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Alain George’s Detailed View of Artwork, Religion, and Empire in Syria

Alain George’s Detailed View of Artwork, Religion, and Empire in Syria

Alain George’s Detailed View of Art, Faith, and Empire in Syria

In 1479, in the course of the siege of Damascus by the Central Asian ruler Tīmūr (Tamerlane), the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus suffered a catastrophic hearth. The mosque was, by that time, practically 800 years outdated, and the sensation of irretrievable loss is palpable in eyewitness accounts of the determined measures taken to rescue the valuable carpets and furnishings in addition to one of many mosque’s best treasures: a holy Qur’an manuscript that had as soon as belonged to the caliph ‘Uthmān. 

Such reminiscences appear significantly evocative as we speak, as Syrians proceed to endure the depredations of one of the devastating conflicts in trendy historical past, left to grapple with the aftermath of the destruction of human lives and the lack of cultural and materials heritage. 

On this context, Alain George’s visually luxurious, meticulously-researched quantity The Umayyad Mosque of Damascus: Artwork, Religion and Empire in Early Islam (Gingko, 2021) is a welcome reminder of the richness of that heritage. The mosque, inbuilt 706 by the Umayyad caliph al-Walīd (r. 705–715), is without doubt one of the nice monuments of world structure, famend for being among the many largest and most lavishly-ornamented mosques within the Islamic world.

With its sweeping courtyard ornamented by coloured marble, painted wooden, stained glass, and glittering mosaics, the grandeur of the Umayyad Mosque retains the facility to awe guests even as we speak, and but the constructing that we see is the merest shadow of the staggering fantastic thing about its eighth-century self. Constructing on the top of Umayyad stability and prosperity, al-Walīd spared no expense. His building of the Umayyad Mosque was simply one in all at least eight main mosque-building tasks, together with the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and the mosques at Mecca and Medina, and the caliph ought to be extra widely-recognized as one of many nice builders of late antiquity. Abd al-Malik’s Dome of the Rock apart, it’s arguably to al-Walīd that we owe the very thought of Umayyad structure, and George exhibits that he remade the shape and construction of the early mosque, elevating the easy, utilitarian mosques of early Islam to an imperial scale and magnificence.

Transept of the Umayyad Mosque, 201 (photograph by Alain George)

George’s e book takes the reader on a vivid tour of the historical past, that means, and significance of this venerable constructing over time, borrowing the mannequin of the palimpsest of which, he argues, the Umayyad Mosque is an architectural instance. The mosque was constructed contained in the temenos of the traditional Roman temple to Jupiter, constructed underneath Augustus and the second-largest temple within the Roman world. After the empire was Christianized, the temple was in flip remodeled right into a Christian church, and ultimately right into a mosque. This has lengthy been identified from each textual and archaeological proof, however the particular location, kind, and nature of the re-use have been shrouded in debate. George convincingly argues that the traces of every of those moments in its historical past are nonetheless seen within the plan and decoration of the mosque. 

George’s argument is itself palimpsestic in its layered and complicated weaving collectively of a variety of sources of dazzling selection, from eighth-century poetic panegyrics written in reward of the mosque, documentary sources just like the Sana‘a palimpsest of the Qur’an, early Islamic administrative papyri from Aphrodito in Egypt, to later medieval chronicles. George additionally attracts closely from the proof of the bodily construction itself, using the strategies of archaeological and architectural evaluation and the proof of early twentieth-century pictures. The sources typically refer again to one another, reflecting on, incorporating, or transforming the phrases of prior accounts or, within the case of the construction itself, constructing, renovating, and reincorporating prior architectural components. 

Inside this layered and sometimes-contradictory physique of proof, George is motivated by a easy query: Why did al-Walīd construct the Mosque?

Arcade main from the west to the Nice Mosque of Damascus, 2010 (photograph by Alain George)

Al-Walid’s destruction was seen by contemporaries as an act of tyranny and a rupture of norms with respect to the therapy of the ahl al-dhimma: the Christians and Jews residing underneath Islamic rule, who had a legally-defined protected standing. It appears seemingly that al-Walid, then in his mid-30s and in his first yr as caliph, acted rashly in seizing and destroying the church and will have needed to take care of the political fallout from the Christians of Damascus and from the Byzantine emperor in Justinian II in Constantinople. Surprisingly, George demonstrates that the church seems to not have been related to John the Baptist in al-Walid’s time, and that it gained that affiliation solely after the mosque was constructed, maybe as a triumphal technique of connecting the positioning to its Christian previous. Provided that the constructing was undoubtedly constructed by Christian workmen, who have been at the moment nonetheless the bulk within the area, this concept is especially intriguing. 

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But right here George’s Sunni-centric narrative seems to have missed a likelier state of affairs explored in my very own analysis on the mosque: specifically the affiliation of the mosque with the top of the martyr al-Husayn, which was dropped at Damascus by the Umayyads and honored by Shi’s. It’s attainable that the affiliation with the top of John the Baptist was a counter or co-narrative to the then-rapidly creating veneration of the resting place of the top of al-Husayn. This additional palimpsestic layering of that means round head relics in late antiquity would solely have enhanced George’s argument. But this doesn’t detract from his compelling suggestion that the panegyric poetry al-Walid commissioned in reward of the constructing of the mosque – from at least 4 modern poets, one in all them a Christian – might have been an try and handle the Christian response and to justify and reassert his rectitude in appropriating and destroying the church. The unprecedented luxuriousness and grandeur of the mosque he constructed might have made the argument visually and sensorially. 

Some chapters will strike readers as excessively technical and empirical, and there are sections of the e book which can be so descriptive that they’re troublesome to parse, studying extra like an appendix in prose than a clearly-delineated argument, and compounded by the paucity of diagrams. Just a few carefully-drawn schematic renderings of the mosque would have performed the work of pages of description whose function will not be at all times clear. But the quantity will undoubtedly stand as probably the most complete and detailed account of the mosque within the eighth century so far. Have been one to digitally reconstruct the mosque (please!), one want look no additional, and the transition from temple to church to mosque is explored right here in unprecedented element.

Maybe the e book’s most sensible perception is that the “meter” of the mosaics’ visible rhythms corresponds exactly with the poetic meter of one of many panegyric poems commissioned by al-Walīd to reward his mosque. Steeped within the context of late vintage poetry and allusion, the mosaics’ energy might properly have rested within the polysemy and ambiguity that have been emphasised in lots of late vintage Mediterranean cultures, by which opacity and multiplicity of meanings in each poetry and decoration might have been intentional, apprehended because the supply of inexhaustible depths of that means. And it’s right here that George’s achievement is most evident: to sharply problem our trendy methods of seeing and as a substitute to ask us view one in all Islam’s most well-known and most-studied monuments with new, late-Vintage eyes.

The Umayyad Mosque of Damascus: Artwork, Religion and Empire in Early Islam by Alain George (2021) is revealed by Gingko and is out there in bookstores and on-line.

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