The site of the Mosque was originally the Romans’ Temple of Jupiter, then the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist (whose head is allegedly buried inside in an alarmingly large coffin) and finally, in 715, construction of the Mosque was completed.
As well as being the fourth holiest Islamic site, the Mosque is famous for the mosaics decorating the walls of its huge courtyard.
This photo shows the main entrance to the prayer hall which was originally the cathedral as can be seen from the overall shape. Walk around the outside of the mosque walls and you can see many pieces of carved marble and even the odd Roman arch now incorporated into the outer mosque walls.
One of the original doorways to the Byzantine cathedral, now blocked, still has its original inscription in Greek that reads: “Thy Kingdom, O Christ, is an everlasting Kingdom, and Thy dominion endureth throughout all generations.”
Within the courtyard is the Mosque’s Treasury building which was raised off the ground on what are clearly Roman columns as a security measure.
Inside the mosque it is always busy with whole families praying at the shrine of John the Baptist (who also features in the Koran), informal Koran ‘classes’ taking place, individuals sitting cross-legged in front of Koran stands and rocking slightly as they read their holy book, and pilgrims from all over the Islamic world marvelling at the beauty of the courtyard and the prayer hall. We have never seen such a busy mosque and, as non-believers, we could only enter outside prayer times so can only guess at how packed it must be when the call to prayer rings forth.
They even have a different approach to the call to prayer at this mosque with one man beginning the call, and then a group of voices responding – it is very harmonious and a welcome change from the strangulated version we hear all too often in Turkey.
In the twelfth century an Islamic scholar wrote:
“In Damascus, there is a mosque that has no equal in the world”. (Al-Adrissi, 1154).
We think that is still true.