque of Damascus manages all three.

The Great Mosque of Damascus is more properly called the Umayyad Mosque, because... oh, this needs some explanation. History's never simple, is it?

Mohammed, the prophet and main man in Islam (assuming you don't count God) lived from around 570 to 632AD. When he was alive, Islam was easy - he was the leader. But after he died, what then? Well, you need a successor, somebody else to lead and take control, both a religious and a political figure. Kind of like a pope (although the handover of succession is wholly different). This person is called a caliph, and his leadership and government are the caliphate.

The first caliphate was called the Rashidun Caliphate, which started just after Mohammed died. It didn't last very long and only had four leaders, or caliphs, but Islam spread all over the Middle East during their time. A good job all round.

The Umayyad Caliphate ousted them in 661AD, and spread Islam even further, all the way across Spain even. The "Ole ole ole!" Spanish chant is said to come from the Muslims reciting "Allah Allah Allah!", and even though this probably isn't true, it should be.

Despite their musicianship, the Umayyads didn't last too long either, and in 750AD the Abbasid Caliphate took over. In case you're worrying that this is just the beginning of a whole bunch of different caliphates under strange names, don't worry, we're three-quarters of the way there. The Abbasids lasted for ages, all the way till 1517 and that was when the Ottoman Empire, or Ottoman Caliphate, took over. They take us all the way to modern day Turkey. Because our old friend Ataturk, as well as getting rid of the Ottomans and their sultans, also abolished the caliphate. Over a thousand years of Mohammed's successors ended. That's where we find ourselves today, without a caliphate, even though extremist groups like IS/ISIL/ISIS sometimes claim to be the beginning of a new one. But let's figure out what your group is even called before beginning to claim divine recognition.

Where I'm going with all this is that the Great Mosque of Damascus was an Umayyad Mosque, or the Umayyad Mosque. The big one, the main one. Damascus was Umayyad HQ, way back before they'd even taken over the caliphate. They'd swept in during 636AD, and at first weren't really thinking about a giant mosque. The Christians of Damascus already had a big church there, and the Umayyad Muslims were happy using that, building a structure on the grounds to pray towards. But in 705AD a guy called Al-Walid took over. He wasn't happy with this sharing arrangement. No, he wanted a big kick-ass building exclusively for the Muslims. He got it.

Don't feel too bad for the Christians though. They got compensation, and it wasn't as if they wouldn't have done the same themselves. Oh, wait - they had. Before the church was built a Roman temple of Jupiter had stood in the same spot, pulled down in the 4th Century to make way. And preceding the 1st Century AD Temple of Jupiter was a pre-Roman temple, or temples. Damascus is considered the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, and the Great Mosque of Damascus is built upon ground that has been sacred, in some form or another, for at least 3000 years.

Al-Walid is said to have begun demolition of the church by driving a golden spike into it, and following that thousands of craftsmen from around the realm came to work on his mosque. It was finished in no time at all, by 715AD. And that construction, give or take, is the same one we find today.

Give or take quite a lot, mind you. It has been rebuilt many times, following various devastating fires (some through attacks by rival Muslim groups), most recently in 1893. Different leaders liked adding different features, it has been tweaked and adapted over and over again. It was heavily restored in the 1980s and 1990s, and this was much criticised by UNESCO for being inauthentic. Syria just shrugged its shoulders and said they regard the mosque as being symbolically important rather than historically. Fair enough. They don't want their important mosque becoming old and tatty, they want to keep it new and fresh, even if that means using modern materials.

Regardless, it still has its original 8th Century form, of indoor prayer hall and outdoor courtyard. It retains its Umayyad character. This form has been very influential with mosque building around the world ever since. Overall, it takes up an area of 97 metres by 156 metres, which puts it in the same realm as the Great Pyramid or Angkor Wat. A lot of the finer details from the 8th Century are long gone, but some mosaics remain. Others are restored, and mosaics are considered among the highlights of a visit.


Arcades line the courtyard, and the prayer hall is crowned with a dome that reaches 36 metres in height. The tallest point is the Minaret of Jesus, one of three of the Great Mosque's minarets, at 77 metres high. Supposedly, on Judgement Day, this is where Jesus will first descend. Given what's going on in Syria right now, that could be any day now. I hope he makes it unambiguous - it would be awful if Jesus took the form of a parachutist, and the world spent decades arguing if that counts as him or not.

The other two minarets are also notable features. The oldest, from Al-Walid's time, is called the Minaret of the Bride, named after the daughter of a merchant (who provided the original lead for the roof) who married the-then Syrian leader. And there's the Minaret of Qaitbay, a later addition from 1488.

It's not just history and size, the Great Mosque also packs in a lot of religious significance. Some of it is connected with Mohammed's wives and children arriving there and being imprisoned during a battle, but I think readers of this blog might appreciate more the return of an old friend: John the Baptist. His skull is enshrined here! Another one! I've already visited it in Amiens Cathedral, San Silvestro in Capite, and Topkapi Palace, well now we can add the Great Mosque of Damascus to the grand John-the-Baptist's-head tour. Seemingly, the pre-mosque church had all-of-a-sudden realised it was buried there in the 6th Century, 200 years after the church was built. What a coincidence! It became a pilgrimage site and so when the Muslims took over, they didn't bother changing things. John the Baptist was relevant to them. Very relevant - during constructions, workers apparently found a cave-chapel below the foundations, and the head of John the Baptist was inside. And it remains in the mosque today, inside a small chapel within the mosque.

I've spoken to a couple of friends who have visited the Great Mosque some years ago, indeed I think it was them who recommended it to me. Their main enthusiasm seemed to come from the impact it made in the context of its surroundings. Placed in the heart of Damascus's old town, a maze of streets and alleys, mostly covered, the huge mosque remains mostly unseen. Right up until you emerge from an alley into the mosque's grounds, and all of a sudden the claustrophia of the medieval centre transforms into the spacious courtyard. It sounds like a big moment of reveal, and was the aspect  that appeared to most appeal to my friends.

Given all of this, why is the Great Mosque not on my shortlist? Well, it's right on the line, but ultimately I don't think it quite reaches the level of beauty, size, or distinction required by the very best. The total area might almost match Angkor Wat, but I don't think the structure does. The mosaics looks great but they're a decorative plus-point rather than defining it. And the structure doesn't stand out from other mosque structures too much, although I appreciate it was a trend setter. But as I say, it's right on the line, and if anything gets added to my shortlist at this late stage, it will be this. (Also I could just re-use this description as my preview, which would be handy!)

I've got two other shortlisted Wonders in Syria on my list: the Krak des Chevaliers and Palmyra. When I eventually visit them, I'll surely visit the Umayyad Mosque too. That's if it's still around. The current war is devastating Syria's heritage. The Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo has been destroyed. Both my Wonders have been heavily damaged. Mortars have killed people and damaged the area around of Damascus's Umayyad Mosque. Modern warfare, as with no other warfare ever before in history, has the capacity to devastate our past. Let's hope - let's hope to God - some sense can descend upon Syria and save it, and its people. If not sense, then the Great Mosque of Damascus has its Minaret of Jesus just waiting its own descent, for Judgement Day.

(edit: on 6 May 2015, I added this to my shortlist)


  1. That John the Baptist's head conundrum is easily explained. Remember what his mate Jesus did with the fish and the bread? Well there you go.

    The mosque does seem interesting. Regarding the non-historical restoration in the 1980s, let's not forget that Notre-Dame de Paris' famous gargoyles are representations of what the people of the 19th century imagined medieval statuary should be like (specifically, Viollet-Le-Duc who, despite his shall we say, overly-enthusiastic ideas of how such monuments should look like in his personal opinion, did a lot to save them. Carcassonne being another example, a southern walled city with northern French style black slate high pointy roofs - Viollet-Le-Duc again. The roofs were originally red clay tile with small slope).

    The mosaics in the photos above seem interesting, not the abstract style commonly associated with Islamic art but actually showing real scenes, albeit without living creatures (plants notwithstanding). Perhaps an influence of the styles preceding it?

    Anyway I hope that Syria gets through this nightmare without losing too much of its rich heritage, and of course human lives. There are some interesting articles at the moment about how its heritage is being illegally plundered by ISIS to fund their campaigns. I hope it will all find its way back to Syria again, in any case whoever buys these artefacts are buying stolen property so they can't exactly show them to people.

    1. I'm pretty sure Islam in Central Asia, years past, freely depicted living things, including people. Shame it never caught on - could have saved the world a whole bunch of trouble.

      Yeah, these days we like to think of our buildings as frozen in time, but throughout time they've generally been changing, shifting things. Priorities change. We now want to keep our cathedrals in a semi-imaginary authentic, pristine condition, but mosques - or Ummayad Mosque at least - is still considered a living thing, with roots in the past but still subject to change.

      Regarding John the Baptist. I'm not sure if I'd said this before on the blog and forgive my lack of details as I'm just doing it from memory, but there's a story about a historian or traveller visiting some old church (I forget where) and seeing the skull. Surprised, he asked the aging monk/curator/whoever, "But I've already seen this skull in Amiens Cathedral. How can there be two?" "Ah," the old monk says. "But this is the skull of John the Baptist as a *young* man..."

  2. It beautiful. I don't know who were the Historical Restoration Specialists but the work done on it was seriously speechless. I wish to visit these places soon. Keep exploring.


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