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One of the oldest, largest and most important mosques in the world was built after the 7th-century Arab conquest when the Umayyad dynasty made Damascus its capital. It replaced an existing cathedral, which had itself grown out of a large Roman temple. Along with this inheritance came the head of John the Baptist, a figure revered in both the Christian and Muslim worlds, and its presence brought Pope John Paul II here in 1980, the first pope to set foot inside a mosque. The site is important to both Suni and Shia muslims, as it was here that the head of the defeated Husain ibn Ali, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, was brought by the Umayyads after the battle of Kebala. The city flourished under Saladin who made the city a centre of poetry, philosphy and the arts, and his tomb is adjacent to the mosque. The mosque and its courtyards cover an extensive area, and design was influential, and its echoes can be seen in the Grand Mosque in Bursa and the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne..
I can pinpoint the moment my passion began – it was the first time I went inside one of the great courtyard houses of the old city. The house was Bait Mujallid and I was completely unprepared for what I was going to see, and utterly overwhelmed by its magnificence. Then, when I realised what a poor state the building was in, I was filled with anxiety and rushed back to try to persuade my husband that we should sell our home in England and rescue a Damascene palace instead. Luckily, someone else stepped in to save Bait Mujallid, and I decided to concentrate my efforts on writing this book instead – in the hope that it will convince others of the uniqueness of old Damascus and the necessity to preserve it.
A traditional way of life continues in the narrow alleyways and crowded souks within the ancient walls. Heating oil is delivered by horses in beaded bridles and ostrich feathers; earnest small boys weave through the crowds carrying trays of food from restaurants for their employers; men wheel carts loaded with plants growing in old tins – damask roses, vines – to tempt the owners of the courtyard houses…
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