The guide showing a party of tourists around the Old City of Jerusalem ushers them up a flight of steps, under a row of stone arches, and into a vast rectangular courtyard. Beyond the courtyard sprawls the timeless city, the houses crowded together in the impressive confusion of the centuries, separated by a maze of narrow streets and back alleys alive with humanity.
The effect is quite different inside the courtyard. Here there is no confusion. The surface paved with stones extends on every side of the big building in the center, so that it stands isolated in solitary splendor, and all the more impressive for sharing the space with no rival.
"The Mosque of Omar," says the tourist guide with a sweep of his hand. All eyes follow the vaulting lines of the architecture up and up, past columns, arches and cornices to the soaring dome above.
The voice of the tourist guide drones on. "You will notice that the Mosque of Omar has eight symmetrical sides—an octagon within a square courtyard. The arches are semicircular, preserving the geometrical proportions and at the same time breaking the monotony of the straight lines."
He points up at the dominating feature. "The dome completes the pattern of unity and variety, a semi-sphere on a level base. Unlike the walls, which are of solid stone, the dome is made of wood. The builders put a coating of lead on the outside, and, as we shall see when we enter, a coating of plaster on the inside. The decorations beneath the dome are typically Islamic, especially in the use of intricate mosaics, but they are not uniform in style; they show a succession of styles over a long period of time."
He pauses for effect. "This is, after all, an old building. Few examples of Islamic architecture are older than the Mosque of Omar."
"Who," says one tourist, "was Omar?"
The question is a strange one. It is like asking who Alexander was, or Caesar, or Justinian. Omar the Great ranks with them as a world figure. Yet his name is little known in the West except to historians, and even among Islamic peoples he is eclipsed by the greater fame of Haroun al-Rashid and Saladin — to whom he bequeathed the imperial basis of their power.
Before Omar, the Arabs lived mainly within the confines of the Arabian Peninsula. After Omar, they ruled the Middle East from Egypt to Syria, and north through Syria to the frontier of the Byzantine Empire. Omar the Great reigned over more provinces than any man since Alexander the Great. That alone places him in the forefront of the makers of history.
Why is his reputation not commensurate with the grandeur of his achievement?
For one thing, he was not a flamboyant personality. He clung to the simple ways of the Bedouin even after he had become the most powerful man in the world. His generals of the conquest quickly adopted the luxurious manners of the Syrians and the Persians. Their caliph never owned more than one shirt and one mantle at a time, and his meals at home were as frugal as those he ate on the battlefield.
When Omar first entered Jerusalem after the surrender of the city, he found his military men already dressed in gorgeous robes and glittering jewels, the spoils of plunder. He himself, they told one another privately, looked less like a caliph than like a beggar on a broken-down camel. He summoned them to a conference at which he criticized their departure from the old ways of the desert, and declared emphatically: "It is not fitting that we, to whom so much has been given, should be so eager to take so much."
Omar the Great never took anything for himself. He died as poor as he lived.
Again, he never tried to snatch the military laurels from his fighting men. He was the statesman and the strategist of empire-building but allowed his generals full freedom of action during their campaigns, and he willingly conceded the limelight to them when they returned as victors. He meditated in his tent while they paraded through the streets to the cheers of the crowd.
When he cashiered his foremost tactician, Khalid, this was not from jealousy of a brilliant subordinate, but because he found Khalid guilty of extortion during his Syrian command. "Oh, Khalid," the Caliph lamented, "I would forgive you if you had stolen from me."
Simplicity, poverty, justice—these are three qualities of the brave and energetic man who led the Arabs out of the confines of the Arabian Desert and into the lush lands of the age-old Fertile Crescent.
Omar arrived on the scene at the moment best suited to his genius. Born in 590 A.D., one of the early followers of the Prophet of Islam, he threw his authority behind the selection of Abu Bakr as the first Caliph of Islam. When Abu Bakr died in 634, Omar succeeded him.
Two things needed to be done at once. The Arabs had to be united under a new system that would replace the anarchy of nomadic life in the desert. Omar solved this problem by establishing the Caliphate in its historical form. The attitude of the Arabs to their enemies had to be determined. Omar solved this problem with his sword.
The true meaning of the Caliphate had not emerged under the first Caliph, for Abu Bakr reigned for only two years and was mainly concerned with his religious duties. The second Caliph saw that Islam would be under constant attack without a strong right arm. He added military duties to the Caliphate so that the Islamic peoples might know to whom to look for defense against their enemies.
Omar adopted a title to go with this specific function, a title that rings through history from his time to the present: Commander of the Faithful.
With domestic affairs straightened out, the Caliph turned to foreign affairs. Once more he brought order into events that began before his Caliphate. The Arabs were already fighting around their perimeter. This border skirmishing had revealed the startling fact that the grandiose Byzantine and Persian Empires were far weaker than anyone had suspected. There would be nothing quixotic about the desert warriors mounting a full-scale drive against these once-mighty neighbors.
Omar the Great, Commander of the Faithful, resolved to invade the imperial provinces that faced Islam along the arc of the Fertile Crescent.
Syria came first. Omar sent an army under Khalid toward Damascus. The Byzantine Emperor Heraclius hastened down from Constantinople with a larger force. Khalid out-maneuvered him, lured him into a trap in a canyon of the Jordan Valley, and overwhelmed him in the decisive Battle of Yarmuk (636). Heraclius fled back to Constantinople. Syria fell to the Arabs.
The Patriarch of Jerusalem, Sophronius, realizing the futility of attempting to hold the city, surrendered to the Caliph himself. This was the occasion of Omar's criticism of the luxury of his generals. A more famous anecdote tells of the Patriarch escorting the Caliph around Jerusalem, and inviting him to say a prayer in the Church of the Resurrection. "No," the Caliph replied, "for if I do, my people may appropriate the Church when I am no longer here to protect your rights."
Iraq came next. The Persian Emperor sent the legendary Rustam down the Euphrates to deal with these upstarts from the desert. Instead, they dealt with him at the crushing Battle of Qadisiya (637). The Persians fled back to Persia. Iraq fell to the Arabs.
Egypt was easier because the death of Heraclius left the province in a turmoil. The Arabs were in control of the Land of the Nile by the end of 641. That same year they occupied the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates, and penetrated into Persia after winning the Battle of Nihawand.
Omar had, within the space of some five years, transformed the Fertile Crescent from a threat into a bulwark. This incredible feat was distinctly his since he had, with consummate understanding of the epoch in which he lived, chosen where and when to strike on each campaign. His people, reacting spontaneously to the success of his grand strategy, called him Omar the Great.
History endorsed his statesmanship. His death at the hands of an assassin in 644 did not cause his work to crumble. He had given Islamic power the momentum to expand in subsequent centuries as far as Spain and India, and, in 1453, into Constantinople itself. A Western historian offers this summation of his career: "Omar the Great he was to his contemporaries, and Omar the Great he remains to us, the first and foremost Commander of the Faithful."
Much of the history of Islam is his monument. So is the Mosque of Omar in Jerusalem—built fifty years after his death, named in his honor by his grateful people, carefully preserved to this day, thirteen centuries after he molded the wanderers of the desert into a force that brought unity to much of the Middle East.