Dome of the Rock PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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Dome of the Rock
Against the blue of the sky and the blue of its own walls below, the golden Dome of the Rock seems to float in heaven like another sun. It bodies forth the nobility of the whole esplanade, called in Arabic "the Noble Sanctuary": Haram es-Sharif.

Dome of the Rock 

In the expanse around it, smaller domes stand like planets caught in eternal stillness: the Dome of the Chain to its east, or the Dome of the Spirits to its north, and the black (formerly silver) dome of the al-Aqsa Mosque on the southern end. (See the next picture.)

For many visitors from the West, this will be the first time they enter a sacred precinct that is open to the sky. There is the vast and tranquil space, the sudden quiet. "The world is too much with us," wrote William Wordsworth, "Late and soon. Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers." Here is a space to re-collect one's powers. An approximation of heaven. No doubt it made this impression in earlier ages too, when it was the Temple Mount. But because it is still the Temple Mount for Jews, although the Noble Sanctuary for Muslims, it remains the most politically sensitive spot on earth.


The Koran (Quran) mentions the twofold destruction of the Temple. It also tells us that while in Medina, Muhammad changed the qiblah from Jerusalem to Mecca. Originally, that is, he prayed in the same direction as the Jews, who formed a large congregation in Medina. Thus the Muslims knew about the Temple, although it had disappeared almost 500 years before the birth of Islam. The chief name for Jerusalem among their early historians was "the Holy House." This was later shortened to the present designation, "the Holy" (al-Quds).

It is not surprising, then, that when the Muslims conquered Jerusalem in 638 AD under the Caliph Omar, they reverently cleaned the area and erected a mosque. This was "near the eastern wall," wrote Arculf around 680 (he probably meant the eastern wall of the city, because we have evidence that this mosque was built of stone on the southern end of the platform by 640 AD). Eight years later the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik began to erect the Dome of the Rock, which he finished in 691. The original building has survived (except for the dome, replaced in 1022, and some of the decoration).

No one does archaeology near the Dome. Maimonides reported that King Josiah hid the Ark of the Covenant below the Temple (The Book of Temple Service, 17), yet earlier sources say nothing of this. It is doubtful whether a dig would turn up much: if the Romans didn't level the area, later builders surely did. Despite the lack of definitive evidence, however, most scholars accept the place of the Dome as that where the Temple stood.

How would the Muslims have known that this was the holy place? The decisive factor was probably the prominent outcropping of bedrock called the sakhra in Arabic: no other spot on the mountain could compete with it for numinous power. (Enlarging the photo, however, we see the effects of Crusader quarrying.) Another factor may have played a part: in the decades between the Muslim conquest and the building of the dome in 691, Jews were again permitted to pray on the Mount, and they focused on "the pierced stone" (note the hole in the photo). 

As to al-Malik's motive in building the Dome, the founder's inscription offers a clue. We can see this upon entering. Piers and pillars divide the area around the rock into two "ambulatories," outer and inner. These eight dividing piers and sixteen pillars support arches, above which is a band of writing. It runs on both sides of the arcade for a total of 240 meters. Apart from giving credit to the builder and telling us the date, it contains a citation from the Koran (Qur'an), Sura 4, verse 171 (here Jesus is called Isa and Mary Marium):

O followers of the Book! do not exceed the limits in your religion, and do not speak (lies) against Allah, but (speak) the truth; the Messiah, Isa son of Marium is only an apostle of Allah and His Word which He communicated to Marium and a spirit from Him; believe therefore in Allah and His apostles, and say not, Three. Desist, it is better for you; Allah is only one God; far be It from His glory that He should have a son. Whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth is His, and Allah is sufficient for a Protector.

Dome of the Rock and Holy Sepulcher

This shows one of al-Malik's motives. The Koran had laid on Muslims the religious duty of striving (jihad) to bring Islam to the world. The only serious rival was Christianity. Here the Muslims had taken over a Christian city with many beautiful churches, among them the (then) magnificent Church of the Resurrection (now called the Holy Sepulcher). In the words of a 10th-century Muslim historian who lived in Jerusalem: Caliph Abd al-Malik, noting the greatness of the Dome of the Holy Sepulcher and its magnificence, was moved lest it should dazzle the minds of Muslims and so erected, above the Rock, the Dome which is now seen there. (Muqaddasi , pp. 22-23 )

(Many say that al-Malik had a political rival in Mecca: he built the Dome so that his subjects would pilgrim to Jerusalem, rather than make the obligatory haj. If so, that would have been heresy, but the notion is suspect. Its earliest source is a 9th-century Abbasid historian, Yaqubi. No other contemporary or near-contemporary historian mentions it. Furthermore, Yaqubi may have been biased: the Abbasids were interested in discrediting the Umayyad caliphs. One of them even substituted his own name for al-Malik's in the founding inscription of the Dome of the Rock, but forgot to change the date.)

Murphy-O'Connor (p.86)  suggests an additional motive. By its splendor, we have seen, this Muslim-funded building was to outshine the Christian Holy Sepulcher. By its place, it would present Islam as God's more perfect successor to Judaism. In Muslim belief, Islam completes and perfects the truths of both its monotheistic forebears. The embodiment of this fulfillment is the Dome of the Rock.

That makes sense, and yet -- in that case, why not erect a specifically Islamic building? In those days that would have meant a mosque for congregational prayer, to replace the modest wooden one that Arculf saw in 680. The Dome of the Rock, an octagon, will not do for a congregation. Rather, it closely resembles contemporary octagonal churches of Christendom: for example, that over Peter's House in Capernaum, the Church of Mary on Mt. Gerizim, and the portion of the Holy Sepulcher around the grave of Jesus. The dome of the last was 20.46 meters in diameter, that of the Muslim shrine 20.44: a one-inch difference.

The octagonal church in Christendom, not built for a congregation, typically commemorates an event or honors a saint. Instead of erecting a mosque on the rock, al-Malik put up this shrine. Was he commemorating something? 

In the minds and hearts of Muslims, the Dome of the Rock does have a specifically Islamic significance, and perhaps it already had it then. Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended to heaven from here. The first verse of Sura 17 in the Koran states: "Glory be to Him who carried His servant by night from the holy shrine to the distant shrine (al-masjid al-aqsa)  the precincts of which We have blessed, that We might show him some of our (miraculous) signs." (This verse appears on the drum outside. The tiling, redone in the 20th century, copied the 16th-century repairs of the Turkish Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. He too may have copied an inscription that was already there.)

A number of early Muslims, connecting the prophet's night journey with his ascension (Koran, Sura 53: 4-10) understood the distant (al-aqsa) shrine to be heaven. By the 8th century, though, most Muslim scholars were already interpreting the holy shrine as Mecca and the distant one as Jerusalem. (Peters , pp. 182-184.) Since they associated the night journey with the ascension, they conceived that the prophet first journeyed to Jerusalem and from here ascended. The 8th-century Life of the Prophet reports that he made the 40-day journey in a single night on the back of a white winged beast, half mule, half donkey.

The outcropping of bedrock (al-sakhra) at some stage came to be identified as the place from which Muhammad ascended. The small reliquary above the southwest corner of the rock is believed to contain a hair of the prophet's head. It also shelters his footprint in the rock, which a visitor may touch if invited to do so by a Muslim. The rock, according to a medieval legend, wanted to ascend with Muhammad (resulting in the opening of the cave on the south end), but the Angel Gabriel held it down. The angel's fingerprints are visible on the western edge, just north of the reliquary. These were probably the very marks that Christians saw as stemming from the hobnails on the boots of the soldiers who killed Zechariah.


In 688 AD, Islamic traditions were still in flux. Muslim historians were careful to cite their sources and voice their doubts. The Caliph al-Malik may have known the account linking Jerusalem with the Prophet's ascent. If so, the Dome of the Rock would have played a part in solidifying the version of tradition it commemorated.

Murphy-O'Connor (p.90) points out another dome, a few yards to the northwest, called the Dome of the Ascension. An inscription on it dates it to 1200 AD. The name is proof, he says, that the larger and older building could not have been intended to commemorate this event. Yet the tradition of Muhammad's ascent from Jerusalem was in place before the Crusaders arrived. Surely, the spot must already have been located. There is, besides, another way of explaining this little dome: its plan brings to mind a Crusader baptistery, and the nearby Dome of the Rock, when it functioned as a Crusader church, would have needed one. On taking the baptistery from the Crusaders, adapting it, and adding the inscription, the Muslims connected it to the Dome of the Rock by saying that here Muhammad prayed before ascending.

The belief that Muhammad ascended from Jerusalem has made al-Quds the third holiest place in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. This tradition attracted others: the rock is the center of the world; it is supported by a palm tree growing out of the river of paradise; Islam's holiest shrine, the qa'ba in Mecca, will be transported here on Judgment Day, and God will set his throne on the rock to judge. The souls of the dead await this day in the cave on the rock's southern edge. 

Traditions apart, the interior contains the secret of all great art: it combines wildness and form without compromising either. The splendor of the mosaics tends toward the infinite, every inch packed with design: one feels there could be no more. All this goes on in strict observance of the ban on graven images.