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The Dome of the Rock: Pt 2 The Shrine and the Mosque

As discussed in Part 1, the Temple Mount had been used as a waste dump for the citizens of Jerusalem from 610 to 638 AD. Twenty-eight years of rubbish was what Caliph Umar saw when Muslim forces captured the city in 638. Muhammad had died in 632, and his replacement, Caliph Umar, had made it his calling to capture Jerusalem. Muhammad's night journey to the seven heavens enthused Umar's control of the Temple Mount. Soon after his occupation of the city, Umar cleansed the Temple Mount, built a small mosque on the southern end over Herod's extension of the Temple Mount, and dedicated the site to Muslim worship.

Byzantine Churches

The Byzantines were robust church builders. Since the 3rd century CE, their specialty was the basilica church. The term "basilica" originated in the Roman Empire, dating back to the first century, and was mainly an architectural word referring to the basic layout of a civic building. In 313, after the Edict of Milan, the basilicas began to take on religious meaning. The Roman basilicas provided all the architectural needs of the church, and the structure was adopted – the basic layout can still be seen in many churches, cathedrals, and basilicas today. For a reference point, the Catholic church in St. Peter's Square is a basilica church with high ceilings and decorated with stained glass windows and paintings by Michelangelo. Although they lost the battle to control Jerusalem in 610, the Byzantines had churches everywhere. There is also speculation that a Byzantine church was built over the promontory Rock in 326, spurred by Constantine's mother, Saint Helena. This speculation is based on archaeological research in 1930 showing Byzantine mosaic floor tiles found under the Dome.

The most imposing structure that Umar encountered in Jerusalem was a Byzantine church built on the Western Hill (Mt. Zion) in 335. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is identified as the place of both the crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus. The whole complex was richly decorated, as we know from the description by Constantine's biographer, Eusebius of Caesarea. Unfortunately, that church was destroyed by the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim in 1009 to be replaced by a mosque.

Umar was beset by other problems in the empire and failed to follow through with any other changes on the Temple Mount. Moving forward to 687, the 9th Caliph, Abd al-Malik, employed Byzantine architects to design and oversee the building of the Dome of the Rock. It was essential to al-Malik that the structure be impressive, and it was. All its important features, from the interior double colonnades to the great wooden Dome, are faithful reproductions of features found in the Cathedral of Bosra in southern Syria, another Byzantine church 90 miles north of Jerusalem. The Cathedral of Bosra was a dry run of the Dome of the Rock. As you can see from the drawings below, the Dome of the Cathedral has a more pointed dome than the one in Jerusalem, but otherwise, the basic structure is the same.

Credit to M. de Vogue, a French diplomat, for his drawing done in 1873 of the Bosra Cathedral. His drawings show from different angles what the Cathedral may have looked like when built in 512 AD.

The Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock had other unique characteristics. The Dome was initially made of gold but now comprises aluminum covered in gold leaf. Inside the shrine are mosaics similar to those used by the Byzantines in 537 when building the Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople (now Istanbul). The one thing on the structure that is Muslim are the inscriptions on the outside and inside of the walls. The Dome of the Rock was built when the Qur'an was being consolidated into one book, and some inscriptions do not match precisely those in the Qur'an. It is an interesting fact that none of the verses from the Qur’an mention or refer to Muhammad’s "Night Journey” in verse 17:1. There are 16 colored stained-glass windows in the octagonal walls and the round drum supporting the gilded dome. These windows, installed by the Ottoman Sultan in the 16th century, also include verses from the Qur'an.

Credit to Wikimedia Commons for the image of the mosaics on the outside of the Dome on the Rock. Notice, close to the top, the Arabic script with inscriptions from the Qur'an. Thanks to Godot13 for the image, taken 2013.

Most people associate the Dome with a gold cupola. That has not always been the case. Fatimid Caliph al-Zahir, in 1022, covered the shrine's dome with black lead panels, giving the building a new profile that would endure more than 940 years. It was in 1964 that King Hussein of Jordan recovered the Dome with yellow-toned anodized aluminum. In a more recent renovation in 1994, King Hussein replaced the yellow aluminum panels with new gilt panels that reflect the original appearance of the Dome.

Upon completion in 692, the Dome of the Rock was, for a few years, the primary sacred site of Islam. When al-Malik was building the structure, a rival caliphate captured Mecca and controlled the Hajj, the pilgrimage to the Ka'ba. The construction of the Dome was undertaken to discourage pilgrimages to Mecca, and it worked for a few years. The Dome of the Rock is not a mosque for public worship but a shrine for pilgrims. Adjacent to the Dome is the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the south side of the Temple Mount, wherein Muslims make their prayers.

The Crusades

Before and during the Domes' construction, the Muslims in power had tolerated Christianity and Judaism, allowing pilgrims of both religions to visit the Holy City freely. This era of peaceful coexistence ended in 969. The Fatimid caliphs of Egypt were a somewhat more radical and intolerant Shiite sect who systematically destroyed all synagogues and churches. The Fatimids closed the Holy City to Christian and Jewish pilgrims. This prohibition of Christian pilgrimages became a contributing cause of the Crusades. The Christians captured Jerusalem in 1099 and lost it again to the Muslims in 1187, a brief span of 88 years.

During this short period, the Crusaders renamed the shrine "the Temple of the Lord" and chiseled the Rock into a circular formation that could be shaped into a high altar. The Rock was then covered with marble slabs, and a small enclosure with columns was built to shelter a sacrificial altar.

The Templars searched high and low for the Ark of the Covenant during their stay. Many movies and books imply they found it, but no one knows. There are several caves in the Temple Mount where such a relic could be hidden. There is even one directly accessible under the promontory Rock. For sure, the Temple Mount is riddled with cisterns and underground structures, 37 at last count. Many cisterns are places where the temple builders quarried the limestone used to build the walls and the temples.

After the Crusaders were defeated and escorted from Jerusalem, structural changes the Crusaders implemented were removed. However, permanent changes chiseled into the Rock are there for all to see.

Credit to Wikimedia Commons for this image of the Rock taken from above, inside the Dome, circa 1900-1920, from the Matson Collection in the Library of Congress. The Rock is surrounded by a banister for protection against people who want to leave graffiti and take souvenirs. The Crusaders chiseled away significant portions of the stone at the bottom part of the picture.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque

Upon his conquest of Jerusalem in 638, Umayyad Caliph Umar constructed a small temporary congregational mosque for daily prayers on the south end of the Temple Mount. While that original mosque did not survive, it was built from the covered walkway's ruins on the Temple sanctuary's lower platform built by Herod. In 705, caliphs from Umar's dynasty followed up with a new stone built mosque called Aqsa. Aqsa means "farthest" or "most distant." Muhammad referred to Jerusalem as the furthest mosque in his story of the "Night Journey" to Heaven. This mosque was destroyed by earthquakes in 746, 1033, and 1927.

The Abbasids, the next prominent Muslim dynasty ruling the region, added new construction to the sanctuary and repairs to the Dome and the Temple platform. After the Abbasids, the Shia Fatimid rulers from Egypt made the mosque smaller, aligning it directly with the Dome of the Rock. Fatimid Caliph al-Zahir, in 1022, covered the mosque's dome and the shrine's dome with black lead panels. While the shrine's dome had been covered in gold, the mosque's dome had been covered in silver. To this day, the mosque's dome is still covered in lead.

When the Crusaders captured Jerusalem, the mosque was temporarily converted into the King of Jerusalem's ruling palace. Later, the building changed into the headquarters of the Knights Templar, and the area on the next level of the platform became stables for the Crusader's horses.

In 1187, the Ayyubid Kurdish Sultan Salah al-din (Saladin) added a new pulpit to the mosque. In 1999, the eastern basement of the al-Aqsa Mosque was converted into a prayer hall called the al-Marwani Mosque. After extensive renovations, the capacity of al-Marwani was increased to 6,000 worshipful Muslims.

Over the years, there have been major and minor renovations due to small fires, earthquakes and heavy use from pilgrimages and daily congregational visits. For example, the mosaics might be done in one year, the carpet replaced in another year, and even the Dome might be recovered with lead a decade later.

The al-Aqsa Mosque is located in a part of the Temple Mount that Jews consider secular in the southern extensions built by Herod and the Hasmoneans. There is a story in the New Testament (Matthew 21:12-17) where "Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves." The underlying point is that money changers and sacrificial animal stalls were common on the southern part of the Temple Mount. However, during periods of festivals, all Jewish families were encouraged to visit Jerusalem, and the crowds were overbearing. The money changers and the stalls with animals for sale often encroached on that part of the Temple Mount built by King Hezekiah. This part of the Temple Mount is the area that most Jews consider sacred. This is where Jesus confronted the money changers and the animal sellers.

In Summary

The Dome of the Rock, while certainly one of the world's greatest architectural masterpieces, is often incorrectly understood to be an Islamic creation. The Dome of the Rock is Jerusalem's answer to Paris' Eiffel Tower and Rome's St Peter Square, dazzling the minds of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Tradition and legacy indicate that Jews, Christians, and Muslims have ties to this site. It is a site that all should share and that all must recognize the rights of each to participate.

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