The Ummayad Mosque: "Matchless and Unequalled"

Sunday, July 3, 2005 | Damascus, Syria

Children play in the Ummayad Mosque's massive central courtyard. Behind the large doors lies the main prayer hall.
The Ummayad Mosque is the hub around which Damascus revolves. During my time here thus far, I've spent several afternoons and evenings propped against a column in the vast open courtyard, reading, people-watching, and enjoying what seems to be the one place in the city where I am permitted a measure of relative tranquility. The cool stones also offer a welcome break from Damascus' stifling midday heat.

Situated near the shores of the Barada River at the heart of the Old City, the mosque occupies grounds long revered. An Aramean temple once stood on the site, but was replaced by a grandiose Roman temple to Jupiter—the outer columns of which still stand in several spots around the mosque. Centuries ago, that temple was replaced by a Byzantine church, which Damascus's first Muslim conquerors shared with the Christians for several decades. Early in the eighth century,
however, the Caliph al-Walid purchased the church from its owners, razed it, and drafted scores of Byzantine craftsman to build a glorious mosque in its place.

During his first stay in Damascus, in 1362, even Ibn Battuta was awed by the temple, as he wrote:
"The Cathedral Mosque, known as the Ummayad Mosque, is the most magnificent mosque in the world, the finest in construction and noblest in beauty, grace and perfection; it is matchless and unequalled."
Today, the myriad layers of history below the mosque's tiled floor add further to the deeply spiritual ambience of this place.

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Visitors of any faith can enter the mosque, provided that the men have their legs covered and the women their legs, arms, and hair covered. The unfortunate tourists who arrive without proper covering are obliged to enter the "Putting On Special Clothes Room" and don a stifling burlap garment which likely hadn't been washed in years. In Syria, Western visitors already seem cagey enough, but the itchy, humiliating potato sacks seem only to emphasize their nervous sense of exclusion.

Anyone can stay as long as they like; the mosque is open from dawn to dusk. One particularly outgoing Swede (who apparently lives in the city) lingers all day, pestering tourists with offers of guided tours.

During my visits, I sit and watched these few tourists muddle around gingerly, unsure of what to make of one of Islam's holiest sites. Syrian families congregate here sometimes for a few hours, relaxing along the edges of the central courtyard. The children darted around them like ice skaters, making the most of the courtyard's well burnished tiles by sliding back and forth across the mirror-smooth floor. The more seriously devoted would walk solemnly among the columned arcades, or kneel in prayer on the lavish carpets that blanket the mosque's inner sanctuary.

Shiite pilgrims (easily identified because the women usually dress in black from head to foot) flock each day in a steady stream to two parts of the mosque in particular. The first is a small tomb in the mosque's main sanctuary, protected by a large cage of brass and green glass. The tomb allegedly houses the head of John the Baptist (though I hear it is one of several sites which claim to hold the saint's much sought-after skull).

The second and more intensely emotional site to which the pilgrims swarm is the tomb of Husayn (grandson of the prophet Muhammad) and the other martyrs killed at the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD. Here it is not uncommon for the black-clad women to wail and bawl at the top of their lungs. I try to give this part of the mosque a wide berth.

Even the tinny crackling voice that echoes from the minaret's loudspeakers at prayer time does little to dull the sacred aura of the Ummayad Mosque, a haven of tranquility in the churning city's midst.

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