The Great Mosque of Damascus, also known as the Umayyad Mosque, in Damascus was completed around 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 rigor. 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 color, 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 colors 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 meters by 7.15 meters. 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.
Mosaics from the Louvre
Shrine of St John the Baptist
In an address to the citizens of Damascus, the Umayyad caliph al-Walid I (r. 705–715) proclaimed: "Inhabitants of Damascus, four things give you a marked superiority over the rest of the world: your climate, your water, your fruits, and your baths. To these I wanted to add a fifth: this mosque." The construction of the Great Mosque (or Friday Mosque) of Damascus was a means of establishing the permanence of the Umayyad rule, a significant gesture in a city that had been under Persian rule from 612–628 and then Arab rule from 635–661.
Al-Walid chose a site that was already considered holy: it had originally housed a temple dedicated to the Syrian storm-god Hadad, which was replaced with a Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter Dolichenus, which was in turn replaced with the Church of John the Baptist. Al-Walid bought the church and promptly demolished it, leaving only the inner walls of the original temple, which became the entrance to the mosque.
The mosque was unlike any before it, and its form was mirrored by later imperial mosques. Four minarets (all from different time periods) sit atop the four corners. Unlike earlier mosques, this structure's rectilinear proportions created a vast empty space. On three sides of the court there is a single-aisled portico. The fourth wall (known as the qibla) has a long prayer hall that, similar to a Christian basilica, has an east-west axis. This prayer hall has three aisles that run parallel to the qibla wall and an axial nave that runs perpendicular to it. A pitched roof is aligned at right angles to the direction of prayer.
Of particular importance are the mosaics that decorate the mosque. Attributed to Byzantine workmen, these mosaics appear on the prayer hall, the inner side of the perimeter walls, and the court facades. Flowing rivers, fantastic houses, and richly foliate trees of variegated greens ornament the golden background. The motifs in these mosaics are similar to those of the Dome of the Rock, which predate this monument by fifteen years. Finbarr Flood has suggested that the meaning of these verdant mosaics is related to passages from the Qur’an quoted in inscriptions on the walls.
The vibrant sense of nature as a source of life and activity suited the function of the mosque as the central meeting place for the citizens of Damascus. The monument functions specifically as a Friday mosque—a mosque "capable of accommodating the entire male Muslim population for the Friday prayer." This was the site of political rallies, public announcements, the appointment of public officials, funerary prayers, and it also served as temporary housing for the poor. The idyllic landscape depicted in the mosaics seems to give visual form to the words of al-Walid's speech. As it turns out, al-Walid's proclamation was more than just rhetoric—the mosque still stands, attracting numerous pilgrims and visitors and asserting the prowess of the Umayyad rule.