Friday, 26 July 2013

Preview: The Dome Of The Rock

Like many old towns and cities, the Old City of Jerusalem is not an optimal design, by modern standards, of space and order. There are no wide tree-lined boulevards and no rigid grid plan; likewise, no vast underground air-conditioned shopping malls or multi-level parking. In fact, the Old City of Jerusalem entirely does away with modern notions of urban design by having a full sixth of the city taken up by a huge vaguely-rectangular raised platform (six times the size of Red Square) without very much on it - no houses, shops, cafes, or even a trendy skatepark. Nope, there are just some shrubs, and then somewhat off-centre is another irregular raised platform. And on this second platform, again somewhat off-centre, is a perfectly symmetrical and attractive building in two sections. The lower section is an octagonal ring decorated in coloured tiles and on top of that, reaching a total height of over 35 metres, is a golden dome. And to be totally honest, nobody really knows what it's for. But inside this building is a big rock, poking through the ground, that over the years has acquired a variety of mystical tales around it. The domed building above a rock is therefore called, sensibly enough, the Dome of the Rock.

Jerusalem's most famous building, the Dome of the Rock is unequivocally a Muslim building, dating from back into the early days of Islam when Mohammed was still around. The rest of the area and platform, however, mixes its religious history. Judaism has a whole bunch of reasons to revere the area, Christianity too, if perhaps a little less so, and if people still believed in the old Roman gods then the Dome of the Rock's platform would surely attract the occasional pagan pilgrim. Depending on who you speak to, the whole platform is called the Haram Ash-Sharif, "Noble Sanctuary", or the simpler Temple Mount. The former is the Muslim name, and the latter the Jewish, but they both refer to the same area. Surrounded by hills, the platform has been described as a epicentre of spiritual gravity, with the essence of Western faith and spirituality rooted there. So, you know, it's a bit of a big deal.

It's as a Muslim site we see it now, but as with the religion itself the origins are Jewish. Way back in 950BC, it was the site of the Temple of Solomon, or so it's claimed, without the backing of any substantial evidence. Regardless of actual location, it was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 587BC during his sack of Jerusalem. While the historical veracity of this original temple can't be confirmed, there's no doubt its legacy became important for the Jews. They built another one in its place, the Second Temple, and although it wasn't quite as glorious as the original, it was still pretty damn good, and was the centre of the Jewish faith. And so we fast forward to around 20BC, with the Romans now in charge of the area, and their puppet king, Herod. The Second Temple was still going strong in his time, but was perhaps a little worn, and the hugely unpopular Herod wanted to curry some favour with his own people. He decided to extensively renovate the temple and make it truly glorious - he wanted it widely recognised as a wonder of the world. Ten thousand workmen were recruited, and for the most sacred areas a thousand priests were trained as stonemasons so that the unordained wouldn't desecrate it. The huge platform we see now was created. And though Herod was widely regarded as a total dick, there's no doubt the Jewish people loved their new temple. Massive, beautiful, impressive, the Second Temple was a renewed source of pride and a focal point for the Jewish people.

It was still going strong in Jesus's time, around 30AD, and many his tales are based around the Second Temple, but it all went wrong around 60AD. The Jewish people didn't appreciate Roman occupation and there were many violent incidents between them; this boiled over into rebellion. Emperor Titus was having none of it - Roman troops stormed in, killed thousands, and utterly destroyed the temple. Only one outer wall remained, now called the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall, today a sacred site in its own right. As the name suggests, it is a scene for grieving the memory of the lost temple, where Jewish men - and women too, very recently - can face the wall, pray, and lament.

From this time until the Muslim takeover of the city in 637AD, the entire Temple Mount was rubble. A sixth of Jerusalem was effectively a rubbish dump for centuries, until Omar ibn al-Khattib, a companion of the Prophet Mohammed and a hugely influential figure in the formation of Islam, arrived in the city, which had been in Christian Byzantine hands for a few centuries. He was horrified by the appalling condition of a sacred site. The space was cleared, the platform rebuilt, and in 691AD, according to an inscription, the first incarnation of the Dome of the Rock was built.

Why it was built is a different matter. It's not a mosque. These days the conventional belief in Islam is that it was associated with a special night-trip that Mohammed made, somewhat magically and by today's standards very far-fetched, many years before the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem. It was the only time he ever visited the city. The large natural rock, around 18 metres long by 13 metres wide, that sticks out from the Temple Mount was an intrinsic part of the visit. This is the rock the Dome of the Rock is now built over. In the night journey, Mohammed climbed the rock then ascended to heaven, escorted by the archangel Gabriel (he later descended and was back in Mecca the following morning). The glories of heaven were so great that the rock itself wanted to join him, crying out "O Mohammed, take me along into the Presence of Allah." Gabriel was having none of it and pushed the rock back, leaving his hand print on it, that can apparently still be seen today. But only in the 11th Century was this connection made - it was certainly not the reason the Dome of the Rock was built.

Notably, the Temple Mount was the first qibla, that is the focal point of the Muslim world, towards which Muslims face when praying. Mohammed himself deemed this during a period in his lifetime, during a period of 7th Century instability in Mecca and Medina. When Mecca got back on its feet, Jerusalem was ousted. Nevertheless, as a result, Jerusalem is regarded as number 3 on the list of Islamic holy places, after Mecca and Medina, and this was perhaps the reason the Dome of the Rock was built, as a shrine to the importance of the city.

Likely, it was a shrine, based around the rock, for precise reasons that are long lost. The entire history from the period is pretty opaque. The rock itself has a bit of the first rule of Fight Club about it - do not mention the rock seems to have been the working rule. Because although this highly prominent rock has been in a highly prominent position in the middle of Jerusalem, and therefore the Jewish temples, for quite some time, it never appears in any biblical or contemporaneous account. None. It is conspicuous by its absence. There are many Jewish traditions associated with it, such as it being the spot Abraham had offered to sacrifice Isaac, and of course the spot Solomon chose to built his hallowed temple, but these appear to be retrospectively shoehorned on. Often this is based upon the various markings in the rock, which can correspond to markings of ancient buildings or handprints of Gideon, or whatever you want really. The truth is, a lot of them were done by Crusaders chipping pieces off for religious souvenirs.

The Dome of the Rock and the Temple Mount are locations that very much blur that line between history and religion, to the point that so much myth is draped over it, it's become hard to see. Structurally, the Dome of the Rock is simplicity itself - an octagonal base and a golden dome. But in every other way, it is deeply enigmatic. It's a beautiful baubel in the cente of a city in which nothing is straightforward, and nobody knows quite what is true and what is outrageous fiction. Although many people certainly think they know.

I visited Jerusalem years ago, but Jerusalem being Jerusalem and religion being religion, the entire Temple Mount was off-limits to an unbeliever such as myself. It has since reopened, and so this time I don't need to view it from afar. Sadly, the interior is still barred to me, unless I can somehow convince the authorities I'm a Muslim - time to stop trimming my beard, I guess. Maybe I'll wait until the guard is looking the other way and simply run inside. That sounds like a good idea. I hope to be visiting in November or December this year, and will give a fuller account of it and its history then, as well as my own impressions. I may even start my own religion and make the Dome the centre of it, just to further confuse matters.

Dome of the Rock - Oleg Grabar
Dome of the Rock - Jerry M, Landay


  1. A marvellous and fascinating review. I get the sense (not sure whether this is intended) that the Jewish claim is coming over as the longer-rooted one in terms of the first and second temples, but the reasons behind that (Abraham etc) are unproveable - as are the original Muslim reasons.

    How important are the competing claims to your judgement? They affect, after all, the current use, the backstories and the design. Can you objectively assess it, therefore, without having to get embroiled in claim and counter-claim?

    This is surely the most "political" candidate on your list, and in a sense I don't envy your task in assessing it.

    1. Truthfully, it won't be much bother. It's clearly a Muslim building and has been (except for some brief Crusader interference) for 1300 years. The site it's on was built by the Jewish, but destroyed by the Romans and left ruined for hundreds of years before the Muslims came in. Obviously, nothing in Jerusalem can be without politics, but my assessment will be on the overall impact of the site as a spectacle. I'm judging what is there now: a Muslim building on a now pretty barren site originally built by the Jewish. I don't think politics will get in the way.

  2. But history is a factor in your considerations - and many would temper that with politically-skewed perspectives. That is to say, people could challenge your assertions more than with any other candidate. But then I guess that's their problem, and perhaps you not being bothered by it is probably the most objective way to go about it.


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