Damascus, Great Mosque
|Also known as||The Umayyad Mosque|
In the words of the twelfth-century author, al-Idrisi, ‘In Damascus there is the Mosque, the like of which building exists in no other place of the earth, nor is any more beautiful in proportion, nor any more solidly constructed, nor any more securely vaulted, nor any more wonderfully planned, nor any more admirably decorated with all varieties of gold mosaic work, and enamelled tiles, and polished marble.’
Al-Walid (705-15), son of Abd al-Malik, followed his father’s policy of lavish buildings. The Great Mosque of Damascus (706-714/5) remains as his most spectacular construction. It provided the ultimate model for congregational mosques in Syria; it also changed the urban landscape of Damascus. It carried considerable religious sanctity through its association with the Islamic conquest of Syria and with the Companions of the Prophet responsible for that conquest. Further, it was built on a site which housed the city’s Cathedral of St John, itself built over the Roman Temple of Jupiter, again asserting the supremacy of the Moslem faith to what had gone before, just as the Christians had proclaimed their triumph over the pagans.
The mosque has a rectangular prayer hall with a monumental entrance facade occupies the long side of a court with colonnaded arcades on the other three sides. The prayer hall itself, a tall rectangular façaded structure, has resonances of both Christian basilical churches and of imperial government buildings. However, whereas a Christian church conventionally runs east to west along the long axis of the building, the axis of the Great Mosque is north to south across the short axis. The mosque was filled with re-used marble columns and capitals and was decorated with mosaics inside and out, both the arcades and the prayer hall. Large surviving sections are original but there have been repairs to the mosaics, first documented in the eleventh and twelfth centuries but as recent as the 1960s. The palette – largely greens and blues on a gold background – is very close to that of the Dome of the Rock but in contrast, the decorative programme, again with no living creature, consists of combinations of buildings (ranging from elaborate palaces to small houses) in landscapes with rivers, naturalistic trees, acanthus scrolls and plant candelabra. The Late Antique elements of style visible in the Dome of the Rock elements are clear (in the acanthus again), but Sassanian elements seem lacking. The imagery is sometimes seen as a pastoral fantasy, the evocation of a sense of the oasis so important in the world of the desert Arabs, or interpreted as carrying resonances of Paradise; they also reflect Islam’s opposition to figural images. It is possible to see Byzantine motifs – the hanging pearl, for example - and possible also to see in their use a playing-out of Umayyad relations and assertions with respect to the Byzantines. Some of the architectural and decorative elements seem also to refer to Alexandrian art (one such is the ‘Nile’ boat in the north arcade). But more local associations are also apparent, most clearly in the relationship between the architecture of the mosque and earlier architecture in Syria. Indeed, the inspiration for the wall mosaics could easily have come from regional floor mosaics, for if Syria and Palestine became Muslim with almost no destruction, there need not have been much disruption to the arts and crafts of the area.
These mosques were by far the largest building projects of the period, surpassing anything in Rome or Constantinople at the same time. A constant theme in the literature is that the architects and mosaicists of al-Walid’s mosques were from Byzantium. I don’t agree but there’s no space here to argue it out.