Connections

Jerusalem’s connection with Islam begins with its early designation as the first qibla (قبلة‎‎‎), the focus of prayer for all Muslims. While this focus reoriented toward Mecca in 624 CE, Jerusalem’s importance did not wane; its position in Islamic theology was fixed through myriad Abrahamic associations and as the destination of Prophet Muhammad’s miraculous night journey. It is believed the Prophet’s winged ride alighted on the Noble Sanctuary (Haram al-Sharif) or Temple Mount. When the Caliph Umar عمر بن الخطاب born c.583 CE – died 3 November 644 CE entered Jerusalem in 638 CE, he found this raised platform abandoned and in ruins. Development in the city had shifted around Constantine’s fourth-century Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site marking Christ’s crucifixion and burial. As the Umayyad dynasty’s power stabilized in the region, leaders like Abd al-Malik ordered the building of magnificent structures in various cities including Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock is one splendid example. It forms an isolated crown atop the platform where the Jewish temple once stood.

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Classic

Dated to 691-692 CE, the Dome of the Rock is heralded as the first manifestation of classical Islamic architecture. The plentiful late antique and Byzantine constructions dotting the Syrian and Palestinian landscapes most assuredly inspired its architect to design a circular core, containing the Rock, surrounded by a double octagonal ambulatory. Surmounting the rock is the gilded wooden dome resting on a high drum raised on an arcade made up of four piers and twelve columns arranged so as three columns alternate with each pier. The drum is pierced with sixteen windows dimly lighting the interior space above the Rock. Sumptuously decorated with veined marble plaques and mosaics of stone and gilded glass, the building today mostly reflects the tastes of the seventh century. The exterior tilework is from later centuries and replaces the original dazzling array of mosaics that once sheathed the building. Most of the interior decoration is in the form of fantastic trees, plants, fruits, jewels, crowns, vases, and chalices scrolling in a static manner as if picked out from a pattern book. There are no devotional images; in fact there are no human or animal figures.

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Nullam dignissim

A narrow, 250-meter band of Qur’anic inscriptions written in blue on a gold ground encircles the top of the arcade. While the design and decoration of the building is the progeny of Byzantine craft, it was undoubtedly built to serve an Islamic function. Contrary to popular assertions, the Dome of the Rock was never intended as a mosque. This sparks much confusion as to its true purpose, which remains unclear to this day. For many centuries, the building was thought to commemorate the Prophet’s night journey, but the inscriptions make no such reference and this explanation is the product of ninth-century narratives. Another oft-cited hypothesis is that Abd al-Malik built it as substitute to the Kaaba in Mecca since a rival had seized the holiest of Islamic cities. This too does not withstand scrutiny. The inscriptions are the only contemporary clue and they reaffirm the nature of Islam while refuting the tenets of Christianity. This suggests that the building was meant to serve an overtly symbolic function, one that unequivocally advertises the sovereign presence of Islam in a city home to synagogues and churches. Building the structure on the site of Adam’s burial, Abraham’s sacrifice, and Solomon’s Temple suggests an appropriation of the holy character of the site while simultaneously proclaiming the worthy ascendancy of Islam as a successor to these earlier revealed religions.

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