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.
According to the Mobayed’s 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.
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.
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.
Asmaa al-Ghoul is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Palestine Pulse and a journalist from the Rafah refugee camp based in Gaza.