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Spiritual Journey



Damascus, what are you doing to me?

….. I enter the courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque And greet everyone in it
Corner to . . . corner
Tile to . . . tile
Dove to . . . dove
I wander in the gardens of Kufi script
And pluck beautiful flowers of God’s words
And hear with my eye the voice of the mosaics
And the music of agate prayer beads
A state of revelation and rapture overtakes me,
So I climb the steps of the first minaret that encounters me Calling:
“Come to the jasmine”
“Come to the jasmine”

Returning to you
Stained by the rains of my longing
Returning to fill my pockets
With nuts, green plums, and green almonds
Returning to my oyster shell
Returning to my birth bed
For the fountains of Versailles
Are no compensation for the Fountain Café
And Les Halles in Paris
Is no compensation for the Friday market
And Buckingham Palace in London
Is no compensation for Azem Palace
And the pigeons of San Marco in Venice
Are no more blessed than the doves in the Umayyad Mosque
And Napoleon’s tomb in Les Invalides
Is no more glorious than the tomb of Salah al-Din Al-Ayyubi …..

~ Nizar Qabbani

The Umayyad Mosque: (or Masjid), also known as the Grand Mosque of Damascus is one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world. It is the first monumental work of architecture in Islamic history.

The spot where the mosque now stands was originally a temple dedicated to the idol Hadad in the Aramaean era about 3000 years ago. When the Romans ruled Damascus a temple was built for the worship of Jupiter. It then became a Christian church dedicated to John the Baptist in the Byzantine era towards the end of the fourth century.

Following the Battle of Yarmouk in 636 CE, Damascus was conquered by the Muslims under the leadership of Khalid-bin-Waleed (رضي الله عنه). The Muslims shared the church building with the Christians for worship. The Muslims prayed in the eastern section of the structure and the Christians in the western side.

This collective use continued until the reign of the Umayyad caliph al-Walid I, 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. The church was purchased from the Christians before being demolished and between 706 and 715 CE the current mosque was built in its place.

Construction of the mosque was based on the mosque of the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) in Madinah, which had many functions: it was a place for personal and collective prayer, religious education, political meetings, administration of justice, and relief of the ill and homeless. The caliph asked and obtained from the Emperor of the Byzantine Empire for 200 skilled workers to decorate the mosque, as evidenced by the partly Byzantine style of the building.

Factual Source:

Decorative Significance: In decorative terms, the Mosque was adorned with marble mouldings and mosaics, although most of the originals were destroyed in previous fires. These mosaics, as they appear in the façade of the sanctuary, consist of urban landscapes. There is a consensus that the artists in charge of these remarkable works were Byzantine. In addition to the fact that the Byzantine were the main masters of mosaic decoration at that time, the characteristics and style of these works greatly resembles that which is typical of Byzantine works (Creswell, 1958). Creswell also relied on some Arabic texts which referred to the co-operation of the Byzantine Emperor who sent materials and artists as mentioned previously by Al-Maqdassi. According to this theory, Caliph Al-Walid sent a formal request to the Byzantine Emperor for these artists

……….. It is well known customary tradition of Muslim Caliphs to dedicate a “Great” mosque as a symbol of their religious affection and closeness to God, the Almighty. They often gave up their most valuable possessions towards the construction costs. A recent example of such sacrifice came in the 1990’s when King Hassan II of Morocco financed a huge project of his Mosque in Casablanca.

Moroccan workers also volunteered with two days wage. Such enthusiasm comes from the authentic Hadith (prophetic saying) narrated by Al-Bukhari in which the Prophet Mohammed said: For whom builds a Mosque, Allah will build for him the same in Paradise”. By calling for artists and masons from various lands (not only Byzantium), Al-Walid obviously wanted the Great Mosque to be as luxurious and prestigious as possible hoping to secure similar grandeur for his promised Palace in Paradise.

Furthermore, the depiction of these mosaics to Paradise, which is described by both the Quran and Hadith as containing palaces and gardens of fruit and palms, is a good expression of the Caliph’s intentions. The concentration of these mosaics on the main entrance of the sanctuary indicates that the worshipper is entering a garden or a palace of Paradise.

In addition to Mosaics, the Ummayyads employed other art forms and styles in the Mosque. The use of decorated marble panels, carved wood, and glass mosaics in addition to repeated semi-circular and horseshoe arcades produced the desired effect of both holiness and grandeur.

Factual Source:

Some Sweet Notes:

Maqām Ra’s al-usayn (a) (Arabic: مقام رأسُ الحُسَین) refers to places where Imam al-Husayn’s (a) head is claimed to be buried or kept. There are monuments called “Maqam Ra’s al-Husayn” in different cities. (Allah knows best)

Shrine of John the Baptist (Maqam-i Ra’s-i Nabi Yahya). According to Islamic and Christian tradition, (legend had it that) Saint John’s head was buried there.

The Mausoleum of Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub stands in a small garden adjoining the north wall of the mosque, this holds the grave of the medieval Ayyubid sultan.

In 2001 Pope John Paul II visited the mosque, primarily to visit the relics of John the Baptist. It was the first time a pope had paid a visit to a mosque.

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