Timeline: Umayyad {661-750}

The dynasty of Umayyad caliphs was based in Syria and ruled the Islamic world from 660-750/39-132 AH

Under the Umayyads the Islamic state was transformed from a theocracy to an Arab monarchy. In 661/40 AH Ali, the last Orthodox caliph was murdered and Mu'awiya, the governor of Syria, became the first Umayyad caliph. Mu'awiya provided the centralization essential for the survival and continuing expansion of the Arab Empire. At its height, Umayyad rule extended from the Atlantic coast of North Africa to India and from Central Asia to the Yemen. The administration of conquered provinces was usually left intact, so that the tax accounts for Syria, for example, continued to be kept in Greek. Socially, however, Umayyad rule was characterized by the domination of Arabs.

Sculptures are found at a number of desert palaces, most notably Khirbet al-Mafjar and Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi. Both eastern and western sculptural traditions were used, although the medium was usually stucco rather than stone. Because stucco is not free-standing, sculptures were usually incorporated into some structural feature of a building such as the entrance.

The success of the Umayyad caliphate carried within it the seeds of its own destruction. Because the economic and social structure of the empire was dependent on the conquest of new lands, any setbacks or reverses caused resentment and dissatisfaction throughout the regime. Similarly, the secular nature of the dynasty aroused opposition amongst those in favour of a more theocratic state. In 747/129 AH a revolution against the Umayyads began in Khurasan and soon spread throughout the eastern part of the empire. By 750/132 AH the Umayyad regime had been defeated to be replaced by the Abbasids who ruled from Iraq. Only one branch of the Umayyads survived by fleeing to Spain where the dynasty continued to rule until 1051/442 AH.

 Almost all surviving Umayyad monuments are in Syria and Palestine whence the dynasty derived most of its support. As the Arabs did not have an architectural tradition suited to the needs of a great empire, they adopted the building methods of the defeated Sassanian and Byzantine empires. Because they ruled from Syria, Byzantine influence was stronger, although Sassanian elements became increasingly important. In many cases Byzantine or even Roman buildings were simply taken over with little or no modification. However, the conquests did provide some innovation both in terms of building types and in the prominence given to decoration.

The most important building projects undertaken during the Umayyad era included mosques, palaces, and cities. Mosques were obviously an important element in the expansion of the Islamic state although the speed of the conquests meant that these were often temporary structures or converted churches. New cities were built in answer to specific requirements, such as the need for an administrative centre rather than for dynastic propaganda as in the Abbasid period. The most characteristic type of building is the 'Desert Palace' built as a residence for the ruling elite.

The earliest Islamic cities were garrison towns such as Basra and Kufa, built as centres for the conquest of Khurassan and Central Asia. The Umayyads continued this policy of building cities which were little more than giant military camps, although significantly these were unfortified. The most important city of this type was Wasit built in 701/81 AH by Yussuf ibn al-Hajjaj the Umayyad governor of Iraq. Architecturally these cities were important because they were divided according to tribal groups, each with its own masjid, which prefigures similar divisions in later Arab cities. Trade was also a powerful stimulus for the foundation and growth of cities in the early Islamic period. The frontiers of the Islamic state were particularly conducive to the growth of cities in North Africa and in eastern Iran military camps quickly grew into trading cities.

Mosques were an essential part of early Islamic government as they provided a meeting place at which important announcements could be made. Early on two separate mosque-building traditions developed; in Syria this was based on the conversion of churches whilst in Iraq mosques developed out of square enclosures used for prayer. The earliest Iraqi mosque for which we have archaeological evidence is the Friday mosque at Wasit built to a square plan with a hypostyle roof. The oldest Islamic building in the west is the Dome of the Rock built by Abd al-Malik in 691/71 AH. However, this building is a sanctuary rather than a mosque and its influence on later Islamic architecture is limited.

More important in terms of mosque development is the Great Mosque in Damascus built by the caliph al-Walid in 705/85 AH. This building is modelled on Syrian churches, which after the conquest were used as mosques. Churches were converted to mosques by blocking up the west door and piercing the north wall with doorways, creating a building with a lateral axis perpendicular to the direction of prayer. Mosques built in the same style as Damascus include Qasr al-Hayr, Qusayr Hallabat, Raqqa, Balis, Diyarbakir and Der'a. Other developments in religious architecture in the Umayyad period include the introduction of the mihrab and the minaret.

In secular building the most important constructions of the Umayyad period were the desert palaces of Syria and Palestine. Some of these buildings were new foundations, whilst others were Roman or Byzantine forts converted to meet the needs of the new Arab rulers. Significantly, most of these buildings were abandoned soon after the fall of the Umayyad regime and they remain as monuments to the wealth and tastes of the dynasty. Their size and scale vary enormously, from the small and lavishly decorated bath house of Qusayr Amrah to the great fortified city-palace of Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi. From the outside most of these buildings resemble fortresses; thus the main entrance of Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi is protected by two tall semi-circular towers and a machicolice. In some of the palaces the effect of the fortifications is softened by great decorative friezes, as at Mshatta, Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi and Khirbet al-Mafjar. Most of these palaces include a bath house and a mosque as well as living accommodation arranged according to the bayt system. Each palace comprised a number of bayts, each of which would house a family or tribal unit. There is very little differentiation between the rooms within each bayt, so they were probably used simply as shelters in a similar manner to a bedouin tent with no permanent fixtures.

The building techniques employed by the Umayyads were as diverse as the regions they conquered, so that major projects would employ workmen of several different nationalities. At its most conservative Umayyad architecture is indistinguishable from either Byzantine or Sassanian work but usually there is a combination of eastern and western elements which produce an unmistakably Islamic building. One of the best examples of this mixture is to be found at Mshatta where the walls are of cut stone in the Syrian tradition, the vaults are constructed in the Mesopotamian fashion and the decorative carving is a mixture of Byzantine and Coptic motifs.

The most common building materials used in this period were stone, wood and brick. In Syria the majority of buildings were constructed out of cut stone or ashlar masonry. The quality of Umayyad masonry is generally very high with sharp edges, tight joins and large blocks producing buildings with a monumentality unsurpassed in later Islamic building. Ashlar masonry is particularly suited to the construction of large vertical surfaces which can be enlivened by carving, as on the entrance facade at Mshatta. With the exception of basalt most stone is unsuitable for roofing large areas and only small spans could be roofed with barrel vaulting. In general Umayyad architecture avoided the problem of intersecting vaults so that most buildings were either made up of small units or roofed in wood.

In Syria, timber from the forests of Lebanon was often used for roofing. Roofs were either shallow, pitched structures supported by wooden trusses, as in the Great Mosque of Damascus, or occasionally wooden domes, as in the Dome of the Rock or the Aqsa Mosque. Timber was also used for centring, scaffolding, tie-beams and mosque furniture such as minbars.

 Although brick architecture was common to both the Byzantine and Sassanian empires its use in Umayyad architecture was limited to the eastern part of the empire. The availability of suitable stone in Syria meant that bricks were rarely used there even in Byzantine times. When bricks were used in Syria it is significant that the Mesopotamian style was used with thin joints, rather than the thick layers of mortar used in the Byzantine tradition. Examples of this arc are found at Qasr al-Tuba and Mshatta. In Iraq both baked brick and mud brick were used extensively. Often baked brick was used for pillars, vaults and the lower courses of walls whilst mud brick was used for the upper parts. Examples can be seen at Wasit and Usqaf Bani Junayd.

Umayyad architecture can be distinguished from that of earlier periods by its use of decorative techniques. None of these was new but the variety and scale of decorative effects were far greater than ever before. The most important decorative methods employed were mosaic, wall painting, sculpture, and relief carving.

Although it is probable that most Umayyad mosaics were made by Byzantine craftsmen, the motifs used and the choice of designs usually indicate an Islamic influence. The earliest Islamic mosaics are those in the Dome of the Rock. which consist of gold and polychrome tesserae in representations of Byzantine and Sassanian royal jewels. The Great Mosque in Damascus contains a very important group of mosaics depicting an ideal city which, significantly, is devoid of people. This is due to the ban on figural representation in mosques and is a good example of Byzantine art adapted for Islamic purposes. Even in the desert palaces mosaics usually avoided figures, although occasionally, as at Khirbet al-Mafjar, there are representations of animals.

In addition to floor mosaics most Umayyad palaces were decorated with frescoes, usually on walls, although occasionally on floors, as at Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi. The best-preserved paintings are those at Qusayr Amrah which include representations of a great hunt, half-naked dancing girls, and a famous portrait of six rulers of the world.

Petersen, Andrew. Dictionary of Islamic Architecture. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

Related Resource:

Early Islamic Gardens in Syria, Jordan, and Iraq

Parent Collections
Related Collections