“The Umayyad Mosque of Damascus: Art, Faith and Empire in Early Islam” by Alain George

Great Mosque Damascus, north side, Francis Bedford 1862 Great Mosque Damascus, north side, Francis Bedford 1862

“To this day the monument remains nearly unscathed—a meager consolation in the face of such suffering.” The monument in question is the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, erected in about 705 by the young and energetic Umayyad (the dynasty began in 661) caliph al-Walid I (705-15) on the site of a Christian church which he had ordered razed to the ground.

Syria has been fighting a relentless and destructive civil war for more than a decade now, but this building, like St Paul’s Cathedral during the blitz, is “a poised counterpoint to the tragedies of our time.” Throughout its existence, it has survived fires, wars, and numerous earthquakes; it’s the oldest extant mosque which is still in fairly good shape; indeed, together with the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem it stands as one of the two most significant sacred Islamic buildings in the region. Alain Fouad George’s large-format book, impeccably produced by Gingko, is more than just a fitting and beautiful visual tribute to this fabulous building—it also delves deeply into the history of its setting which extends back much further than the reign of al-Walid beyond the region’s Christian past but into pagan times as well. It was the site of a first century CE temple to Jupiter, itself converted into a church during the late 4th century, not that long after Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire. The prehistory of the mosque is fascinating because it raises questions about why this particular place was chosen, and what could have made it a “holy” site for three different religious groups.

The Roman temple was excavated in 1962-63; its temenos (inner enclosure where the altar stood) was recycled as the walls of the Umayyad mosque. This building stood until 1069, when it was almost completely destroyed by a fire. Not much restoration seems to have taken place until 1340, but after that work continued on and off into the 21st century until it became the building we see today, namely the restored Umayyad mosque. The site itself, we may say, is thus a multi-faith one, with the present mosque being the latest building to grace its surface. George’s book combines archaeology, architecture, textual accounts, photographic history dating from 1842 and even poetry (specially translated here for the first time by Nadia Jamil), to give a full and abiding picture of this remarkable building and its place in Islamic art and Umayyad society.

 

The Umayyad Mosque of Damascus: Art, Faith and Empire in Early Islam, Alain George (Gingko Library, October 2021)
The Umayyad Mosque of Damascus: Art, Faith and Empire in Early Islam, Alain George (Gingko Library, October 2021)

The writing of this book was prompted by one very simple question—why did al-Walid decide to build the mosque at this time and in this place? Interestingly enough, it seems that he had been concerned about the destruction of the church, which had naturally upset Christians in Damascus, and had commissioned three poets “to vindicate this controversial act in panegyric form.” In his poem, for example, Jarir ibn Atiyah (c.650-728) wrote of al-Walid

 

The Lord showed you, when you broke their cross,
bright guidance: you knew what we did not.

 

It would appear that even at the time, al-Walid’s purposes were not quite clear, which is, of course, why Jarir attributed it to divine intervention, but the poet had no doubt that al-Walid’s demolition of the Christian church was the right thing to do. George explains that al-Walid’s actions were not just symbolic of his desire to assert regional control, for which the mosque would have been a visible symbol. It was also a building that “embodied the shifting relationship between Muslim and Christian elites,” and there is evidence that Byzantine Christians may have been involved in the construction of the building. Emperor Justinian II (685-95, restored 705-11) wanted good relations with the Umayyads, and had not only released Muslim prisoners captured by his predecessor Tiberius III (698-705), but had, at al-Walid’s request, sent craftsmen to help in the work on a mosque at Medina as well as the one in Damascus. It could be said, therefore, that there was a “political” dimension to al-Walid’s mosque, namely how to deal with the Byzantine-Muslim confrontations which had been on-and-off for decades, and which was still simmering when al-Walid ordered the mosque to be built. George even quotes an anecdote relating that Justinian II only sent the craftsmen when the caliph threatened to destroy more churches. Essentially, al-Walid, with the power and resources he had at his disposal, built the mosque because he could.

George points out that the location of the mosque has a complex history consisting of natural disasters (usually earthquakes or fires) and the consequent repairs or rebuilding that result from them, information about which can be found not just in official documents, but in biographies, travel literature and historical chronicles. George also emphasizes the importance of historical photographs, “a sea-change in the documentation of the mosque,” because we can actually view what happened, for example, after a fire in 1893, through “before and after” photographs. George calls his method of inquiry a “palimpsest”, which means something which might have been altered many times over, yet still bears visible signs of what it was originally like. Here the word is used in the literary sense, namely as a piece of writing that has been obscured, partially-erased or overwritten, but can still yield evidence of what was first inscribed on it. The palimpsest is, in a sense, the metaphor for the various layers of the mosque, analogous to, say, the walls of Troy, where archaeologists have, over the years, uncovered nine layers of building, each providing information about what was happening during the time in which they were erected. George’s book unfolds like a revelation of the mosque’s layers, starting with the historical and political life of the mosque, the old Christian church, the first mosque and the original pagan temple, followed by a concentration on reconstruction, restoration and aesthetics.

mosque2

The most immediately arresting layers of the palimpsest are revealed by the photography. Although this only documents the most recent history of the mosque, it can tell us much about early photography, including how high its quality could be. Amazingly, within a very few months of the invention of photography in 1839, teams of French photographers were already travelling around with what must have been rather cumbersome equipment, and the first photograph of Damascus appeared in 1840, but it’s unfortunately no longer extant. Hot on the heels of this came Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, who photographed the mosque in 1842-43, thus establishing the first actual or “facsimile” view of the mosque.

At the same time European and British artists started depicting the building in a naturalistic style, a view of it first appeared as a watercolor by John Wilkinson, taken in 1844, to be followed by several others, notably Sir Frederick Leighton, famed for Flaming June, and his magnificent painting of the interior in 1875. Two photographs from 1893 show the same view before and after a fire, and George tells us that they are important because they reveal the building before the extensive Ottoman restorations were begun. Max van Berchem’s 1893 photograph of the prayer hall is particularly striking—the magnificent arches are still standing tall and strong, the obvious fire damage and the piles of rubble on the floor functioning both as a poignant contrast and a testament to their lasting strength and beauty. One is tempted to think here, looking at these photographs, of the terrible fire which recently engulfed Notre Dame Cathedral. George takes us through the history of the various restorations of the mosque through many superb photographs (including a number of his own magnificent color views), so we can clearly see the stages of restoration as well as some of what else was revealed when it was in progress. One photograph from the 1890s even shows the people who were responsible for the reconstruction, those forgotten human faces whose dedication, love, and hard work “profoundly altered the fabric of the mosque,” which, for George, is a positive thing because it did help preserve the building for posterity and was carried out carefully and reverently.

In the chapter intriguingly entitled “Silenced and Imagined Pasts”, George focuses on the Christian church as part of the mosque’s fabric. The “silenced” past is that represented by the church, which al-Walid has now superseded in a demonstration of his power and that of his religion. Whatever the caliph had achieved, “the church remained present in the minds of Christian, Muslim and Jewish Damascenes who had witnessed its last moments,” Furthermore, whatever the caliph’s men did, “multiple echoes of its predecessor remained” in the very fabric of the new building. George considers all of these, illustrated as always with magnificent photography and passages from the poets who celebrated al-Walid’s achievement. Particularly impressive are George’s own photograph of the transept and the comparative views of the shrine of John the Baptist, taken in 1866, 1890 and 2019. “The Damascene church,” George explains, continues to cast a shadow over the fabric of the mosque to this day,” and the photographs clearly show how this came to be.

And nothing stands still in time, as George writes “the current mosque, like a living organism, never ceased to evolve from the moment of its foundation.” This means anything that is said about it is, strictly speaking, hypothetical, which is why George writes of working “towards [my italics] a reconstruction of the Umayyad mosque.” Here, the earlier photographs proved invaluable, because they showed features which are not visible today, some of which include details from the Roman temple and lost mosaic panels from al-Walid’s mosque. There are other mosaics, of course, but nothing earlier than the 11th century; George has provided many illustrations of the mosaics, which include one of a man apparently falling out of a tree, the depiction of the tree being the point of interest. George examines the mosque in great detail, illustrating practically every section of the building, the quality of the photographs almost making it seem like the reader is actually there looking at each part of the building, indicating, as George states, that the pre-restoration Umayyad mosque was much more colorful than its modern descendant.

George concludes the book by reconstructing, as far as is possible, the ideas and thoughts of the people who were involved in building al-Walid’s mosque, particularly the patrons of the building and how they envisioned the construction. The decorations, for example, clearly indicate that the pre-Islamic mosaics were either altered or replaced by work which was based on “rhythms inspired by Arabic poetry”, which George terms “polysemic”, namely having a multiplicity of meanings. As George puts it, “Poetry, its memorisation, and the ability to recognize its meter were fundamental aspects of Arabian culture,” as was polysemy. Polysemic reading of poetry means that the text’s “meaning” isn’t fixed or static, and that further reading may reveal other meanings as well. It’s all about fluidity and possibilities; the mosque itself may be seen as poetry in stone. George refers readers to the poem by Abdullah al-Nabigha al-Shaybani (680-744) as being “a unique document on aesthetics in this era,” whose verses “generate for the listener a perception of multiple colours.” As al-Nabigha puts it,

 

Jewelled embellishments dazzle still
      the blacks of the eyes are set a-quiver;
while precious silver curls up high
      resplendent on the awed beholder.

 

And there we can leave it—the “awed beholder” is now the reader of this book.


John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.