Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited capital in the world, has been the center for many civilizations throughout its rich and fascinating history. The city has many sacred historical sites left by the ancient cultures that inhabited Damascus, which made the city a UNESCO world heritage site in 1979.
Located in the heart of the Ancient City of Damascus, The Umayyad Mosque, also known as the Great Mosque of Damascus, is one of the oldest and holiest Islamic monuments in the world.
The site of the Umayyad mosque today has been a place of worship for more than three millennia. The history of the mosque dates back to 1200 BC when Damascus was the capital of the Aramaic Kingdom during the Iron Age. The Arameans were the first to build a temple in that location for their god Hadad, the god of storm and lightning. The temple had an important role in the city for many centuries.
In 64 AD, the Romans seized Damascus and erected a massive temple for Jupiter over the Temple of Hadad. It was built as a response to the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. The temple later became a center for the worshipers of Jupiter and was celebrated for its magnitude and beauty. Thanks to the contributions of the wealthy citizens of Damascus, it became the largest Romanian temple in Syria.
During the rule of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I who was a Christian, it was forbidden to conduct pagan ceremonies in the Temple of Jupiter. Following that, in 391 AD, the Temple was converted into a Christian cathedral that was later dedicated to St. John. The Church of St. John the Baptist quickly became a pilgrimage destination for Byzantine Christians because it was believed that the head of St. John the Baptist was buried in it.
During the 7th century and following the Islamic conquest of Damascus, the church was shared between Christian and Muslim worshippers, since a praying room was built for Muslims south of the church.
Damascus later became the capital of the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate making it the center of the Islamic world. It was Al-Walid, the sixth Umayyad Caliph, who gave the order in 706 AD to demolish the church and construct a mosque in its place.He brought thousands of Moroccan, Greek, Indian, Coptic, Persian and Byzantine craftsmen to build the great monument. The Christians of the city protested because of the change, then as a compensation, Al-Walid gave them back all the confiscated churches in the city.
The construction took 10 years to be completed and cost tens of thousands of dinars. During the construction, a box was found in an old chapel containing a head that was believed to have belonged to St. John the Baptist, Prophet Yahya in Islam. Al-Walid ordered the workers to put the head back under a pillar in the chapel and to construct a tomb decorated with marble for Prophet Yahya.
When completed, the Umayyad Mosque was a marvelous wonder. It included a praying hall, a vast courtyard and hundreds of rooms for visiting pilgrimages. Gilded mosaic, colored marbles, tinted glass and gold adorned the courtyard. The mosaic depicted picturesque villages, marvelous gardens and lavish rivers portraying the paradise-like nature of Damascus in that era. It is believed that the mosaic in the Umayyad Mosque was the largest in the world. Unfortunately, only parts of that great mosaic still stands today due to four disastrous fires.
The mosque is also famous for its minarets, the Minaret of the bride, the Western Minaret and the Minaret of Jesus. According to Damascene and Islamic traditions, Jesus will descend from heaven before Dooms Day to fight the Antichrist and he will reach earth using the Minaret of Jesus in the Umayyad Mosque, hence the name.
The mosque is an important destination for Christians and Muslims from around the world. The Great Mosque is amongst the oldest sites of continuous prayer since the beginnings of Islam and the fourth holiest mosque in the world. It is also the only mosque in the world to be visited by a pope when Pope John Paul II came to Damascus in 2001 and visited the relics of St. John the Baptist in the mosque.
The Umayyad Mosque today is still as important and as spectacular as it has always been thanks to several renovations and restorations. It will always have a great religious, historical and architectural significance.