The Umayyad Mosque: A Review of sorts

One, if not the, major publication on the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus was published by the French Institute (Ifpo) in 2018: Le waqf de la mosquée des Omeyyades de Damas. Le manuscrit ottoman d’un inventaire mamelouk établi en 816/1413. It is a study and edition of a 1518 document on the mosque’s endowment which, in turn, had been established in 1413. This book is massive at 741 pages and the result of the collaboration of three eminent experts in the field: Mathieu Eychenne, Astrid Meier, and Élodie Vigouroux. But because the book is in French, it might not have received all the attention it deserves. Let’s change that.

The scope of the work is already visible when looking at the abstract: it comes in French, English, and Arabic and thus is aimed at a diverse and trans regional audience. Even in the 13 lines of the English abstract, the studied endowment is placed within a complex framework of both local pride of its architecture and antiquity and its importance for the economic life of the city. The latter is connected to its endowments, which “established a dense network of links with the city and the surrounding agricultural lands.”

Based on this, the authors intervene in two current fields. First, they sue the document to analyze “the topography and toponymy of the city” and its surroundings at around the time between the invasion of Timur Lang in 1401 and the establishment of the endowment. Second, they illuminate “Mamluk and Ottoman notarial and juridical practices”, specifically with regard to the geographical distribution of real estate. As we can see already, the book works on the two temporal level of documentation (approx. 1518) and documented (approx. 1413). Who is not yet curious?

The organization of the book is original. Following the general introduction, the edition is presented in the first part, before the analytical chapters. To it are added three indices for place names, personal names, and collective names (noms de groupes) respectively. The second, analytical part is divided into three sections, each containing a number of chapters (and information which authors worked on which chapters).

The first section utilizes the 1518 inventory to discuss the properties of the endowment in four chapters: the first one illuminates the historical context of the document itself; the second offers, among other things, a typology of the urban properties while the third takes a different approach to their rural counterparts. The final chapter in the first section widens the perspective by exploring Mamluk and Ottoman practices regarding access to water and soil.

The second section shifts the view to the endowment of the Umayyad Mosque and how it served to finance activities at the Mosque. It, too, is divided into four chapters: The first chapter functions as an introduction, describing conjointly the finances of the mosque and the stipulations in the waqf document. The second chapter looks more closely at the administration of both mosque and its endowment and particularly the encroachment upon it by Mamluk governors and high-ranking officers in the later 1400s. The third and fourth chapters inspect several aspects of the urban endowed properties.

The final section of the analytical part is, at the same time, a sort of epilogue. Its only chapter addresses the “biography” of the inventory and, through it, explores wider notarial practices in the long period from 1413 up to 1860. This will be of particular interest to people interested in the histories of books, libraries, and archives, as well.

However, the book does not end there. The third part offers wide-ranging “dictionaries” / “glossaries” on (1) topography and toponymy, (2) occupations and activities of merchants and craftsmen, (3) architectural and geographic terms, and (4) technical and juridical terms. This will prove immensely helpful for further research of the Mamluk period in particular.

In its final part, the book includes even a facsimile edition which makes it an overall wonderful resource for teaching as well. It basically brings with it everything you need to get students interested in the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, muslim endowments or even juridical practices at large. And moving between the edition and the facsimile edition, you can even use it for teaching paleography to a certain extent. Astrid Meier’s experience with similar sources from, mainly, the Ottoman period are reflected in this organization for all to see.

For the more visual inclined the book offers, in addition to everything mentioned so far, a large number of detailed maps on divergent scales which bring the widespread endowments of the Umayyad Mosque to life in an entirely new way altogether. The attention to mapping that Mathieu Eychenne and particularly Élodie Vigouroux bring to the table, would set this book apart from most publications in the field all by themselves.

Now, you might say that I have not been objective in this review of sorts. Then, please, read the book and prove me wrong. If, however, you do not read it, you are seriously missing out.

Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "The Umayyad Mosque: A Review of sorts", in Damascus Anecdotes, April 22, 2020,

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