The Umayyad Mosque or Great Mosque of Aleppo was first constructed in the heart of the old city of Aleppo during the reign of Umayyad caliph al-Walid I ibn 'Abd al-Malik (r. 705-715/86-96 AH) or his successor, Sulayman (r. 715-717/96-99 AH). The building reflects the antiquity and layered history of Aleppo itself: the mosque of today does not retain its original form, having witnessed a number of renovations and reconstructions in its over one thousand years of continuous use.
The form of the mosque
The core of the original building was a courtyard surrounded on at least three sides by an arcade with a long and shallow prayer hall on the qibla side. The minaret is located in the northwestern corner of the complex. The original mosque had a wooden roof and likely had a dome over the nave preceding the mihrab, belonging to a type of mosque plan known from the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus.
Today, the mosque is arranged around a vast courtyard famous for its black and white stone pavement that forms complex geometric patterns. The courtyard holds the two ablutions fountains. Arcades surround the courtyard and give onto the prayer hall and three smaller side riwaqs (east, north, and west). The prayer hall is 19 bays long and 3 bays deep and covered by stone vaults resting on piers. The east riwaq is 2 bays deep while the western riwaq is only one bay deep.
The main prayer hall holds the key elements of the mosque: the shrine of Zachariah (father of John the Baptist), a fifteenth century minbar, and an elaborately carved mihrab.
The stone minaret of Aleppo's Umayyad Mosque was perhaps its most famous component. Its lower shaft was divided into five tiers of varying lengths, decorated with blind arches and separated by inscription bands. The top tier was surmounted by a muqarnas cornice. A smaller tower surrounded by a wooden balcony rose above it.
History of renovations
Arabic sources do not give us detailed information on the form or ornamentation of the original mosque of the Umayyad period but do suggest that it bore lavish decorations including marble revetments, mosaics, and architectural components taken from the church at Harran (Roman Cyrrhus).1
The first recorded damage to the mosque occurred during a Byzantine sack of Aleppo in the year 962/351 AH. The Hamdanid amir of Aleppo Sayf al-Dawla (r. 945-967/333-356 AH) and his immediate successors are credited with repairing this damage.
It was during the subsequent rule of the Seljuk Dynasty in Syria that the mosque's ornate, 45-meter high minaret was constructed at the command of the Qadi of Aleppo, Abu al-Qasim Muhammad ibn Yahya ibn al-Kashshab. The minaret boasts intricate bands of carved Kufic inscriptions along its length that alternate with bands of stylized ornaments in patterns and muqarnas. These inscriptions record that the minaret was "renovated" (juddidat) beginning in the year 1090/483 AH at the command of Ibn al-Kashshab by the architect Hasan ibn Mufarraj al-Sarmani. The highest inscription band states that "completion of the building" (ittimam al-bunya) took place during the rule of Abu Sa'id Taj al-Dawla Tutush (d. 1095/488), the brother of Malikshah. The latter only briefly held power in Aleppo at the end of his life, from the summer of 1094/487 AH to January of 1095/488, thus dating the second inscription and completion of the minaret to 1094/487.2 Until its collapse in 2013, the minaret was thus one of the oldest intact sections of the mosque.
The next major round of renovations to Aleppo's Umayyad Mosque took place during the reign of the Seljuks' successors, the Ayyubid Dynasty. A sack of the city in 1169/564 AH and the burning of the mosque and surrounding markets led Nur al-Din Zangi to refurbish and expand the mosque. Sources credit Nur al-Din with the replacement of columns in the mosque's arcades as well as rebuilding the southern and eastern parts of the mosque. An inscription preserved in the eastern riwaq of the mosque bears the honorific names of Nur al-Din, along with the remnants of an ornate style of masonry on the southern and eastern facades of the prayer hall, confirm this ruler's renovations.3
The mosque was burnt again during the Mongol occupation of Aleppo in 1260/658 AH, after which it was restored in 1261-62/658-9 AH under Mamluk Sultan al-Zahir Baybars. A second Mongol invasion, brief but brutal, resulted in a second fire, damaging the mosque yet again. This second fire necessitated an extensive rebuilding of the mosque completed under Mamluk Sultan al-Mansur Qalawun in 1285/684 AH, including a replacement of the mihrab, the wooden ceilings and marble columns of the Ayyubid period with stone vaults and piers. This major renovation is commemorated in an inscription plaque along the qibla wall.4
Inscriptions in the mosque point to several further renovations undertaken during the reigns of later Mamluk sultans. These included new furnishings for the mosque along with the restoration of the eastern riwaq and expansions to the mosque during the rule of al-Nasir Muhammad (in 1326/727 AH and 1334-1337/735-737 AH), and the replacement of the wooden ceilings in the western riwaq (in 1421/824 AH), among other restoration projects.5
In 2003, the mosque underwent a renovation that focused on the minaret and courtyard. In 2013, the mosque's renowned minaret collapsed as conflict intensified around the site during the Syrian Civil War. The courtyard and covered prayer hall also suffered significant damages.
Historical significance of the minaret
The mosque's recently destroyed minaret attracted the attention of several scholars who offer explanations of its particular historical and aesthetic significance. Terry Allen, who studied the development of architecture and ornament in early Islamic civilization, saw the minaret as an example of a conscious revival of local late antique architectural ideas in northern Syria, exemplified in the architect's use of classicizing elements like moldings, blind arches and inscription bands.6 The German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld (d. 1948), who conducted the first and most extensive modern study of the Umayyad Mosque of Aleppo, also noted the stylistic import of the minaret. Pointing to parallels between its decoration, the decoration of contemporary Romanesque monuments in Europe, and later Gothic architecture, Herzfeld saw the monument as concrete evidence for the flow of artistic ideas between the Islamic world and Europe, writing:
The chronological position of the Minaret of Aleppo and the richness of its forms is the fundamental document for all studies on the relationship between medieval architecture in Europe and the Orient. This is the moment where the Romanesque style transforms into the Gothic, the artistic expression of one of the most decisive steps in the development of the European spirit. The minaret of Aleppo exemplifies the idea that contact with the Muslim world during the Crusades produced the European spirit.7
--Matthew Saba, Visual Resources Librarian for Islamic Architecture, AKDC at MIT, May 2017
Herzfeld, Alep, 143
Herzfeld, Alep, 159.
Allen, "Pre-Mamluk Elements," and Herzfeld, Alep, insc. 78, p. 164-166.
Meinicke, Mamlukische Architektur, II: no. 7/35, p. 63 and Herzfeld, Alep, insc. 79, p. 166.
Meinicke, Mamlukische Architektur, II: no. 9C/209, p. 144-145 and no. 30/8, p. 332.
Allen, A Classical Revival, 23-28.
Herzfeld, Alep, 164.
Allen, Terry. A Classical Revival in Islamic Architecture. Wiesbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert, 1986.
Allen, Terry. "Some Pre-Mamluk Portions of the Courtyard Facades of the Great Mosque of Aleppo." Bulletin d'Études Orientales (Institut Français de Damas) 35 (1983 ): 7–12.
Burns, Ross. Monuments of Syria, 34-35. London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd., 1992.
Herzfeld, Ernst. Matériaux pour un Corpus inscriptionum arabicarum. Part 2: Syrie du nord. Inscriptions et monuments d’Alep, 143-173. 2 vols. in 3 parts. Cairo: Institut Francais d'archéologie orientale, 1954-1956.
Michael Meinicke. Die Mamlukische Architektur in Ägypten und Syrien (648/1250 bis 923/1517), I: 53-55, II: cat. 4/14, p. 11 and cat. 7/35, p. 63. Glückstadt: J. J. Augustin, 1992.
Rihawi, Abdul Qader. Arabic Islamic Architecture: Its Characteristics and Traces in Syria, 104. Damascus: Publications of the Ministry of Culture and National Leadership, 1979.