The Great Mosque of Damascus: Studies on the Makings of an Umayyad Visual Culture

By Finbarr Barry Flood | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
INTRODUCTION

At some point during the first decade of the eighth century, the Umayyad caliph al-Walīd b. ʿAbd al-Malik (r. 86–96/705–15) is said to have addressed the Damascene populace in the following terms:

Inhabitants of Damascus, four things give you a marked superiority
over the rest of the world: your climate, your water, your fruits, and
your baths. To these I wanted to add a fifth: this mosque.1

The mosque in question is the Great Mosque of Damascus, of which it is also reported that eighteen years were permitted to elapse from the digging of the building's foundation to its construction, in order that a favourable horoscope would ensure its sanctity and longevity.2 The endeavour—however apocryphal—was evidently successful, for today, well over a millennium after its construction, the mosque is still an object of pride for Damascenes, attracting numerous pilgrims and visitors to the Syrian capital.

The site chosen for the mosque lay at the heart at the city; upon it stood the Cathedral of St. John (fig. 1), as its pagan predecessor, the Temple of Jupiter, had centuries before.3 The church is variously said to have been appropriated by agreement or force, the Christians being compensated for this loss by the return of churches confiscated during the Muslim conquest of the city.4 According to some

1 Quatremère (1845), vol. 2, part iii, 269–70; Sauvaire (1896), 187; Ibn ʿAsākir
(1954), 36; Ibn Ṣaṣrā (1963), fol. 126a.

2 Sauvaire (1896), 194; Ibn ʿAsākir (1954), 25; Ibn Shaddād (1956); 59. The
pre-Islamic palace of Ghumdān in Yemen is also said to have been founded un-
der a favourable horoscope, which ensured its longevity: Faris (1938), 9. For the
lengths to which Almoravid and Marīnid sultans would go at a later period to ensure
that the construction of a city, palace, or mosque commenced under an auspicious
horoscope see Renaud (1942), 50–51.

3 Sauvaget (1949), 314–19; Freyberger (1989).

4 Sauvaire (1896), 186–89, 370; Ibn Ṣaṣrā (1963), fol. 119b; Ibn Kathīr (1969),
145. Bar Hebraeus reports that a church dedicated to the Virgin was built on the
site given to the Christians by way of compensation: Budge (1932), vol. 1, 106.
The seizure of the church was celebrated in poems by Umayyad court poets such
as Nabīgha Shaybānī and al-Farazdaq: Sauvaire (1896), 192–93; Lammens (1930),
277; Ibn ʿAsākir (1954), 27–28; Elisséeff (1959), 42–43, Jamil (2000), 56. The con-

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