Al-Haram El-Sharif Al-Aqsa Mosque
Covering about one sixth of the old city of Jerusalem, the Haram el-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) is a concentration of some of the most magnificent architecture in the Holy Land. The Haram el-Sharif with its trapezoidal shape, has fifteen gates for entrance including the Maghreb Gate (Dung Gate), located by the Wailing Wall.
The most famous building in the Haram el-Sharif is the Dome of the Rock ("Qubbat el-Sakhra" in Arabic). This jewel of the Holy Land, casts the glory of its golden dome all over Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock is an octagonal structure, superimposed on two squares offset by an angle of 45 degrees. Its layout, subject to complex geometry has made it a model for later Islamic architecture.
The dome is formed by two superposed cupolas, between which a space was worked in to protect the decoration from the climate. An epigraphic strip 262 yards long, to the glory of Jesus, a prophet according to Islam, runs around the drum.
The rock in the middle of the dome, where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac, symbolizes the center of the world in Muslim geography. The Faithful can make out the footprint of the Prophet, as well as the handprint of Gabriel. The cave under the rock is called the "Well of Souls', where tradition maintains the souls of the dead linger before disappearing. The external decoration of mosaics has been restored many times. Suleyman replaced the Omayyad and Ayyubid pottery with Persian ones. These gave way in 1964 to Armenian glazed tiles, surmounted by a frieze with verses from the Koran.
THE DOME OF THE ROCK
The Dome of the Rock, the first Muslim masterpiece, was built in 687 A.C. by Caliph Abd al-Malik, half a century after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (s). The rock marks the site from where Prophet Muhammad (s) made his Miraaj or Night Journey into the heavens and back to Makkah (Qur'an 17:1). The Dome of the Rock presents the first example of the Islamic world-view and is the symbol of the oneness and continuity of the Abrahamic, i.e. Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith.
Travelers and pilgrims have compared the cupola to a mountain made up of supernatural light, or else to a sun when its gold glitters in the dazzling light of Palestinian mornings, noons, and dusks, with endless variations in the intensity of shades. The atmosphere of beauty that prevails in the Dome of the Rock is like a distant announcement of the destiny of paradise.
Under the rule of the Arabian caliphs, Palestine enjoyed four centuries of peace and prosperity. Jerusalem (Al-Quds) was the holy city of the Muslims, Jews, and the Christians. After the death of Caliph 'Ali (ra), husband of Fatimah (ra), and son-in-law of the Prophet (s), it was in Jerusalem that the Arab leaders met in 660 to elect as their king, Mu'awiyah, the founder of the dynasty of the Umayyads. The Arab chroniclers report that his first act upon becoming king was to go and pray at Golgotha and then at Gethsemane. After the death of Mu'awiyah's son, Yazid (680-693), Caliph Abd al Malik had the mosque known as the Dome of the Rock built at Jerusalem as a symbol of the unity of the three Abrahamic religions: Jewish, Christian and Islamic.
First Muslim Masterpiece
The Dome of the Rock, the first Muslim masterpiece, was built in 687 A.C., half a century after the death of the Prophet [Muhammad, pbuh]. A careful "reading" of the monument to grasp its inner spiritual meaning reveals that it contains the germ of the major themes in "Islamic art," whose fundamental purpose is to express the faith revealed in the Qur'an. This "art" is decipherable only if one recalls the tenets of the Islamic faith.
The Dome of the Rock presents the first example, and a very striking one, of the Islamic world-view. The very site where it was established, the structure of the building, its dimensions and proportions, the forms to be found within it, the colors that enliven it, its external outline, and the symphony of its internal space, are all representative of the faith that inspired its construction.
It would be fruitless, though easy, to start out by searching in Byzantine, Syrian, Persian, Hellenic, or Roman art for similar elements of architectural techniques, for a specific motif or for this or that mathematical harmony in the arrangement. These influences exist, of course, and historians, archaeologists, art critics, and architects have often carried out this work of analysis. They have done a fine and useful job of demonstrating how the builders, the craftsmen, and the mosaic artists who took part in the creation of the building in question came from all regions of the new "Arab empire" and brought to the task their own technique and their own styles or work.
If we are to stop short of this "objective" analysis, however, without making our point of departure the "subjective" central impulse from which the newly realized synthesis was effected, we would miss what is essential, namely, the organizing principle of the whole, which transfigures the borrowings and expresses a single faith through the diversity of the cultures that have been given a new lease on life by the re-emergence of the universal, and eternal Islamic faith.
Let us consider first the choice of the site and the importance of the resources committed to the work. The Caliph had resolved to consecrate to this building all the tribute levied in Egypt over a period of seven years.
It would be fruitless to dwell upon the anecdotal explanation or even the conjectural history of this decision, based on suggestions that the Caliph wished to "challenge the World" by building an Islamic monument finer than any built by rival religions, or that he was attempting to divert the stream of pilgrims from Makkah, where a rebel, Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr (ra), had seized power. Undoubtedly, such considerations and calculations were not absent from Abd-al-Malik's decision. But the creation, on the first attempt, of a new form of beauty, which would serve as a model for the architecture and artistic creations of all Muslims on three continents for a thousand years, cannot be "explained" by the trivial vanity, ambition, or stratagems of an ephemeral sovereign.
The Prophet Muhammad (s) never claimed to be creating a new religion, but rather to be recalling all men to the priniordial religion, contemporary with the awakening of the first man, the religion of which Abraham's sacrifice in responding unconditionally to God's call offered the finest model and example. Therefore it is not by an accident of history or through the whims of a despot that the starting point of Islamic art coincides with the starting point of the spiritual life of the Abrahamic tradition, including the lives of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, namely, Jerusalem. This is the place of the life and ascension of Jesus (pbuh), and, according to the Qur'an [Surah 17, Ayah 1, 'The Children of Israel'], of the rock from which the Prophet (s) rose from Earth to Heaven to contemplate the Ordinance of God six centuries before Dante's Divine Comedy.
Here it was that Solomon(pbuh) built the Temple destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, the temple that Herod built and that the Romam razed to the ground. When he entered Jerusalem in 637 A.C., Caliph Umar Ibn Al Khattab (ra) ordered the erection of an austere wooden mosque on a deserted platform strewn with debris. The Umayyed, Abd-al-Malik, had the Dome built on this site, close to the dome of the Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre and resembling it in many ways. The Dome of the Rock was thus the symbol of the oneness and continuity of the Abrahamic, i.e. Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith.
The external appearance of the monument expresses the essential message of this faith. The transition from the double square that forms the basic octagon to the spherical cupola symbolizes the transition from Earth to Heaven as it does in the most ancient cosmogonies of the Middle East and, in particular, of Mesopotamia.
The cupola, with a diameter and a height that are much the same (a little under 25 meters), stands out more strikingly than the cupolas of Byzantine churches, for, being made of wood, its weight does not necessitate, as in the case of vaults made of stone, those buttresses or side cupolas that weight down the external outlines of Hagia Sophia and the monuments inspired by it.
This cupola has been covered with gold ever since it was built, due to the piety of the master-builders, Rija ibn Haya and Yazid ibn Salim, who spent upon this luminous covering all that remained of the wealth that had been entrusted to them for the purpose of erecting the monument. Travelers and pilgrims have compared the cupola to a mountain made up of supernatural light, or else to a sun when its gold glitters in the dazzling light of Palestinian mornings, noons, and dusks, with endless variations in the intensity of shades.
At the outset, before the successive restorations, the curve of the cupola was slightly horseshoe-shaped, something that must have accentuated its apparent upward movement, recalling the "night journey" or Miraj of the Propht (s) into the heavenly spheres.
This dome is set upon a drum, which, in turn, rests upon the basic octagon that represents the earth, like a perfect crystal. The original facing consisted of glass mosaics, magnifying the beauty of the earth created by God, but the porcelain of the present-day dome, with its dominant blues, growing denser and darker as it descends from the drum to ground level, doubtless recalls the transition, almost dematerialized and transparent, from the crown in the sky formed by the drum to the walls of the basic octagon. The delicate lacework of the azure tiles in the gilded areas becomes less and less frequent as one descends from the drum to the ground, though the golden light of heaven and of the cupola which is its messenger never ceases to filter downwards. Even the flagstone of veined Marble that make up the lowermost foundation seem to shimmer with the last rays of this celestial light.
Upon the beehive framework of gilded porcelain where sunshine and shade play ceaselessly, the arcades, with identical curves but with designs that vary from one arch to the next, dance their round dance about the octagon, hardly interrupted by the doorways at the four cardinal points that mark out this place as the center of the world. Above the arches surrounding the mausoleum, the subtle inflections of the Nakshi calligraphy sing Earth's last song to the Glory of God, before we reach the crown into the City of God, or rather, into a world wherein beauty gives us its earthly metaphor.
It is another world of forms, wherein everything descends from above, like the Revelation itself. It is said in the Mirhajnamah of Mir Haydar that when the Prophet Muhammad arrived in the Seventh Heaven, he saw a celestial vault in the colors of light. That is what the roof of the Dome of the Rock endeavors to evoke with its foliated scrolls, interlacements, arabesques, and mosaics of purple and gold, enhanced by the black band with its cursive letters, inscribed in gold, recalling the Message.
Below are sixteen stained-glass windows through which God's light enters. This iridescent light descends towards man, its reliefs and shadows filtering through the arches, pillars, and columns that articulate the space, outlining the arabesques that intertwine men and their universe, drawing them into the Wake of God, who is always living, always creating.
His written word reveals itself in the places to which one's gaze is first directed, especially in the border of the cupola, in the niche of the mihrab, and in the frame of the doorway, but also in the friezes on the wall, under the capitals of the columns. Everywhere a form offers to the eye a springboard to infinity, reminding it, as it leaves the Earth, of God's Challenge.
It is said in the Qur'an that men of faith will know paradise as their eternal home. The atmosphere of beauty that prevails in a place like the Dome of the Rock is like a distant announcement of that destiny.
Caught in the mysterious network of the arabesque, of the cadence of the arches and columns, of all the forms and colors of beauty that spiritualizes what is material without concealing the lines of force of its construction, man finds himself in his finite state at the very heart of the Beauty and the Life of God, of which this mausoleum is the parable. Everything here - from the structure to the light, integrates man in a life that is higher than everyday life. This stone parable tells us that another world, a world different from this one, is possible. It frees him from the pressure of things and invites him to listen to a different appeal, to another promise than desire.
It teaches him the Oneness and Infinity of God. When he looks down earth-ward once more, he can contemplate the rock where, according to the Jewish and Christian tradition, Abraham set out to accomplish his sacrifice, and where according to the Muslims, the Prophet (s) rose to Heaven. He can feel himself returning to the clay from which he was created, as though he were nothing more, in God's hand, than a living particle of the honey-colored rock, gold and amber in the infinitely soft, penetrating light of the God Who created it, just as he created this mountain, these stars, the crystal of the world and its vault, and this temple, made by men's hands at the call of God.
The unity expressed in the Dome of the Rock is not just a symbol. The historian Rappoport, stresses the fact that the situation of the Jews greatly improved after the conquest of Palestine by the Muslims and that their intellectual activities flourished. A Jewish academy had been founded at Tiberias by the learned and pious rabbi, Jochanan ben Zakkai, soon after the Roman occupation. He had sufficient insight to see that, after the loss of a national existence of one's own, the unity and the purity of the faith were the new path that the Jewish community had to adopt. The work of exegesis on the Scriptures carried out by the rabbis at Tiberias made up the body of a new historical phenomenon
Allah: is the proper name in Arabic for the One and Only God. It is used By the Arab Christians and Jews for the God (Elohim in Hebrew)
SWT: is an abbreviation of the arabic words that mean "Glory Be To Him"
S or pbuh: This expression is used for all Prophets of Allah that means Peace Be Upon Him
ra: Radiallahu Anha (May Allah be pleased with her). ra: Radiallahu Anhu (May Allah be pleased with him).
The El-Aqsa Mosque was built between 705 and 715 at the southern part of Haram el-Sharif. The largest mosque in Jerusalem was destroyed several times by earthquakes and now has only a few elements of its original Omayyad structure. The main part of the building is the work of the Fatimid caliph of Egypt, El Zahir who restored the mosque in 1035. The Crusaders and the Ayyubids performed additional modifications to the mosque, making it a mixture of architectural styles.
The mosque was called El-Aqsa ("the furthest away" in Arabic) after the miraculous Night Journey of the Prophet Mohammad to Jerusalem as told in the Sura XVII: "Glory be to him who made His servant go by night from the sacred Temple to the farther Temple whose surroundings We have blessed."
The need to counterbalance the prestige of the Byzantine masterpieces, particularly the Holy Sepulcher, was all-important in the building of this monumental mosque. The seven arches of the portico echo the seven parts of the layout of the Holy Sepulcher.
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