Monday, September 9, 2013


The Great Mosque of Damascus, also known as the Umayyad Mosque is the holiest building of the Muslim world after Mecca and Medina. I had the chance of visit it some years ago because this is one of the few mosques that allow access to non-Muslims. It is so important that in 2001 John Paul II became the first pope to visit a mosque. The reason is that it is said that this temple keeps the head of John the Baptist, a prophet revered by both Christians and Muslims.

But the religious significance of the mosque goes hand in hand with its cultural and architectural importance. It is the oldest monumental structure of Islam and its architectural characteristics are very different from the Christian churches at the time. This mosque became a milestone in terms of architectural layout and composition and had a huge influence on subsequent mosques such as those of Cordoba , Kairouan, etc.. .

It was considered one of the wonders of his time and has been declared, needless to say, a World Heritage Site by UNESCO , like the rest of the historical area of the city of Damascus.


Founded in the third millennium BC, Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, with remains dating from the Copper Age, between 10,000 to 8,000 BC. Throughout its long history Damascus  has been influenced or conquered by Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans (it was also one of the first sites of spread of Christianity ), Byzantines, Arabs, Mongols, Mamelukes and Ottomans. Its labyrinthine streets, filled with the scent of spices and fragrances and dotted with hundreds of monuments, are a melting pot of history, a showcase of architectural and artistic styles, a feast for the senses. Various denominations of Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims creeds find refuge in its many impressive temples. But undoubtedly, Damascus most spectacular monument is the Great Mosque.


Like other mosques that were built on top of ancient shrines, that of Damascus was developed in an area where once was located a temple dedicated to Hadad Aramaic, built about 1000 BC, of which a basalt monolith  was found.
Following the Roman era, there was a temple dedicated  to Jupiter in the first century AD, which rested upon a rectangular base (temenos) and measured 385 x 305 meters, complemented with towers on the corners.

Wall of old roman temple used by the mosque. Photo courtesy of LIFE

 Then, in the fourth century a Christian basilica dedicated to St. John the Baptist 
was built in Byzantine style. After its conquest by the Muslims in 638 Damascus was consecrated as the capital of Islam in 660 and -as in the case of the Great Mosque of Cordoba -, initially Muslims and Christians shared the same building for praying. Subsequently, the caliph al-Walid bought the church to the Christians and ordered its demolition to expands the mosque.


The impact of the mosque over the organic and messy urban layoutof Damascus is huge. The rectangular complex measures 157 x 100 m longer and it faces Mecca (this direction is called qibla), which in this case is to the south.

To the west, which the main entrance is located, there is a square that is rather a retreat from the surrounding buildings, and that in itself has no urban treatment. But you do not need, because the courtyard serves as square.

Join the mosque. Photo courtesy of Hans Mast .

Outside there are three minarets that were used to call to prayer: the square base Minaret of the Bride, is the oldest minaret in the history of Islam (s. VIII-XII), the so called Minaret of Jesus,  because is believed that Jesus will return there on doomsday (XIII) and the Minaret of Quait Bey, which layout has a  polygonal form (s. XV).

The complex is based on the layout of the house of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina: a large courtyard and a covered area.

The Patio

The large patio is a square (122.5 x 50 m), surrounded on three sides by a double arcade. The upper arches are double and much smaller than the lower ones.

Panoramas of the courtyard of the mosque. Photo courtesy of Hans Mast .

The courtyard surrounding walls are decorated with mosaics, to which we will refer later. In the center of the courtyard there are three small pavilions:
  • The Pavilion of the Treasury, of polygonal shape, decorated with beautiful mosaics and supported on Corinthian columns. It was built to the east of the courtyard by the Caliph Al-Mahdi in 778, and it kept the Muslim state treasury.

  • Fountains Pavilion, used for ablutions, located at the center of the space. It is covered with a wooden roof that is supported on arches.

  • Clocks Pavilion, covered by a dome, located west of the courtyard.

Despite being a religious building, I was pleasantly surprised to see several children playing and running around this space. It is obvious that the solemnity of prayers goes hand in hand with many aspects of daily life.

The interior

The internal space is predominantly wide (136 x 38 m), unlike the Christian temples that at that time were oriented longitudinally to a focal point -the altar- (you  can check, by way of comparison, the Byzantine chapel of the monastery of St. Sergius in Maalula , about 50 km from Damascus).

The room is divided into three naves parallel from south to north, the wooden ceiling rests on a double arches.

Panorama of the ship mosque. Photo courtesy of Hans Mast .

As in the courtyard outside the upper arches are smaller than the lower ones. The latter have Corinthian columns, probably from the ancient Roman temple. There are 20 columns on each side of the nave.

Towards the south is the mihrab, a sacred space oriented towards Mecca, before which the Eagle Dome  it is placed, a circular cupola which rests on an octagon located exactly in the center of the space.

In the center of the room there is a small green glass pavilion, which contains an urn where the remains of St. John the Baptist are said to be kept.

Two striking aspects regarding its use: first, the gender segregation, thus men and women enter to different areas. Secondly, that in addition to praying the faithful will talk, relax or even sleep in the mosque, escaping the summer heat.


The construction of the mosque was carried out between 706 and 715, with the help of thousands of Coptic, Persian, Indian and Byzantine artisans. Some of the old Roman temple remains were reused in the process. Some of the materials used for coating were marble and mosaic mixed with crystals and silver and gold foils.

Because Islam forbids animal or human representations, the colorful mosaics that cover the walls of the courtyard represent geometric and plant motifs. The mosque used to have the largest gold mosaic in the world, covering about 4000 square meters, but unfortunately it was damaged after a fire in 1893.


The conception of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus influenced several subsequent mosques in the Islamic world. Many of the elements used for the first time here became typical of Muslim architecture as the minarets, the mascura (a special place for the caliphs and imams during public prayers) and the horseshoe arch (although some authors report that the origin of the horseshoe arches used in the Great Mosque of Cordoba were of Visigothic influence)

Mascura (a kind of pulpit) beside the mihrab, the Mecca-oriented point.

The following video includes more views of the Great Mosque of Damascus



  1. God bless people like you. Praying that through this post, you will inspire more people.

  2. Thank you for the pictures, but just a correction. This is not the most holiest masjid in Islam after Mecca and Madinah, as stated in your first sentence. Instead, there are three holy places in Islam: Mecca, Medinah, and Jerusalem (Masjid Al-Aqsa). While this masjid is still no doubt a masjid of great historical and architectural significance, it is not considered "most holy" as this is only limited to what is stated by Allah (God) himself, which is Mecca, Madinah, and Jerusalem. Thank you!

  3. Dear reader. Thank you for your information which is of course, correct. What I tried to say is that this is the holiest place that a non Muslim can visit. Thank you so much for your readership

  4. It was a greek architect who designed this mosque.

  5. subhanallah. extremly nice shoot and story. May Allah bless yuo for sharing all this. Please let me share you photo in my story because i lost my lovely visited pic of Umayyed Mosque at 2010. Thank you


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