• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

The Fate of Byzantine Churches Under Early Islam



In the aftermath of the Arab conquest dozens of treaties safeguarded non-Islamic places of worship. These protections rarely forbade the construction of a mosque (masjid) or Friday mosque (jamia) – the Islamic equivalent of a cathedral – in the strategic parts of these cities, however. Indeed, looking at the religious topography of early Islamic cities, many scholars subscribe to the theory that that the Muslims used or partitioned the great churches before bulldozing them and that this phenomenon effectively ended late antiquity. In reality, however, the picture is mixed.

Once conquered most cities in the Levant were granted aman, assurance of protection. This effectively froze much of the urban fabric. According to al-Jahshiyar (d. 942) this attitude was so prevalent that Ramla had to be built because Lydda prevented its Islamic governor from building a palace appropriate to his rank within the city.


Under al-Walid, however, the Great Mosque of Damascus was built after expropriating St John’s cathedral. Visitors can still see that the exterior of the qibla wall was the southern entrance to the basilica (the great church probably became the church dedicated to St Thomas situated near the homonymous city gate). It must be noted, however, that local opposition had prevailed against the previous attempts of powerful caliphs such as Mu’awiya and Abd al-Malik. Furthermore, Umar II felt so bad about this seizure that he returned many churches in the area of al-Ghuta outside Damascus.


At Hims tenth-century Muslims claimed a fraction of the church was given over to them but most accounts – including travellers’ – refer to its mosque being close to the church. At Aleppo al-Walid founded the mosque to the east of the cathedral, a green burial ground. It wasn’t until 1124 that the church was taken over by the qadi who converted it to a mosque in 1148, now the madrasa al-Halawiyya (which incorporates sixth-century columns and entablatures that were once part of the tetraconch church).


At Amida (Diyabakir) either the sources are confused or the religious landscape was fluid. Ps. al-Waqidi claimed the church was transformed into a mosque in 639. The Chronicle of Zuqnin refers to a restoration of its Great Church in 770. While a description of the city by Nasir-I Khusraw in 1046 represents the mosque and church as separate buildings both built using the local black basalt. In any case after the Seljuk conquest a new Friday mosque was built by dismantling the church (1091).

Edessa (Urfa) did not retain its rank after the conquest. Harran supplanted its role in the province. This ensured it was able to retain its Christian identity. Indeed, its cathedral was restored with the approval of the caliph Mu’awiya. A mosque was not built there until 825 during the anti-Christian movement of Mohammad bin Tahir who ordered the demolition of several churches by claiming they were built illegally after the conquest.

At Rusafa a marketplace and Friday mosque were built within the city’s antique walls. The qibla (southern) side of the mosque took over the section of the courtyard located along the longitudinal northern side of St. Sergios’ basilica. The mosque was partly built from spoilia brought from a nearby church.


There were also unusual cases. At Subayta in the Negev a small mosque leant against the wall of the baptistery, an integrated feature of the main church complex. The Kathisma church near Jerusalem had a mihrab added to it in the eighth century (provided with a mosaic depicting a palm tree, it was a Muslim altar within the church and its existence can perhaps be explained by the early Islamic habit of honouring Christian places, particularly those related to the figures of Jesus and Mary). Khalid al-Qasri (d. 743) also ordered the construction of a church in honour of his mother. Al-Isafahani describes how the church was attached to the qibla wall of al-Kufa’s congregational mosque.



This relatively tolerant parallelism came to an end with the demographic growth of Muslims in conquered cities. The “Pact of Umar” – a list of prescriptions and prohibitions for non-Muslims to decrease confrontation – was probably an umbrella term for all the conquest treaties handed down (with varying degrees of accuracy) and then assimilated into a standardised epistolary text. Indeed, its harsher versions were probably used to justify oppressive legislation such as the edict of Yazid II (d. 724) that ordered the removal of any Christian symbols from the urban public space.

In this welter of bigotry, it is easy to miss some of the realism that rulers also practiced. The Nestorian patriarch Sayeed, for instance, negotiated that he would only accept Islamic rule if the caliphs promised to restore several buildings. Churches such as St Stephen at Um al-Rasas were refurbished, St Mark’s in Alexandria was rebuilt c. 680, and the Great Church of Nisibis was erected in 758. Moreover, several versions of Umar’s pact contained stipulations that a city’s surrender was conditional on the rights to build new monasteries and churches. Much of the difference in attitude appears to boil down to the fact there was an Islamic legal distinction between the inherited cities (from Byzantium) and the new ones built by the Arabs. The former had rights, the latter had very few (with the exception of Baghdad).

To conclude, it’s important to remember that it was an achievement for early Islamic society – with its religious plurality – to plod along without much genocide. This attainment must be placed, however, against a backdrop of general mistrust and hostility captured in many documents. Among the niceties of the legal precedents and building records discussed in this tract, it must not be forgotten that a buttoned-up rancour prevailed. A Coptic history, for instance, records the son of a governor of Egypt dying c. 705 after spitting on an icon of the Theotokos. In another episode during the reign of Marwan II (d. 750) a Muslim was crucified like the icon he tried to slash until he confessed the Christian faith. Tales such as these inadvertently reveal just how much antipathy saturated this divided society.



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