Jerusalem is a concatenation of spiritual energy: the walled city on a hill has seen primal moments in the history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And because of the geography, it has remained a remarkably contained city. The visitor is always surprised at the proximity of the major religious sites: the Wailing Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock.
When Mark Twain visited, he remarked:
‘Perched on its eternal hills, white and domed and solid, massed together and hooped with high gray walls, the venerable city gleamed in the sun. So small! Why, it was no larger than an American village of four thousand inhabitants, and no larger than an ordinary Syrian city of thirty thousand…. A fast walker could go outside the walls of Jerusalem and walk entirely around the city in an hour. I do not know how else to make one understand how small it is.’
The Innocents Abroad 1869
The most conspicuous monument when one sees Jerusalem from afar is the gleaming gold roof of the Dome of the Rock. The mosque takes some of its spiritual charge both from the proximity of those other monuments to the other Peoples of the Book with whom Islam shares so much in common, and from its position on Temple Mount. For this is the site where tradition and belief have it Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac, and to where the Prophet Muhammad was brought by the angel Gabriel; the prophet then ascended to the heavens for a divine audience, leaving the imprint of his feet and three hairs from his beard, which can be viewed on a certain day every year in Ramadan. Likewise Abraham’s sacrificial rock lies at the centre of the mosque.
But it is the architectural perfection of the building that makes the Dome such a wonder. The earliest Islamic monument extant, it was completed in 691 AD, just sixty years after the death of the Prophet, by the caliph Abd el-Malik who wanted to establish the site as a place of Muslim pilgrimage; so it was first designed as a shrine for pilgrims rather than as the mosque for public worship that it has now become. The caliph is also said to have wanted to emulate the nearby Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Indeed the new dome he built matches the dimensions of that of the Holy Sepulchre almost exactly. The dome was a new architectural motif for the Islamic world although of course it was to become a dominant one in later centuries.
The dome rests on an octagonal structure which was magnificently covered in tiles almost a millennium after its original construction by Suleiman the Great in the 16th century, when Jerusalem had become part of the Ottoman empire; so taken was Suleiman by the simple austerity of the Dome that he used it as the model for his own tomb in Istanbul. One reason the Dome is so startling is that the azure blue tiles only begin on the upper tier, leaving the lower tier in a similar pale coloured stone to that of the compound; the effect is to allow the dome to seem to float into the sky.
The Dome holds a particularly special place in Islamic culture because it is a prize regained: during the crusader years, it was turned into a church and those staunch enemies of Islam, the Knights Templar, based themselves in the adjoining Al-Aqsa Mosque; like Suleiman, they used the Dome as an inspiring architectural model, in their case for Templar churches across Europe. After Saladin retook Jerusalem from the crusaders in 1187, the Dome was reconsecrated as a Muslim sanctuary and the golden crescent replaced on the top.
But while the history of the building has followed all the remarkable twists and turns of Jerusalem’s fortunes – the city was retaken after Saladin by a succession of Christian, Turkish and Mamluk armies – its prehistory is almost more remarkable.
As Mark Twain observed:
‘Everywhere [there] are portions of pillars, curiously wrought altars, and fragments of elegantly carved marble – precious remains of Solomon’s Temple. These have been dug from all depths in the soil and rubbish of Mount Moriah, and the Moslems have always shown a disposition to preserve them with the utmost care.’ For the Mount on which the Dome stands was the site of Solomon’s Temple, erected in around 960 BC and burnt to the ground by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC. A ‘Second Temple’ was then built, the one Jesus would have known, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD after the Jewish revolt.
As Twain went on to note:
‘At that portion of the ancient wall of Solomon’s Temple which is called the Jew’s Place of Wailing, and where the Hebrews assemble every Friday to kiss the venerated stones and weep over the fallen greatness of Zion, any one can see a part of the unquestioned and undisputed Temple of Solomon, the same consisting of three or four stones lying one upon the other, each of which is about twice as long as a seven-octave piano, and about as thick as such a piano is high.’
This is the Western Wall beside the Dome, known as the ‘Wailing Wall’ because of the lamentations Twain comments on; he is a little inaccurate to say that the wall was part of Solomon’s Temple itself – it seems more likely to have part of the retaining structure for the Mount – but as a symbolic link to the early Jewish nation, it is without peer. Just as the Dome was lost to Muslims for a period, so too was the wall to the Jews: during the Jordanian occupation of 1948-1967, they were unable to worship there.
After the destruction of the Second Temple, there is though to have been a small Byzantine church on the site before the arrival of the caliph and his building of the Dome. So like Jerusalem, the Mount has seen all three faiths of the Peoples of the Book, and while political disharmony may still divide them, in the Dome of the Rock they have a monument that draws on a common spiritual strength and provided an architectural model for both east and west.
(c) Hugh Thomson 2009