It’s Friday and the weekly congregational prayer has just ended at the Umayyad Mosque, Syria’s most famous monument. As the faithful exit, they walk past an unassuming bit of masonry on the mosque’s southern wall: a Greek inscription above a blocked doorway, with a most unlikely message: “Thy Kingdom, O Christ, is an everlasting Kingdom, and Thy dominion endureth throughout all generations.” How did Psalm 145 end up on the outside of one of Islam’s holiest sites? The answer provides a fascinating window onto the history of the mosque, and Syria’s surprising religious landscape.
The Umayyad Mosque stands in the middle of Damascus’s old city, on a site that has been home to religious worship since the second century B.C. The Romans built a temple there dedicated to Jupiter; its western facade survives today as part of the entrance to the great Souq al-Hamidiyya. In the fourth century A.D., when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the temple became a church, which was famous for its prized relic—the head of John the Baptist.
Syria’s Umayyad Mosque
Another relic at the mosque: the head of Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.
In 636, Arab armies seized Damascus, and about three decades later the city became the capital of the fledgling Islamic state, now under the leadership of the Umayyad caliphs. Despite the changing of the guard, the church continued as the center of Christian worship. Indeed, Christians remained in the demographic majority long after the conquest, and many served the new Muslim empire much as they had the Byzantines long before.
Although Damascus was their capital, the Umayyads did not build an imperial mosque—at least at first. For the first 70 years after the conquest, they worshipped alongside Christians in the existing Byzantine church. Christians conducted their liturgies in the eastern end near the old altar, while Muslims prayed in the western end, now outfitted with a mihrab pointing toward Mecca. Scholars believe the blocked doorway with the surmounting Psalm probably served as the entrance for both groups: with Christians turning right and Muslims left into their respective halves of the church. There are similar examples of shared worship spaces throughout Syria and Palestine from the first two centuries of Islam.
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