Islamic Architectural Character of Jerusalem: With Special Description of the al-Aqṣā and the Dome of the Rock Author

(s): RA'EF NAJM Reviewed work(s): Source: Islamic Studies, Vol. 40, No. 3/4, Special Issue: Jerusalem (Autumn-Winter 2001), pp. 721-734 Published by: Islamic Research Institute, International Islamic University, Islamabad Stable URL: . Accessed: 10/08/2012 04:05
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Islamic Studies 40:3-4 (2001) pp. 721-734

Essay IslamicArchitectural Character of Jerusalem: With Special Description of the al-Aqsa and the

Dome of the Rock


Let my heart burn A candle of love
At al-Aqsa Gate.


Hydar Mahmoud

There are general basic principles thatgovern the constructionof the Islamic of city, irrespective time and place. There are also special technical,social and environmental characteristicsthat are liable to vary according to time and with its religious identity, prevalent; and predominant is the fundamentallink at the core. The al-AqsaMosque was in fact the principal with the Mosque focus in planning the enlargementof the city following theMuslim rule in must be added harmonywith the environment,a general To this Jerusalem. and a simplicity of planning suggesting tranquillity and spirituality, architectural beauty.1 It has been said that AlmightyGod divided beauty into ten equal parts, nine of which He bestowed on Jerusalem, leaving the world. remainingtenthto the restof the One of the essential features the characterand identity Jerusalemis of of theway it maintains its constituentparts, which are inextricablylinkedwith the traditionsand cultureof its Arab inhabitants. These parts comprise, mores, interalia, the compact residentialquarters and themajor conveniences and facilities, such as markets, mosques, schools, sports grounds and health
1 See, figure 1,p. 727 below, foraGeneral View of theCity of Jerusalem. locality. In the holy city of Jerusalem these latter characteristics seem



which are inseparably tied to the residentialquarters themselves. services,

or established in such a way as to ensure thatno alien element can infiltrate without intrudeinto itsharmony, and no parts of theheritagecan be removed a gaping hole. This legacy is subject to a continuous process of repair leaving
and restoration.








When speakingof the al-Aqsa Mosque as amain focalpoint of theCity of we mean specificallytheHoly Haram (sanctuary) with its two Jerusalem, main components: the al-AqsaMosque and theDome of theRock, both of Haram. The city is surrounded walls of the which Hewithin the area inside the wall2 with sevenopen gates: Herod's Gate, St. Stephen'sGate, by a high stone theDamascus Gate, theNew Gate, the Jaffa Gate, the Zion Gate and the Maghareba Gate. There are four furtherclosed gates: the Single Gate, the Double Gate, theTriple Gate and the Golden Gate. The Holy Haram, for itspart, is encircledby a stone wall with threegates opening to the north: the Lions Gate, the Faysal or al-ltem Gate and the
Huttah or Remission Gate. Seven

Nazer Gate, the IronGate, theQattanin Gate, the SilsilahGate, the Gate, the Matharah (ablution)Gate. The Haram is connected Maghareba Gate and the to the restof the cityby streets branchingout from its tengates and extending functions to perform. It throughout the various parts,which have different should be noted, in this context, that the different topographic levelswithin the city have not deterred the city's planners and designers.The obstacle has been surmounted through the use of broad and convenient flights steps of taking people from one level to another.3The roads of theHoly City,
characterized by their narrowness, were designed for pedestrian use only.

gates open

to the west:

the Ghawanmeh

Some, but not all, are roofedwith beautiful stone vaults dating back to the medieval Islamic eras. Schools, residential homes, zdwiyahs and drinking were built on both sides of the roads. The stone vaults have stone fountains4 buildings overlooking the road, with windows and small latticed oriels or This method of utilizing narrow roads provides pedestrians mashrabiyyahs. with comfortable shade, alleviates heat and protectswalkers from the sun, especially in summer.This is in fact a distinctivefeatureof historical Islamic


The roads allocated as tradingcentres forman open expanse to facilitate
between these centres and the markets. In contrast, some

residential quarters end in cul-de-sacs, so giving the quarter a sense of
2 See figure2, p. 728 below, fora glimpse of a part of theCityWall. 3 See foran example, the figure p. 580 above. on 4 See figure3, p. 729 below, showing a typicaldrinking fountain.





individualityand independence.It should be added, in this connection, that a person can traverseall the roads ofHoly Jerusalem in a short time, meeting his needs and performinghis errands on foot,without becoming tired or

This is due to sound city planning, applying the correctmethods of Islamic architecture and abiding by human scales. All the buildings of being unknown. Stone, mortar and limewere used in the construction of domes and vaults. The windows were small and cut into thick walls to secure while keeping out direct sunlight.Some buildings ventilation and lighting, overlook the road through beautifully wrought wooden latticedoriels that help ventilate the houses. They also enable people to sit and watch the road without being exposed to the gaze of passers-by.The buildings are set compactly together,which gives Jerusalem the appearance of a single, interlinked building and this,in turn,formsthe tightlyinterlaced,sereneand of beautiful textureof the city.The simplicity house design ismanifest in the which is themost importantand distinctivequality of innercourtyard, open One may add here that thewholeness of engineering Islamic architecture. design, its simplicity and functionality,and the use of local construction of ventilation and uniformity building in the materials, effective Holy City are all importantbasics of Islamic architecture.Jerusalem enjoyed this tranquil when the Israelis until the Israelioccupation of the city, architectural character of embarkedon a transformation itsbeautiful architecturalimage and texture. blows and traumatic wounds to the city's fine They have dealt irreversible
structure; more especially, they have constructed ugly high-rise buildings Jerusalem are of stone. Lime mortar was used in the construction, cement

adjacent to theHoly Haram, higher than theHaram and overlooking it,5 Haram had overlooked everything around it. whereas before the The Blessed al-Aqsa Mosque "Mounts are saddled to three Makkah, this mosques only: the Holy Mosque of and the al-Aqsa in Madinah] Mosque", Mosque ofmine [theProphet'sMosque saidProphetMuhammad (peace be on him).6 The first builder of theBlessed al-Aqsa Mosque was Caliph 'Umar ibn al were handed over to Khattab (r. 13-23/634-644),when thekeys of Jerusalem which Prophet him in 15/636. Itwas erected at the frontof the place from Muhammad (peace be on him) had made his miraculous night journey from Makkah to Jerusalem (the event known as the Isra). The original al-Aqsa
5 See figure 1,p. 729 below. 6 Kitab al-Hajj, Bab Hajj al-Nisa'. Muhammad ibn Isma'll Bukhari, Sahthal-Bukhari,



could accommodate three thousandworshippers, butwithin a few decades it had been destroyed by earthquakes. It was then rebuilt by theUmayyad Caliph 'Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (r. 65-85/685-704) in 73/692, and completed by his son and successoral-Wahd(r. 85-96/704-715) in 86/705, on The Mosque is the same siteof the Mosque of Caliph 'Umar ibn al-Khattab.7 about 80 metres long and nearly 55 metres inwidth, and is erected on 53 When they occupied Jerusalem, marble columns and 49 square stone pillars. theCrusaders convertedpart of the al-Aqsa into a church, making the other munitions. part a residence for their Knights Templars and a store for their Salah al-Din (r. 564-589/1168-1193), however, repaired the mosque, renovated themihrab (prayer niche), covered the dome with mosaic, and brought from made of cedar and ebonywood and inlaid wooden minbar (pulpit) Aleppo the This he placed in the with ivory. Mosque as a symbolof victory.8 The al-Aqsa Mosque highlights the beauty of Islamic decoration, as wooden dome, which is coveredwith reliefplant representedby the internal made of gypsum,by beautifulgilded colouring,and bywindws made drawings ofwood and gypsum engraved in slanted lines on a base of coloured glass to These windows bestow splendour and beauty upon keep out direct sunlight. theplace, and are suggestive sanctityand spirituality. Mosque consists of The seven longitudinalporticoes extending fromnorth to south.On the left of wall one finds the Niche of Zakariyya and the Shrine of Mosque of 'Umar, the the Forty. The main gate is installed at the entrance of themiddle portico from thenorth.The ceilings are decoratedwith coloured gypsum.The Surah al-Isra', inlaidwith mosaic, is superimposedover the niche to a lengthof 23

The Holy Dome of the Rock
Date ofConstruction * The Holy Dome of the Rock was built by the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, who entrustedtwo of hismen with the task: one was Raja* ibn of Hayat ibn Jud al-Kindi, the otherYazid ibn Salam, a freedman theCaliph. Building began in 66/685 andwas completed in 72/691. First theyconstructed the SilsilahDome to the east of the Holy Dome of theRock; then theybuilt theDome of theRock itself. The SilsilahDome is said to be a model for the Holy Dome of theRock; but this is at variancewith the facts,for the Silsilah Dome ishexagonal, the Dome of the Rock octagonal.

7 See figure4, p. 730 below. 8 See figure 5, p. 731 below, fora glimps of thishistoricalminbar.



Rockwas Built? Why the HolyDome ofthe
Whatever may be said of 'Abd al-Malik ibnMarwan's aim in erecting this Muslims before embarkingon the edifice,there is no doubt thathe consulted project. Accounts of historians conflict,however, as to the responses he received. It is said that, when he decided to build theDome of theRock, he came fromDamascus to Jerusalem and sent letters to his viceroys in the provinces,writing thathe wished to build a Dome above theRock to shelter Muslims fromheat and cold, but that,before doing so, he preferredto know the viewpoints and attitudesof his subjects. Replies came to him as follows: We wish The Prince of theFaithful [the wishing to do this. Caliph] is rightin His House him all success,and beseechAlmightyGod to enable him to erect tomake this edificea grace bestowed entreat andMosque, and earnestly Him the Caliph and a memorial to his predecessors.Certain philosophical upon were reflected in building thisDome, as in setting the geographical trends location over the Mi'raj (ascension to heaven) Rock. Further artistic trends were taken into account, namely the choice of the octagonal shape and the
double central dome.

Dimensions the of Holy Rock
Rock, those According toMr K. A. C. Creswell, in his book, TheDome of the who built the Holy Dome of theRock benefited from themeasurements of theChurch of the diameterof theDome of the Holy Sepulchre.The internal Rock is 20.30 metres and itsheight 20.48 metres,while the internaldiameter of the Church of theHoly Sepulchre is 20.90 metres and its height 21.05 metres. The octagonal shape of the Dome of the Rock is also similarto thatof certain significant with Byzantine buildings. It is superimposedby a cylinder 16windows, while the cylinder itselfis supported by fourprops and twelve Mi'raj Rock.9 The external side pillars arranged in circular fashionaround the of the octagon is 20.60 metres long, paralleled on the inside by another octagonal structure,each of whose sides is 14.45 metres long. The total number of columns inside the building is 40, and ithas fourouter gates.This a device reflects design unmatched in Islamic architecture, for it architectural has symmetry, fineness without overlooking the homogeneity and engineering of light which filters down on the Rock fromtheupperwindows. study Mi'raj we read inAl-Uns aljalil bi Ta'rikh al-Quds wa'l-Khatil by In this context, Mujir al-Din al-Hanbali (10thCentury ah/ 16thCentury ce) that Jerusalem had three jewels: the al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock and the
9 See figure6, p. 732 below, fora view of the Mi'raj Rock surroundedby the pillars in theDome of theRock.



Holy Dome of theRock is the second jewel of Ashrafiyyah school. Thus the Jerusalem. Holy Dome of the According to historians and archaeologists,the Rock is one of thefinestbuildings ever built byman, itsbeauty and splendour being beyond description. Creswell follows his profound study of the by building's architecture noting that theDome of theRock is of distinctive in the history of Islamic architecture; its structure,glamour, importance grandeur,magic, symmetry,exactitude and precision of proportion have dazzled all the scientists and researchers who have attemptedto study it. Internal and External Decoration The internaldecoration of this historicmonument is distinguished by its most beautifuldecors of the mosaic works, which reflectthe Umayyad period, of the eight walls to a the stripextendingalong theupper internal part notably metres. The stripcomprises lengthof 240 Umayyad Kufic calligraphy in gilt As mosaic on a dark blue background.10 for externaldecoration, thisused to

include partsmade of marble and mosaic. In 960/1552 Sultan Sulayman al Qanuni (r. 926-974/1520-1566) replaced themosaic with glazed earthenware superimposed by Qur'anic writings. The four outer gates were formerly decoratedwith mosaic, but only small remnantsof thishave survived at the easternentrance. The original dome,which collapsed in the4th/llth century, was covered with lead sheets over which were fixed 10,210 gilded copper
sheets. The total area of the mosaic covering different parts inside the Holy

Holy Dome of theRock has been conserved and restoredthroughoutthe ages. The predominant colours in thedecoration of the Holy Dome are green,blue and gold. The green isvariegated into eight shades and theblue into six. Other were used in small areas.Mosaic decoration in the colours, such as silver, Dome of theRock is regarded as reflectingthe Syrian school of art of that time.This school was completely independentof Byzantine art, just as the Syrian architecturalschool was independentof the Byzantine and had roots traceable toGreek origins.

Dome of theRock amounts to 1200 sq. metres and is regarded as globally unique, not only for its outstanding beauty but also on account of its Umayyad origin,which endows itwith a significanceall the greater in that The survivingexample at the only a limitedpart of this art now survives.11

# ir #
10 See figure7, p. 733 below, for the interior decoration of theDome of theRock. 11 See figure8, p. 734 below, fordetailed interiorand exteriordescription of theDome of the








3: A

typical drinking


in the old city of Jerusalem.







Figure 5:The minbar [pulpit] of Salah al-Dln in al-AqsaMosque,
583/1187 to mark the liberation arson attack in 1969. of Jerusalem. It was

installed in
in an



Figure 7: Interior of theDome of theRock, built by theUmayyad Caliph
'Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan. It shelters on the Rock ascended from which Prophet during Muhammad the miraculous him) (peace event of the Night Journey and Ascension. be to the heavens