Umayyad Art and Architecture (A.D. 661–750)

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Umayyad period Arab mosaic

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art : “The Umayyad period is often considered the formative period in Islamic art. At first, even though Arabic became the official language and Islam the principal religion of the diverse lands unified under Umayyad rule, artists continued to work in their established manner. The main artistic influence came from the late antique classical naturalistic tradition, which had been prevalent on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. This was also supplemented by the more formal modes developed by the Byzantines and Sasanians, a factor that especially affected metalwork, textiles, and the depiction of animal, vegetal, and figural motifs. With time, however, artists developed new techniques, forms, and decorative conventions that distinguished their works from earlier ones. Thus, through a process of adoption, adaptation, and creation, a new sense of artistic expression emerged that became distinctly Islamic in character shortly after the demise of the Umayyad dynasty.” [Source: Suzan Yalman, Department of Education, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Based on original work by Linda Komaroff \^/]

“As with the arts, the Umayyad period was also critical in the development of Islamic architecture. While earlier architectural traditions continued, the requirements of the new religion and customs of the new Arab rulers necessitated a different usage of space. In the case of religious buildings, the Umayyads often constructed their monuments on sites of historical or symbolic significance. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (691), the first major Umayyad architectural undertaking completed under the patronage of the caliph cAbd al-Malik (r. 685–705), was built on a prominent site formerly occupied by Solomon's Temple and later associated with Muhammad's ascent to heaven. Other renowned religious buildings from the Umayyad period date from the reign of al-Walid (r. 705–15) and include the enlarged mosque in Medina (706–10), the former house of Muhammad. Also significant are the mosques of Damascus (706), where the site of the former Roman temple and fourth-century Byzantine church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist was transformed into the congregational mosque of the Umayyad capital, and of Jerusalem (709–15). In terms of secular architecture, Umayyad desert palaces such as Mshatta, Qasr cAmra (Jordan), cAnjar (Lebanon), Khirbat al-Mafjar (Palestine), and Qasr al-Hayr East and West (Syria) (all ca. 700–750), are a testimony to the wealth of their patrons and the creativity of Umayyad architects.

Websites and Resources: Islamic Art and Architecture: Islamic Arts & Architecture / ; British Museum Islamic Art Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Islamic Art Louvre Louvre ; Museum without Frontiers ; Architecture of Islam ; Images of mosques all over the world, from the Aga Khan Documentation Center at MIT ; Islamic Images ; Victoria & Albert Museum ; Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar ; CalligraphyIslamic, lots of Islamic calligraphy ; Islamic History: History of Islam: An encyclopedia of Islamic history ; Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World ; Sacred Footsetps ; Islamic History Resources ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook ; Islamic History ; Muslim Heritage ; Chronological history of Islam


Umayyad garden

Damascus was established as a city around green oasis, called Al-Ghutah, on the Barada River around 2500 B.C. and has been occupied by Arameans, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Nabateans, Greeks, Romans, Syrian Christians, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottoman Turks, Frenchmen and Syrians. It was conquered by David, Alexander the Great, and Tamlerlane. Saladin is buried here.

Damascus was described by the ancient Egyptians 4000 year ago and was powerful enough to resist the Assyrians. It is so old it was mentioned in Genesis (Jerusalem doesn’t appear until the Book of Joshua). Abraham was trying to get to Damascus when he began his journey from Mesopotamia to the Holy Land; St. Paul had his religious experience on the road here; and Muslims pilgrims on their way to Mecca during the Hajj, gathered here for the long, final caravan trek (later a train trip) across the desert to the Holy Islamic city.

No one sure how the city got its name. Some scholars say Damascus was named after Damaskos, the son of the Greek God Hermes. Others attribute the name to the myth of Askos or that of Damas, the god who accompanied Dionysian and offered him a skene (skin) (thus the name "Damaskene"). Other still say it was named after Damakina, the wife of the water god, or was derived from the word for "The Watered Land."

The Old City of Damascus (eastern side of central Damascus) is an area or narrow maze-like streets and alleys, beautiful architecture and closely-packed brown buildings. Located within the old city walls this part of Damascus has been described as a "Comrade of Time" and an "Ever Young Arab City." The Wall of Damascus (around parts of the Old City) once completely surrounded the old City of Damascus. The original wall was built by the Romans but over the centuries it has been dismantled and rebuilt several times. Large portions of it still stand around three gates—Bab Shaarqi, Bab Tuma and Bab Kissan. Glimpses of the ramparts that once supported the City Wall can also be seen. Bab Sharqi, the most important and best-preserved gate of ancient Damascus, is characterized by its beautiful architecture. Tetrapil Archway is midway between Bab Sharqi and bab Jabieh, near al-Maryamyah Church.

Omayyad (Umayyad) Mosque

Omayyad Mosque

Omayyad Mosque (near Al-Hamidieaj Souq in Damascus) is regarded a the forth holiest Muslim shrine after the Kaaba in Mecca, Muhammad's Grave in Medina and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Built between A.D. 707 and 714 by the great Caliph Al-Walid Ibn Abdel Malek, it a masterpeice of Islamic architecture built on a site once occupied by an immense Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter and a Byzantine cathedral honoring John the Baptist.

Also known as the Great Mosque of Damascus, it features walls covered with splendid Byzantine-style mosaics of natural scenes with trees made from glass placed against a gold background. It also boasts three classical Byzantine-style domes, rows and rows of columns, large tower-like minarets, splendid colored and gilded glass mosaics, and an enormous courtyard surrounded by pillars and arches and fronted by a 400-foot-long fascade.

Set between two pillars is a domed shrine, reputed to be the final resting place for the head of St. John the Baptist and the Prophet’s grandson and Shiite martyr Hussein. One can also see relics from the ancient Temple of Jupiter. Sparrows and pigeon dart in an out the eaves and Roman capitals. The walls, ceilings, arches and columns are decorated with designs similar to those found on oriental carpets. The courtyard is ringed by elaborate mosaics depicting heaven. Many Muslims believe that Jesus will make his second coming at its minaret. The 14th century octagonal treasury was used to store public funds.


“Founded during the Umayyad period under Caliph Walid Ibn Abd Al-Malak (ruled 705-715),, the city of Anjar is both reminiscent of the palace-cities of ancient times and a a unique testimony to city planning under the Umayyads. According to UNESCO: “Anjar bears outstanding witness to the Umayyad civilization. Anjar is an example of an inland commercial centre, at the crossroads of two important routes: one leading from Beirut to Damascus and the other crossing the Bekaa and leading from Homs to Tiberiade. The site of this ancient city was only discovered by archaeologists at the end of the 1940s. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website =]


“Excavations revealed a fortified city surrounded by walls and flanked by forty towers, a rectangular area (385 x 350 m). Dominated by gates flanked by porticos, an important North-South axis and a lesser East-West axis, superposed above the main collectors for sewers, divide the city into four equal quadrants. Public and private buildings are laid out according to a strict plan: the great palace of the Caliph and the Mosque in the South-East quarter occupies the highest part of the site, while the small palaces (harems) and the baths are located in the North-East quarter to facilitate the functioning and evacuation of waste waters. Secondary functions and living quarters are distributed in the North-West and South-West quarters. The ruins are dominated by spectacular vestiges of a monumental tetrapyle, as well as by the walls and colonnades of the Umayyad palace, three levels of which have been preserved. These structures incorporate decorative or architectonical elements of the Roman era, but are also noteworthy for the exceptional plasticity of the contemporary decor within the construction. =

“Anjar was never completed, enjoying only a brief existence. In 744, Caliph Ibrahim, son of Walid, was defeated and afterwards the partially destroyed city was abandoned. Vestiges of the city of Anjar therefore constitute a unique example of 8th century town planning. Built at the beginning of the Islamic period, it reflects this transition from a protobyzantine culture to the development of Islamic art and this through the evolution of construction techniques and architectonical and decorative elements that may be viewed in the different monuments. =

Dome of the Rock

Dome of the Rock

Dome of the Rock (in the middle of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) is world’s oldest and, in the minds of many, most beautiful mosque. Known to Muslims as the Mosque of Omar, it is an eight-sided structure with a golden dome that was built by the Umayyad Muslim Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik between A.D. 688 and 692. The first great building built in the Muslim world, it symbolizes the ascent that all Muslims make to God, who is represented by the circle of mosque’s great golden dome.

The Dome of the Rock was the first real mosque and it set the tone for all mosques that were to follow. Simple and austere, it contains no human figures and instead was decorated with Qur’anic verses written with Arabic calligraphy. The great dome suggests balance and space. Lawrence Wright wrote in The New Yorker, “Here the Arab love of mystical geometry and intricate ornament has been given its greatest expression. The structure...may be imagined as three rectangles, encompassing a circle. Hushed, sombre, but almost always overwhelmingly sensual, the chamber imbues one with a sense of religious awe that few holy places in the world can match.”

The rock inside the temple under the dome is a room-size slab of weathered sandstone sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians. Many say it is where God stood when he created the world, where Adam was made and where Cain killed Abel. A golden dome sits over the rock and a wooden balustrade surrounds it. Pillars of marble and porphyry support the inner dome. Surrounding it are marble floors, large red and green oriental carpets and a neck-high wall that children need a boost to see over but tall people can reach over and touch the rock. There isn't a whole lot of standing room between the wall and the circle of blue and white alabaster columns and striped arches that support the wooden inner surface of the dome. Illuminating the rock and the golden swirling tiles above the arches are rays of lights colored by stained glass windows in the dome.

El Aqsa Mosque (near the Dome of the Rock) is the largest mosque in Israel.Constructed by the Umayyad Muslims in A.D. 715, rebuilt several times and extensively renovated in the 1930s, it is built on the site a simple wooden mosque raised Caliph Omar in the 640s. It lies right next to the Western Wall and is where, Muslims believe Muhammad tethered his horse before he rose to heaven. Al-Aqsa Mosque is said to rest on the place where the scales of justice will be set up on the Judgement Day. It is vast and airy and filled with marble columns and pigeons. It is used as a place of worship by local Muslims. Open to the public when prayers are not in session, it boasts a silver dome made with lead and long stable-style blocks with hidden sanctuaries. It doesn’t have any minarets.

Umar and the Dome of the Rock

Umar entering Jerusalem

Oleg Grabar wrote in “The Formation of Islamic Art”: “The conquest of Jerusalem by the Arabs in 637 was a major moment in the conquest of Syria. The Christians demanded the presence of the caliph Umar himself for the signing of the treaty of capitulation, and once the treaty was signed Umar, accompanied by the patriarch Sophronius, was led through the city. As this tour of the Holy City was endowed by later writers with a series of more or less legendary incidents, it is not easy to ascertain what happened. Most sources, early or late, Muslim or not, seem to agree on two points. [Source:Oleg Grabar, “The Formation of Islamic Art”, Yale University Press, 1973, beginning with pp. 43- 71.Oleg Grabar (1929-2011) was a French-born art historian and archeologist and professor at Harvard |]

“First, Umar was intent on seeing one specific site in the Holy City. All sources agree on that, and, in later traditions his quest and the patriarch Sophronius's opposition to it were transformed into a dramatic contest. Second, the early sources refer not to the Rock as the main object of Umar's quest, but to the Haram area in general, which they saw as the site of the Jewish Temple, the mihrab Dawud ("sanctuary of David") of the Qur’an (38.20-21) or the naos ton loudaion ("temple of the Jews") of Greek sources. The latter mention only Umar's interest in the area of the Jewish Temple and add that a Muslim sanctuary was built on its emplacement. Although mentioned in the tradition transmitted by the Muslim historian Tabari, the Rock plays no part in the prayer and recitations made by the caliph when he reached the Haram area, and in this tradition Umar rejects the suggestion made to him by Ka'b, a Jewish convert, that the Rock be on the qiblah side of the Muslim sanctuary, that is, that the faithful at prayer turn themselves toward it, because this would be reverting to a Jewish practice. |

“In these texts then, the Rock, together with the whole Haram area, appears primarily as the symbol of the Jewish Temple, but the Rock itself was not taken into any particular consideration by Umar. It may be that Umar was merely looking for a large area on which to build a mosque and that Sophronius used the Haram's Jewish background to persuade the caliph to build the mosque in the empty space of the Haram. But it is perhaps more likely, in the face of the enormous impact of Jewish traditions on early Islam and specifically on Umar at the time of the conquest of Jerusalem, that the caliph was genuinely interested in reviving the ancient Jewish holy site, inasmuch as it had been the first Muslim qiblah. At any rate, the Muslims took over the Haram area with a definite knowledge and consciousness of its significance in Jewish tradition, but with very few clear Muslim associations. |

Inside the Dome of the Rock in 1910

“Later chroniclers very clearly point out that Umar withstood pressures to transform the site into a major center of Muslim worship. This fact shows, on the one hand, that Umar was pressured by Jewish and Christian groups to take up their religious quarrels. By wisely remaining aloof, the caliph emphasized the unique character of the new faith in the face of the two older ones. But, on the other hand, in building anew on the Temple area, even though in primitive fashion, the Muslims committed a political act: taking possession for the new faith of one of the most sacred spots on earth and altering the pattern imposed on that spot by the Christian domination, without restoring it to its Jewish splendor. In all these undertakings the Rock itself played but a minor part...Some sixty years after the conquest of Jerusalem, however, the Rock had become the center of the whole area.” |

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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