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AP Art History
Great Mosque of Damascus (Syria), 706-715
1. “The caliphs of the aggressively expansionist Umayyad dynasty ruled from their capital in Damascus (in
modern Syria). They were essentially desert chieftains who had scant interest in fostering the arts except for
poetry, which had been held in high esteem among Arabs since pre-Islamic times, and architecture. The
building of shrines and mosques throughout the empire in this period represented both the authority of the
new rulers and the growing acceptance of Islam” (Stokstad 340). “The north minaret, which towers over the
so-called Gate of Paradise in the Great Mosque of the Umayyads, is the only one built here by the Muslims:
the two others rise above square, Christian towers. To the east of the courtyard stands a small building which
once housed a clock, described in minute detail by Ibn Jubayr who saw it in 1184. He noted that the clock
indicated the time of both day and night by using bells and lights” (Stierlin, Islam 50).
2. “The mosaics adorning the courtyard of the Great Mosque of Al-Walid in Damascus depict marvelous
palaces surrounded by running water under eternally green foliage- the image of the paradisal Garden of
Eden promised to believers by the suras of the Koran” (45). “In this consecrated space- once an ancient
pagan temenos, and later, during the Christian epoch, transformed into an enclosure around a church, like a
fortress of faith, a new-walled Jerusalem- the courtyard of the Great Mosque reflected the joys of paradise to
come. Paradoxically, though the artists took pains to depict the blessings of the after-life, its torments were
nowhere present. In the Great Mosque of Damascus, visitors will look in vain for the tortures to be endured
by evil-doers, such as found on the tympanums of medieval churches. Yet the Koran does not fail to list
them. Just as early Christian art shone with revelations and ignored hell, so early Islamic art concentrated on
visions of paradise” (59). A tenemos is a “sacred enclosure of a pagan temple” (Irwin 48). “Let us not forget
that this oblong space issued from the layout which, at the outset, had been a shed made of palm-tree trunks
with a covering of palm-tree trunks with a covering of palm branches built by the Prophet himself at his home
in Medina. By adopting this oblong configuration, the hall of the Great Mosque of the Umayyads of
Damascus merely established a formula which reproduced in monumental fashion the venerable model
which Muhammad had bequeathed to his followers” (60).
3. “This mosque began as a Roman temple which the Byzantines had turned into a church. Like their
counterparts in Jerusalem, the original Muslim settlers in Damascus had first contented themselves with using
part of this church for their communal prayers, but by the time of al-Walid, the Muslim community had
grown so large that a new, larger structure was needed. Both the Roman temple and the Byzantine church
had stood inside an enormous enclosure with massive walls. The planners of the mosque tore down the
church in the center and used the enclosure walls as the walls of the mosque. The building has a broad
courtyard surrounded by arcades and a huge prayer hall constructed against the southern- or qibla- wall. The
major façade of the building was turned inside-out to face the interior court, since the outside of the building
was of secondary importance. This inward looking façade would become one of the most characteristic
features of Islamic architecture” (Bloom and Blair 31-32). “Despite several rebuildings, the gable end facing
the court and one or more wooden domes have made this space special since Umayyad times. The gable was
used to mark the place where ceremonies took place inside a screened space, called a maqsura in Arabic,
which stood under the dome. This space would have included a minbar, or stepped pulpit, for the preacherin this case the caliph himself, who as the Prophet’s successor still led prayers in Umayyad times- and a
semicircular recessed niche in the center of the qibla wall” (32-33).
4. “Known as a mihrab, this niche had just been introduced to the Prophet’s mosque in Medina to
commemorate the spot where the Prophet, when leading prayers, had planted his lance to indicate the space
where people should pray. The niche was rapidly disseminated to mosques throughout the lands of Islam,
where it apparently defined the place where the leader of communal prayer should stand. The niche
probably had a symbolic meaning, for a rare group of silver coins minted ten years before the semicircular
mihrab was introduced into the mosque depicts a ribboned lance within an arch supported by a pair of spiral
columns, an image thought to represent the Prophet’s lance in a mihrab. Although this coin type was quickly
abandoned, worshippers may have continued to associate the empty semicircular niche in the mosque with
the memory of the Prophet and his lance. In any event, similar niches were common in late antique buildings
where they were used for statues of gods in temples, the Torah in synagogues, and devotional images in
churches, so their reappearance in mosques is not surprising” (33). “Next to the congregational mosque of
Damascus was the caliph’s residence. It was built of brick and had a magnificent dome, much like the
heavenly domes that marked the palaces of rulers in antiquity. The caliph could go directly from the palace
into the maqsura of the mosque. None of the Umayyad palaces in cities has survived- subsequent generations
were more concerned with keeping prestigious religious buildings in repair than with maintaining outmoded
houses- but some idea of contemporary secular architecture can be gleaned from the remains of several
Umayyad palaces in the desert steppe of Syria and Palestine” (35).
The Islamic Mosque
1. “Although Muslims may pray anywhere as long as they face Mecca, religious architecture became an
important part of Islamic culture. In the earliest days of Islam, the faithful gathered to pray in the courtyard
of the Prophet Muhammad’s home. From this developed the primary architectural expression of Islam, the
mosque. There are two main types of mosque: the masjid is used for daily prayer by individuals or small
groups, while the larger jami’ is used for congregational worship on Fridays, the Muslim Sabbath. Although
mosques around the world reflect local architectural traditions, most share certain basic features. These are a
sahn, or enclosed courtyard (less common in later centuries), and a qibla, or prayer wall, oriented toward
Mecca. The qibla frequently has a mihrab (small niche) set into it. Jami mosques also contain a minbar, a
pulpit from which an imam (religious teacher) leads the faithful” (Adams, Art Across Time 321). ). “Some
mosques included an enclosure called a maqsura near the mihrab for dignitaries” (Stokstad, Art History
2. “By the end of the seventh century, Muslim rulers were beginning to build larger and more elaborate
structures. The exterior of a typical mosque includes one or more tall minarets, such as those added to
Hagia Sophia when it was changed from a Christian church to a mosque. From these towers, a muezzin, or
crier, traditionally calls the faithful to prayer at the five prescribed times each day” (Adams, Art Across Time
321, 323). “The earliest mosques were pillared hypostyle halls such as the Great Mosque at Cordoba… A
second type, the four-iwan mosque, was originally associated with madrasas (schools for advanced study).
The iwans- monumental barrel-vaulted halls with wide-open, arched entrances- faced each other across a
central sahn; related structures spread out behind and around the iwans. Four-iwan mosques were most
developed in Persia” (Stokstad, Art History 345).
The Ka’aba at Mecca
1. “Known to the Muslim faithful as Umm al-Qura- the Mother of Cities- Mecca is the holiest place in the
Islamic world. Here, the prophet Muhammad (c. AD 570-632), the messenger of God and founder of the
Muslim faith, was born. Here, too, within the city’s Great Mosque, is the most sacred Muslim shrine, the
Ka’aba” (Harpur 202). “According to tradition, this cube-shaped building, draped in black cloth embroidered
with a band of sacred verses in gold and silver thread, was originally built as a replica of a heavenly prototype.
It was sacred to the Meccans before the time of the Prophet. And since the birth of Islam in the seventh
century, it has been the focal point of the hajj, now the world’s largest annual pilgrimage. One of the ‘five
pillars’ of Islam, the hajj lasts several days, during which pilgrims must carry out certain rituals in Mecca and
at sacred sites nearby” (202, 204). “For all hajjis- as the pilgrims are called- the Great Mosque, with its huge
marble courtyard enclosed by two-story colonnaded galleries, provides the ‘still point of the turning world.’
The building seems to be bolted down by a pair of minarets at each of its four corners. And at its center, the
Ka’aba is the hub around which not only Mecca, but also the entire Muslim world revolves” (204).
2. “Muslims consider the city and an area several miles around it to be haram (‘restricted,’ ‘sacred’) and offlimits to non-Muslims. Thus the number of westerners who have risked their lives to make the hajj has been
few. Two notable adventurers who did were the Swiss Johann Burckhardt, in 1814, and the Briton Sir
Richard Burton, in 1853. Both men succeeded by speaking fluent Arabic or Persian and being heavily
disguised and steeped in Islamic culture” (206). “Before entering the sacred area around Mecca, pilgrims
have to enter a state of ritual purity, or ihram (‘consecration’); and men must put on special dress consisting
of two seamless white sheets” (206). “On the first day of the pilgrimage, the 8 Dhu-al-Hijjah, pilgrims
perform the tawaf, the ritual procession seven times around the Ka’aba. If possible, they kiss the Black Stone
in the southeastern corner. In practice, however, the swirling mass of humanity prevents many from kissing
the stone, so a gesture toward it suffices” (207). Hajjis must also “go back and forth between the hills of alSafwa and al-Marwa along a covered walkway. The rite commemorates the time when Abraham, revered by
Muslims as a prophet, was ordered by God to leave his wife Hagar and son Ishmael in the desert” (205).
3. “The sacred space known as the Kaaba is a cubical structure some 48 feet high. Its origins are variously
explained. According to Muslim tradition, it was built by Abraham and his son Ishmael as a physical
reminder of the links between Islam and Judaism. The shrine is also identified as the sacred spot, where, at
God’s command, the biblical Abraham had prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac” (Fiero, Medieval Europe 47).
“Meccans were slow to embrace the new faith. After a series of indecisive battles the Meccan opposition, the
Prophet abandoned his native city, emigrating, in 622, to nearby Medina- a journey known as the hijra or
hegira. After converting the population of Medina to Islam, he returned to Mecca with a following of ten
thousand men, conquering the city and destroying the idols in the Kaaba” (47).
Works Cited
Adams, Laurie Schneider. Art Across Time. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1999.
Bloom, Jonathan and Sheila Blair. Islamic Arts. London: Phaidon, 1997.
Fiero, Gloria K. The Humanistic Tradition, Book 2: Medieval Europe and the World Beyond, 4 ed. New
York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.
Harpur, James. The Atlas of Sacred Places. New York: Henry Holt, 1994.
Irwin, Robert. Islamic Art in Context. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997.
Stierlin, Henri. Islam: Early Architecture from Baghdad to Cordoba . New York: Taschen, 2002.