Qantara Qantara

Mosaics of the Great Mosque of Damascus, or Umayyad Mosque

  • Name : Mosaics of the Great Mosque of Damascus, or Umayyad Mosque
  • Place : Damascus, Syria
  • Construction date/period : circa 715
  • Construction materials : Predominantly glass paste tesserae
  • Architectural pattern : Mosaïque en pâte de verre essentiellement
  • Recipient/Mandatory : Al-Wâlid Ier (705-715)

The Umayyads used various decoration techniques to embellish their mosques. In the Great Mosque of Damascus, the decoration, for the most part, comprises mosaics, which adorn the upper parts of the building, while the lower sections of the walls were clad with marble panels. The same division is found in Byzantine churches.

The mosaics of the Great Mosque of Damascus are, together with those of the Dome of the Rock of Jerusalem, the best preserved examples of this form of art under the Umayyads, but are only a remnant of the entire original decoration, most of which was destroyed by several fires, the last of which occurred in 1893. Although there were still a few fragments visible early in the twentieth century, the most important mosaics that can be seen today were first uncovered in 1929, when the plaster covering them - applied by the Ottomans - began to be removed. The main Umayyad-era mosaics, created circa 715, that have survived are in the western vestibule, in the western portico of the courtyard and on the façade, and on the façade of the transept of the mosque. The repairs carried out on the mosaics over the centuries altered their original appearance very little. However, the twentieth-century restorations were not always undertaken with great scientific rigour. In places, large blanks were covered in a more or less felicitous imitation of Umayyad mosaics. These restorations are generally easy to identify because of the dividing lines if not by their style and colour, often different from the older mosaics.

The decoration is essentially comprised of landscapes in which images of towns or isolated houses take a central place, as well as of groups of geometrical and plant ornamental motifs. The subjects stand out against a golden background and the predominating colours are most certainly blue and green.

The most important remaining panel, known as the "Barada" because the river shown all along this mosaic is often identified as the one that crosses Damascus, measures approximately 34.5 metres by 7.15 metres. It is located in the western portico. The towns and villages are formed of various architectural elements assembled somewhat curiously; many varieties of trees stand between them. The same subjects were reproduced everywhere, such as on the transept façade, where two architectural works still remain. Several hypotheses have been put forward to interpret this decoration, which may consist of images of paradise, as was often the case in other Byzantine buildings where this type of subject was also depicted.

The artists who created this decorative work were clearly trained in Byzantine art, and may have been local Christian or Muslim artists. However, precedence should perhaps be given to the suggestion that Byzantine artists were at work here. Although the style of the Damascus mosaics and their repertory of ornamental forms as well as the images of landscapes are clearly based on Byzantine and late classical models, the iconography as a whole is nevertheless different from that of Byzantine churches. The most striking difference is the absence of humans and animals in the illustrations, which implies of course the absence of narrative scenes. This is one of the first examples of the application of the Islamic ban on the representation of animate creatures. Here it should be remembered that this ban concerned sacred art, profane art being mainly figurative.

Thus Christian art of late Antiquity and Byzantine art both provided forms and styles, and sometimes even artists to the Arab world, who made use of them to develop a new art according to their own rules and tastes.

BIBLIOGRAPHY RELATED TO THE MONUMENT

Finster, B., “Die Mosaiken der Umayyadenmoschee von Damaskus”, Kunst des Orients, 7, 1970–1971, p. 83–141.

Gautier-Van Berchem, M., “The Mosaics of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and of the Great Mosque in Damascus” in Early Muslim Architecture, Vol. 1, Oxford, 1969, Clarendon Press.

REFERENCE BIBLIOGRAPHY

Gibb, H. A. R. “Arab-Byzantine Relation under the Umayyad Caliphate”,  Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 11, 1958, p. 219–33.

Grabar, O., “Islamic Art and Byzantium”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 18, 1964, p.  69–88.

Grabar, O., The Formation of Islamic Art, New Haven, London, 1987, Yale University Press.



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