The Dome of the Rock (Ar. Qubbat al-Sakhra), a large octagonal building inJerusalem commissioned by the Umayyad caliph ‘Abd al-Malik in 692 c.e., is the earliest major monument of Islamic architecture to survive. Muslims today consider it the third holiest shrine in Islam, after the Kaaba in Mecca and the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina. Its age and its sanctity, along with its visibility and extraordinary decoration, make it a major monument of world architecture and one of the most important sites in Islam.
The Dome of the Rock is set over a rocky outcrop near the center of the large esplanade known in Arabic as al-Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary), which was once the site of the Jewish Temple, the traditional religious center ofJerusalem. The building is a large low octagon divided internally by an arcade into two octagonal ambulatories encircling a tall cylindrical space measuring approximately 20 meters (65 feet) in diameter. A high wooden dome, whose metal roof is plated with gold, spans the central space and covers the rock.
The glory of the building is its decoration. Above a high dado of quartered marble, the exterior and interior walls were once entirely covered in a mosaic of small cubes of colored and gold glass and semiprecious stones. In the sixteenth century the mosaics on the exterior were replaced with glazed tiles, themselves replaced in the twentieth century, but the mosaics on the interior stand much as they did when they were put up in the late seventh century. They depict a vast program of fantastic trees, plants, fruits, jewels, chalices, vases, and crowns. A long (about 250 meters, or 820 feet) band of Arabic writing in gold on a blue ground runs along the top of both sides of the inner octagon. The text is largely Qur’anic phrases and contains the earliest evidence for the
Cross-section Dome of the Rock diagram.
writing down of the Qur’an. It ended with the name of the patron, the Umayyad caliph ‘Abd al-Malik (replaced in the ninth century by that of the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun), and the date of construction.
In form, materials, and decoration, the Dome of the Rock belongs to the tradition of late Antique and Byzantine architecture that flourished in the region before the coming of Islam. The domed, centrally planned building was a typical form for a martyrium, and the Dome of the Rock is similar in plan and size of dome to the nearby Holy Sepulcher, the building (also raised over a rock) that the emperor Constan-tine had erected in the fourth century to mark the site of Christ’s burial on Golgotha. Other Christian buildings erected in the area in the eighth century, notably the Church of the Nativity in Bethelem, show a similar use of marble and mosaics, perhaps executed by the same team of mosaicists.
Despite its antecedents and even its workmen, the Dome of the Rock is clearly a Muslim building, commissioned by a Muslim patron for Muslim purposes. Its mosaic decoration, notably its inscriptions in Arabic and its lack of figural representation, immediately distinguishes it from contemporary Christian buildings in the area. It was not intended as a place for communal prayer; that function was fulfilled by the
Already in the ninth century several alternative explanations for its construction were proposed. One author suggested that ‘Abd al-Malik had commissioned the Dome of the Rock to replace the Ka’ba, which had fallen into enemy hands. This explanation, however, is simplistic and undermines one of the five central tenets of Islam, though the building could have functioned (and does today) as a secondary site of pilgrimage. Another explanation, also current from the ninth century, associates the building with the site of Muhammad’s mfraj, his miraculous night-journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and back. However, the Qur’anic inscriptions around the interior of the Dome of the Rock, the only contemporary source for explaining the building’s purpose, mention neither of these subjects. Rather, they deal with the nature of Islam and refute the tenets of Christianity. The inscriptions suggest that the building was intended to advertise the presence of Islam. Together with the traditional identification of the rock as the place of Adam’s burial and Abraham’s intended sacrifice of his son and of the esplanade as the site of Solomon’s Temple, the inscriptions suggest that the Dome of the Rock was meant to symbolize Islam as the worthy successor to both Judaism and Christianity.
The Dome of the Rock continued to play an important role long after it was built. The Abbasids, who succeeded the Umayyads, restored it several times, and the Fatimids restored it in the eleventh century after the dome collapsed in the earthquake of 1016. The Crusaders considered it Solomon’s Temple itself and rechristened the building Templum Domini. Saladin, the Ayyubid prince who recaptured Jerusalem for the Muslims in 1187, had the building rededicated as part of his campaign to enhance the city’s sanctity and political importance. The Mamluks, rulers of Egypt and Syria from 1250 to 1517, had the wooden ceilings of the ambulatory and the central dome restored. The Ottoman sultan Suleyman (r. 1520-1566), whose name is the Turkish form of Solomon, ordered the building redecorated as part of his program of embellishing the holy cities of Islam. It was restored six more times in the twentieth century and has become a popular icon of Islam, decorating watches and tea towels and replicated in miniature models made of mother-of-pearl and plastic. The first great monument of Islamic architecture, it has taken on a new life as the symbol of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation.
See also Architecture; Holy Cities.
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Sheila S. Blair Jonathan M. Bloom