Friday, August 21, 2009

Day 75, Damascus, Syria

We have finally left Europe and landed in the Middle East.
Marhaba from Damascus in Syria.

Syria has such a rich heritage...and hopefully we will be able to see some interesting places during our quick visit to this amazing country.
Legend has it that on a journey from Mecca, the Prophet Mohammed cast his gaze from the mountainside onto Damascus but refused to enter the city because he wanted to enter paradise only once – when he died!

'…no recorded event has occurred in the world but Damascus was in existence to receive news of it. Go back as far as you will into the vague past, there was always a Damascus… She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies.'....Mark Twain

The Grand Mosque of Damascus, known more commonly as the Umayyad Mosque, is one of the largest, oldest and holiest mosques in the world.
It now holds the Shrine of John the Baptist's head, and there are
man y rumors to explain how it came to be here. One is that Herod sent it to Damascus so that the Romans could be sure of his execution, while another is that when the Arabs took over the church, John the Baptist's blood bubbled and when the church was demolished his head was found underneath it with skin and hair!!

Damascus is believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world and the Umayyad Mosque stands on a site that has been considered sacred ground for at least 3,000 years!

It was 1000 BC at the latest when the Arameans built a temple here for Hadad, the god of storms and lightening. A basalt orthostat dating from this period, depicting a sphinx, has been discovered in the northeast corner of the mosque.

In the early first century AD, the Romans arrived and built a massive temple to Jupiter over the Aramean temple. The Roman temple stood upon a rectangular platform (temenos) that measured about 385 meters by 305 meters, with square towers at each corner. Parts of the outer walls of the temenos still survive, but virtually nothing remains of the temple itself.

In the late fourth century, the temple area became a Christian sacred site. The Temple of Jupiter was destroyed and a church dedicated to John the Baptist was built in its place. The church was (and is) believed to enshrine the head of the Baptist, and the site became an important pilgrimage destination in the Byzantine era.

Initially, the Muslim conquest of Damascus in 636 did not affect the church, as the building was shared by Muslim and Christian wor
shippers. It remained a church and continued to draw Christian pilgrims; the Muslims built a mud-brick structure against the southern wall where they could pray. Under the Umayyad caliph Al-Walid, however, the church was demolished. Between 706 and 715 the current mosque built in its place; an indemnity was paid to the Christians in compensation. According to legend, Al-Walid himself initiated the demolition by driving a golden spike into the church.

At that time, Damascus was one of the most important cities in the Middle East and it would later become the capital of the Umayyad caliphate
. The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus was accordingly a magnificent structure.

The work of thousands of craftsmen of Coptic, Persian, Indian and Byzantine origin, the Umayyad mosque complex included a prayer hall, a vast courtyard and hundreds of rooms for visiting pilgrims. The layout was based on the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina.

The triple-aisled prayer hall, 160 meters long, was covered with a tiled wooden roof and supported on reused columns taken from
Roman temples in the region as well as the Church of Mary at Antioch. The facade of the courtyard and its arcades were covered in colored marble, glass mosaic and gold. The mosque may have had the largest golden mosaic in the world, at over 4,000 square meters. The minaret structures of the mosque developed out of the corner towers of the ancient Roman temenos.

The Umayyad Mosque has been rebuilt several times due to fires in 1069, 1401 and 1893. The marble paneling dates from after the f ire of 1893, which was especially damaging to the great mosaics. In 2001 Pope John Paul II visited the mosque, primarily to visit the relics of John the Baptist. It was the first time a pope paid a visit to a mosque!!

Look, there is the Tekkiye Mosque, also known as Tekkiya as Suleimaniyya.

If the mosque reminds you of Istanbul, it's for good reason: the fine Ottoman mosque was built at the order of Suleiman the Magnificent and planned by the famed architect Sinan. The mosque was built mostly by Christian masons and architects who had converted to Islam.

The buildings that surround the mosque's courtyard were also built and planned by Sinan. They were built originally as accommodation for the Dervishes, famous for their religious chants and "whirling." It was used later as a khan to house pilgrims who were on their way to Mecca.

Wow, this place really has a great deal of historical significance!!

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