The Great Mosque of Damascus is the first monumental work of architecture in Islamic history; the building served as a central gathering point after Mecca to consolidate the Muslims in their faith and conquest to rule the surrounding territories under the Umayyad Caliphate.
The Umayyad mosque's religious significance was reinforced by its renowned medieval manuscripts and ranking as one of the wonders of the world due to is beauty and scale of construction.
The Umayyad Mosque site has housed sacred buildings for thousands of years, in each incarnation transformed to accommodate the faith of the time. An ancient Aramaic temple dedicated to the god Hadad is the oldest layer of architectural use to be uncovered on archeological expeditions. During the Roman period, the Temple of Jupiter occupied the space. This edifice was transformed to a church in the fourth century. This church was expanded to form the Cathedral of St. John, situated on the western side of the older temple. After the Islamic conquest of Damascus in 661, during the reign of the first Umayyad caliph Mu'awiya Ibn Abi Sufyan, the Muslims shared the church with the Christians. The Muslims prayed in the eastern section of the ancient temple structure and the Christians in the western side. This collective use continued until Walid bin Abdul Malek's reign, when the prayer space became inadequate both in terms of capacity and the need for an architectural monument to represent the new religion. The caliph negotiated with Christian leaders to take over the space, and in return al-Walid promised that all the other churches around the city would be safe, with the addition of a new church dedicated to the Virgin granted to the Christians as compensation.
When the project began all remaining fragments on the site from Roman to Byzantine periods were removed to accommodate a large innovative mosque planned according to Islamic principles.
The Umayyad Mosque plan articulated the rising political status of the Islamic world as a major world power. Its majestic stature became an Islamic architectural prototype for mosques being built in all the newly established territories.
The plan of the mosque is formed by a 97m x 156m rectangle with the sahn on the northern side wrapped around four edges. Because the haram occupies the southern part of the rectangle, the exterior wall has three gates that connect to the city from the northern, eastern and western sides. The southern exterior wall that borders the haram has a door that links directly to the outside.
The rectangular sahn's stone pavement was repaired throughout the mosque's history so that the level of the sahn became uneven and higher than the original ground. Recently, the original Umayyad level was restored with the stone patterns of the paving. The sahn is punctuated by three major elements: the ablution fountain covered with a dome that is supported by columns, the Khazne Dome on the western side supported by eight Corinthian columns and Zein al-Abidin Dome on the eastern side also supported by eight columns. Alternating stone columns and piers with one pier between every two columns supports the riwaq that surrounds the sahn. The double-height riwaq is not consistent all around the sahn as the northern part was completely destroyed in the earthquake of 1759; it was rebuilt without the columns with another type of stucco ornamenting the stronger supporting piers.
Three riwaqs, parallel to the qibla, form the haram's interior space; they are supported by two rows of stone Corinthian columns. Each riwaq has two levels, the first with large semi circular arches and the second with double arches (the same pattern is repeated in the sahn's riwaq also). The three riwaqs intersect in the middle with a larger, higher one that is perpendicular to the qibla wall and faces the mihrab and minbar. The main octagonal dome, the Nisr Dome (Dome of the Eagle) is supported on this wide riwaq and it is 36m high. The dome has apertures around its parameter. In the eastern part of the haram, a small classical marble structure between the columns of the riwaq holds the tomb of St. John the Baptists or as he is known in Quranic tradition, the prophet Yahya.
The exterior walls of the mosque were built in the Roman period when the building functioned as a temple. Four defense towers were built at each corner, but only the two southern ones remained when al-Walid began his project. These towers were used as foundations to erect the eastern and western minarets. Then a third square tower shaped minaret known as the Arus Minaret (The Minaret of the Bride) was built near the northern gate. The lower part of this minaret is still in its original form; the middle part was an Ayyubid addition built after the fire of 1174. The eastern minaret, Eesa Minaret (Minaret of Jesus) is also a pastiche of different architectural styles that correspond to changing political environments. It has a Mamluk lower part and an Ottoman top due to its renovation after the earthquake of 1759. The western minaret is the most articulated with its stone carvings and inscriptions that record its restorations in1488 and after Timur's conquest in 1401.
Two main materials were used for cladding: fusayfusa'a mosaic and marble. The fusayfusa'a fragments were mixed with colored glass particles and others of gold and silver leaf covered glass in addition bits of stone and marble between to create a unique reflective material that sparkled its geometric and floral patterns. The fusayfusa'a was originally used to cover the top parts of the walls on both the interior and exterior sides in the haram, riwaqs, the arches and undersides of the vaults. The painterly constructed patterns formed scenic panels that symbolized the magnificent natural landscapes of Damascus, like the Barada River flowing alongside the great Umayyad palaces on its banks and orchards of fruit bearing trees that are thought to be an imagined vision of the heavens.
Heavily veined marble was used to clad the lower parts of the walls, as it is a stronger, more enduring material than the mother of pearl mosaics. The veins of the marble were used to create patterns because of the way that the panels were joined and attached to the wall about 4 meters above the ground. All that is left of these panels are small holes that map where the marble masons attached them to the wall. A highly ornate band of carved marble separated these two materials on the walls, the vegetation inspired designs were known as the 'great golden vines' because of their resemblance to intertwined grape vines that were common in the Classical (Roman and Byzantine) periods. Some fragments of this famous band still remain today in the mosque. Additional ornamentation includes the Ottoman blue clay tiles that replaced the missing marble panels in the sahn.
Textual inscriptions filled the gaps between these materials and ornaments, and added another layer of detail to the artful walls. They declared religious verses, dates and dedications to various patrons to the restorations of specific parts of the mosque. The words were scripted using the fusayfusa'a in two contrasting colors usually gold calligraphic text over a royal blue background.
During his 10-year reign as caliph in the beginning of the eighth century al-Walid bin Abd al-Malik addressed the citizens of Damascus:
'Inhabitants of Damascus, four things give you marked superiority over the rest of the world: your climate, your water, your fruits and your baths. To these I wanted to add a fifth: this mosque.'
Flood, Finbarr Barry. The Great Mosque of Damascus: Studies on the Meanings of an Umayyad Visual Culture . Leiden; Boston; Koln: Brill, 2000.
Rihawi, Abdul Qader. Arabic Islamic Architecture in Syria. Damascus: Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, 1979.