Great Mosque of Damascus: A destination for tourists and popes
Damascus - When pope John Paul II travelled to Syria in 2001, he visited the Great Mosque of Damascus, known as the Umayyad Mosque, the fourth oldest sanctuary of Islam. His visit to the main tourist attraction in the heart of old Damascus was the first by a Roman Catholic pope to a mosque.
In addition to being a magnificent structure celebrating Islamic and Arab architecture, the mosque is believed to enshrine the head of John the Baptist. The site was an important pilgrimage destination in the Byzantine era before the mosque was built by Umayyad Caliph al- Walid on the ruins of an old church.
“The Umayyad Mosque is among the most important Islamic landmarks in the world,” said archaeologist Mahmoud al-Sayyed. “It is, in fact, the only comprehensive monument that remains untouched from the era of Umayyad rule and the oldest Islamic building that is still conserved as is, without major modifications, since it was first erected centuries ago.”
Built in the early eighth century, the Umayyad Mosque was the first mosque to include an alcove, reminiscent of its Christian origins. It features the first minaret in Islam, al-Arous, a square minaret, the model that became widespread in mosques in southern Spain and North Africa.
“Few mosques have been preserved in the same structure and the same original architectural features without additions or modifications,” Sayyed said. “The Umayyad Mosque is one of them.”
The spot where the mosque stands originally had a temple dedicated to the Aramaean idol Hadad about 3,000 years ago. When the Romans ruled Damascus, a temple was built for the worship of Jupiter. It became a Christian church dedicated to John the Baptist in the Byzantine era.
Before the construction of the mosque, Muslims and Christians shared the building for worship, each praying in different sections of the structure. The collective use was stopped under the reign of Walid, when the prayer space became inadequate both in terms of capacity and the need for an architectural monument to represent Islam.
The caliph negotiated with Christian leaders to take over the space and, in return, promised that all other churches in the city would be safe.
A unique feature of the Umayyad Mosque is that the call for prayer — the Azan — is done collectively by more than one muezzin. The norm is to have a single person doing the call. “There are 23 muezzins in the mosque but at the time of prayer (five times a day) there are at least eight to do the collective Azan,” explained mosque director Issam Sukkar.
“The reason is that the mosque is so large and the muezzins would each stand on a corner of the roof to make the call heard in all the surrounding area. In the past, a big red balloon was raised above the minaret of al-Arous to indicate the times of prayer for those living far from the mosque and who could not hear the call. With the introduction of electricity in the middle of the last century the balloon tradition was stopped while collective Azan remained.”
The majestic mosque boasts three minarets, including al-Arous to the north, Issa to the south-east and the Qaitbay, in reference to the Mamluk sultan, to the south-west.
“The minaret of Issa was originally built on a tower of the old (Roman) temple,” Sukkar said. “It is the highest with an elevation of 77 metres. Qaitbay, which is an octagonal minaret, was largely destroyed when Tamerlane conquered Damascus in 1401. It was rebuilt by Sultan Qaitbay according to the Mamluk style.”
After more than five years of a devastating war in Syria, the mosque has become a site for promenade and family outings more than a place of worship or a tourist spot. Every day hundreds of families flock to the mosque, sit on mats spread on the marble floors of the main courtyard and spend hours chatting, playing and having a good time.
“Old Damascus has become the only breathing space that is relatively safe and where people can go for a stroll and have some time out,” said Ibrahim Issa, who was displaced from his home on the front-line Damascus neighbourhood of Jobar.
“I often bring my wife and children to the mosque and (adjacent) Hamidiya souks. At least there is space for the children to play, unlike the flat we are renting, a mere 35 square metres with no sunlight.”
Majida Abdel Aziz, a teacher in Damascus, said visiting the Umayyad Mosque has been a weekly ritual since childhood. “This place has its own sanctity and spirituality,” she said. “It is a meeting place for all — the rich and the poor, residents and foreigners.”
The mosque’s courtyard once served as a public place for serving iftar, the sunset fast-breaking meal, during Ramadan. Charities and rich people offer free meals to the poor. However, the ritual under which up to 15,000 people were fed daily stopped with the onset of war in 2011.
“In the past few years, the mosque was hit by seven shells, causing minor damage but we hope places of worship would be spared by fighters, so that we can relegate such beautiful monuments for future generations to be proud of,” Sukkar said.