Qantara Qantara

The Umayyads (661-750)

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In 632, the death of the prophet Mohammed, their spiritual and temporal leader, must have left the young Muslim community in some dismay. The lack of any indications with regard to the choice of his successor led to the first political splits between those who favoured a succession within the Prophet’s[1]  family, and those who desired a successor chosen on merit[2]. Following the reign of the first four caliphs, known as the “Rightly guided” (rashidûn), the general Mu‘awiya took control and in 661 set up the first hereditary caliphate of the Muslim world. Whereas the previous leaders, caught up in their conquests, had barely had the time to foster artistic development, this first caliphate dynasty was a true period of germination for the art and civilization of the Islamic world.

First of all, the Umayyads led a symbolic conquest of their territory by means of a skillfully orchestrated architectural programme. The shifting of the capital to Damascus in Syria, in the first years of the Umayyad caliphate, is evidence of a will to break with the communities in the Hejaz, which were still resentful of the Umayyad family’s seizure of power. The setting up of the caliphate in the formerly byzantine and predominantly Christian area of Syria was a determining influence on the first Islamic art and on its society. The first Umayyad caliphs initially used the structures of the previous local administration, as well as the pre-existing buildings : the Friday prayer took place in the church of St John the Baptist, in Damascus. While Arabic was carried through the Dâr al-islam by the Koran[3] and by troops, it was Greek and Persian, used in the management of the empire and in Sassanid and Byzantine customs, that progressively became the norm among the caliphs. It was not until 694/695 that ‘Abd al-Malik (r. 685-705) carried a reform imposing the Arabic language in the administration. This new departure can be observed on ancient coins. Whereas the first dinars copied Byzantine coins by portraying on the obverse a full-length figure in Greek dress, bordered by an inscription in Arabic, the post-reform dinars are aniconic, and decorated with the declaration of faith in Arabic. This act is certainly evidence of a strong will to affirm an Islamic identity foreign to the local populations. It also was doubtless intended to solve the problems caused by the similarity of Islamic and Byzantine currencies, for some chronicles report that the Byzantines had gone as far as to threaten the Caliph that they would seize the dinars and put Christian images on them.

The advent of the Umayyads did not stem the conquests, which accelerated under the reign of the calpih al-Walîd (r. 705-715). All of North Africa was taken, and as of 711 the Straits of Gibraltar were also crossed, opening up a breach as far as Merovingian France. To the east, eastern Iran and Sindh were gradually conquered. These vast territories afforded the Arabs wealth and raw materials but also numerous slaves, a workforce that allowed an opulent ruling class, as well as a heterogeneous society within which new non-Arab converts were considered inferior, to flourish. This latter situation would lead to the overthrow of the dynasty.

Through their architectural and iconographic programmes, the Umayyads asserted their dominion not only over lands, but also over peoples’ minds. ‘Abd al-Malik was responsible for the creation of one of Islam’s first religious monuments, the Dome of the Rock, erected in 691 on the terrace of the temple of Jerusalem, site of Isaac’s sacrifice and of Mohammed’s night journey[4]. This octagonal central-plan structure crowned by a dome has a double ambulatory that highlights the Miraj rock. This plan sets this memorial in the tradition of Christian martyria and baptistries. The interior is decorated with marble veneer and with gold-ground mosaics, the mastery of these byzantine techniques certainly being evidence of the work of local Christian craftsmen. Its iconography too is a affirmation of the new religion’s sway : overflowing vases surmounted with winged crowns (Sassanid royal motifs) can be seen next to Byzantine pendilia (crown pendants). In the vaults unfurls Islam’s first monumental inscription in proto-Kufic script, created with gold tile and containing verses affirming the divine unity and the place of Jesus as prophet and messenger in Islam, which was most probably intended to strengthen the faith of the newly converted. It seems that this structure was part of a global plan designed by ‘Abd al-Malik for the holy city, taking in the temple esplanade, the palace and the al-Aqsa mosque, whose mihrâb was aligned with the Dome of the Rock until the eighth and ninth century modifications.

The great mosque of Damascus attests to the pursuit of this policy of symbolically appropriating territory under the caliphate of al-Walîd, built as it is over the city’s main church dedicated to St John the Baptist, which in turn was on the site of an ancient temple to Jupiter. Its Arab-type plan, its dimensions and some of its morphological characteristics are related to the temenos of the Roman temple in which it is situated. With its colonnaded courtyard, the prayer hall consists of three aisles parallel to the qibla wall, crossed by a transverse aisle leading to the mihrâb. The facade of the prayer hall overlooking the courtyard, with its double elevation reminiscent of Roman aqueducts, is decorated with magnificent gold-ground mosaics: prayer-booths and shell-decorated palaces set in a lush landscape, where the volume of the foliage and depth effects are delicately created with graduated shading. This amazing decor, whose significance is still the subject of debate[5], follows the tradition of late Antiquity. Here, as before, the mastery of the mosaic-technique points perhaps to the presence of Christian artists taking part in the construction.

Lastly, it is certainly civil architecture that best conveys the essence of Umayyad art and its origins. We know little about the urban palaces of this period, but a group of non-urban buildings are dotted along the trade routes of today’s Syro-Jordanian desert[6]. Their purpose is not always understood; whether agricultural enclosures or holiday resorts, they may be a trace of the Umayyad’s itinerant court, and their desire to leave on this freshly conquered territory the visible stamp of their authority. The décor of the bath complex of Qusayr `Amra built by al-Walid, lends weight to such an interpretation: in its apse, a Muslim sovereign enthroned in the Byzantine manner faces the sovereigns he has vanquished, identified by Greek and Arabic inscriptions as the Byzantine Emperor, the Visigoth king, the Sassanid Emperor, the Negus of Ethiopia, the Emperor of China and the Khaqan of the Turks. Whether symbolic filiation or a fantasized depiction of the greatness of Islam, the fact remains that the styles of representation and the techniques of execution found in this decor are in perfect continuity with the preceding periods. The same is true of the mosaics and numerous stuccoes of Khirbat al-Mafjar[7], where figurative and vegetal representations, sometimes close to Palmyrian art, blend together. Here too the various influences are evidence of the collaboration of artists hailing from different regions. Only the increasingly prevalent appearance of Arabic in the decors, together with the development of a certain stylization, serve to distinguish Umayyad art from the art of Late Antiquity[8].

In 750, a revolution led by the descendants of the prophet’s uncle Abbas (the Abbasids) brought the Umayyad caliphate to a bloody end. Only one member of the family escaped massacre and managed, thanks to the support of tribes allied to his mother, to take refuge in Spain, where his descendants would later revive the Umayyad caliphate.

J. H.


Bosworth, C.E., Les Dynasties musulmanes, Arles,  1996, Actes Sud, p.25-30.

Ettinghausen, R., Grabar, O., The Art and Architecture of Islam: 650-1250, Londres, Yale University Press.

Grabar, O., The Shape of the Holy : Early Islamic Jerusalem, Princeton, 1996, Princeton University Press.

Grabar, O., La Formation de l’art Islamique, Paris, 2000, Flammarion.

Hawting, G.R., « Umayyade », in Encyclopédie de l’islam, t. X, p. 906-914.

Rosen-Ayalon, M., Art et archéologie islamique en Palestine, Paris, 2002,  Presses universitaires de France.


[1] Supporters of ‘Alî, they are known as Shiites.

[2] Sunnites.

[3] According to tradition, the first standardisation of the Koran dates from the Caliphate of `Uthmân (r. 644-656), who sent a copy of it to each of the large cities of the Empire.

[4] Called mi‘râj, this journey took the prophet from Mecca to Jerusalem, and thence to Paradise where he contemplated the face of God, and to hell, astride a winged horse, Buraq. It is not however known whether this association between the rock and the mi‘râj existed at the time of the Dome’s construction.

[5] Certain scholars see in it an evocation of paradise.

[6] Among them are the Mshatta Palace (Jordan), whose façade is preserved in the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin, Qasr Kharana (Jordan) and Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbî (Syria, 724-727).

[7] 2nd quarter of the 8th century, reign of al-Walid II, near Jericho.

[8] Bowl with moulded decoration, Susa, 7th – 8th century, Paris, Louvre museum,  inv. MAO S. 376.