SHRINE OF JOHN THE BAPIST — GREAT UMAYYAD MOSQUE

Vincent Lyn
7 min readSep 9, 2021

By Vincent Lyn

Photo courtesy of Vincent Lyn

In Damascus’s Umayyad Mosque, Roman paganism, Christianity, and Shiite and Sunni Islam all intersect.

The ‘Grand Mosque’ of Damascus was originally the site of a temple of Hadad, a Pagan (Semetic) storm god. In Roman times, it became a shrine to Jupiter which, in turn, was converted to a Christian church devoted to Saint John the Baptist during the rise of Christianity. In this era it was worshipped jointly by Christians and Muslims as both religions saw John as a prophet. Thus, the Muslim capture of Damascus in the 630s CE did not initially affect the church, however the Umayyad Caliph Al-Walid demolished it in the early 700s and began construction of the massive Mosque. Oddly enough, the workers brought in to build were Byzantine. Upon completion, it became a monument to Islam and two separate wonders of the world: one for its grand architectural design, the other for its intricate interior details.

It is located within the circuit walls of the old city of Damascus, and is one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world. It is considered the fourth-holiest place in Islam. After the Arab conquest of Damascus in 634, the mosque was incorporated into the Christian Basilica dedicated to John the Baptist (Yahya). The mosque holds a shrine which today may still contain the head of John the Baptist, honored as a prophet by both Christians and Muslims alike, and is believed to be the place where Isa (Jesus) will return at the End of Days.

Built on an area of 161 m (528 ft) by 97 m (318 ft), this brilliant handiwork of the Umayyads is one of the world’s largest Islamic houses of worship. Its dome, minarets, columns and arches are constructed in such a way as to give it purity of form. The richness of building materials and exquisite geometrical decorations, for centuries, reflected the opulence and charm of Umayyad architecture and drew visitors from the four corners of the world. According to Dr. Afif Bahnasi, a well-known Syrian archaeologist, “It is the greatest of mosques in its spaciousness and elegant architectural design.”

In 1069 A. D., much of the mosque was destroyed by fire and, in 1260, it was sacked by the Mongols. Again, in the early 15th century, Tamerlane, the scourge of Asia, burnt the whole of the inside, and finely in 1893, in the Ottoman era it was almost entirely consumed by fire. It was rebuilt following each destruction as closely as possible to the original plans.

Here with friend and colleague Mohammad Khair Al-Khousi

The mosque one sees today is the reconstruction by the Ottomans, after the last fire. A few decades ago, from the outside, one could barely make out the walls – homes and shops covered almost every inch. However, at the beginning of the 1990s a huge renovation program began to transform the whole Mosque. The homes and shops covering the walls have been removed. Today, it appears like a huge historic fortress being recast in the heart of old Damascus. On-going renovation is continuing on both the outside and inside – every day the splendor of its past is slowly creeping back.

The mosque has three minarets: the al-‘Arous (Bride), dominating the courtyard, dates back to the Umayyad period; the Minaret of Jesus, the most famous, because according to Muslim tradition Christ, just before the Last Judgement, will return through it to fight the Antichrist; and the slender minaret of Sultan Quait Bey, built by an Egyptian Mameluk ruler in

Here at the tomb of Salah Aldin Al-Yousi

The tomb of Saladin stands in a small garden adjoining the north wall of the mosque. Pre-Islamic period Damascus was the capital of the Aramaean state Aram-Damascus during the Iron Age. The Arameans of western Syria followed the cult of Hadad-Ramman, the god of thunderstorms and rain, and erected a temple dedicated to him at the site of the present-day Umayyad Mosque. It is not known exactly how the temple looked, but it is believed to have followed the traditional Semitic-Canaanite architectural form, resembling the Temple of Jerusalem.

The site likely consisted of a walled courtyard, a small chamber for worship, and a tower-like structure typically symbolizing the “high place” of storm gods, in this case Hadad. One stone remains from the Aramaean temple, dated to the rule of King Hazael, has survived and is currently on display in the National Museum of Damascus. The Temple of Hadad-Ramman continued to serve a central role in the city and when the Romans conquered Damascus in 64 CE they assimilated Hadad with their own god of thunder, Jupiter. Thus, they engaged in a project to reconfigure and expand the temple under the direction of Damascus-born architect Apollodorus who created and executed its design. The symmetry and dimensions of the new Greco-Roman temple impressed the local population. With the exception of the much increased scale of the building, most of its original Semitic design was preserved; the walled courtyard was largely left intact. In the center of the courtyard stood the cella, an image of the god which followers would honor. There was one tower at each of courtyard’s four corners. The towers were used for rituals in line with ancient Semitic religious traditions where sacrifices were made on high places.

The shrine of John the Baptist (or Yahya) inside the mosque’s prayer hall The sheer size of the compound suggested the religious hierarchy of the temple, sponsored by the Romans, was a major influence in the city’s affairs.In the early 8th century, the Grand Mosque was the most spectacular building in one of the most important cities of the Islamic world, and its presence was thus paramount as both a symbol of Islamic artistic brilliance and the ousting of the Byzantines.

John is honored as a prophet in Islam as Yahya ibn Zakariya (يحيى بن زكريا). He is believed by Muslims to have been a witness to the word of God, & a prophet who would herald the coming of Jesus. Islamic tradition maintains that John was one of the prophets whom Muhammad met on the night of the Mi’raj, his ascension through the Seven Heavens. The son of Zechariah is a figure of prime importance in the history of Christianity, for he was the Precursor who prepared the way for Christ. John’s life, wholly dedicated to God, was crowned by martyrdom.

According to Al-Suyuti, Ibrahim stated that since the creation of the world the Heavens and the Earth wept only for two people: John the Baptist and Husayn ibn Ali. In Islam, the Prophet Yahya is an exemplar of righteousness, kindness and piety. Sufi commentaries emphasize his divinely-given wisdom (19:12) — which he received as a child. In the Qur’an, the Prophet Yahya is “a prophet from among the righteous” (6:85 & 3:39).

According to Christian tradition, Saint John’s head was buried there. Ibn al-Faqih relays the story that during the construction of the mosque, workers found a cave-chapel which had a box containing the head of St. John the Baptist, or Yaḥyā ibn Zakarīyā in Islam. Upon learning of that and examining it, al-Walid I ordered the head buried under a specific pillar in the mosque that was later inlaid with marble.

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. Similar to the account of John the Baptist in the Bible, the birth of the Prophet Yahya in the Qur’an is miraculous, since Zechariah and his wife were unable to conceive together — before Zechariah’s desperate prayers for a child were answered.

The mosque’s extensive mosaics and its marble panelling were once again ravaged by fire in 1893, and had to be restored. The fire also destroyed the inner fabric of the prayer hall and caused the collapse of the mosque’s central dome. A laborer engaging in repair work accidentally started the fire when he was smoking his water pipe. The Ottomans fully restored the mosque, but largely maintained the original structure.

From the dawn of Islam, Damascus and its Umayyad Mosque, one of the most sacred structures in the Muslim world, have been synonymous. For hundreds of years, this great house of worship, the fourth holiest spot in the Muslim world, has been the city’s most magnificent historic building — its emblem par excellence. The pride of Arab-Islamic architecture, it was once the finest work of art to be found any place on earth. Through the centuries, it has always been the symbol of a glorious period in Arab history — the time when Damascus was the capital of a vast Muslim empire.

There is no doubt that to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, a visit to this first Great Mosque in Islam is a never-to-be-forgotten experience. Incorporating within its renovated walls a world of beauty, peace and gentleness, it remains a jewel in the world of Islamic architecture, conveying to both worshipper and visitor the true majestic quality of Islam and its message.

Vincent Lyn

CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children

Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization

Economic & Social Council at United Nations

Middle East Correspondent at Wall Street News Agency

Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts

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Vincent Lyn

CEO-We Can Save Children. Director Creative Development-African Views Organization, ECOSOC at United Nations. International Human Rights Commission (IHRC)