In 1479, during the siege of Damascus by the Central Asian ruler Tīmūr (Tamerlane), the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus suffered a catastrophic fire. The mosque was, by that point, nearly 800 years old, and the feeling of irretrievable loss is palpable in eyewitness accounts of the desperate measures taken to rescue the precious carpets and furnishings as well as one of the mosque’s greatest treasures: a holy Qur’an manuscript that had once belonged to the caliph ‘Uthmān.
Such memories seem particularly evocative today, as Syrians continue to suffer the depredations of one of the most devastating conflicts in modern history, left to grapple with the aftermath of the destruction of human lives and the loss of cultural and material heritage.
In this context, Alain George’s visually sumptuous, meticulously-researched volume The Umayyad Mosque of Damascus: Art, Faith and Empire in Early Islam (Gingko, 2021) is a welcome reminder of the richness of that heritage. The mosque, built in 706 by the Umayyad caliph al-Walīd (r. 705–715), is one of the great monuments of world architecture, renowned for being among the largest and most lavishly-ornamented mosques in the Islamic world.
With its sweeping courtyard ornamented by colored marble, painted wood, stained glass, and glittering mosaics, the grandeur of the Umayyad Mosque retains the power to awe visitors even today, and yet the building that we see is the merest shadow of the staggering beauty of its eighth-century self. Building at the height of Umayyad stability and prosperity, al-Walīd spared no expense. His construction of the Umayyad Mosque was just one of no less than eight major mosque-building projects, including the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and the mosques at Mecca and Medina, and the caliph should be more widely-recognized as one of the great builders of late antiquity. Abd al-Malik’s Dome of the Rock aside, it’s arguably to al-Walīd that we owe the very idea of Umayyad architecture, and George shows that he remade the form and structure of the early mosque, elevating the simple, utilitarian mosques of early Islam to an imperial scale and magnificence.
George’s book takes the reader on a vivid tour of the history, meaning, and significance of this venerable building over time, borrowing the model of the palimpsest of which, he argues, the Umayyad Mosque is an architectural example. The mosque was constructed inside the temenos of the ancient Roman temple to Jupiter, built under Augustus and the second-largest temple in the Roman world. After the empire was Christianized, the temple was in turn transformed into a Christian church, and eventually into a mosque. This has long been known from both textual and archaeological evidence, but the specific location, form, and nature of the re-use have been shrouded in debate. George convincingly argues that the traces of each of these moments in its history are still visible in the plan and ornament of the mosque.
George’s argument is itself palimpsestic in its layered and complex weaving together of a range of sources of dazzling variety, from eighth-century poetic panegyrics written in praise of the mosque, documentary sources like the Sana‘a palimpsest of the Qur’an, early Islamic administrative papyri from Aphrodito in Egypt, to later medieval chronicles. George also draws heavily from the evidence of the physical structure itself, utilizing the methods of archaeological and architectural analysis and the evidence of early twentieth-century photography. The sources often refer back to each other, reflecting on, incorporating, or reworking the words of prior accounts or, in the case of the structure itself, building, renovating, and reincorporating prior architectural elements.
Within this layered and sometimes-contradictory body of evidence, George is motivated by a simple question: Why did al-Walīd build the Mosque?
Al-Walid’s destruction was viewed by contemporaries as an act of tyranny and a rupture of norms with respect to the treatment of the ahl al-dhimma: the Christians and Jews living under Islamic rule, who had a legally-defined protected status. It seems likely that al-Walid, then in his mid-30s and in his first year as caliph, acted rashly in seizing and destroying the church and may have had to deal with the political fallout from the Christians of Damascus and from the Byzantine emperor Justinian II in Constantinople. Surprisingly, George demonstrates that the church appears not to have been associated with John the Baptist in al-Walid’s time, and that it gained that association only after the mosque was built, perhaps as a triumphal means of connecting the site to its Christian past. Given that the building was undoubtedly constructed by Christian workmen, who were at that time still the majority in the region, this idea is particularly intriguing.
Yet here George’s Sunni-centric narrative appears to have overlooked a likelier scenario explored in my own research on the mosque: namely the association of the mosque with the head of the martyr al-Husayn, which was brought to Damascus by the Umayyads and venerated by Shi’s. It’s possible that the association with the head of John the Baptist was a counter or co-narrative to the then-rapidly developing veneration of the resting place of the head of al-Husayn. This further palimpsestic layering of meaning around head relics in late antiquity would only have enhanced George’s argument. Yet this does not detract from his compelling suggestion that the panegyric poetry al-Walid commissioned in praise of the building of the mosque – from no less than four contemporary poets, one of them a Christian – may have been an attempt to manage the Christian reaction and to justify and reassert his rectitude in appropriating and destroying the church. The unprecedented luxuriousness and grandeur of the mosque he built may have made the argument visually and sensorially.
Some chapters will strike readers as excessively technical and empirical, and there are sections of the book that are so descriptive that they are difficult to parse, reading more like an appendix in prose than a clearly-delineated argument, and compounded by the paucity of diagrams. A few carefully-drawn schematic renderings of the mosque would have done the work of pages of description whose purpose is not always clear. Yet the volume will undoubtedly stand as the most comprehensive and detailed account of the mosque in the eighth century to date. Were one to digitally reconstruct the mosque (please!), one need look no further, and the transition from temple to church to mosque is explored here in unprecedented detail.
Perhaps the book’s most brilliant insight is that the “meter” of the mosaics’ visual rhythms corresponds precisely with the poetic meter of one of the panegyric poems commissioned by al-Walīd to praise his mosque. Steeped in the context of late antique poetry and allusion, the mosaics’ power may well have rested in the polysemy and ambiguity that were emphasized in many late antique Mediterranean cultures, in which opacity and multiplicity of meanings in both poetry and ornament may have been intentional, apprehended as the source of inexhaustible depths of meaning. And it’s here that George’s achievement is most evident: to sharply challenge our modern ways of seeing and instead to invite us view one of Islam’s most famous and most-studied monuments with new, late-Antique eyes.
The Umayyad Mosque of Damascus: Art, Faith and Empire in Early Islam by Alain George (2021) is published by Gingko and is available in bookstores and online.
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