The Road to Mecca: Umayyad Mosque

History Facts

Where: Damascus, Syria
When: A sacred site from 2000 BC, a muslim monument since 7th Century AD
History: The mid point between Istanbul and Mecca and the burial site of the head of John the Baptist
Go There For: 
Beautiful minarets enjoyed with delicious blood oranges

Umayyad Mosque is a must see historical site in Damascus. This is ground that has been held sacred for at least three millennia. In the centre of the courtyard, there is an ablution fountain that is said to mark the midway point between Istanbul and Mecca. There are many minarets and pavilions on the Umayyad grounds that are worth a visit as well – the Minaret of the Bride, theMinaret of Qayt Bey, the Dome of the Clocks, the Minaret of Jesus and also the legendary burial site of the head of John the Baptist (from the famous Salome story). Fans of Arabic calligraphy will enjoy the Epigraphy Museum, also on the grounds.

History of the Mosque

Dating back to the second millennium BC, Pagans, Christians and Muslims worshipped at Umayyad, with a mix of various shrines, churches and muslim sacred areas. In 661 AD under the Umayyad Dynasty, after Damascus became the capital of the Islamic Empire, the mosque became a purely Muslim place of worship. Around 708 AD, Umayyad Caliph Khalild Ibn al-Walid began the work which would make Umayyad a monument to Islam on a grand scale – notably the greatest of that time.

Over the years, Umayyad has suffered through sackings, earthquakes, invasions and fires – always undergoing some sort of major transformation. The most recent disaster was in 1893 when a prayer destroyed the prayer hall. A major restoration was undertaken by the Ottomans, but much of the original beauty and decoration were lost in that undertaking. Umayyad remains an extremely unique monument to this day – perhaps because of all the different influences and modifications over the centuries.

Visiting the Umayyad Mosque Today

Women will be required to go to the “Putting On Special Clothes Room” to don a monk-like hijab that ties in front, covers hair, and reaches all the way down to the ankles. This robe is slightly overkill, as a headscarf would be sufficient covering for most outfits, but it may be meant for tourists summertime outfits, when some women may be foolishly wearing shorts. It’s recommended that you do bring a headscarf which is a much more fashionable option than this baggy robe, and you must remove your shoes as well.

The mosque is at it’s most beautiful around sunset when the setting sun makes the gold walls shimmer. You’ll see that the mosque is equal parts prayer site, community centre and playground. People are praying, gossiping, napping, enjoying the courtyard, having picnics or strolling. Crowds of young children play everywhere.

Other Things to See and Do

After the mosque, there’s nothing like some delicious blood orange juice. Blood oranges, or ruby oranges as they are more prudishly called in some countries, are deep red on the inside, and sweeter than regular oranges – delicious – and there are many carts that sell this juice outside the mosque. There are lots of souvenir and handcraft stands immediately around Umayyad, the wares are higher quality and authentically Syrian than deeper in the souk. You can find gorgeous damask tablecloths (where Damascus gets its name) for around US$12, other woven textiles and all sorts of silver jewelry. There are coffee pots, furniture, paintings, pottery, clothing and even an entire Bedouin tent available for sale – to bring Syria home after your travels.

Deeper into the souk, there are stalls that sell everything from enormous women’s underwear to bridal trousseaus or religious items. One stall sells decorations to welcome people home after pilgrimages to Mecca or for the Eid holiday – you can take home a “Welcomes You To Home After Pilgrimage!” banner. After wandering around a while – getting lost is highly recommended – you’ll see that the souk is loosely arranged by type of items. There is a spice souk, a gold souk – with blindingly shiny displays of gold jewelry, a silver souk, a rug souk, a metalworking souk, an area that sells water pipes, an office supply souk, a kitchen gadget souk, a tape souk, a tacky tourist souk . . . you get the idea.

Why not take home a colourful, large-size picture of Syrian President Basher Assad? Only 25 SL (about US 50 cents!). Salaam, ya ba! (Hello, my friend!)

Umayyad Mosque is open daily 9am – 5pm, and for prayers only on Friday 12:30-2pm.

More Information

Arch Net: Umayyad Mosque
Digital archive of many photos of the mosque

Guide Written by Erika Linden Green-Rafeh

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