Damascus was the first truly great metropolis of the Muslim world, the pilgrimage cities of Mecca and Medina notwithstanding, and it is the only place from which the entire Islamic Empire was ever ruled. During its century as the Umayyad capital, Damascus was one of the largest and most magnificent cities in the world. As wealth from Muslim conquests poured in, Damascus was rebuilt on a grand scale. The Masjid Umayyad was, for at least a time, the largest in the world. Despite the numerous wars and that periodically ravaged the city and the mosque, the Masjid Umayyad has been regularly restored, and is considered one of the oldest active religious sites in all of Islam. Interestingly, the mosque’s greatest treasure is the head of John the Baptist, making the site highly sacred to both Muslims and Christians. The Masjid Umayyad is part of the Ancient City of Damascus UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Damascus is one of the oldest cities in the world, and most historians and archaeologists agree that it may be the oldest continually inhabited city on Earth. For most of its early history Damascus was little more than a commercial transit point in the shadow of the empires of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Anatolia. Its strategic importance grew during the wars between Assyria, Babylon and the Israelite kingdoms. Damascus briefly rose in importance during the Persian period as Syria’s provincial capital, then was relegated to second city after Antioch throughout the Greek, Seleucid, Roman and Christian periods.
After the rise of Islam that Damascus found itself in the world spotlight. Soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Muslim armies out of Arabia swarmed northwards, conquering Syria and Damascus, which became a forward base for further campaigns against the Byzantines in the west. After the rise of the Umayyad dynasty, the Caliph Muawiyah I chose Damascus as his new capital, in part because of its strategic location, but also because it distanced him from the Shi’ites in Persia. Within a few short decades, Damascus had become the political, cultural and commercial, though not religious, center of Islam, and one of the largest cities in the world.
Throughout the Umayyad era Damascus was the capital of a unified Islamic empire that stretched from Spain to India. This was the city’s golden age, and during this period Damascus became home to some of Islam’s most prominent institutions. Most notable of these was the Great Mosque of Damascus, better known as the Masjid Umayyad. Built in the early 8th century by caliph Walid I, it was at the time of its construction the largest mosque in the world, and remained so for several hundred years. The magnificence of Masjid Umayyd was meant to reflect not only Damascus’ political importance, but also to showcase the relic of John the Baptist, which had been kept in a church that had formerly stood on the site.
By the middle of the 8th century AD, the Umayyad dynasty collapsed. Their successors, the Abbasids, moved the new capital to Baghdad, and Damascus lost much of its former political importance and influence. Towards the end of the 800s, the Islamic empire was breaking up, and Damascus came under the control of a series of foreign rulers. Throughout the ensuing centuries, Damascus suffered a number of terrible catrastrophes, and the Umayyad Mosque was damaged and sacked on more than one occasion. It has been faithfully rebuilt and restored a number of times, and looks much as it did in the Middle Ages. The Umayyad Mosque remains to this day the most popular Islamic pilgrimage site in Syria.
The Masjid Umayyad is an impressive edifice. However, because its construction predates by centuries more typical Islamic architecture, it appears much more like a Byzantine monastic compound than a mosque. This is not unusual since it was largely constructed by Byzantine workers who had considerable experience in the building of churches and cathedrals. The three minarets were erected at different times, exhibiting a variety of construction styles. Interestingly, one of the minarets is dedicated to Jesus of Nazareth.
The interior of the mosque is richly decorated, blending Christian and Muslim styles of the period. The head of John the Baptist is contained in an elaborate tomb located beneath the giant dome. Despite the many renovations the Masjid Umayyad has received over the years, it retains much of its ancient form and style. Nevertheless, many parts of the structure date from more recent times. This was particularly true when much of the mosque was rebuilt after a fire in the 19th century.
The Umayyad Mosque occupies an immense compound on the north side of the walled Old City of Damascus. It is one of world’s few major mosques that openly welcomes non-Muslims, especially Christians. In fact, the Umayyad Mosque hosted the first and only visit of a sitting Pope to a mosque in history. It is open every day from 9:00am-9:00pm. Admission is SL50.00. Web: Not currently available due to ongoing problems in the region.
Damascus is absolutely packed with fantastic Islamic sites. There are dozens of major mosques within the city, three of which are worth mentioning. In addition to the Masjid Umayyad, there is the Masjid Sayyidah Zainab and the Masjid Sayyidah Ruqayya, where a granddaughter and great granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad are buried, respectively; the Ottoman-era Masjid Taqiyyeh As-Suleimaniyyeh, the second largest in the city. Damascus also boasts many major historically important tombs, including the Gravesite of Abu Ubaidah ibn Al-Jarrah in the suburb of Jabiyah; Bilal the first muezzin in the Bab Al-Saghir Cemetery; the Mausoleum of Saladin; and the Tomb of Baybars, located in the library of the Madrassa Ar-Zahiriyya. Other interesting Islamic sites in the city are the Citadel of Damascus and the Azem Palace.
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