The Great Ummayyad Mosque remains one of great symbols of the glorious period of Muslim civilisation and its pride. It is a master piece of architectural ingenuity having a decisive influence on the maturity of mosque architecture all over the Muslim World.
The mosque was the birth place of a number of key elements in Muslim architecture such as the horseshoe arch, the square minaret and the Maqsurah. Historically and culturally it is still one of the oldest and holiest shrines of Islam.
From early years of Islam's arrival to Syria (635AD), Christians were granted freedom of worship and continued to use their old temples. Further tolerance has been shown by the Muslim/Christian partnership of an old derelict temple1 which the Christians, at the hands of Theodose (379-395), transformed into a church named St. John the Baptist. Such partnership was established by a treaty concluded between them and the Prophet's companion Khalid Ibn al-Walid. Muslims, for well over half a century2, worshipped in the eastern side of this building until the arrival of Caliph Al-Walid I (705-715). A renown patron of great architectural projects3, Al-Walid decided to erect a separate mosque for the Muslims to accommodate their growing numbers. After a long negotiations with the Christian community of Damascus, Al-Walid bought the derelict site and the construction began.
This is generally the most circulated theory which western scholars used as a pretext to condemn what they called the "intolerance of Islam"4. However, recent research has uncovered new findings. A study carried out by Golvyn (1971) on a recently discovered text, written by Bishop Arculfe who visited Damsacus about 670 AD, revealed that Muslims had their own Mosque and that St. John church was built by Christians under the Muslim ruleasup>5. This was also confirmed by some Arabic texts6. From this, Golvyn concluded that the Great mosque was not built on the ruins of St. John church as widely known:
In summary, concerning the circumstances of the foundation of the Muslim building (Great Mosque), I believe that the examination of very ancient texts has led us to think that Muslims and Christians, following a treaty, indeed shared an edifice but it was not the Church of St. John the Baptist. All indications show that it was an antique perilobe where there was space for two buildings. Although Muslims were apparently given possession of the total area, they tolerated the existence of the church and allowed Christians the freedom to exercise their rituals." (Translated quote from Golvyn, 1971,p. 130).
From the above, it appears that Muslims inherited a large sacred site belonging to Antiquity (Jupiter as suggested by Creswell) and later was partly occupied by the Christians who built St John church some time under early Muslim rule (according to note 5). Muslims at first prayed in open air, but by the arrival of Caliph Al-Walid they erected the mosque in the south eastern7 part of the complex. Further evidence of this was the discovery of relics belonging to St. John in a crypt in another locality away from the site of the mosque. Such thesis was also endorsed by Sauvaget (1932) and Creswell (1959) who confirmed that the site did not involve St John Church.
The Planning and construction Process
Historic sources revealed that the building work started in year 87 AH (705 AD) and was accomplished in year 96 AH (714), costing the Caliphate the whole income from landKharaj8 of 7 successive years (Ibn Al-Faqih, chapter 1, pp.106-108). Al-Idrissi, however, quoting Arab sources, indicated that the cost reached the Kharaj of two successive years only.
In relation to the workers, the sources revealed the involvement of Persian, Indian, North African, Egyptian and Byzantine masons and artists. Al-Muqdassi claimed that the Byzantine King offered his builders and artists as well as some delicate material for the construction especially mosaics. Such claim made many Scholars (Muslims and non-Muslims) link the Ummayyad Mosque to the Byzantian building style. They wrongly insisted the Mosque to be an imitation of the three nave basilica of (the ruined) St. John. Creswell (1958) demonstrated such false claims by comparing the size and character of contemporary Syrian churches to those of the Great Mosque which he found were too small for the size of the Mosque. He concluded that St. John could not have been of this size. This was also the view of Strzygowski (1930) who believed the Mosque to be purely Muslim work inspired by Persian influence.
The Mosque Plan
The whole layout is rectangular of 157 by 100 meters and consists of two main sections (figure 1). The courtyard occupies nearly half of the site with a length of 122.5 and a width of 50 meters surrounded by galleries of horseshoe arches. It contains three structures of polygonal form standing on columns and topped with domes. The oldest and most important of these is the treasury ( Bayt Al-Mal) building which was built by Caliph Al-Mahdi in 778 in the western side of the courtyard9 (figure 2). Its purpose was to accommodate the treasury of the Muslim State. The dome of the clocks occupies the eastern side of the courtyard while the octagon of the ablution fountain takes the central position.
This rectangular open courtyard based plan reflects the inspiration of the Prophet's Mosque in Medina, which was later reinstated in Kufa. It seems that the Ummayyads after their experience with the covered plan in Al-Aqsa mosque in Palestine, which is thought to be derived from the basilican church, they returned to the open plan adopted by the Prophet (puh) and the righteous Caliphs10.
The southern part of the site is occupied by the prayer hall, the sanctuary. This is another large rectangle containing three aisles which run from east to West parallel to the Qibla wall (figure 3). The middle of these aisles is crossed by the nave which is in the form of transept and runs north from the main gate (which opens to the courtyard) to the Qibla wall at the Mihrab in the south. This nave is 20 meters wide defined by four large piers and consists of three squares. The first contains the main mihrab, the second includes the dome, while the last connects with the door. Each of the aisles rests on 20 column arcade (10 on each side of the nave) with varying widths; 11, 13 and 12 meters respectively. The Qibla wall is pierced with four mihrabs spreading along the wall distance. In addition to the main mihrab (figure 4) which occupies the centre and emphasised by the dome and the nave (transept), there is the Prophet's companions mihrab which is located to the east of the first mihrab. The Hanafite as well as a fourth Mihrab are located to the west.
The Mosque is supplied with unusual three minarets dominating the sky of Damascus. The peculiarity of these minarets appears firstly in their unusual odd number as the customary number was one, two, four or seven as found in Al-Haram As-Sharif (Kaabah). The other peculiar feature is the varying design of these minarets (figure 5). Minaret of the Bride (Midhanat Al-Arus) is the oldest11, built between 8th and 12th centuries, with its square shape represents the earliest known minaret of its kind in Muslim architecture. Minaret of Jesus (Issa, PBUH), built in 13th century, has a square base and raised with a cylindrical shape resembling late Ottoman minarets. Minaret of Quait Bey (15th century) has a polygonal shape imitating those of Al-Azhar Mosque.