There are few places in the world which have changed hands between Christians and Muslims quite so often as the old Phoenician Coast in the Eastern Mediterranean. As a result there are few places in the world where Christian and Muslim coexistence, peaceful or not, has lasted quite so long. The enduring architectural symbol of this coexistence, if there is one, is the Masjid Al-Omari in Beirut, which has converted back and forth between being a mosque and a church no less than four times. Moreover, since the end of the crusades, the Masjid Al-Omari has served as the defacto national mosque of what is now Lebanon, and is the largest mosque in any coastal city between Turkey and Egypt. It is still regarded today as Beirut’s most historical and important mosque.
The Phoenician Coast is one of the greatest anomalies of the entire Middle East. Located at the juncture of Asia Minor to the north, Syria to the east and Palestine, this unbelievably strategic stretch of land has been home to some of the Mediterranean Sea’s busiest ports since the most ancient of times. Despite this, few of the great powers that have dominated the Middle East have ever treated Phoenicia, now Lebanon, as anything other than a backwater. This was due in part to the fact that Phoenicia was bypassed by the Silk Road which passed through northern Syria and was never incorporated into the Israelite kingdoms.
In the early 7th century AD Phoenicia was absorbed into the Islamic Caliphate, at least the eighth major empire to annex the Eastern Mediterranean coast. But despite its proximity to the great cities of Aleppo, Jerusalem and especially Damascus, all major Islamic centers, it was another five hundred years before anyone took a serious interest in the strategic importance in the region. In the first decade of the 12th century, Beirut was captured by Christian armies from Europe, and the region became a major battleground between the Muslims and the Crusaders.
During their occupation of Beirut, the Knights Hospitaller built the Church of John the Baptist, probably on the site of an earlier mosque. Beirut remained under Crusader control for nearly two centuries before being recaptured by Muslims, at which time the Hospitaller church was converted into a mosque. The Europeans briefly retook Beirut, and reconverted the mosque back to a church. In 1291 AD, the Muslims once again conquered Beirut, and the Church of John the Baptist became a mosque permanently. It was renamed in honor of Umar, the second Rashidun caliph, who had first conquered the region for Islam in the 7th century.
Following the turbulent Crusader period, Beirut and the Masjid Al-Omari were ultimately absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, during which period the mosque was renovated and expanded on several occasions. It remained more or less intact until the late 20th century, when a series of wars rattled Lebanon. Although the city’s medieval mosque has survived, it did not come out unscathed, and is currently undergoing repairs. Although the city’s most sacred Muslim site, its unusual mixed Muslim-Christian heritage has made it a favorite historical site for people of both religions, and stands as a testament of sorts to religious coexistence.
The site where the Masjid Al-Omari now stands was probably occupied by an earlier mosque constructed prior to the Crusader period. There is even a small possibility that a Byzantine-era church once stood on the site as well. The current mosque was originally constructed by the Knights Hospitaler in the 11th century as a church, and much of the structure dates from this time. After being converted several times, its status as a mosque became permanent in 1291, and significant restoration and renovation took place at this time. Additional renovations are currently ongoing.
The original Gothic church is almost completely unrecognizeable as such from the exterior, and in fact the architecture from the early conversion in the 13th century is largely overshadowed by the later additions and renovations. The current incarnation is a modern Ottomanesque design, with a sky-blue dome and four pencil-thin minarets at the corners of the main prayer-hall building. Until the war in the 1970s, the Masjid Al-Omari was also locally famous as being home to a relic: several hairs of the Prophet Muhammad, though these have gone missing for several decades.
The Masjid Al-Omari is located in the midst of a cluster of mosques in downtown Beirut. It is open to both Muslims and non-Muslims (some restrictions to the latter). Due to the ongoing renovation work no other visitor information was available as of this writing. Web: www.mot.gov.lb (official tourism website of Lebanon)
Downtown Beirut is home to a surprising number of mosques, many of which stand side-by-side with churches. Almost all date from the Ottoman period, and virtually all have had to undergo or are currently undergoing repairs due to the recent spate of wars which have wracked the region. The Zawiyat ibn Al-Arraq is Beirut’s oldest Islamic school. Other prominent mosques include the Masjid Emir Assaf and the Masjid Emir Mounzer. Not too far away along the old Phoenician coast are the Masjid Mahmood in Haifa, Palestine; and the Masjid Jezzar Pasha in Akko, Palestine. The latter is home to the tombs of several prominent Ottoman rulers.