PARADISE ON EARTH, A HISTORY OF THE SACRED ART
The Umayyads have left an indelible mark on the history of the World when it comes to architectural design, cultural advance, administrative policy and military genius. In the space of little more than 30 years, two of the Umayyad Caliphs (Abdul Malik and his son Al-Waleed) successfully renovated and transformed the religious and cultural landmarks in the Islamic world’s foremost sacred sites, in Al-Madinah, Makkah, Jerusalem and Damascus.
· Reconstruction of the Kaabah (Abdul-Malik & Al-Hajjaj)
· Construction of Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (Abdul-Malik)
· Reconstruction and expansion of Masjid al-Nabawy (Al-Waleed & Umar Ibn Abdul Aziz)
· Construction of the Grand Umayyad Mosque in Damascus (Al-Waleed)
JAAMI'S AL UMAWWI
Caliph Al Waleed Ibn Abdul-Malik is most famously remembered for having commissioned the magnificent Jaami’ Al-Umawi (Grand Umayyad Mosque) in Damascus.
It was estimated that four hundred crates of Gold were required to complete the decoration of the Mosque, the project lasted for an entire decade (between 86 – 96 AH). Upon completion, the Mosque became a landmark by which the people of Damascus would be honoured and could take pride in over the rest of the world.
Such was the design of this magnificent mosque that the famous poet Al-Farazdaq (Hammam ibn Ghalib) is quoted to have described the monument as a piece of heaven on earth;
“The people of Damascus have a palace from among the palaces of Paradise”
Later on in history, following the Abbasid revolution and takeover, Abbasid Caliph Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Abdallah al-Mansur (Al-Mahdi) entered Damascus and remarked;
“The Umayyads have outdone us in three things; the construction of this marvellous mosque the likes of which I have never seen anywhere else, their noble lineage and the fact that they had a man the likes of Umar Ibn Abdul Aziz among them”
When later reached Jerusalem, he added a fourth item to his list after having witnessed the beauty and grandeur of the Dome of the Rock (Qubba as-Sakhr) built in Jerusalem by Caliph Abdul-Malik Ibn al-Marwan.
“And this (Al-Sakhr) is the fourth point”
Such was the wondrous Umayyad designs, in Damascus and in Jerusalem - that some early scholars and historians (Qatadah and Ibn Asakir) even claimed that Allah made reference to these monuments in the Sacred Scriptures, when he said;
“By the Fig (Umayyad Mosque in Damascus), and by the Olive Tree (Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem)”
[Surah al-Tin, Chapter 95:1].
PROPHETS AND SAGES
In fact – the Grand Umayyad Mosque in Damascus is commonly held to be the very sacred site in which Prophet Easa Ibn Mariam will perform his prayers following his second arrival.
Over the years, many legendary tales were ascribed to the Mosque in Damascus, with some claiming that the severed head of Prophet Yahya Ibn Zakariyya (John the Baptist) was uncovered by some of the workers beneath the foundations of the building during the construction phase, while others claim that one of the foundational walls of the building was originally built by the Prophet Hud while others allude to the claim that Al-Khidr had visited the mosque.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Following the death of Prophet Muhammad, the first Caliph of Islam Abu-Bakr al-Siddiq dispatched Muslim armies into Iraq and Syria to confront the encroaching threat of the Byzantine Christian empire. The Muslims entered into Damascus, under the command of Khalid Ibn al-Walid and conquered its Eastern part. Following peace talks and negotiations that had already been drawn between another group of Muslims with the inhabitants of the Western part of Damascus, Khalid Ibn al-Waleed eventually agreed to concede the aforementioned peace treaty but he maintained control of the Eastern side of Damascus, which he had already conquered. This resulted in the division of Damascus with half of the city falling under Muslim control while the other half would be subject to the peace treaty drawn with the Christians.
The terms of this resolution also meant that the Church of St John the Baptist (that had originally been a Greek pagan temple) would also be divided into two halves with the Eastern side subsequently being repurposed by the Muslims to serve as a Mosque while the Western half of the building continued to serve as a Church.
These arrangements ware formalised in the 14th year after Hijrah and would remain in place through to the 86th year after Hijrah, which coincided with the advent of Al-Waleed Ibn Abdul Malik to the office of Caliph. By which time the Muslims were no longer able to accommodate their congregants in the Western half of the building, while tensions were mounting between the those worshiping in the Eastern half and those in the Western half.
Therefore Al-Waleed entered into a bargaining deal with the Christian leaders of Damascus by promising them that none of the other iconic churches of Damascus (such as the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary and the Church of the Cross) would be demolished or converted into Mosques on the condition that the Christians relinquish the Western half of St John’s church over to the Muslims.
Though the terms of Al-Waleed’s proposal were initially rejected by the leading Christian clerics of Damascus, the threat of having the other iconic churches converted into Mosques compelled them to accept the proposal which resulted in the Western half of St John’s church being handed over to the Muslims who subsequently stripped it off any remnants of the ancient Greek artefacts and the more recent Christian iconography before renovating it anew.
At the beginning of the renovation, Caliph Al-Waleed ordered for the demolition to be done in full view of the public in an attempt to defy the prevalent belief that anyone who destroyed the building would be cursed and driven insane.
To which the Caliph defiantly proclaimed;
“I would love to be driven insane for the sake of Allah, the Majestic and most Sublime”
Armed with a golden axe in hand (a direct reference to the axe of Prophet Ibrahim), Caliph Al-Waleed Ibn Abdul-Malik ascended to the very top of the church while the Monks, Bishops, Pastors and other members of the clergy stood aghast and fearful of what was to befall the city if the sacred church was demolished.
When he reached the highest part of the Church, above the clock tower and the bells – he stood before one of the most sanctified statues which was known to the Christians as Al-Shaheed (The Witness). Al-Waleed lifted his axe and proclaimed the greatness of Allah as he struck the lifeless statue with the first devastating blow.
“Allahu Akbar !!”
As the fragments of Al-Shaheed fell to the ground and the Priests rushed forth to gather its pieces in a desperate scramble to ward of the divine curse that they had anticipated – the Muslims echoed Al-Waleed’s words in unison
“Allahu Akbar !!”
A second blow followed the first, and then a fourth. The statue was no more, Al-Waleed proceeded onto the next and the process was repeated until all of the statues had been dismantled and removed completely.
The Muslims then entered into the church and began to remove every statue, image and carving in sight until there was nothing left but a hollow building. It was from this moment that the construction of the Grand Umayyad Mosque came into being, under the order and patronage of Caliph Al-Waleed Ibn Abdul Malik, who daringly sent a letter to Byzantine emperor Justinian II requesting building material and skilled labour to assist in the construction of his mosque (as he had also done with the Mosque in al-Madinah) or risk having a Muslim army sent to his territories wherein all of their Christian landmarks and churches (even the Holy Sepulchre and St Pater’s Basilica in Jerusalem) would be demolished or converted into Mosques. Emperor Justinian II acquiesced and sent forth two hundred skilled engineers, architects, carpenters, masons and labourers to participate in the construction in Damascus.
Construction was thereafter under way and the walls and pillars of this magnificent building were decorated with rich and ornamental marble-stained paintings depicting exotic flowers, fruit-bearing trees, scenic patterns and flowing rivers. Silver and Gold sheets were used alongside colourful mosaics to embellish the interior and exterior of the Mosque while its magnificent arches and walls bore carvings and inscriptions of verses from the Glorious Quran which were written in calligraphic styles.