When approaching the Old City of Jerusalem from the south, as used to be the main approach in the Middle Ages, the first impression of the city is the glittering golden color of the Dome of the Rock viewed from a great distance. Entering the Old City one wanders through dense meandering alleys and alternating plays of dark deep shadows and bright light shining on the buff-beige Jerusalemite stone. The 7th century Dome of the Rock with its colorful exterior wall decoration and Golden Dome reappear in full glory only when entering the precinct of al-Haram al-Sharif ("The Noble Sacred Enclosure").
Al-Haram al-Sharif is an enormous open-air platform of artificial construction that houses the congregational mosque of al-Aqsa, numerous memorial buildings and fountains and is surrounded by many madrasas. The platform was built during Herodian times (1st century AD) to accommodate the new Jewish Temple (that was burned shortly after its completion). The Dome of the Rock is built approximately in the center of the Haram on an additional platform, it is the most prominent building in al-Haram al-Sharif both in terms of height and colors.
The Dome of the Rock was built by the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik and completed in 691 AD. While it is the earliest Islamic monument that has survived and one of the most admired ones, the original purpose for its creation have been the subject of much debate from the late Middle Ages to this day. Its location, on the top of Mount Moriah, which is also known as Temple Mount, associates the building with a rich tradition of Jewish and Christian narratives.
The location of the Dome of the Rock connects it with a long tradition of the two other monotheistic religions in Jerusalem, Judaism and Christianity. The place is not only the place where the second Jewish Temple was built, but is also associated with the first Jewish Temple of Solomon. In addition, the Rock was considered to be the place where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. It is in the same location where numerous the important events in the life of Christ are assumed to have happened, and the area to which he predicted: "There will not be left here one stone upon another that shall not be thrown down" (Mark 13:2).
Today the Dome is mainly perceived in the Islamic world as the commemoration of the marvelous story of the night journey of the Prophet Muhammad (al-Isra') and his ascension to the sky (al-mi'raj). It is believed that one night, while Muhammad was sleeping near the Ka'ba in Mecca, he was taken by the Angel Gabriel on a legendary steed named al-Burak to al-Masjid al-Aqsa (the farthest mosque) in Jerusalem. From the rock Muhammad ascended to the sky where he met all the prophets who had preceded him (such as Moses, Josef and Christ), witnessed paradise and hell and finally saw God sitting on his throne circumambulated by angels.
Since the association of the Dome with the story of the night journey appeared in texts only several decades later, some theories suggest that the main purpose of the building was to express the victory of Islam in the recently conquered dominantly Christian city. The pictorial and textual decoration and the visual dominance of the building in the cityscape might support this theory. Another theory goes as far as to suggest that in response to the political tensions that endangered the pilgrims performing the Hajj to Mecca in those unstable times, Abd al-Malik wanted Jerusalem to supercede Mecca as the main focus of Islamic pilgrimage, thus constructing a building that would allow the ceremony of the circumambulation (al-tawaf).
The building of the Dome of the Rock surrounds the somber rock by two sets of colonnades and an octagonal exterior wall. The central colonnade made of four piers and twelve columns support a rounded drum that transitions into the two-layered dome, which is more than 20m in diameter. Light that enters from grilled windows pierced in the drum and exterior wall glitters on golden mosaics and depictions of jewels, and Byzantine and Sassanian crowns in the midst of vegetal motifs. Those decorations have been interpreted as trophies that show the victory of Islam or as depictions of paradise. Quotations from the Koran are inscribed on the arcades and attest the role of Muhammad and of Islam and clarify the perception of Jesus Christ ('Isa) in Islam as an important prophet but not the son of God or God himself. The exterior walls were richly decorated with marble and mosaics similar to the interior. In the 16th century though, at the time of the Ottoman ruler Suleyman the Magnificent the exterior decoration was replaced by Turkish faience tiles, which in turn were widely replaced by a faithful copy made in Italy in the 1960s.
One can conclude the attempt to describe the Dome of the Rock with the memory of the 14th century traveler Ibn Batuta who wrote "This is one of the most fantastic of all buildings. Its queerness and perfection lie in its shape... It is so amazing it captivates the eye... Both the inside and the outside are covered with many kinds of tiles of such beautiful make that the whole defies description. Any viewer's tongue will grow shorter trying to describe it"
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Grabar, Oleg and Nuseibeh Said. The Dome of the Rock. New York: Rizzoli, 1996
Hillebrand Robert. Islamic Art and Architecture, chp. 1. London: Thames and Hudson, 1999.
Hoag, John D. Islamic Architecture, chp. 2. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1977.
Ibn Batuta. Rihlet Ibn Batuta. trans. by Said Nuseibeh. Beirut: Dar Sader.
Jeffery, Arthur. A reader on Islam, 621-639. Salem: Ayer Co., 1962.
Rosen-Ayalon, Myrian. The Early Islamic Monuments of Al-Haram al-Sharif: An Iconographic study, 12-24. Jerusalem: Qedem, 1989.