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A Place of Beauty

by Habeeb Salloum
photos by Anthony B. Toth


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For hundreds of years the Great Umayyad Mosque of Damascus has been the fourth holiest shrine in Islam and the most magnificent structure in that city. Through the centuries it remains the symbol of a glorious period in Arab history, a time when Damascus was the capital of the first Muslim empire.

The mosque is one of the world’s largest Islamic places of worship. Its purity of form, richness of material, and beautiful geometric decoration give an insight into the opulence and charm of Umayyad Islamic culture.

The present structure dates from 705 A.D., when the Umayyad Caliph al-Walid purchased part of the Church of John the Baptist from the Christians. He began building the mosque as the first monumental expression of Muslim devotion. Hundreds of craftsmen, including a large number of Greeks, Indians, Persians, and Syrian Christians, spent years in constructing, embellishing, and beautifying this first great mosque in Islam.

What became the jewel of the Muslim world took eight years to build. The project depleted almost all the revenue of the empire for seven years. Still, the dedication of resources and energy yielded an exceptional creation. The walls of its courtyard glowed with multi-colored mosaics and with murals of gold and precious stones.

The Umayyad Mosque of Damascus was destroyed by fire and rebuilt four times since 1069. Nonetheless, it is the oldest mosque still in use which has kept its original shape. The reconstruction and redecoration one sees today follow the original plan of the mosque and date from after the last fire in 1893.

The artisans who decorated the mosque thought of Damascus as a Garden of Eden. On the walls around the courtyard they developed motifs of nature in mosaic of colored and gilded glass. In its original glory the mosque’s mosaics showed real and imaginary rivers, as well as bridges and towering palaces emerging from a forest of green trees against a background of gold.

The heart of the mosque is the impressive liwan, a worship hall larger than a football field divided into three wide aisles by two-tiered rows of arches resting on columns of pedestals. Chandeliers shine above, and richly designed piled carpets are underfoot.

The prayer hall holds the focal point of the mosque. Muslims and Christians venerate a domed shrine containing the head of John the Baptist, who is known to the Muslims as the Prophet Yahya. Pilgrims have come to pay their respects since the earliest days of Islam.

The sanctuary’s tomb, mihrabs, arches, and the vast carpeted halls blend harmoniously, overwhelmingly, to create an ocean of calm, even when thousands of worshippers in unison stand, bow, and kneel in prayer. The Muslim community also uses the mosque as a resting and meeting place. Non-Muslims can visit this sacred edifice, except the prayer hall on Fridays during the hours of devotion.

To Muslims and non-Muslims alike, this first great mosque of Islam incorporates a world of beauty, peace, and gentleness. It conveys to both worshipper and visitor the true majestic quality of Islam and its message of submission to the will of God.

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Habeeb Salloum is a freelance writer living in Canada.



Tags: Syria Islam Architecture Damascus