History and Politics of the Dome of the Rock

Home | Category: Umayyads / Muslim Art and Architecture


Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock — in the middle of the Temple Mount, the most sacred area of Jerusalem — is world’s oldest and, in the minds of many, most beautiful mosque. Known to Muslims as the Mosque of Omar (Umar), 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. It is considered the first great building built in the Muslim world.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 considered 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. According to “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices” Jerusalem first came under Muslim rule in 638, during Umar's reign. The shrine itself, however, was built later, in around 692, by the caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan. It was constructed over the rock on the Temple Mount, where Muslim tradition holds that the Prophet Muhammad departed on his Night Journey to heaven. (The Temple Mount itself is also the site of the Temple of Solomon and of the Christian Dome of the Holy Sepulcher, and is thus sacred to all three great monotheistic traditions.) The octagonal shaped shrine, with its golden dome, dominates the skyline. It is majestically decorated inside and out with some 230 meters of calligraphic designs consisting of Qur’anic inscriptions. Among Muslims today pictures and representations of the Dome of the Rock are probably second in popularity only to those of the Kaaba, both because it symbolizes the Prophet's Night Journey and is located in the third holiest city of Islam and because it has become a popular symbol for the liberation of Jerusalem and Palestine. [Source: John L. Esposito “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]

Andrew Lawler wrote in National Geographic: For more than 13 centuries, the Dome of the Rock has been the jewel in the crown of Jerusalem’s sacred acropolis, a sprawling area known to Jews and Christians as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Haram al Sharif—the Noble Sanctuary. As Islam’s oldest building, the dome ranks with the neighboring Church of the Holy Sepulchre in spiritual importance and the Taj Mahal in grace. Simple geometry dressed in sumptuous materials gives this iconic structure a timeless appeal. [Source: Andrew Lawler, National Geographic, August 15, 2023]

“Any viewer’s tongue will grow shorter trying to describe it,” wrote in the great traveler Ibn Battuta while visiting Jerusalem in 1326. “This is one of the most fantastic of all buildings, of the most perfect in architecture and strangest in shape.” 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 |]

Websites and Resources: Islamic Architecture and Art: Islamic Arts & Architecture /web.archive.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 ; British Museum britishmuseum.org Islamic Art Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/toah/hd/orna ; Islamic Art Louvre Louvre ; Museum without Frontiers museumwnf.org ; Victoria & Albert Museum vam.ac.uk ; Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar mia.org.qa ; CalligraphyIslamic, lots of Islamic calligraphy web.archive.org

Founding of the Dome of the Rock

Dome of the Rock in 1910

The Dome of the Rock, built during the Muslim Umayyad dynasty in the seventh century A.D. Under the elaborate facade are the original coarse stone-block walls extending to bedrock below. Andrew Lawler wrote in National Geographic: “We have to strip away the politics imposed on the building, like peeling an onion, to understand why and how it was built,” says Beatrice St. Laurent, an American art historian who studied the site for 30 years with her Palestinian colleague, Isam Awwad. Their results provide an intriguing new take on the mysterious old shrine and the visionary Muslim leader who might have built it. [Source: Andrew Lawler, National Geographic, August 15, 2023]

Six centuries after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its Jewish Temple complex, the acropolis lay in ruins. For Byzantine Christians, this desolation was proof that their faith had triumphed over Judaism. A Muslim army took control of Christianity’s holiest city without a fight just a few years after Muhammad’s death in Medina in A.D. 632. When the new rulers sought to establish their own place of worship in Jerusalem, the choice was obvious.

One tale has it that Muhammad’s father-in-law, Umar, personally cleared away filth and debris to expose the sacred outcrop. It would be several decades before a building rose over that chunk of revered bedrock. According to early sources, the architects were two Jerusalem residents: a Muslim theologian named Raja ibn Haywa, and a Christian named Yazid ibn Salam.

Dating the Dome of the Rock

Andrew Lawler wrote in National Geographic: Until recently, the primary evidence for pinpointing the dome’s date of construction and its principal patron was an inscription on one of the building’s arcades. The mosaic lettering records the year 691 and probably the name of Umayyad caliph Abd al Malik, who reigned then, though his name was replaced by a later ruler eager to take credit. Abd al Malik has therefore long been presumed to be the building’s founder, with the date marking either the start or end of construction. [Source: Andrew Lawler, National Geographic, August 15, 2023]

But a golden opportunity—quite literally—to gather fresh clues came in the early 1990s when the dome was in desperate need of repairs following a botched renovation by an Egyptian team in the 1960s. Though Israel controls security on the acropolis, the king of Jordan remains custodian of the holy site. King Hussein sold his London home to raise $8.2 million to purchase 176 pounds of 24-karat gold plating to gild the exterior dome. Workers also removed modern aluminum and concrete repairs and replaced them with traditional materials, including mahogany beams and lead sheets. Awwad managed the ’90s restoration and allowed St. Laurent to document the process. Seizing this rare chance, the two scholars probed the building from foundation to finial, crawling among the rafters, scrutinizing more than a thousand old photographs, and locating discarded materials from earlier renovations.

One of their most intriguing finds is that the famous inscription was placed over earlier mosaics. Based on this and other evidence, St. Laurent and Awwad argue that the building’s first benefactor was Abd al Malik’s predecessor,the controversial founder of the Umayyad dynasty named Muawiya.

Umar and the Dome of the Rock

Dome of the Rock rock side view

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.” |

Muawiya and the Dome of the Rock

Dome of the Rock Interior

Muawiya, the controversial founder of the Umayyad dynasty, is believed by some to have been the main force behind the construction of the Dome of the Rock. Andrew Lawler wrote in National Geographic: A merchant’s son who became one of Muhammad’s scribes, Muawiya was a “brilliant and wily opportunist,” according to one Islamic historian. He became governor of Syria, a region that included Jerusalem, as strife broke out among contending leaders of the nascent empire. The traumatic conflict split the Muslim community between what came to be known as Sunnis and Shias. [Source: Andrew Lawler, National Geographic, August 15, 2023]

After his rival was assassinated in 661, Muawiya embarked on a monumental building program, including repairing the walls and gates of the Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem. St. Laurent and Awwad contend that the Dome of the Rock was part of that massive project, and it was designed as a seat of royal power as well as for religious purposes. “It looks just like the crowns in its mosaics,” St. Laurent notes of the building’s distinct geometric shape and bejeweled exterior.

Their most controversial claim is that the shrine was open not only to Muslims but also to Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians during what St. Laurent calls “a period of inclusivity.” As commander of the faithful, Muawiya asserted his role as leader of all the monotheistic faiths. That the city’s new Islamic rulers allowed Jews to return and permitted Christian worship is well attested in contemporary documents, supporting the idea of a fleeting era of something more than simple religious tolerance. Seen this way, says St. Laurent, the dome was the diadem in “Muawiya’s vision of unity.”

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?

Dome of the Rock and the Sacrifice of Abraham

Almost sacrifice of Ishmael

Oleg Grabar wrote in “The Formation of Islamic Art”: “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. [Source: Oleg Grabar, “The Formation of Islamic Art”, Yale University Press, 1973, beginning with pp. 43- 71]

“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. |

Well of the Souls Under the Dome of the Rock

“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.” |

Purpose of the Dome of the Rock

The reason for the Dome of the Rock's construction is still uncertain and a source of debate. Andrew Lawler wrote in National Geographic: Why did Muslim leaders pour so much time, effort, and money into this richly ornamented shrine? For today’s believers such as Karim and Kiswani, it celebrates the Prophet’s mystical journey into the skies. There is, however, no mention of that association in the few texts that are contemporary with the dome’s construction. Some argue that the new Umayyad dynasty, established in 661, sought to bolster Jerusalem’s prestige at the expense of Mecca, the power center of its political foes. The Dome of the Rock, according to this thinking, was designed to rival the Kaaba, a sanctuary centered on a sacred stone that Muslim pilgrims circle. Others insist that the dome asserted Islam’s presence in what was then an overwhelmingly Christian city; they note its cupola is almost identical in size to the Holy Sepulchre’s largest dome. [Source: Andrew Lawler, National Geographic, August 15, 2023]

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. |

looking inside the dome of the Dome of the Rock

“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.” |

Dome of the Rock in 1172

Andrew Lawler wrote in National Geographic: Once completed, the dome became for a time the scene of elaborate rituals. Early chroniclers record attendants dressed in costly robes, anointing the rock with a golden oil made of saffron, musk, and ambergris. Others spread incense into the air with censers, the smoke spreading into the city as a sweet-smelling call to prayer and drawing pilgrims and shopkeepers to circle the stone, a practice that may have its roots in pre-Islamic Arabian traditions. [Source: Andrew Lawler, National Geographic, August 15, 2023]

plan and parts of the Dome of the Rock

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."

Dome of the Rock and Jerusalem as seen from the Mount of Olives

Damage and Attacks at the Dome of the Rock

Andrew Lawler wrote in National Geographic: The Dome of the Rock has miraculously survived looters, earthquakes, religious strife, bloody invasions, and more prosaic threats like pigeon droppings clogging its drainpipes, sending rainwater trickling into the walls. Its striking image adorns coffee mugs, tea towels, and screensavers, and framed pictures of its dome hang in mosques, living rooms, and public buildings around the world. [Source: Andrew Lawler, National Geographic, August 15, 2023]

The octagonal Dome of the Rock has been damaged by earthquakes. Its windows and roof have been replaced, and its facade has been restored multiple times. New details of its many architectural changes are coming to light as experts delve into historical records, archival photographs, and remnants of its original facade.

In 1984, encouraged by an extremist mentor, Yehuda Etzion gathered 660 pounds of stolen dynamite and a handful of other ultranationalist Jews. Their goal was to blow up the dome. “It was necessary,” Etzion explains calmly when I visit his home inside a well-guarded West Bank settlement. “This was the only way to build the third temple.” Many Jews believe the dome stands on the site of the two previous temples. An informant tipped off police before the group could act, and Etzion spent five years in prison for conspiracy to commit a crime.

Etzion now insists that the dome’s demolition should come only with the agreement of the waqf, a highly dubious scenario. But his vision has moved from fringe to mainstream. Jewish religious and political leaders who in the past avoided any talk of removing the shrine now openly speak about constructing a third Jewish temple. In the meantime, a growing number of religious Jews demand the right to pray on the platform long reserved only for Muslim worship—an Israeli policy designed to prevent friction between adherents of the two faiths.

Other attacks were more successful. In 1982 an Israeli army recruit from Baltimore went on a shooting rampage in the shrine, killing two and seriously wounding several others. The Jerusalem waqf, the Islamic foundation that oversees the acropolis, claims there have been dozens of attempts by Jewish extremists to damage or destroy the building.

Political Activity at the Dome of the Rock

Andrew Lawler wrote in National Geographic: Today the Dome of the Rock also stands at the center of one of the world’s thorniest geopolitical disputes, and its golden vault is a frequent backdrop to violent confrontations between Palestinian worshippers and Israeli police. Muslims extol the shrine as Islam’s most important site after Mecca and Medina, while Palestinians honor it as the cherished symbol of their nation. For many religious Jews, however, the structure is an abomination fated to be destroyed to make way for a new Jewish temple. Some evangelical Christians also insist it must be replaced by a new temple to set in motion the return of Jesus Christ. Such a volatile mix of beliefs sends shudders through politicians across the region, who fear any attempt to raze it would result in a catastrophic war. [Source: Andrew Lawler, National Geographic, August 15, 2023]

Some Jewish extremists see the Islamic shrine as a blasphemous monument that should be demolished to make way for a restored temple. In recent years Jews have tested the limits of that restriction, roaming the grounds in groups protected by Israeli police. A new right-wing Israeli government includes several ministers eager to allow Jewish prayer on the acropolis, heightening tensions.

In April 2023, police stormed the Al Aqsa Mosque twice during Ramadan, smashing doors and windows, firing rubber bullets, and injuring 12 people. Police claimed they quelled rioters armed with fireworks who had barricaded themselves in the building, but their actions were denounced by Arab nations and Muslims around the world.

In recent decades the dome has emerged as a potent “national as well as a religious symbol” for Palestinians, explains Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh. In his book-strewn office north of the Old City, he says the dome retains its power as a place “where heaven and earth are tied together.” But he worries that the mixture of politics and faith on both sides is growing ever more volatile. “People are getting more religious,” he says. Meanwhile, political extremists also are on the rise. “It is a scary future to think about.”

As sunlight spills over the Mount of Olives shortly after dawn, Hanady Halawani meets me outside one of the acropolis gates. Small and thin, Halawani is part of a movement to make the dome a center for teaching the Qur’an to Palestinian women. “We started with 50 students and seven teachers,” she says. “Now we have 17 teachers and 650 students—and that is only the women’s project!” For Halawani, religious learning and political activism are intertwined. “Al Aqsa is a place of worship, and our presence there protects it from the occupiers.”

Israeli officials, suspicious of her organizing efforts, have repeatedly banned her from entering the sacred site, which is why we meet outside the compound. Halawani claims to have been arrested 67 times and says she has done 13 stints in prison, including three in solitary confinement. As we speak, she glances nervously at the armed Israeli police officers who pass by. When I return to the compound, two dozen religious Jews shepherded by armed Israeli police are circling the perimeter, some bowing and touching their foreheads in signs of prayer.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, Encyclopedia.com, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Conversation, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.