– In 634 A.D., when Damascus was conquered by the Muslim army, the Christians and the Muslims were allowed to share the use of the basilica for their prayers…

Moomtaz Emrith        

(Windsor, ON, Canada)

The impressive and spacious marble courtyard of the Umeyyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria, where is entombed the head of Saint John (Yahya) the Baptist.

In Islam, and to Muslims the world over, the Haram alShareef (the Grand Ka’aba Mosque) in Mecca, the Holy City where Islam began; the Nabawi Mosque in Medina where Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam (pbuh), spent significant time during his mission on earth and where he also died and was buried; and finally, the AlAqsha Mosque in Jerusalem from where Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) made his celestial Night Journey (Mehraj) to Heaven on the celestial mare, AlBuraq, are considered the three holiest mosques on earth. However, the Umeyyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria, is equally regarded by many Muslims as sacred and holy although it had no direct involvement in the rise of Islam as a religion. Yet many Muslims consider it as the fourth holiest mosque after the ones in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem because it is said that it is there, according to Islamic tradition, that Jesus Christ (pbuh) (Hazrat Issa to Muslims) will make his second entry on earth on Judgment Day and lead the fight against the Anti-Christ. So much so that a large number of Muslims also consider the Umeyyad Grand Mosque as sacred and holy is, therefore, understandable.

The minaret of Al- that (Bride)

The Grand Umeyyad Mosque of Damascus was actually built on the spot where once stood a Christian church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist (who is known to Muslims as Prophet Yahya (pbuh). Even at that time the basilica was venerated by Christians as a religious sanctuary because it was believed that the head of Saint John the Baptist was interred within its walls. However, in 634 A.D., when Damascus was conquered by the Muslim army, led by the ace Islamic General Khalid bin al-Walid, the Islamic Caliphate moved the capital of the Islamic Empire to Damascus, the Christians and the Muslims were allowed to share the use of the basilica for their prayers. That arrangement would last some seventy years. However, by 661 A.D., the Muslim population of Damascus grew in size, the Umeyyad Caliph al-Walid I, who was the sixth Caliph of the dynasty, decided to terminate the sharing arrangement. He took over the whole building. In exchange, he built four new churches for the Christians and also returned to them all the churches that had been taken over by the Muslims after the Islamic conquest. However, it was only after the new churches were completed that Caliph al-Walid I broke the ground for the construction of the new Grand Ummeyad Mosque, which would become the architectural jewel of the City of Damascus.

The construction of the Mosque would take ten long years by which time, Caliph al-Walid I would be dead. But his son and successor, Suleyman al-Malek (715–717 A.D.) would see to it that the project was duly completed.

The shrine of John (Yahya) the Baptist where his head is entombed. The
site is venerated by both Muslims and Christians

When the mosque was finished, it was hailed as a masterpiece of Arab architecture and art. Indeed, the well-known Arab (travel) blogger, Habeeb Salloum, in an excellent article published recently, under the title: “The Umeyyad Mosque – Damascus’ Crowning Glory”, very rightly observed that the Grand Mosque of Damascus was “the pride of ArabIslamic architecture; it was once the finest work of art to be found in any place on earth.” Even to-day the Grand Mosque remains a masterpiece in architectural beauty and art-work celebrated by both Muslims and Christians and its style has influenced subsequent architectural projects in both Europe and the Middle East. Moreover, the Grand Mosque of Damascus is held as ‘sacred’ by both Christians and Muslims because of the Shrine of Saint John the Baptist (Yahya (pbuh), located inside the Mosque and who is revered by both Christians and Muslims as a Prophet of God.

                  In the year 1096 A.D., the Grand Mosque was badly damaged in a fire and, in the early fifteenth century, Damascus got invaded by the Mongol horde who set the inside of the sanctuary on fire thus destroying it almost totally. However, as after each calamity, the Grand Mosque was always restored more or less as closely as possible to its original shape and form. And, finally in 1893, another fire gutted the inside of the Mosque. However, the Ottoman Turks who, by that time had taken over the Islamic Caliphate and ruled over a vast Ottoman Empire of their own, would elaborately restore the Mosque as it was. Indeed, what we see to-day is the splendid restoration works done by the Ottoman. It is to the credit of the ruling regimes of the time that, after each disaster, the Grand Mosque was painstakingly restored as closely as possible to its original state because its importance as a religious symbol was never lost on anyone – Muslims or Christians — even to-day!

The Grand Mosque has three minarets each added at different periods of its history and which all add to the splendour and spiritual grandeur of the Mosque. The first one called AlArous (Bride) dates back to the Umeyyad period. The second minaret is the most famous and is called the Minaret of Jesus (or Prophet Issa — pbuh). It is here, Islamic traditions say that Prophet Jesus will make his second coming into the world on Judgment Day to battle the Anti-Christ.

 

The third Minaret, called the Quait Bey Minaret, was built by the Egyptian Mameluke ruler, Sultan Quait Bey.

Even to-day, despite the unrest and civil war raging in Syria for the past few years and, despite the terrible loss of human lives and severe damages done to the many historical buildings and works of art and architecture in the City of Damascus – including the masterpiece and jewel that the Grand Umeyyad Mosque has always been – Damascus continues to be ‘alive’ and restoration works are ever on-going on several fronts.

By the way, it is also worth mentioning that just adjacent to the Grand Umeyyad Mosque in Damascus is the mausoleum of Saladin (SalahudDin). Who was Saladin? We are tempted to ask! Well, that, as the poet would say, is another story!