A competition essay: Discuss the historical significance of the Umayyad Mosque

Significance can be defined either as the quality of being worthy of attention or the meaning to be found in words or events. And while history has always meant different things for different people, it is fundamentally about drawing lessons for humanity to consider. UNESCO’s criteria for a historically significant building is presented in Appendix 1 but these can be more widely broken down into: contemporary, causal, pattern, symbolic, revelatory and present significance. In terms of the building however, it could be one of two Umayyad mosques. The Great Mosque of Damascus, considered the fourth-holiest place in Islam, that is most likely being referred to in the question; and the Great Mosque of Aleppo, in situ of the old walled City UNESCO heritage site, of which this essay will discuss. In October 2012, UNESCO called it, “one of the most beautiful mosques in the Muslim world,” the following year, on the 24th April, the minaret was toppled and even more recently in January 2017, the BBC’s Middle-East editor Jeremy Bowen paid a visit to (what was left of) the Umayyad Mosque. However, this essay will be a discussion of the extent to which a building’s historical significance can fade into a relative obscurity worthy of Ozymandias and the lessons to be drawn.

Despite the apparent sharp shift the spread of Islam to Byzantium represented, the Umayyad mosque did not mark a major turning point in architectural history. The Great Mosque of Aleppo was built – within what was previously the Hellenistic agora – on the cemetery land of the Cathedral of Saint Helena (of which a hemicycle remains) using materials from the Church of Cyrus in 706 AD by the Caliph al-Walid. The building demonstrates a Classical Revival in its relief ornaments, cusped arches and continuous mouldings.  The anthropologist Yasser Tabbaa deemed the mosque a continuation of ancient North Syrian Churches and an, “entirely localised phenomenon.” Such a claim is evident in the Umayyad builders following the ashlar building traditions of North Syria and likely deriving the mihrab from the apse of the Syrian Christian Churches. The Great Mosque of Damascus was built directly using a cathedral belonging to the Christian era of Roman rule in Syria; the architect recycled the cathedral’s arcades, blocked up the west door and pierced the north wall with doorways. Historically, the Saudi Arabs did not a strong architectural tradition that suited the needs of an empire so they adopted the methods of the Byzantine emperors. The Umayyad model that developed was compact, axially controlled and followed the building traditions of Late Antiquity. While the building is significant in that it was an alteration from churches to a mosque, its historical insignificance lies in the lack of a break from the pattern of the Byzantine religious architecture style. Although not revolutionary, the Great Mosque of Aleppo established the hypostyle structure of the mosque.

The Umayyad Mosque’s causal significance is important as it, the minaret especially, is an integral part of Islamic architecture, religious architecture and architecture generally. The sheer scale of the Minaret makes it historically significant: 45 metres high, consisting of 6 sections and 174 steps. It was built in the 11th Century by the architect Hasan Ibn Mufarraj who employed metal and lead brackets in the foundations – in itself an engineering feat – and divided the veranda from the shaft with a cornice. Mufarraj was also responsible for the trefoil and polyfoil pointed arches. Although the Ottoman ‘pencil’ minaret came to supersede the Umayyad Mosque’s square-based minaret – purporting the case it is causally insignificant – the immense elaboration of the extra-fine archivolts pertaining to the Ottoman tradition added to the mosque in the 15th Century suggests appreciation for the Umayyad mosque’s place in Islamic architecture. The Mamluks and the mosque introduced the skillfully carved minbar (under the Sultan Qalbam), the yellow stone mihrab (under al-Nasir Muhammad) and the masqura to Islamic architecture. The archaeologist Ernst Hersefield went as far as labelling the four facades gothic and a product of the Mediterranean. It is clear that the Umayyad mosque was an inspiration to Islamic, even European architecture and is an ancient wonder in the modern world. The mosque still appears to possess a preliminary finish because of the un-toothed tools used in tis construction.

The Great Mosque of Aleppo’s contemporary historical significance is expressed through its location and materials. Syria was the hub of the Umayyad empire and Aleppo was the frontier; a base to attack the Byzantines. Therefore, Aleppo and its mosque were important to the Umayyads. The building’s historical significance is conveyed especially by its connection with the Great Muslim Commander Emir Nur al-Din who fought the crusaders, rebuilt the sacked mosque in 1158 AD and whose name still bears weight. For instance, the Islamist group Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki, active in the Syrian Civil War in Aleppo since 2011, is named after Nur ad-Din. The mosque was also significant to its contemporaries because of the local wood decorated with geometric carvings like stars and polygons by the master craftsman Ibn Ali Al-Mausili – as this plain style of architecture carried an appurtenance appeal.  The mosque’s striking resemblance to the Umayyad Great Mosque of Damascus in its plan and architectural forms – e.g. its heavy masonry arcades and single-domed ablution fountains – contributes to its contemporary significance. The historian Ibn al-Shihna wrote, in the 15th Century, “The Great Mosque of Aleppo,” now constructed of fireproof stone vaults, “rivalled that of Damascus in its decoration, painting and mosaic.” The mosque’s masqurah holds the Prophet Zakariya’s remains in a tomb decorated with silver embroideries. The testimony to the bygone Umayyad civilization (one of the most important empires in history) the mosque bears and that it represents a masterpiece of local craftsmanship accentuates its historical significance. Nevertheless, Damascus was the political capital of the dynasty so its buildings were more significant to contemporaries than Aleppo. The Great Mosque of Damascus also holds the remains of the Prophet Zakariya’s Son, John the Baptist, ruling out the Great Mosque of Aleppo being more sacred.

The revelatory significance of the Umayyad mosque is extensive. The beveled ashlar of the mosque (or opus isodomum as Vitruvius calls it) reveals a lot about the stereotomy of the North Syrian tradition. It also implies the masons were considerably trained as the ashlar is finely dressed and beveled along the coursing. The lack of a single architect being solely responsible for the mosque conveys the disparities between western and eastern architecture practices. If the architecture of Islam is considered to be buildings produced by the followers of the Prophet Muhammad, then a ritualistic approach to the architectural features can be taken. The arcaded porticos correlate to the domestic courtyard of palm trees outside the Prophet Muhammad’s home. The minbar was incorporated in the mosque to represent the three steps from which the Prophet Muhammad preached. Finally, the minaret is mainly for convenience for the call to prayer five times a day. The Prophet Muhammad’s house was a meeting place of the faithful just like the early mosques. No formal priesthood existed, there was no Christian-esque sanctuary for the dwelling of a deity. What credits this most, however, is the mosque’s humble label as an ulu Jami or Friday mosque (particularly prominent in the 700s to the 1100s). The haram sanctuary that was built, the East Hall especially, with its 18 quadrangular columns and cross-vaults formed the basis of 11th Century Islamic architecture and its character. And so, the Umayyad mosque has an exceptionally revelatory historical significance in regards to Muslim culture.

There is a mixed symbolic historical significance to the Aleppo Umayyad mosque. On the one hand, the religious and cultural centrality of the edifice is symbolic of the end of the Byzantine era and Muslim sovereignty – evident in the Hellenistic buildings it incorporated. Relatively, however, compared to the Alhambra Palace, the mosque is not associated with the Golden Age of Islam that came to instigate the Renaissance through Spain. The prince Sayf al-Dawla conquered the city in 944 A.D. and introduced an economic and political renaissance to Aleppo. However, the Moors’ Islamic architecture in Spain was more articulated and is therefore more significant for engendering the Renaissance.

The present historical significance of the Great Mosque of Aleppo has fluctuated. The Citadel of Aleppo, dating back to the 3rd millennium B.C., is one of the oldest and largest castles in the world. The minaret was the earliest extant monument in the city wholly preserved with more relief ornamental design than any other Islamic structure in Aleppo. E.J. Brill’s First Encyclopedia of Islam referred to is as, “unique in the whole of Muslim architecture.” The mosque is also famous for its black and white geometric stone paving. In October 2012, UNESCO went a step further calling it, “one of the most beautiful mosques in the Muslim world.” The following year, on the 24th April 2013, the minaret was reduced to rubble. The Byzantine-inspired mosaic is covered by sandbags and debris. There is wide speculation about how the minaret was destroyed. The state news agency Sana accused al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra group of blowing up the 11th-Century minaret of the Umayyad Mosque. However, Aleppo-based activist Mohammed al-Khatib said that a tank shell had “totally destroyed” the minaret. Reports say some ancient artefacts have also been looted, including a box said to contain a strand of the Prophet Muhammad’s hair. It seems most likely that the minaret was hit by Syrian tank fire. At the entrance to the remains of the Umayyad Mosque, however, a nineteen eighty four-esque sign shows President Bashar al-Assad victorious. This reaffirms the notion that, “History is written by the victors,” and that in the long-term none of this will come to matter.

Aleppo has been through Assyrians, the Neo-Babylonians, the Persians, Alexander the Great, the Umayyads, the Mongols, the Mamaluks, the Ottomans and the French Mandate. Perhaps, this perpetual shift from destruction to renewal is simply a part of the general cycle of history. The damage done to religious cultural sites is tragic, but what is even more tragic is that those who used to pray in this destroyed mosque are now dead.  W.B. Yeats concurred with this cyclical theory of time, idealizing it similarly himself: “To lords and ladies of Byzantium/ Of what is past, or passing, or to come.”

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