Temple, Temple, Temple, Church, Mosque, Cathedral, Mosque, Cathedral, Mosque. Hidden City: Beirut

Today's title might sound like some kind of childhood game but it's actually the description of a small plot of land in central Beirut that for thousands of years has been given over to divine purpose.

Before the large, blue-domed Ottoman-style Mohammad al-Amiri Mosque that towers over Martyr’s Square was inaugurated in 2008, Beirut’s central mosque had for centuries been the graceful sandstone Omari, on the corner of Maarad and Weygand Street.

Although archaeological opinions differ, it’s possible that this particular piece of Beirut has been sacred ground of some kind or another since at least 240AD, when Phillip the Arab, one of three Roman emperors of Middle Eastern origin, commissioned a Temple of Jupiter for the city. Whether the temple stood precisely on this spot or just to one side of it is still a matter of academic debate, but columns and capitals from Phillip’s temple were integrated into the Omari’s construction and can be seen around its main courtyard.

One thing the world’s many faiths share in common is the desire to remake the buildings of previous religions so it is possible - though this is even more hotly debated - that before Phillip's temple, a Graeco-Phoenician temple to Zeus/Haddad, may have occupied the site.

From Top Left: Hadad prepares to cast a lightning bolt; Zeus looks on ominously and the Emperor who gave Berytus a new temple, Phillip the Arab.

Like Jupiter, Zeus and Haddad were the god(s) of storms and so if Phillip had the temple replaced, his act was less one of repurposing than of reorientation. If this timeline proves to be true, it is possible that deities of different kinds have been propitiated on the corner of today’s Maarad and Weygand streets for the better part of the last 5,000 years.

After the Roman Empire adopted Christianity, Phillip’s temple was transformed into a church, though this was undertaken by the Byzantines, the ‘Eastern Romans’, who had ruled this half of the empire since the 4th Century.

In the middle of the 7th Century, Beirut fell to the Arab Conquest and the church was turned into a mosque, known then as the Futuh al-Islam, or the Conquests of Islam.

During the First Crusade in 1098, Beirut was captured by the Franks and was absorbed into the County of Tripoli. The mosque was repurposed and by 1110, the Crusaders had rebuilt it entirely as a cathedral dedicated to St. John the Baptist, patron saint of the Knights Hospitaller.

In 1187, the cathedral was briefly (re)converted into a mosque by the Kurdish conqueror, Salahadin Al Ayoubi, who took Beirut only to lose the city a decade later to England’s Richard the Lionheart, during the Third Crusade. In 1197, the mosque once again became a cathedral dedicated to St. John.

When Sally met Richie. The Lionheart took Beirut from the Son of Job. It wasn't the last time the two would meet.

And so it remained until 1291, when the Mamelukes conquered Beirut, driving out the Crusaders and converting the cathedral once again into a mosque.

Working with the existing structure, the Mamlukes did little more to the cathedral than whitewash the murals that decorated the main apse (these were fully removed a few centuries later), install a mihrab and a minbar and turn the bell tower into a minaret. It was this “admirable” mosque that Ibn Battuta mentions visiting in 1332, when he passed through the city.

The 'bones' of the Cathedral of St. John are still clearly visible today.

The main prayer hall when it was completely whitewashed.

As Beirut’s Muslim population grew, the mosque was added to and at some point in time, probably in the 16th of 17th Century, it was renamed the Omari and a small maqam, or mausoleum, was installed.

Off With His Hand. Nabi Yehya's Maqam today.

Curiously, just as the temples had been dedicated to the same god, under different names, the church/mosque/church/mosque transformations all had one thing in common: St. John

Under the Crusaders, the connection was in name and dedication only, but during the Ottoman period, an actual relic of John, who is venerated in Islam as the Prophet Yehya, was transferred to the Omari from the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, which has been home to the Baptist’s head since the 6th Century, when it had been a Byzantine cathedral. Beirut’s relic, part of his hand, is enshrined in Omari until today and is kept in the maqam, which was renovated on the orders of Sultan Abdulhamid II in 1887.

Badly damaged during the civil war, the Omari was expanded during reconstruction with the addition of a courtyard, ringed with Roman columns dug up during the process, which replaced the shops that previously lined that stretch of the street, the latest chapter in the story of 5,000 years of faith in central Beirut.

Hair Today

It is said that the Omari also housed another sacred relic. This was either a hair from the Prophet Mohammed’s beard or a lock of his hair, accounts vary. It was apparently on display in a chest kept in one of the mosque’s rooms until the start of the civil war in 1975. During the Israeli invasion in 1982, the chest is said to have disappeared and some years later, to have turned up in Turkey.

As to what became of it then, accounts again vary. According to some, the chest remained in Turkey and is on display somewhere in Istanbul. According to others, it was secretly purchased by Tripolitan billionaire and former prime minister, Najib Mikati, who brought the chest back to his hometown and hid it away. In either case, the whereabouts of the chest are as nebulous as the reason it disappeared in the first place.

Story: Warren Singh-Bartlett

Photos: Google Images

Created By
Warren Singh-Bartlett
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