Holy City to Islam

Islam (literally meaning both "surrender" and "peace"—surrender to the will of God and the peace that results from that surrender) was founded by Mohammed, a former merchant from Mecca in Arabia. Born around 570 AD, at the age of 40 he began receiving revelations of the word of Allah. These continued for the rest of his life and were transcribed as the Quran, the holy book of Islam. Mohammad's teaching were not well received in Mecca and in 622 AD he and his followers were forced to flee to Medina. This flight, or hejira, marks year zero in the Islamic calendar. Before Mohammed's death in 632 AD, he returned to conquer Mecca.

Beginning in 634 AD, the Arabs tribes, united under the flag of Mohammed and Islam, invaded Syria and Palestine. In 638 AD, only 6 years after Mohammed's death, Jerusalem was captured by Omar ibn al-Khattib, the second Caliph—from an Arabic word meaning "successor" (to Mohammed)—of the Arab empire. It was the first time Jerusalem had been taken without bloodshed.

During this first period of Islamic occupation—known as the Omayyad period—the holy character of the city remained intact. On the Temple Mount, then a rubbish dump, Omar built a rude wooden mosque (a place of public worship) to commemorate the second most important night of Mohammed's life, the Lailat ul-Miraj, or "Night of Ascent." It is not clear if this was a vision, dream or psychic happening, but in it the Prophet was awakened and taken from Arabia to Jerusalem by a miraculous beast. From the presumed site of the old Jewish Temple—the great rock al-Sakhra ("the rock"), now within in the Dome of the Rock—a way was opened for Mohammed through the heavens until he approached the throne of God, in a region that neither he nor the angel Gabriel, were allowed to enter. During this night the rules of Muslim prayer, the central part of the faith, were revealed to him. He is also said to have spoken with other great prophets from the past, including Jesus, Moses and Abraham. In honor of the event, Mohammed made Jerusalem the first qibla, or direction of prayer. But after he was spurned by the Jewish tribes of Arabia, he made Mecca the focus of Muslim prayer (in 624 AD).

The history of Mohammed's Night Journey is a complicated one; it begins with a simple verse in the Quran (17:1):


"Glory to the One [God] who took His servant [Mohammed] for a journey by night from the Sacred Mosque [Mecca] to the farthest mosque [Masjad al-Aqsa] whose precincts We [God] have blessed, so that We could show him [Mohammed] some of our signs; for He is the Hearer and the Seer."

The text, as you can see, does not mention Jerusalem or Mohammed's Miraj or ascent through the heavens to God's presence. But, as early as the middle of the 8th century AD, the expression "farthest mosque" was understood to mean a place in Jerusalem, and the first elements of the account of the heavenly journey made their appearance. The narrative expanded, relating:

When Abd al-Malik became Caliph in 685 AD, he was determined to restore Jerusalem to its former position. His reasons were based on more than just religious beliefs. He sought to divert Muslim pilgrims (and their gold) from the holy cities of Mecca and Medina controlled by his rival, a despot named Abdullah Ibn al-Zubayr. His scheme involved luring the pilgrims to Jerusalem, the original qibla, by erecting a shrine to shelter the sacred rock al-Sakhra that would be surpass all others, in both the Islamic world and in the empire of the Christians of Constantinople.

First, Abd al-Malik informed his governors of his intent to "build a dome over the rock in the Holy City," then he issued an edict forbidding his subjects to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. He followed this up with a journey to Jerusalem to convey his wishes directly to the men who would oversee the project. He ordered them to build a model of their proposed design. This small prototype—now called the Dome of the Chain (Qubbat as-Silsila)—still stands in the shadow of the great domed structure it inspired (far right in photo). It owes its name to the legend that Solomon hung a chain from its roof and those who swore falsely while holding it were struck by lightning.

It was absolutely vital that the Dome of the Rock not only be built well, but quickly. Construction began in 687 AD and was completed in only four years—well under budget. Al-Malik wanted to give the unspent money to the project's overseers as a reward, but they refused it. Instead, the gold was melted down and used to gild the entire dome. It is no accident that the plan imitated the octagonal rotunda around the Tomb of Christ in the original Constantinian Church of the Holy Sepulcher (its dimensions are almost identical). Oar wanted his creation to take the focus away from the Christian monument and emphasize the superiority of Islam. Thus, some of the Uranic inscriptions in gold letters inside the dome refer to the Muslim view of Jesus, denying his divinity; also denying the Trinity. For example:


"Say only the truth about Jesus over whom you dispute: he is the son of Mary! It is not fitting that God should beget or father a child."

"O People of the Book! Don't be excessive in the name of your faith! Do not say things about God but the truth! The Messiah Jesus, son of Mary, is indeed a messenger of God...So believe in God and all messengers, and stop talking about a Trinity. Cease in your own best interests! Verily God is the God of unity. Lord Almighty! that God would beget a child? either in the Heavens or on the Earth?"


Abd al-Malik marked the end of the construction with a dedicatory inscription (still visible) which reads: "This dome was built by the servant of God Abd al-Malik Ibn Marwan, emir of the faithful, in the year seventy-two" (year 72 in the Muslim calendar is 691/692 AD). Under the Abassid ruler, Caliph al-Mamun (ruled 813-833), repairs were carried out, and the caliph also seized the occasion to replace the tiles bearing al-Malik's name with others bearing his own name as the building's founder. However, since he failed to replace the tiles bearing the original date, the ruse was easily discovered...

Under the Omayyads, Jerusalem was never the seat of government; the capital of the Arab empire was Damascus, except for a brief period when rule was centered at Ramla, the only city built by the Arabs in the region. To the Islamic world, Jerusalem was al-Quds ("The Holy").

Sites and archaeological finds related to earliest Muslim-era Jerusalem

Archaeological excavations south and west of the Temple Mount revealed the remains of five palaces built by Jerusalem's Omayyad rulers. Their foundations (left) can be seen in the Ophel Archaeological Park, just inside the Dung Gate of the Old City. The area of each palace was 1.25 to 1.75 acres and each had a similar plan: a central courtyard surrounded by stoas, a passage to the stoas, and elongated rooms with pillars and arches supporting the ceiling. Some of the buildings had two stories. One, apparently the palace of the Omayyad ruler, was attached to the wall of al-Aksa Mosque and contained a direct passage into it. Also discovered was a magnificent bath house and a water-carrying system.

Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock is built as shrine for the Holy Rock, al-Sakhra, from which the prophet Mohammed is thought to have ascended to heaven.* In the Jewish tradition this is the "foundation stone," the symbolic foundation upon which the world was created, and the place where Abraham bound Isaac. This is the oldest Muslim building to have survived basically intact in its original form and today it dominates the skyline of Jerusalem, as it was meant to do from the time of its construction. It does so primarily because of its height, but also because of its physical isolated from everything else around it and because it alone, in a city of stone, is roofed with gold.

The Dome of the Rock is intended as pilgrimage site rather than a mosque for regular worship, and it is centered on the highest point of the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif ("The Noble Sanctuary"), on the place where the temples of Solomon, Zerubbabel and Herod may have stood. It sits on an elevated platform reached by eight staircases, at the top of which are delicate archways or qanatir, known popularly as "mawazim" or scales because, according to Muslim tradition, scales will be hung there to weigh the souls of humanity on Judgment Day.

Geometric principles where use in constructing the Dome of the Rock. The shining dome itself is slightly over 65 feet in diameter and it rises atop a cylinder to a height of some 98 feet. The octagonal base is oriented to the points of the compass and the four entrance doors face toward the cardinal directions. The dazzling exterior is covered with multi-colored mosaic tiles in yellow, red, blue, green, gray, black and gold, forming shimmering patterns against the blue sky. They are faithful copies of the Persian tiles that the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent added in 1545 to replace the badly damaged original mosaics. In 1961 the gilded wooden dome was replaced with by one of gold-colored anodized aluminum; in 1994 this roof was covered with 24-caret gold-leaf thanks to the government of Saudi Arabia.

The exterior, however, provides only a foretaste of the wondrous interior which is calculated to make the scarred and pitted rock in the center seem to leap upward toward heaven. Everything about this enclosed space seems light and open. The columns, sculpted from variegated marble, were resurrected from churches ruined by the Persian king Khosru III in 614 AD, and some still have their original crosses. Hardly an inch was left undecorated. The dome is supported by a drum which in turn rests on a circle of 12 columns and 4 piers. Around this is an outer set of 16 columns and 8 piers. They are positioned in such a way that one pillar almost never obstructs another, allowing for a direct line of sight across the building. The walls, ceiling, arches, and vaults are covered with floral images. The inside of the dome (right) is covered with a gold, red, white and green arabesque design, deceasing in size from bottom to top, adding to the illusion of height. The floors are entirely covered with thick handmade carpets, and visitors must remove their shoes before entering. The sacred rock projects about 5 feet above the floor, but it is hardly visible upon entering the building, as it us surrounded by a low wooden screen. In one corner of the Rock is a lattice-work wooden cabinet supposedly containing a hair from the prophet Mohammed's beard. Sixteen marble steps lead to a cave-like chamber below the Rock known in Arabic as Bir Al-Arwah ("Well of the Souls"), now used for devotions and containing a pair of mihrabs, prayer niches symbolizing the presence of Mohammed and indicating the direction of Mecca. In former times, those Muslims who prayed here were given a certificate, to be buried with them, ensuring their admission to heaven. Glass partitions have been erected to stop pilgrims from chipping away portions of the rock as mementos. Tradition further holds that this rock is where the supreme act of faith occurred that stands as the very foundation of the three monotheistic religions—Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Genesis 22 relates how Abram (Abraham) followed God's instructions to go to a unnamed mountain in the "region of Moriah" and sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. At the last minute, the God intervened and ordered Abram to lower his knife and, instead, provided a ram as a sacrifice. Over time, Abram's sacrificial mountain became Mount Moriah, and history and legend have combined to place it squarely within Jerusalem.

Al-Aqsa Mosque

At the southern end of the Temple Mount is the black-domed al-Aqsa Mosque, a name meaning "the farthest" because, according to Muslim belief, Mohammed was awakened one night and taken to the masjad al-aqsa, "the furthermost sanctuary" (not determined geographically), from where he rose to heaven. The tradition evolved that Jerusalem was the the masjad al-aqsa—the furthermost place where Mohammed was taken on his night journey—hence, the name al-Aqsa. Originally, "al-Aqsa" was applied to the whole of the Temple Mount; eventually its use was restricted to the great prayer mosque at the southern end.

In Jesus time, a roofed colonnade (Royal Stoa) ran east-west along the top of the wall where the dome of the al-Aqsa is today. Among other functions, it was the meeting place of the Sanhedrin, the 71 member Jewish supreme court. The Crusaders misidentified al-Aqsa as the palace built by Solomon and converted it into a residence for the new ruler of Jerusalem. It proved unsuitable and was later converted into a headquarters for a newly created Knights Templar, dwellers of the temple.

The al-Aqsa Mosque was constructed in several stages; at first as a large wooden building that could accommodate 3000 worshipers, built between 709 and 715 AD.  This first mosque was replaced by an immense stone building. According to historic records, it was damaged by earthquakes in 774, 777 and 1033. Between 1938 and 1942, it was extensively refurbished by the Egyptian government; the 75 Carrara marble columns that divide the interior date from this restoration and were a gift from Mussolini. Then in l969 the al-Aqsa was badly damaged by a fire deliberately started in three places. It destroyed much of the marble paneling, some of the mosaics and the superb pulpit, inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl, which was the gift of Saladin in 1168.

Today the El Aqsa Mosque is a huge hall (269 x 180 ft), with seven rows of columns supporting the roof. The center for Muslim prayer in Jerusalem, it can accommodate some 5000 worshipers. The roughly 50-foot-high dome is constructed of wood sheathed in lead and it is supported by four arches and eight pillars. It was last restored in 1927. In the southern wall is a prayer niche pointing the way towards Mecca, the holy city of Islam. This mosaic-decorated wall is one of the few remnants of the original mosque. Near the mihrab (pulpit) is a preacher's platform and another elevated one for the leader of the service. There is no other furniture in the spacious hall; the congregation sits and prostrates on the carpet covered floor.

East of the main hall are three rooms. One, the Mihrab of Zachariah, is a small Crusader chapel with a typical medieval rose window and other architectural features of that period. West of the main hall is a smaller one of the Crusader period, used today as a women's prayer hall. On July 20, 1951, King Abdullah of Jordan was assassinated here, and his grandson, the late King Hussein, escaped the same fate thanks to the heavy decoration he was wearing on his chest. Bullet marks are still visible on one of the columns near the entrance.

Right, carpeted interior of the al-Aqsa Mosque

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