Praying in the Great Omari Mosque elicits humanistic emotions before evoking religious feelings, especially if one knows that, thousands of years ago, people prayed in this place of worship when it was a pagan temple for Marna, the greatest of the city’s seven gods. During that era, Gazans worshiped idols and the sun.
According to Saleem Mobayed’s book "Islamic Archaeological Buildings in the Gaza Strip," when Christianity emerged at the beginning of the 5th century, the majority of the city’s inhabitants embraced Christianity and demolished the pagan temple. They built a church on the same site to practice their faith, under the supervision of the then Gaza bishop St. Prophyrus and with the support of Queen Eudoxia and her husband King Arcadius. The latter ordered 42 Greek marble columns to be shipped to Gaza to construct the church, which was named in honor of the saint.
Two and a half centuries later, during the era of Islamic conquests, Gazans turned to the new religion, and the church was transformed into a mosque. It was named the Omari Mosque after Caliph Umar bin al-Khatab.
The mosque is characterized by an open air courtyard surrounded by more than 20 architecturally diverse arches that date back to the Mamluk and Ottoman eras. The five outer doors of the mosque open onto the souk and the streets of Gaza’s old city. One of the doors leads to an area known as the Qaysarriya. It is comprised of small shops built during the Mamluk era that are currently used by gold vendors.
On the corner of one of the mosque’s outer passageways, 66-year-old Murjan Subeih leaned on the old wall, reading the Quran. Subeih, who looked weary, probably due to the fast, told Al-Monitor on this July day that he has been coming to the mosque to read the Quran and pray since the 1960s.
Proudly, Subeih recounted the history of the mosque, describing it as a spiritual fortress. He led me into the mosque, leaving the surrounding men reading Qurans looking baffled. Women are not supposed to enter the prayer space, which is formed by a set of iwans, most dating from the time when the mosque was a church. A new iwan was added during the Mamluk era, expanding the size of the prayer area to include a niche with exquisite decoration and stonework. Marble columns with Corinthian capitals are located throughout the iwans, yet do not separate it from the rest of the mosque, according to Mobayed’s book.
According to the same book, the minaret was built according to Mamluk architectural style. Its lower half is in the shape of a square, and there is an octagonal section rising above. The minaret is richly decorated with carvings, some open and some closed.
When standing at the western door of the mosque in the internal courtyard and looking at the minaret, one can see the cavity where the church bell used to ring, signaling prayer time. As mentioned in Abdul Latif Abu Hashem’s book "Archaeological Mosques in the City of Gaza," the outer part of the minaret has a modern form. It was built in 1926, after the original minaret was demolished during World War I.
According to Subeih, who appeared to be religious, the fact that the mosque was once a pagan temple makes it even more special. He pointed to an aperture in the ceiling of the northern iwan, which is 12 meters high, explaining that it is a remnant of the past, when the sun was worshiped. He obviously didn’t know that nothing remained of the pagan temple due to rain, wind and earthquakes, and that this rounded window was a part of the church, as the aforementioned book noted.
The next day, I visited the mosque’s library, which is said to have old and original manuscripts. Library officials, however, said that they were moved to a location that specialized in displaying these manuscripts. According to Tarek Haniyeh, a tourist guide for the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs, there are 20,000 books and manuscripts, which King Baibars donated to the mosque.
Haniyeh told Al-Monitor that during the Islamic conquests and after Umar bin al-Khatab became caliph, the majority of the city’s Christian residents embraced the Islamic faith. Under the Umayyads, it was stipulated that Muslims were not to take over Christian houses of worship. However, because the majority of the city’s residents became Muslims, it was agreed upon that the largest house of worship — the St. Prophyrus Church — would be given to the Muslims. It was converted into the Omari Mosque, while the Orthodox Church in the Zeitoun neighborhood remained intact.
Haniyeh explained that in the 12th century, crusaders built by force a cathedral dedicated to John the Baptist, which was later destroyed by Saladin and transformed into a mosque.
Haniyeh added that 700 years ago, during the Mamluk era, Sultan Ahmad bin Qalawun added the fourth iwan to the southern part of the mosque. Yet, the latest additions came to pass 300 years ago during the Ottoman era, when a courtyard was added to the mosque, leaving it with a surface area of 4,100 square meters.
During the Islamic era, many criticized that though churches were transformed into mosques, the reverse never occurred. Historians, however, attribute this to the fact that Islam came after Christianity.
In the same concern, Mobayed said in an interview with Al-Monitor in his home that many churches preserved their identity, notably the Orthodox Church in the Zeitoun neighborhood. Speaking of the Omari Mosque, Mobayed noted that when the majority of the residents became Muslims, they agreed to transform the church into a mosque due to its ample space. He reiterated that the mosque still maintains some Christian characteristics, just like the Hagia Sofia in Turkey, in which there are still historical Christian icons.
On the architectural level, Mobayed said that church-like characteristics are still apparent in the Omari Mosque because of its cathedral architectural style. Additionally, the mosque maintains a cruciform east-west axis in accordance with historic church architecture. Also, the mosque does not have a dome.
During my second visit to the mosque, I saw Subeih in the same place, the Quran in front of him, taking a light nap. Suddenly, he awoke and looked in my direction with a blank stare, indicating that he didn’t recognize me. I am sure, however, that he recognizes the historical value of this place. He is one of millions of worshipers who have passed through these halls to worship the sun, God and Jesus.
Asmaa al-Ghoul is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Palestine Pulse and a journalist from the Rafah refugee camp based in Gaza.