Medieval Arts of Syria and Lebanon Part III

By | December 17, 2021

The only elements absent in the mosaics of the Great Mosque of Damascus are the peculiar symbols of Christianity – the cross, the throne, birds, fish – and figures of saints. The decoration of the earliest Umayyad monuments, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the Great Mosque of Damascus and the small prayer hall of Mshattā (Jordan), accompanied by an elaborate workmanship stucco, is a proof that, from the beginning, Islam would not tolerate human or animal figures in the religious sphere; however, this prohibition did not extend to profane buildings, such as large palaces. ῾Anjar, Raqqa and Qaṣr al-Ḥayr al-Gharbī, as well as the Jordanian desert palaces, were beautifully decorated with vivid and expressive figurative images of all kinds. Countless examples of this type in the minor arts – wood carving, metalwork, ivory, glasswork, textiles, manuscripts and pottery – are evidence of the existence of a lively figurative iconography in the history of Islamic art. The Syria Umayyad succumbed to the Abbasids in 750. Marwān II, the last of the Umayyad caliphs, fled to Egypt, leaving Damascus and the remaining large cities of the Syria and Lebanon to surrender after a weak opposition to the new power. In the same year Marwān II was captured and killed together with his partisans, with the exception of a nephew of Hishām, who fled to Spain where he founded an Umayyad dynasty that held power for two hundred and fifty years. Meanwhile, the center of power had shifted from the Syria to Iraq. Shortly after his succession in 762, the second Abbasid Caliph al-Manṣūr embarked on an unprecedented public construction project, with the construction of Baghdad, the new capital on the Euphrates. Al-Manṣūr is also responsible for the reconstruction of Raqqa (772), in which many of the architectural ideas introduced in Baghdad can still be observed, both in the ruins still standing and in the parts brought to light by excavations. For Syria 2005, please check ehealthfacts.org.

Syria and Lebanon were the subject of local disputes and contention between different factions struggling to gain control of parts of the ancient Umayyad empire; few monuments of a certain significance remain from this period. The Abbasid dynasty survived, only nominally, until 1258, when the last caliph was killed by the Mongols, but two centuries earlier the Selgiuqid Turks commanded by Alp Arslan, grandson of Tughril, had pushed as far as Aleppo and then continued towards the ‘Asia Minor, where in 1071 they defeated the Byzantine emperor in Manzikert. The request for help addressed on this occasion to the pope by the Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus gave rise to the first crusade. At this juncture, the Syria remained for some time in a state of anarchy, disputed between Arabs, Selgiuqids, Turcomans and Fatimids, until it was finally occupied by Selgiuqid Amīr in 1075. During this period much of Lebanon remained under the control of the Fatimids, although Tripoli enjoyed a kind of independence under the Fatimid protectorate. In 1097, before the Selgiuqids had been able to consolidate their power over the coastal region, the Crusaders arrived. The Selgiuqids of Rūm established their capital in Konya, in Asia Minor, but also in Syria there are specific testimonies of their style. In the field of art and architecture the Selgiuqids made a synthesis of the ideas already developed in the regions they crossed, from Central Asia, to Persia and Syria.

Their works in Syria and in Asia Minor show how they adapted their artistic traditions, largely linked to brick construction, to the local stone construction technique; this translation process produced a pleasing architectural and decorative style, lively and still ‘Islamic’. Among the monuments of the Seljuk period in Syria there are numerous mosques with extraordinary minarets, in particular that of the Great Mosque (1089-1094) of Aleppo (v.), The minaret of Ma῾arrat al-Nu῾mān, the lively minaret black and white of the cathedral of Ḥāma (recently destroyed) and a group of minarets that are preserved in centers along the Euphrates: Meskene, Qal῾at Jabar and the so-called three sisters of Abū Hurayra. The minarets of Meskene and Abū Hurayra were moved to an adjacent hill when a modern dam was built on the Euphrates, whose artificial lake submerged the remains of ancient Balis (near od. Meskene). of the Selgiuqids dissolved in the dispute between the various branches of the family. The control of the Syria then passed into the hands of the military aristocracy and soon the figure of the abegi Zangī (1127-1146) was established, who, with his son Nūr al-Dīn Maḥmūd (1146-1174), distinguished himself for the battles against the Crusaders. Nūr al-Dīn Maḥmūd sent one of his generals, Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn (Saladin), to Egypt to end the civil war between the Fatimids of Cairo. L’ friendly help turned into annexation and Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn virtually became lord of Egypt (1169), to then move back to Syria (1174), overcoming the opposition of troops loyal to the previous sovereigns, taking Damascus and sweeping away all resistance up to the Euphrates. In 1183 he conquered Aleppo and in 1187, with the battle of Ḥaṭṭīn, he destroyed the army of the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem, occupied the holy city, while only the castle of Tire was able to resist him.During this turbulent period, the architecture of the S it was modest, but the successors of the Selgiuqids made impressive contributions to the artistic heritage of Aleppo and Damascus (v.). In Syria stands the oldest preserved madrasa in the Islamic world, that of Gümüshtegin in Bosra, built by the governor of Damascus under the atabegs, in 1135-1136.

Medieval Arts of Syria and Lebanon Part III