Jerusalem is a city holy to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. At its center, the rocky outcrop known as Mount Moriah was the site of three successive Jewish temples, then a sanctuary of the Roman god Jupiter, before it was capped by the Arabic Dome of the Rock, which was for a short while Islam’s most important sacred site. During the Crusades it was commandeered as a Christian shrine before returning to Islamic hands. Today it is at the very core of bitter dispute between Palestinians and Israelis. Although sometimes referred to as the Mosque of Omar, the Dome of the Rock is in fact not a mosque. Nevertheless, as the oldest extant Islamic monument, it served as a model for architecture and other artistic endeavors across three continents for a millennium.
About 1000 b.c. King David of Israel captured the Jebusite town of Urusalim. He renamed it Jerusalem, established his capital there, and chose Mount Moriah—already held sacred as the place where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac—as the site of a future temple. Solomon’s Temple was completed in 957 b.c., only to be destroyed by the Babylonians in 586. The Second Temple was completed by 515 and enlarged and refurbished by Herod the Great (reigned 37–34 b.c.). It was leveled by the Roman legions of Titus in a.d. 70 and has never been rebuilt. The Roman emperor Constantine (reigned a.d. 306–337) decriminalized Christianity in 313. Soon afterward his mother Helena visited Jerusalem, where, according to mythology, she identified the locations associated with Christ, generating a tradition of Christian pilgrimages that continued until the invading Persians destroyed all the churches in 614.
Twenty-four years later Jerusalem was captured by Caliph Umar Ibn al-Khattab, who renamed it Al-Quds (The Holy). Umar cleared the accumulated debris on top of Mount Moriah (Haram al-Sharif) and had a small wooden mosque built on the vast rectangular platform of the demolished Jewish temples.
Dome of the Rock (Qubbat As-Sakhrah), Jerusalem, Israel; architect(s) unknown, 688–692. Restored 1992–1994.
The Dome of the Rock was built between a.d. 688 and 692 for the tenth caliph, Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan. It is an elaborate canopy encircling the bare rock summit of the mount, the sakhra from which Mohammed was miraculously carried through the heavens into the very presence of Allah to receive the tenets of the faith. There is a tradition that, by building the dome, Abd al-Malik was attempting to transfer the Islamic hajj (pilgrimage) to Jerusalem from Mecca, where his rival, Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr, had rebuilt the Kaaba in 684. It is also possible that Abd al-Malik wished to make some tangible statement about Islam’s superiority over Judaism and Christianity, a motive suggested by the form of his building. The Dome of the Rock is more Roman or Byzantine than Islamic, and the caliph’s Byzantine Christian architects employed architectural language understood by Muslims and Christians alike. Because Islamic architecture had not yet established a tradition, they referred to the best Byzantine models, and the congruence in plan and decoration between the Dome of the Rock and the centrally planned church of San Vitale (525–548) at Ravenna, Italy, is not coincidental.
The 60-foot-diameter (18-meter), timber-framed double dome, covered internally with colored and gilded stucco and originally roofed with lead covered in gold, rises 115 feet (35 meters) over the holy rock. It is carried on a tall drum, originally faced with glass mosaics, that rests in turn upon a circular
arcade of twelve Corinthian marble columns, set in threes between four large rectangular piers. At the top of the drum, sixteen colored glass windows light the central space. Surrounding the circle is an octagonal, marble-flagged, 30-foot-high (9-meter) ambulatory of twenty-four piers and columns, reached from outside through four doorways with porticoes facing the cardinal directions. The ambulatory is screened from the sanctuary by half-height walls. The columns and most of the capitals were quarried from older buildings. The marble-faced outer walls of the building also describe an octagon; each side is about 60 feet (18 meters) long. Inside and outside, the Dome of the Rock was enriched with marble columns and facings and floral patterns of mosaic. The total effect must have been awesome: “thousands of lights … supplemented the meagre illumination from the windows, making the mosaics glitter like a diadem crowning a multitude of columns and marble-faced piers around the sombre mass of the black rock surmounted, by the soaring void of the dome” (Ettinghausen and Grabar 1994, 30).
The tolerant Arabian caliphs allowed pilgrims of other faiths access to Jerusalem. Not so the Egyptian Fatimid caliphs who gained control of the city in 969, destroying all the synagogues and churches. In 1071 the Seljuk Turks closed the pilgrimage routes, provoking the Crusades and resulting in the European seizure of Jerusalem in 1099. The Dome of the Rock was converted to Templum Domini, a Christian shrine. The Muslims recaptured the city in 1187, and Jerusalem remained under Islamic control until the nineteenth century.
Although the building has survived in much of its original form, changes have occurred over the centuries. Repairs were made under Caliph al-Mamun (reigned 813–833), and the dome was replaced in the twelfth century; before the successive restorations, its curve was probably slightly horseshoe shaped. More recently, its lead roof has been replaced with aluminum. The glass mosaics that covered the drum of the dome and the exterior walls above the sill line were replaced by ceramic tiles in 1554, when the lower windows were also replaced. In modern times, restorations were carried out in 1924 and 1959–1964. The most recent took place between 1992 and 1994; financed by the late King Hussein of Jordan, it included gilding the dome with 5,000 gold plates and cost U.S.$8 million.