Umayyad Mosques and Palaces

by Rabah Saoud Published on: 6th May 2004

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The Umayyad architectural splendour is experienced in both religious and domestic buildings. At the core of their religious heritage we find the Dome of the Rock, the architectural jewel of Islam and Damascus Mosque, its master piece.


Summarised extracts from a full article:
Muslim Architecture under The Umayyad Patronage (661-750AD) by Rabah Saoud

The Umayyad architectural splendour is experienced in both religious and domestic buildings. At the core of their religious heritage we find the Dome of the Rock, the architectural jewel of Islam and the Damascus Mosque, its master piece. According to an inscription found on the building, the Dome of the Rock was built by the Caliph Abd-el-Malik between 691-692 (figure 1).
The dome forms the heart of the complex of Al-Haram Ash-Sharif and covers the rock “Sakhra” from where Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) ascended to heaven accompanied by Archangel Gabriel. By building the Dome of the Rock to cover the sacred “Sakhra”, Abd-al-Malik wanted to match his rival Ibn Zubayr (who rebuilt part of the Kaabah, mosque between 683-392) in his devotion to Islam. A more compatible view with the aspiration of Abdel Malik is that he wanted to glorify the location of Masjid Al-Aqsa as mentioned in the Quran.

The mosque of Omar (presently al-Aqsa mosque) was first introduced there since the days of the second Caliph Omar, when the Muslims entered Jerusalem. Many more people confuse the two buildings and call them Al-Aqsa mosque. The reality is that the whole complex is called Al-Haram Ash-Sharif which embraces both buildings.

The significance of this building can be seen in numerous levels. The geometrical pattern of both plan and elevation, and the relation between dome, arches and columns, all create a sense of harmony and unity greatly emphasised by the rich décor of polychrome marble and colourful mosaics (see forthcoming article on the Dome of the Rock).

Figure 1: Dome of the Rock, the Jewel of Islam,
Jerusalem (691-692).

The exterior walls covered in quartered marble to the window line and above it in Turkish tiles (installed recently in 1554) add a special charm to the visual effect of colours and patterns. The drums of the dome were originally wooden and covered with glass mosaics before being replaced in the 12th century and recently in 20th century. In general, the beauty of the Dome of the Rock has a world wide reputation which challenged all prejudices against Muslim architecture.

The other important mosque the Umayyads built was the Damascus Great Mosque (figure 2). Its construction story shows the great tolerance Muslims have to other faiths, especially Christianity and Judaism.

Figure 2: The Great Umayyad Mosque
in Damascus (706-715).

After the spread of Islam in Damascus, Muslims needed to convert the neglected “temple” of John the Baptist, into a mosque.

Caliph Al-Walid purchased this building from its Christian owners and converted it into the Great Mosque.

The Mosque has a rectangular plan orientated towards the Qibla (direction of kaabah in Makkah). On the qibla side (the southern side), three parallel aisles run from east to west and divided in the middle by a transverse nave with a dome over its middle section (square).

The sanctuary opens up to a courtyard (Sahn) with a single Riwaq (corridore) on each side providing shelter from climatic conditions. In decoration terms, we find high quality floral and vegetal patterns combined with some landscape ornaments covering the façade and arcades. Such décor recalls that found in the Dome of the Rock indicating the possibility of Syrian tradition to both works rather than Byzantine origins as some Western historians claimed.

Umayyad Palaces

In domestic and social life, the Umayyad Caliphs and princes lived a rural (Badiya) life in palace complexes pursuing their favourite hobbies of hunting and gardening. For this purpose they built a series of fortresses protected by strong walls and containing all necessary amenities to sustain their luxurious needs. Among these complexes we refer to Qasr Amra (Jordan around 715), Qasr al-Kharanah (Jordan 711), Khirbet al-Mafjar (Jordan 743-744), and Meshatta (750 uncompleted).

In these palaces, the Umayyads showed a considerable architectural and decorative talent. In terms of design, a complex layout containing audience halls, baths, domestic apartments for both males and females, mosques, courtyards, stables and garden enclosures was developed reflecting their luxurious standard of living and their political and tribal power (Mitchel et al. (1978). The structural aspects of these palaces show an elaborate use of the vaulting system involving the dome and barrel vaults (Qasr Amra for example).

In decorative terms, these palaces gathered the most exquisite forms of architectural décor extending from mosaic floors (al-Mifjar), to walls tilted with decorated tiles and stucco which consisted of geometrical and vegetal representation (Meshatta).

Perhaps the most influential of these is the six lobed (pointed) rosettes and octagons which appeared in Khirbat al-Mafjar and reappeared in Meshatta. With them, the circular rose window found in the latter inspired, through crusaders, Europeans to develop the famous Gothic rose window (Otto von Simson, 1956). Khirbat al-Mifjar and Qsar Amra also represent unique instances where the depiction of human and animal were issued in the Umayyad decorative art.

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