DOME OF THE ROCK AND EL AQSA MOSQUE
The Dome of the Rock — in the middle of the Temple Mount, the most acred area of Jerusalem — is world’s oldest and, in the minds of many, most beautiful mosque. Known to Muslims as the Mosque of Omar, it is an eight-sided structure with a golden dome that was built by the Umayyad Muslim Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik between A.D. 688 and 692. The first great building built in the Muslim world, it symbolizes the ascent that all Muslims make to God, who is represented by the circle of mosque’s great golden dome. The Prophet’s Mosque in Medina is regarded as the world’s first mosque, but little or nothing of the original remains which is why the Dome of the Rock is consider the world’s oldest mosque.
The Dome of the Rock was the first real mosque and it set the tone for all mosques that were to follow. Simple and austere, it contains no human figures and instead was decorated with Qur’anic verses written with Arabic calligraphy. The great dome suggests balance and space. There are no minarets. Lawrence Wright wrote in The New Yorker, “Here the Arab love of mystical geometry and intricate ornament has been given its greatest expression. The structure...may be imagined as three rectangles, encompassing a circle. Hushed, sombre, but almost always overwhelmingly sensual, the chamber imbues one with a sense of religious awe that few holy places in the world can match.”
The Dome of the Rock consists of two octagonal ambulatories around a circular center built somewhat north of the center of Herod’s immense artificial esplanade. A golden dome sits over the rock and a wooden balustrade surrounds it. Pillars of marble and porphyry support the inner dome. Surrounding it are marble floors, large red and green oriental carpets and a neck-high wall that children need a boost to see over but tall people can reach over and touch the rock. There isn't a whole lot of standing room between the wall and the circle of blue and white alabaster columns and striped arches that support the wooden inner surface of the dome. Illuminating the rock and the golden swirling tiles above the arches are rays of lights colored by stained glass windows in the dome.
Oleg Grabar wrote in “The Formation of Islamic Art”: “The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, admirably situated on the east side of the Holy City, is undoubtedly one of the most celebrated and most remarkable monuments of early Islam, visited every year by thousands of pilgrims and tourists. Completed or begun in 691-92 yet certainly conceived of much earlier, it is not only the earliest remaining major monument of Islam but in all probability the first Islamic monument that was meant to be a major aesthetic achievement...It is a building with a continuous history of nearly 1300 years in a city with more numerous and more contradictory emotional, pietistic, and political associations than any other urban entity in the world. So many layers of meanings have accumulated over the building and over its surrounding area, the Haram al-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary.” [Source: Oleg Grabar, “The Formation of Islamic Art”, Yale University Press, 1973, beginning with pp. 43- 71.Oleg Grabar (1929-2011) was a French-born art historian and archeologist and professor at Harvard |]
El Aqsa Mosque (near the Dome of the Rock) is the largest mosque in Israel. Constructed by the Umayyad Muslims in A.D. 715, rebuilt several times and extensively renovated in the 1930s, it is built on the site a simple wooden mosque raised by Caliph Omar in the 640s. It lies right next to the Western Wall and is where, Muslims believe, Muhammad tethered his horse before he rose to heaven. Al-Aqsa Mosque is said to rest on the place where the scales of justice will be set up on Judgement Day. It is vast and airy and filled with marble columns and pigeons. It is used as a place of worship by local Muslims. Open to the public when prayers are not in session, it boasts a silver dome made with lead and long stable-style blocks with hidden sanctuaries. It doesn’t have any minarets.
Websites and Resources: Islamic Art, Architecture and Images: Islamic Art And Architecture spmarchitecture.com ; British Museum britishmuseum.org Islamic Art Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/toah/hd/orna ; Islamic Art Louvre Louvre ; Museum without Frontiers museumwnf.org ; Architecture of Islam ne.jp/asahi/arc ; Images of mosques all over the world, from the Aga Khan Documentation Center at MIT dome.mit.edu ; Wikipedia article on Islamic architecture Wikipedia ; Islamic Finder islamicfinder.org/gallery/index ; Islamology Picture gallery islamology.com/gallery ; Islamic Images nooremadinah.net/IslamicImages/IslamicImages ; Islamic Images islamicacademy.org ; Qur’an Images WikiIslam wikiislam.net/wiki/Images:Quran ; Muslim Women zawaj.com/gallery-muslim-women-around-the-world-in-ramadan ; Wikipedia article on Islamic Art Wikipedia ; Calligraphy Islamic calligraphyislamic.com ; Islamic Art Art History Resources witcombe.sbc.edu
The Dome of the Rock is located on the Temple Mount. The Temple Mount is perhaps the most sacred piece of real estate in the world. Known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, and known to Jews as the Temple Mount, it is a huge stone platform built by Herod the Great (73-4 B.C.) on top of Mt. Moriah, the highest point in the Old City. Sitting on top of it are the Dome of the Rock, Islam's third holiest shrine, and the al-Aqsa Mosque. The retaining wall that supports one the Temple Mount’s sides is the Western Wall, Jews holiest place.
On the top of the Temple Mount is a large courtyard and a spacious park with Arab style gardens. Covering 35 acres, it occupies about 20 percent of the Old City and is one of the largest open spaces in Jerusalem. Within the large stone courtyard, are steps and arches and baths where Muslim faithful wash their feet and hands before they enter the dome. In this area, Arab families gather for picnics, children play soccer and groups of young people gather to chat. Around the courtyard are with tree-lined walkways and Mamluk-era buildings and shrines dedicated to David, Solomon and Jesus.
Both Jews and Muslim claim The Temple Mount. To the Jews it is where the First and Second temples built by Solomon and Herod stood and the Third Temple of the true Messiah will rise. Beneath it are tunnels, cisterns, remains of the Second Temple destroyed by the Romans in the 1st century and likely some remnants of the First Temple and perhaps a secret chamber that houses the Ark of the Covenant. Some Jews regarded the Temple Mount as so holy they refuse to walk on it out of fear that they may accidentally set foot on sacred or forbidden ground. Archeological excavations have not taken places out of worries by various groups that what might be found might undermine their claim on sacred ground.
Dominance over the sacred sights is regarded as expression of power. The Jews feel they have the right to it because they were here before the the Muslims. The Muslims claim dates back to 7th century when Jerusalem was captured not long after Muhammad’s death and the original versions of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque were built. To appease Muslims, the Israeli government passed laws that forbid Jews from praying anywhere on the Temple Mount aside from the Western Wall. Periodically Jewish extremist groups challenge these laws and attempt to pray near the Muslim sites and are dragged away by police. Orthodox rabbis have also forbidden Jews from praying on the Temple Mount because it is not known exactly where the Holiest parts of the temple was and there are concerns that Jews, who have not been properly purified, would accidentally tread over it and desecrate it, an incursion punishable by death. The Jews believe the Temple Mount belongs to them but they do not want to take steps to claim and rebuild the Temple because they believe that only the True Messiah can do that when he arrives.
Rock in the Dome of the Rock
The rock inside the temple under the dome is a room-size slab of weathered sandstone sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians. Many say it is where God stood when he created the world, where Adam was made and where Cain killed Abel.
The rock is believed to have been used as a sacrificial altar by the Canaanites. Jews, Christians and Muslim believe it is where Abraham made his covenant with God and was ordered by God to take his son (Ishmael to Muslims and Isaac to Christians and Jews) and "offer him up as a burnt offering," to test of Abraham's faith. Just as Abraham had raised his knife to sacrifice his most beloved son God sent an angel to tell Abraham he only fooling.
Jews regard it as the Foundation Stone where Solomon and Herod built temples. Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad was miraculously transported from Mecca to here after his death, and rose through the seven levels of heaven, on a winged horse, for a direct meeting with God (see Muhammad’s death, Islam). An oblong imprint on the rock is said to be the footprint made by Muhammad as he lept onto his winged steed. The rock and is why Jerusalem is the third most important Muslim city after Mecca and Medina. Before Mecca was selected Jerusalem was the focal point of Muslim prayers.
Purpose of the Dome of the Rock
Oleg Grabar wrote in “The Formation of Islamic Art”: “Two explanations are generally given for its construction. The first, which has the apparent merit of agreeing quite well with the historical circumstances of the years 685-92, has been adopted by one group ofscholars, especially those with a positivist bent. This interpretation is based on texts of Ya'qubi (who wrote around 874), a heterodox Muslim historian brought up in Baghdad who had traveled widely throughoutthe empire, and of Eutychius (d. 940), an orthodox priest from Alexandria. Although it is also found in other writers before The Crusades, especially traditional Muslim litterateurs, there are indications (a series of errors with respect to attributions and dates) which suggest thatin reality we are dealing with one major tradition, or at best two, which have been passed on through definable historiographic channels. All these writers claim that, since a counter-caliph Ibn al-Zubayr was in possession of Mekkah, the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik built a sanctuary in Jerusalem in order to divert pilgrims from Arabia proper by establishing the Palestinian city as the religious center of Islam. It has also been asserted that the plan of the Dome of the Rock, with two ambulatories around the Rock itself, originated with the liturgical requirements of the tawaf, the formal circumambulation that is one of the high points of Muslim pilgrimage. There are various arguments against this interpretation. For instance, the statements of Ya'qubi and Eutychius are unique in the annals of early Muslim historiography, and yet as momentous an attempt as that of changing the site of the hajj (the canonical pilgrimage to Mekkah required of all Muslims) could not have been overlooked by such careful historians asTabari and Baladhuri, and especially not by a local Jerusalem patriot like the geographer Muqaddasi. [Source: Oleg Grabar, “The Formation of Islamic Art”, Yale University Press, 1973, beginning with pp. 43- 71.Oleg Grabar (1929-2011) was a French-born art historian and archeologist and professor at Harvard |]
“It can also be shown that the histories of Ya'qubi and Eutychius contain willful distortions of fact which indicate that these writers were highly partisan in their opposition to the Umayyads. Furthermore, it would have been politically suicidal for Abd al-Malik to have made himself into an Unbeliever by modifying one of the clearest tenets of new faith only a generation and a half after the Prophet's death. He would hardly have been able to win over, as he did, the majority of the Muslims of his time against internal political threats. Then, a comparatively recently discovered text by Baladhuri makes it clear that the Syrian forces operating against Mekkah still considered the latter as the Muslim center for pilgrimage; during the fighting their leader al-Hajjaj requests permission for his troops tomake the tawaf, and there appears to have been a fairly constant stream of people going on to their holy duty in spite of the fighting. Nor would al-Hajjaj have taken such pains to restore the Ka'bah to its original shape had it been replaced in the mind of the Umayyads by tthe new building in Jerusalem. A statement in Tabari to the effect that in 687-88 at least four different groups went on pilgrimage shows that the bitter factional strifes between Muslims were held in abeyance for ritual purposes. Finally, it is doubtful whether the comparatively small area of the Dome of the Rock could have been conveniently used for the long and complex ceremony of the tawaf; and it may be argued that, had Abd al-Malik wanted to replace Mekkah, he would have chosen a type of structure closer in plan to the Ka'bah than the Dome of the Rock, since the sacramental and inalterable character of the Mekkan sanctuary is fully apparent in its several reconstructions. |
“The second explanation for the Dome of the Rock's construction is still generally accepted by the Muslim faithful, and is involved with the complex exegesis of 17.1 of the Qur’an: "Glorified be He who carried His servant [Muhammad] by night from the masjid al-haram [Mekkah] to the masjid al-aqsa [the farthest place of worship]." As early as the middle of the eighth century, the biographer of the Prophet, Ibn Ishaq, connected this Night-Journey (isra') with the no less complex Ascension (mi'raj) of Muhammad, and claimed that the masjid al-aqsa was in fact in Jerusalem and that it was from Jerusalem that the Prophet ascended into heaven. Ya'qubi mentions the fact that the Rock in the Haram al-Sharif is "the rock on which it is said that the Messenger of God put his foot when he ascended into heaven." Furthermore, all the later geographers describing the area mention a great number of qubbahs (cupolas), maqams (holy emplacements), mihrabs (niches indicating direction, about which more is written below), and other features associated with the events of Muhammad's Ascension. It might thus be suggested that the Dome of the Rock was built as a sort of martyrium to a specific incident in Muhammad's life. The arguments can be further strengthened by the fact that the architecture of the Dome of the Rock is clearly in the tradition of the great Christian martyria and is closely related to the architecture of the Christian sanctuaries in or around Jerusalem, one of which commemorated the Ascension of Christ. |
“But this explanation, like the first, leads to more problems than it solves. Many early religious traditionalists, including such great ones as Bukhari and Tabari, do not accept the identification of the masjid al aqsa with Jerusalem as the only possible one. Both Ibn Ishaq and Ya'qubi preface their accounts with expressions which indicate that these are stories not necessarily to be accepted as dogma. In fact, there is little justification for assuming that the Qur’anic reference to the masjid al-aqsa in its own time in any way meant Jerusalem. Some scholars thought that it was a mystical place in heaven, while others suggested that it applied specifically to a place near Mekkah, where there were two sanctuaries (masjid al-adna and masjid al-aqsa, the "nearer" mosque and the "farther" mosque) and thus was a concrete and immanent reference rather than an abstract and transcendental one. Furthermore, all early writers enumerate a series of holy places on the Haram area, the large platform of Herodian origin which became the Muslim sacred precinct. Many of these sanctuaries still exist in late medieval reconstructions. Next to the Dome of the Rock stood as it does today the qubbah al-mi'raj, the domed martyrium of the Ascension. Had the first and most imposing of all buildings on the Haram been built as a martyrium to the Ascension of Muhammad, there would certainly have been no need for a second martyrium. The Persian traveler Nasir-i Khusrow, one of the first to attempt a systematic explanation of all the buildings of the Haram, still considers the Rock under the Dome simply as the place where Muhammad prayed before ascending into heaven from the site of the qubbah al-mi'raj. It is rather odd that the less important moment in a sequence of commemorated events would have been glorified by a more impressive building, and Nasir-i Khusrow's statement can best be explained as reflecting a later and not very systematic attribution of meanings to already holy places.” |
What the Dome of the Rock Building Says About Its Purpose
Oleg Grabar wrote in “The Formation of Islamic Art”: “Since the incomplete external textual evidence thus cannot provide us with a satisfactory explanation of the purpose for which Abd al Malik built the Dome of the Rock, it is necessary to turn to the internal evidence of the building itself: its location, its architecture and decoration, and the 240-meter-long inscription inside the building, which is the only strictly contemporary piece of written evidence we possess. While none of these can alone explain the Dome of the Rock, an analysis of all three can lead to a much more comprehensive and precise explanation than hitherto offered of the reasons which led to the erection of the first major monument of the new Islamic civilization. [Source: Oleg Grabar, “The Formation of Islamic Art”, Yale University Press, 1973, beginning with pp. 43- 71]
“Since it can be shown that at the time of construction the Rock was not considered as the place from whence Muhammad ascended into heaven, why was it chosen as the obvious center of the structure? To answer this question we must ask ourselves what significance the Rock had at the time of the Muslim conquest and whether there is any evidence for a Muslim interpretation of the Rock or its surroundings either then or between the conquest and the building of the Dome. |
“The exact function of the Rock in earliest times is still a matter of conjecture. While the Haram was without doubt the site of the Solomonic Temple, no definite Biblical reference to the Rock exists. Whether it was "the threshing-floor of Ornan the Jebusite" (1 Chron. 3.1, 2 Sam. 14.18), whether it was an ancient Canaanite holy place fitted by Solomon into the Jewish Temple, perhaps as a podium on which the altar stood, or whether it was the "middle of the court" which was hallowed by Solomon at the consecration of the Temple (1 Kings 8.63-64) cannot be ascertained. At the time of the Herodian reconstruction of the Temple it would appear from a more or less contemporary text that the Rock was only a few inches above the level of the terrace and that it was used as a cornerstone. But the text is not very clear and nowhere have I been able to find definite evidence of an important liturgical function of the Rock in the Jewish tradition.In early medieval times, however, Mount Moriah in general and the Rock in particular were endowed in Jewish legend with a complex mythology. Mount Moriah, through its association with the Temple, became the omphalos of the earth where the tomb of Adam was to be found and where the first man was created. Yet another tradition, that of the sacrifice of Abraham, was attached to the Rock through a confusion between the land of Moriah (Gen. 22.2) and Mount Moriah. In other words, in Jewish tradition the Rock and the surrounding area acquired mystical significance as the site of the Holy of Holies and became associated with a series of legends involving major figures of the Biblical tradition, especially Abraham and Isaac. This importance is indicated in early medieval times by the statement of the anonymous Pilgrim of Bordeaux who mentions a lapis pertusus, a perforated stone, "to which the Jews come every year and which they anoint," probably a reference to the Rock itself which appears here to be thought of as a tangible remnant of the Temple and as a forerunner of the Wailing Wall. |
“During the Roman and Byzantine period the whole Haram area was left unoccupied, but under Christian rule the Holy City itself witnessed a new and remarkable development in the "New Jerusalem," the western part of the city. No Christian sanctuary appears to have been built on the area of the Haram, since the prophecy of the destruction of the Temple had to be fulfilled. Although there is some evidence in patristic literature that the Jewish associations were accepted by some Christians, with the building of the Holy Sepulchre the omphalos of the earth was transferred to another hill of Jerusalem, Golgotha, and with it were also transferred the associations between Jerusalem and Adam and Jerusalem and Abraham. Such then appears to have been the situation at the time of the Muslim conquest: the Jewish tradition considered the Haram area as the site of the Temple and the place of Abraham's sacrifice and Adam's creation and death, while the Christian tradition had moved the latter two to a new site.” |
Umar and the Dome of the Rock
Oleg Grabar wrote in “The Formation of Islamic Art”: “The conquest of Jerusalem by the Arabs in 637 was a major moment in the conquest of Syria. The Christians demanded the presence of the caliph Umar himself for the signing of the treaty of capitulation, and once the treaty was signed Umar, accompanied by the patriarch Sophronius, was led through the city. As this tour of the Holy City was endowed by later writers with a series of more or less legendary incidents, it is not easy to ascertain what happened. Most sources, early or late, Muslim or not, seem to agree on two points. [Source: Oleg Grabar, “The Formation of Islamic Art”, Yale University Press, 1973, beginning with pp. 43- 71.Oleg Grabar (1929-2011) was a French-born art historian and archeologist and professor at Harvard |]
“First, Umar was intent on seeing one specific site in the Holy City. All sources agree on that, and, in later traditions his quest and the patriarch Sophronius's opposition to it were transformed into a dramatic contest. Second, the early sources refer not to the Rock as the main object of Umar's quest, but to the Haram area in general, which they saw as the site of the Jewish Temple, the mihrab Dawud ("sanctuary of David") of the Qur’an (38.20-21) or the naos ton loudaion ("temple of the Jews") of Greek sources. The latter mention only Umar's interest in the area of the Jewish Temple and add that a Muslim sanctuary was built on its emplacement. Although mentioned in the tradition transmitted by the Muslim historian Tabari, the Rock plays no part in the prayer and recitations made by the caliph when he reached the Haram area, and in this tradition Umar rejects the suggestion made to him by Ka'b, a Jewish convert, that the Rock be on the qiblah side of the Muslim sanctuary, that is, that the faithful at prayer turn themselves toward it, because this would be reverting to a Jewish practice. |
“In these texts then, the Rock, together with the whole Haram area, appears primarily as the symbol of the Jewish Temple, but the Rock itself was not taken into any particular consideration by Umar. It may be that Umar was merely looking for a large area on which to build a mosque and that Sophronius used the Haram's Jewish background to persuade the caliph to build the mosque in the empty space of the Haram. But it is perhaps more likely, in the face of the enormous impact of Jewish traditions on early Islam and specifically on Umar at the time of the conquest of Jerusalem, that the caliph was genuinely interested in reviving the ancient Jewish holy site, inasmuch as it had been the first Muslim qiblah. At any rate, the Muslims took over the Haram area with a definite knowledge and consciousness of its significance in Jewish tradition, but with very few clear Muslim associations. |
“Later chroniclers very clearly point out that Umar withstood pressures to transform the site into a major center of Muslim worship. This fact shows, on the one hand, that Umar was pressured by Jewish and Christian groups to take up their religious quarrels. By wisely remaining aloof, the caliph emphasized the unique character of the new faith in the face of the two older ones. But, on the other hand, in building anew on the Temple area, even though in primitive fashion, the Muslims committed a political act: taking possession for the new faith of one of the most sacred spots on earth and altering the pattern imposed on that spot by the Christian domination, without restoring it to its Jewish splendor. In all these undertakings the Rock itself played but a minor part.” |
Dome of the Rock and the Sacrifice of Abraham
Oleg Grabar wrote in “The Formation of Islamic Art”: “Some sixty years after the conquest of Jerusalem, however, the Rock had become the center of the whole area. What occurred between the time of Umar and the reign of Abd al-Malik? The texts, so far as I have been able to ascertain, are silent on this score and we will have to turn to other sources. If we consider only the location of the building and the traditions associated with it, two possible solutions can be envisaged, since neither the Ascension of Muhammad nor the imitation of the Ka'bah can be accepted. Possibly Abd al-Malik decided to commemorate the Jewish Temple and therefore built a sort of ciborium over what was thought to be the only tangible remnant of the structure. There is no evidence for this, nor is it likely that Abd al-Malik had such an idea in mind at a time when the Islamic state was fairly well settled. Or the Muslims might have brought back to the Rock and to Mount Moriah in general the localization of some biblical event of significance to them, for instance the sacrifice of Abraham. As such this hypothesis is not impossible. The importance of the "Friend of God" (khalil Allah), as Abraham is called, in the Qur’an and in the Muslim tradition is well known, and it is equally well known that he was considered the ancestor of the Arabs. In later times the major events of his later life were associated with Mekkah or its neighborhood; and it is interesting to note that the life of Adam was also transferred there, just as Abraham and Adam had moved together from Mount Moriah to the Golgotha in Jerusalem. But is there any definite evidence about the localization of the sacrifice of Abraham in the early Islamic period? [Source: Oleg Grabar, “The Formation of Islamic Art”, Yale University Press, 1973, beginning with pp. 43- 71]
“Without going into complex details that have been studied elsewhere, it can be shown that the early Islamic tradition was very uncertain about the actual localization of the main events of Abraham's life. At least some Muslim authorities put many of them in or around Jerusalem, and it is plausible that, partly under the impact of the numerous Jewish converts who flocked to the new faith, there was an agreed association between the Rock and Abraham. One might suggest, then, that Abd al-Malik would have islamized the holy place and chosen the one symbol associated with it which was equally holy to Jews and Muslims, that of Abraham. To Muslim eyes this would have emphasized the superiority of Islam, since in the Qur’an (3.58 ff.) Abraham is neither a Christian nor a Jew, but a hanif, a holy man, and the first Muslim. This suggestion finds support in one interesting feature of the Christian polemic against the Muslims. John of Damascus and others after him always insisted on the fact that the new masters of the Near East were Ishmaelites, that is, outcasts; and it is with this implication that the old term Sarakenoi was explained as meaning "empty [because of or away from] of Sarah" (ek tes Sarras Kenous) and that the Arabs were often called Agarenoi, "illegitimate descendants of the slave-girl Agar," obviously in a pejorative sense. While of course the term Ishmaelite goes back to biblical times, with the arrival of the Muslims there seems to appear in Christian writing a new and greater emphasis on the sons of Agar. Whether this new emphasis by Greek and Syriac writers on the posterity of Abraham was the result of Arab claims to descent from Abraham (and the resulting building up of Ishmael) or whether it derived solely from a Christian attempt to show contempt for the new masters of the Near East is difficult to say. But granting Abraham's importance in early Islamic thought and in the traditions associated with the Rock, Abd alMalik's building would have had an essentially polemic and political significance as a memorial to the Muslim ancestor of the three monotheistic faiths. |
“The place of Abraham in early Islamic times can also be discussed in a purely Muslim context. One of the most interesting acts of Ibn al Zubayr, the opponent of the Umayyads in Mekkah, was his rebuilding of the Ka'bah after its destruction during the first Umayyad siege (683), not as it had been built with the youthful Muhammad's participation, but differently. According to a later well-known tradition he built it as the Prophet said it was in the time of Abraham. Al-Hajjaj, on the other hand, rebuilt the Ka'bah as it had been at the time of the Prophet. This curious attempt by Ibn al-Zubayr to use the prestige of Abraham to justify his building ties up with another tradition reported by al-Azraqi, the chronicler of Mekkah. The Mekkans were apparently attempting to disprove the contention that Jerusalem was "greater than the Ka'bah, because it [Jerusalem] was the place to which Prophets emigrate and because it is the Holy Land." Within the Muslim koine, therefore, it may be suggested that by islamizing the Jewish holy place Abd al-Malik was also asserting a certain preeminence of Palestine and Jerusalem over Mekkah, not actually as a replacement of the Ka'bah but rather as a symbol of his opposition to the old-fashioned Mekkan aristocracy represented by Ibn al-Zubayr. The symbol was chosen from a religious lore which had not yet been definitely localized, but which was important to the new faith as well as in the beliefs of the older People of the Book. It did not, however, infringe - as any change of center for the pilgrimage would have done - on the very foundations of Islam. The opposition between Jerusalem and Mekkah, and Abd al-Malik's involvement in it, may have given rise to the tradition about the pilgrimage to Jerusalem transmitted by Ya'qubi and others. They would have transformed what had been a religious political act entailing an unsettled point of religious lore into a religious-political act of impiety intended to strike at the very foundation of one of the "pillars of Islam." Thus did the later propaganda machine of the Abbasids attempt to show the Umayyads as enemies of the faith in a manner only too reminiscent of our own practices today. |
“From the consideration of the location of the Dome of the Rock, then, it would appear that although at the time of the conquest the main association was between the Jewish Temple and the Haram area, this association does not in itself explain the fact of the building. It is only through the person of Abraham that the ancient symbolism of the Rock could have been adapted to the new faith, since no strictly Muslim symbol seems to have been connected with it at so early a date. In itself this hypothesis cannot be more than a suggestion, for there is no clear-cut indication of Abraham's association with the Rock of Jerusalem at the time of Abd al-Malik. Furthermore, the question remains whether the monument should be understood within a strictly Muslim context or within the wider context of the relationship between the new state and faith and the older religions of the Near East. For clarification we must turn now to the other two documents in our possession. |
“The second piece of contemporary evidence we can use for understanding the Umayyad Dome of the Rock is in the building itself, its decoration and its architecture. Click on following word for an image of the Dome of the Rock: image. The Dome is a ciborium or "reliquary" above a sacred place, on a model which was fairly common among Christian martyria throughout the Christian world, and which was strikingly represented by the great churches of Jerusalem itself. In other words, the architecture confirms a symbolic quality of place of commemoration for the Dome of the Rock but does not provide any clue for its meaning at the time of Abd al-Malik.” |
Dome of the Rock in 1172
After the Crusaders claimed Jerusalem, Theoderich wrote in his guide to Holy Places in Palestine (A.D . 1172): “Hence by a street which bends a little towards the south one comes through the Beautiful Gate of the Temple to the Temple of the Lord, crossing about the middle of the city; where one mounts from the lower court to the upper one by twenty-two steps, and from the upper court one enters the Temple. In front of these same steps in the lower court there are twenty-five steps or more, leading down into a great pool, from which it is said there is a subterranean connection with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, through which the holy fire which is miraculously lighted in that church on Easter Even is said to be brought underground to the Temple of the Lord. Now, the outer court is twice as large, or more, than the inner court, which, like the outer one, is paved with broad and large stones. Two sides of the outer court exist to this day; the other two have been taken for the use of the canons, and the Templars, who have built houses and planted gardens on them. [Source: Appendix 2 Theoderich's Description of the Holy Places (A.D. 1172) "The Temple of Ihe Lord": "Dome of the Rock", translated by Aubrey Stewart (London: Palcstine Pilgrims' Text Society, 1896): 30-32.]
“On the western side one ascends to the upper court by two ranges of steps, and in like manner on the southern side. Over the steps, before which we said that the pool is situated, there stand four columns with arches above them, and there, too, is the sepulchre of some rich man, surrounded by an iron grille, and beautifully carved in alabaster. On the right, also, above the steps on the south side, there stand in like manner four columns, and on the left three. On the eastern side also there are fifteen double steps, by which one mounts up to the Temple through the Golden Gate, according to the number of which the Psalmist composed fifteen psalms, and above these also stand columns. Besides this, on the south side above the two angles of the inner court, stand two small dwellings, whereof that towards the west is said to have been the school of the Blessed Virgin. Now, between the Temple and the two sides of the outer court - that is to say, the eastern and the southern sides - there stands a great stone like an altar, which, according to some traditions, is the mouth of some pools of water which exist there; but, according to the belief of others, point out the place where Zacharias, the son of Barachias, was slain. On the northern side are the cloister and conventual buildings of the clergy. Round about the Temple itself there are great pools of water under the pavement. Between the Golden Gate and the fifteen steps there stands an ancient and ruined cistern, wherein in old times victimes were washed before they were offered.
“The Temple itself is evidently of an octagonal shape in its lower part. Its lower part is ornamented as far as the middle with most glorious marbles, and from the middle up to the topmost border, on which the roof rests, is most beauteously adorned with mosaic work. Now, this border, which reaches round the entire circuit of the Temple, contains the following inscription, which, starting from the front, or west door, must be read according to the way of the sun as follows: On the front, "Peace be unto this house for ever, from the Father Eternal." On the second side, "The Temple of the Lord is holy; God careth for it; God halloweth it." On the third side, "This is the house of the Lord, firmly built." On the fourth side, "In the house of the Lord all men shall tell of His glory." On the fifth, "Blessed be the glory of the Lord out of His holy place." On the sixth, "Blessed are they which dwell in Thy house, O Lord." On the seventh, "Of a truth the Lord is in His holy place, and I knew it not." On the eighth, "The house of the Lord is well built upon a firm rock."
“Besides this, on the eastern side over against the Church of St. James (now called Qubbat al-Silsilah) there is a column represented in the wall in mosaic work, above which is the inscription, "The Roman Column." The upper wall forms a narrower circle, resting on arches within the building, and supports a leaden roof, which has on its summit a great ball with a gilded cross above it. Four doors lead into and out of the building, each door looking to one of the four quarters of the world. The church rests upon eight square piers and sixteen columns, and its walls and ceilings are magnificently adorned with mosaics. The circuit of the choir contains four main pillars, or piers, and eight columns, which support the inner wall, with its own lofty vaulted roof. Above the arches of the choir a scroll extends all round the building, bearing this text: "'My house shall be called the house of prayer,' saith the Lord. In it whosoever asks, receives. and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks shall be opened. Ask, and ye shall receive; seek, and ye shall find." In an upper circular scroll similarly placed round the building is the text: "Have Thou respect unto the prayer of Thy servant, and to his supplication, O Lord my God, that Thine eyes may be open and Thine ears turned towards this house night and day. Look down, O Lord, from Thy sanctuary and from the highest heaven, Thy dwelling-place."
“At the entrance to the choir there is an altar dedicated to St. Nicholas, enclosed in an iron enclosure, which has on its upper part a border containing this inscription: in front, "In the year 1101, in the fourth indiction, Epact 11," and on the left side, "From the taking of Antioch 63 years, from the taking of Jerusalem 53." On the right side, "From the taking of Tripoli 52 years, from the taking of Berytus 51 years, from the taking of Ascalon 11 years."
Mosaics in the Dome of the Rock
Oleg Grabar wrote in “The Formation of Islamic Art”: “Most of the decorative themes of the mosaics consist of vegetal motives interspersed with vases, cornucopias, and what have been called "jewels". All these elements, except the "jewels," are common enough and their significance in late-seventh century art is primarily stylistic; but the "jewels" present peculiarities that may help to explain the meaning of the structure. [Source: Oleg Grabar, “The Formation of Islamic Art”, Yale University Press, 1973, beginning with pp. 43- 71]
“The jewel decoration does not appear uniformly throughout the building but almost exclusively on the inner face of the octagonal colonnade and of the drum. Although it has been suggested that this is so the decoration will appear more brilliant when seen against the light coming from the windows, it can be shown that the difference between this part of the mosaic decoration and the rest of it lies not in a jewellike effect but in the type of jewels used. Had the intended effect been purely formal, gems and mother-of-pearl, as used elsewhere in the building, would have served equally well here. It may rather be suggested that these actual crowns, bracelets, and other jeweled ornaments were meant to surround the central holy place toward which they face, and it is in this sense that they contrast with the purely decorative gemlike fragments throughout the building. |
“Although in most cases the jewels have been adapted to the vegetal basis of the decorative scheme, they are identifiable. There are crowns, either diadems with hangings and encrusted precious stones and in many cases topped with triangular, oval, or arched forms, or diadems surmounted by wings and a crescent. There is also a variety of breast-plates, necklaces, pins, and earrings, almost all of which are set with precious stones as incrustations or as hangings. These ornaments can all be identified either as royal and imperial ornaments of the Byzantine and Persian princes, with the former largely predominant, or as the ornaments worn by Christ, the Virgin, and saints in the religious art of Byzantium. They were all, in different degrees and ways, symbols of holiness, wealth, power, and sovereignty in the official art of the Byzantine and Persian empires. In other words, the decoration of the Dome of the Rock witnesses a conscious use of symbols belonging to the subdued or to the still active opponents of the Muslim state. |
“What can be the significance of such a theme in the decoration of an early Muslim monument? Through texts and images one can reconstruct with some accuracy the ways in which crowns and jewels were utilized in early Christian and Byzantine art and practice; scarcity of information makes it more difficult to decide if the same habits existed in Iran, but there are a few appropriate mostly textual, parallels. In all instances crowns and jewels served to emphasize the holiness or wealth of a sanctuary or personage by surrounding it with royal insignia. This same explanation might be offered for the use of the decorative theme in the Dome of the Rock. Perhaps under the impact of the Christian sanctuaries of Jerusalem, in particular the Holy Sepulchre, the Dome of the Rock was decorated with votive crowns simply to emphasize its holiness. This explanation, which has in fact been proposed for a number of other early Islamic themes as well, would suggest that the general ornamental, beautifying aspect of the crowns and jewels took precedence over their specific, concrete meaning as royal insignia. |
“Yet such an explanation, if limited to a mere imitation of Christian models and to a generalized significance of the motifs, leads to difficulties. It does not account for the inclusion of a Persian crown within the decorative scheme. Moreover, while agreeing with the purely formal aspect of the decoration, it agrees perhaps less well with the historical and cultural milieu of the Umayyads and of Islam. We must ask ourselves whether there is any evidence in the early Islamic period for the use of crowns and other royal objects in religious building and, if so, for what purposes. |
“Returning now to the mosaics of the Dome of the Rock, one can argue, first, that the crowns and jewels reflect an artistic theme of Byzantine origin which in an Islamic context also used royal symbols in a religious sanctuary to emphasize the sanctuary's holiness. But one can suggest too that the choice of Byzantine and Sassanian royal symbols was dictated by the desire to demonstrate that the "unbelievers" had been defeated and brought into the fold of the true faith. Thus, in the case of the mosaic decoration, just as in the problem of the building's location, explanations of the Dome of the Rock occur on a series of parallel levels. There is an internal, Islamic explanation; there is an explanation that relates the building to non-Muslim monuments and functions; and there is what may be called an accidental level, at which the mosaic decoration is simply meant to be beautiful just as the Herodian platform of the Haram may have been chosen simply because it was a large empty space. The third document in our possession, the inscription, will provide us with a possible solution. |
Inscriptions in the Dome of the Rock
Oleg Grabar wrote in “The Formation of Islamic Art”: “The Dome of the Rock is unusually rich in inscriptions, of which three are Umayyad. The major one, 240 meters in length, is found above the arches of the inner octagonal arcade, on both sides. With the exception of one place where the later caliph al-Ma'mun substituted his name for that of Abd al-Malik, this inscription is throughout contemporary with the building. The other two inscriptions are on copper plaques on the eastern and northern gates. They, too, have been tampered with by the Abbasid prince, but it has been shown that they should be considered as Umayyad. The content of the inscriptions is almost exclusively religious, with the exceptions of the builder's name and of the date, and to a large extent it consists of Qur’anic quotations. The importance of this earliest Qur’anic inscription we have lies in the choice of passages and in the accompanying prayers and praises. [Source: Oleg Grabar, “The Formation of Islamic Art”, Yale University Press, 1973, beginning with pp. 43- 71]
“The inscription in the interior can be divided into six unequal parts, each of which begins with the basmalah or invocation to the Merciful God. Each part, except for the one that has the date, contains a Qur’anic passage. The first part has surah 112: "Say: He is God, the One; God the Eternal; He has not begotten nor was He begotten; and there is none comparable to Him." The second part contains 33.54: "Verily God and His angels bless the Prophet; O ye who believe, bless him and salute him with a worthy salutation." The third passage is from 17.3, the surah of the Night-Journey, but the quotation is not connected with the isra' of the Prophet - a further argument against the belief that at the time of Abd al-Malik the Rock of Jerusalem was already identified with the place whence Muhammad ascended into heaven. Verse 3 goes as follows: "And say: praise be to God, Who has not taken unto Himself a son, and Who has no partner in Sovereignty, nor has He any protector on account of weakness." The fourth quotation, 64.1 and 57.2, is a simple statement of the absolute power of God: "All in heaven and on the earth glorify God; to Him is the Kingdom; to Him is praise; He has power over all things." The last part is the longest and contains several Qur’anic passages. First 64.1, 67.2, and 33.54 are repeated. They are followed by 4.169-71:
“"O ye People of the Book, overstep not bounds in your religion; and of God speak only truth. The Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, is only an apostle of God, and His Word which he conveyed into Mary, and a Spirit proceeding from Him. Believe therefore in God and his apostles, and say not 'Three.' It will be better for you. God is only one God. Far be it from His glory that He should have a son. His is whatever is in the heavens, and whatever is on the earth. And God is a sufficient Guardian. The Messiah does not disdain being a servant of God, nor do the Angels who are near Him. And all who disdain His service and are filled with pride, God will gather them all to Himself."
“This quotation is followed by a most remarkable invitation to prayer: "Pray for your Prophet and your servant, Jesus, son of Mary," which is followed by 19.34-37: "And the peace of God was on me [Mary] the day I was born, and will be the day I shall die, and the day I shall be raised to life. This is Jesus, the son of Mary; this is a statement of the truth concerning which they doubt. It beseems not God to beget a son. Glory be to Him. When he decrees a thing, He only says to it 'Be,' and it is. And verily God is my Lord and your Lord; adore Him then. This is the right way." And the inscription ends with the exhortation and threat of 3.16-17: "God witnesses that there is no God but He: and the angels, and men endued with knowledge, established in righteousness, proclaim there is no God but He, the Mighty, the Wise. The true religion with God is Islam; and they to whom the Scriptures had been given differed not until after the knowledge had come to them, and through mutual jealousy. But, as for him who shall not believe in the signs of God, God will be prompt to reckon with him."
“The two inscriptions on the gates are not so explicit. That on the east gate bears a number of common Qur’anic statements dealing with the faith (2.256, 2.111, 24.35, 112, 3.25, 6.12, 7.155) and a long prayer for the Prophet and his people. The inscription on the north gate is more important since it contains two significant passages. First, 9.33 (or 61.9): "He it is who has sent His messenger with the guidance and the religion of truth, so that he may cause it to prevail over all religion, however much the idolaters may hate it." This is the so-called prophetic mission which has become the standard inscription on all Muslim coins. But, while it is true that it has become perfectly commonplace, its monumental usage is rarer and this is the first known occurrence of it. Second, the inscription contains an abridged form of 2.130 (or part of 3.78), which comes after an enumeration of the prophets: "We believe in God, in that which was passed down to Muhammad [not a Qur’anic quotation] and in that which the prophets received from their Lord. And we make no distinction between any of them and unto Him we have surrendered" . |
“We can emphasize three basic characterictics of these quotations. The fundamental principles of Islam are forcefully asserted, as they will be in many later inscriptions; all three inscriptions point out the special position of the prophet Muhammad and the importance and universality of his mission; and the Qur’anic quotations define the position of Jesus and other prophets in the theology of the new faith, with by far the greatest emphasis on Jesus and Mary (no Old Testament prophet is mentioned by name). The main inscription ends with an exhortation, mingled with the threat of divine punishment, pointing to Islam as the final revelation and directed to the Christians and the Jews ("O ye people of the Book"). These quotations do not, for the most part, belong to the usual cycle of Qur’anic inscriptions on monuments. Just as the Dome of the Rock is a monument without immediate parallel in Islamic architecture, so is its inscription unique. Moreoever, it must be realized that even those quotations which later became commonplace were used here, if not for the first time, at a time when they had not yet become standard. Through them the inscription has a double implication. On the one hand, it has a missionary character; it is an invitation, a rather impatient one, to "submit" to the new and final faith, which accepts Christ and the Hebrew prophets among its forerunners. At the same time it is an assertion of the superiority and strength of the new faith and of the state based on it. |
“The inscription also had a meaning from the point of view of the Muslims alone, for it can be used to clarify the often quoted statement of Muqaddasi on the reason for the building of the Dome of the Rock. One day Muqaddasi asked his uncle why al-Walid spent so much money on the building of the mowque of Damascus. The uncle answered:
“"O my little son, thou has not understanding. Verily al-Walid was right, and he was prompted to a worthy work. For he beheld Syria to be a country that had long been occupied by the Christians, and he noted there the beautiful churches still belonging to them, so enchantingly fair, and so renowned for their splendor, as are the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Churches of Lydda and Edessa. So he sought to build for the Muslims a mosque that thouls be unique and a wonder to the world. And in like manner is it not evident that Abd al-Malik, seeing the greatness of the martyrium [qubbah] of the Holy Sepulchre and its magnificence was moved lest it should dazzle the minds of the Muslims and nence erected above the Rock the Dome which is now seen there."
“It is indeed very likely that the sophisticated Christian milieu of Jerusalem had tried to win to its faith the rather uncouth invaders. And it is a well-known fact that eastern Christianity had always liked to use the emotional impact of music and the visual arts to convert "barbarians." that such attempts may have been effective with the Arabs is shown in the very interesting, although little studied, group of accounts dealing with the more or less legendary trips of Arabs to the Byzantine court in early Islamic times, or sometimes even before Islam. In most cases the "highlight" of the "guided tours" to which they submitted was a visit either to a church where a definite impact was made by the religious representations or to a court reception with similar results. In the pious accounts of later times the Muslim always leaves impressed but unpersuaded by the pageantry displayed.
One may wonder, however, whether such was always the case and whether the later stories should be considered, at least in part, as moral stories intended to ward off defection. That the danger of defections existed is clearly implied in Muqaddasi's story. From a Muslim point of view, therefore, the Dome of the Rock was an answer to the attraction of Christianity, and its inscription provided the faithful with arguments to be used against Christian positions. It is of considerable importance to recall, finally, that at the very same time the neighboring basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem was being redecorated by Christians. The new decoration consisted of symbols of the Church's councils, both ecumenical and regional, and including those councils which condemned the monophysite heresy and asserted the trinitarian dogma of Christianity. The coincidence is certainly not fortuitous. |
“A priori two major themes had to be present in the construction of the Dome of the Rock. First, the building of a sanctuary on Mount Moriah must have been understandable - and understood - in terms of the body of beliefs which had been associated with that ancient holy spot, since Islam was not meant as a totally new faith but as the continuation and final statement of the faith of the People of the Book. In other words, the Dome of the Rock must have had a significance in relation to Jewish and Christian beliefs. Second, the first major Muslim piece of architecture had to be meaningful to the follower of the new faith. As we have seen, these themes recur in the analysis of the three types of evidence provided by the building itself. Its location can be explained as an attempt to emphasize an event of the life of Abraham either in order to point to the Muslim character of a personage equally holy to Christians and Jews or in order to strengthen the sacredness of Palestine against Mekkan claims. The royal symbols in the mosaics could be understood as simply votive or an expression of the defeat of the Byzantine and Persian empires by the Muslims. Finally, the inscriptions are at the same time a statement of Muslim unitarianism and a proclamation to Christians and Jews, especially the former, of the final truth of Islam. |
“But in the inscriptions the latter theme is preponderant and it is in the inscriptions, with their magical and symbolic significance, that we find the main idea involved in the erection of the Dome of the Rock. The inscription forcefully asserts the power and strength of the new faith and of the state based on it. It exemplifies the Umayyad leadership's realization of its own position with respect to the traditional heir of the Roman empire. In what was in the seventh century the Christian city par excellence Abd al-Malik wanted to affirm the superiority and the victory of Islam. This affirmation, to which was joined a missionary invitation to accept the new faith, was expressed in the inscriptions, in the Byzantine and Persian crowns and jewels hanging around the sacred Rock, and most immediately in the appropriation of the ancient site of Mount Moriah. Thereby the Christian prophecy was voided and the Jewish mount rehabilitated. But it was no longer a Jewish sanctuary; it was a sanctuary dedicated to the victorious faith. Thus the building of the Dome of the Rock implies what might be called a prise de possession, on the part of Abd al-Malik, of a hallowed area. The Dome of the Rock should be related not so much to the monuments whose form it took over, but to the more general practice of setting up a symbol of the conquering power or faith within the conquered land. In Umayyad Islam this affirmation of victory was totally bound with missionary zeal. |
“The formal terms used to express this symbolic appropriation were not new but consisted almost exclusively of the forms of Byzantine and, to a far smaller degree, Sassanian art. The one purely Islamic feature, the inscriptions, were for the most part in places where they were hardly visible. For, regardless of the Muslim associations that appear in the creation of the Dome of the Rock, the building's primary purpose was to be a monument for non-Muslims. With all the Islam-wide ramifications of its symbolism, it was an immanent building that served precise contemporary needs, the most crucial of which was to demonstrate to a Christian population (especially the orthodox church), which often still thought Muslim rule was a temporary misfortune, that Islam was here to stay. As Abd al-Malik succeeded in checking the dangers of Byzantine intervention and internal dissensions, this timely significance of the Dome of the Rock receded in importance. Purely Islamic religions and pietistic associations began to appear and to transform fairly rapidly the Dome of the Rock and the whole Haram area into the purely Muslim sanctuary it has remained ever since. This, however, is another story. The main point of our demonstration is that, whereas in the Qusayr Amrah fresco we have what seems to be an original form illustrating the Muslim prince's participation in the family of the earth's rulers, in Jerusalem almost exclusively traditional non-Islamic forms served to show to the Jewish and especially Christian worlds that the new faith was their successor in the possession of the one revealed religion and that its empire had taken over their holiest city.” |
Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons
Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; "Islam, a Short History" by Karen Armstrong; "A History of the Arab Peoples" by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); "Encyclopedia of the World Cultures" edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); "Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2018