Dome of the Rock: Religious Significance, History, and Architecture
Completed in 691 CE, the Dome of the Rock is the oldest extant Islamic building in the world.
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
The Dome of the Rock (Arabic: مسجد قبة الصخرة, translit.: Masjid Qubbat As-Sakhrah, Hebrew: כיפת הסלע, translit.: Kipat Hasela) is an Islamic shrine and a major landmark in Jerusalem. It was completed in 691 C.E., making it the oldest extant Islamic building in the world.
The Dome of the Rock has a striking presence in the holy city of Jerusalem. It is located on the Temple Mount, a spot is sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims. In this way the Dome of the Rock provides a visual reminder and tangible symbol of not only the underlying unity among the Abrahamic religions but also their discord and rivalry.
The Dome of the Rock, being among a complex of buildings on the Temple Mount, (the other being the Al-Aqsa Mosque) is one of the holiest sites in Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Its significance stems from the religious beliefs regarding the rock at its heart.
The rock is the peak of Mount Moriah which has always been regarded as sacred. In an ancient Semitic tradition the bare rock at the top was thought to be the mouth of the serpent Tahum and the intersection of the underworld and upper world. It is also called the Foundation Stone. According to the sages of the Talmud it was from this rock that the world was created, itself being the first part of the Earth to come into existence. In the words of the Zohar: “The world was not created until God took a stone called Even haShetiya and threw it into the depths where it was fixed from above till below, and from it the world expanded. It is the center point of the world and on this spot stood the Holy of Holies.”
According to the Talmud, it was close to here that God gathered the earth that was formed into Adam. It was on this rock that Adam – and later Cain, Abel, and Noah – offered sacrifices to God. Jewish sources identify this rock as the place mentioned in the Bible where Abraham fulfilled God’s test to see if he would be willing to sacrifice his son Isaac. Muslims believe that it was Ismail that God told Abraham to sacrifice.
When, according to the Bible, King David purchased a threshing floor owned by Araunah the Jebusite, it is believed that it was upon this rock that he offered the sacrifice mentioned in the verse and where he experienced a revelatory vision of angels ascending a golden ladder into the sky. He wanted to construct a permanent Temple there, but as his hands were “bloodied,” he was forbidden to do so himself. The task was left to his son Solomon, who completed the Temple in c. 950 B.C.E.It is traditionally believed that the Holy of Holies was located above the rock.
The site is significant for Christians because, as well as being the Temple, it is also the place where Jesus came as a young boy and later in his life prayed and taught. It is believed that during the time of the Byzantine Empire, the spot where the Dome was later constructed was where Emperor Constantine I’s mother built a small church, calling it the Church of St. Cyrus and St. John, later on enlarged and called the Church of the Holy Wisdom.
The reason why Muslims venerate the site is because according to Islamic tradition, the rock is the spot from where Muhammad ascended to Heaven accompanied by the angel Gabriel. The Qur’an (surah 17) relates that Muhammad was carried by night ‘from the sacred temple to the temple that is most remote, whose precinct we have blessed, that we might show him our signs…’ The two temples are believed to be the Ka’ba in Makkah and the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Muhammad’s Night Journey was in the company of the archangel Gabriel and they rode on a winged steed called El Burak. They stopped briefly at Mount Sinai and Bethlehem before alighting on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. There they met Abraham, Moses, Jesus and other prophets. Muhammad led them in prayer before climbing to the top of the rock. A ladder of golden light appeared upon which Muhammad ascended through the seven heavens into the presence of God who gave him instructions about prayer for him and his followers. After the meeting Muhammad was flown back to Makkah.
Location, Construction, and Dimensions
The Dome of the Rock is located at the visual center of an ancient human-made platform known to the Jews as the Temple Mount or to the Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif (“Noble Sanctuary”). The platform, greatly enlarged under the rule of Herod the Great, was the former site of the Second Jewish Temple that was destroyed during the Roman Siege of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. In 637 C.E., Jerusalem was conquered by the Rashidun Caliphate army during the Islamic invasion of the Byzantine Empire. After signing a peace treaty Caliph Umar asked the Patriach to lead him to the place of the old Jewish Temple. Umar was shocked to find the site covered in rubbish, as the Romans had initiated the custom of using it as a dung heap. Umar knelt down immediately, and began to clear the area with his hands. When the Muslims saw what he was doing, they followed his example, and soon the entire area of approximately 35 acres, was cleaned up. He commissioned the construction of a wooden mosque on the southern end of the site, exactly where the present-day mosque of Al-Aqsa stands. Umar was then led to the site of the Foundation Stone by a rabbi, Ka’ab al-Ahbar, who had converted to Islam.
The Dome of the Rock was erected between 685 and 691 C.E. Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, who initiated construction of the Dome, hoped that it would “house the Muslims from cold and heat,” and intended the building to serve as a shrine for pilgrims and not as a mosque for public worship. The two engineers Yazid ibn Salam from Jerusalem and Raja’ ibn Hayweh, from Baysan, were ordered to spend generously on the construction. In his Book of the Geography, al-Maqdisi reported that seven times the revenue of Egypt was used to build the Dome. During a discussion with his uncle on why the Caliph spent lavishly on building the mosques in Jerusalem and Damascus, al-Maqdisi writes:
O my little son, thou has no understanding. Verily he was right, and he was prompted to a worthy work. For he beheld Syria to be a country that had long been occupied by the Christians, and he noted there are beautiful churches still belonging to them, so enchantingly fair, and so renowned for their splendour, as are the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the churches of Lydda and Edessa. So he sought to build for the Muslims a mosque that should be unique and a wonder to the world. And in like manner is it not evident that Caliph Abd al-Malik, seeing the greatness of the martyrium of the Holy Sepulchre and its magnificence was moved lest it should dazzle the minds of Muslims and hence erected above the Rock the dome which is now seen there.
Professor Shlomo Dov Goitein of the Hebrew University states that the Dome of the Rock was intended to remove the fitna, or “annoyance,” constituted by the existence of the many fine buildings of worship of other religions. The very form of a rotunda, given to the Qubbat as-Sakhra, although it was foreign to Islam, was destined to rival the many Christian domes. A.C. Cresswell in his book, Origin of the Plan of the Dome of the Rock, notes that those who built the shrine made use of the measurements of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The diameter of the dome of the shrine is 20.2 m and its height 20.48 m, while the diameter of the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is 20.9 m and its height 21.5 m.
The structure is basically octagonal. It comprises a wooden dome, approximately 60 feet (20 m) in diameter, which is mounted on an elevated drum consisting of a circle of 16 piers and columns. Surrounding this circle is an octagonal arcade of 24 piers and columns. The outer side walls are made of porcelain and mirror the octagonal design. They each measure approximately 60 feet (18 m) wide and 36 feet (11 m) high. Both the dome and the exterior walls contain many windows.
During his travels in Jerusalem, Mark Twain wrote that:
Everywhere about the Mosque of Omar are portions of pillars, curiously wrought altars, and fragments of elegantly carved marble—precious remains of Solomon’s Temple. These have been dug from all depths in the soil and rubbish of Mount Moriah, and the Moslems have always shown a disposition to preserve them with the utmost care.
The Dome is in the shape of a Byzantine martyrium, a structure intended for the housing and veneration of saintly relics, and is an excellent example of middle Byzantine art. al-Maqdisi reports that surplus funds consisting of 100,000 gold dinar coins were melted down and cast on the dome’s exterior, “which at the time had a strong glitter that no eye could look straight at it.” During the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent the exterior of the Dome of the Rock was covered with Iznik tiles. The work took seven years. Haj Amin Al-Husseini, appointed Grand Mufti by the British during the Mandate, along with Yacoub Al Ghussein implemented restoration of Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
In 1955, an extensive program of renovation was begun by the government of Jordan, with funds supplied by the Arab governments and Turkey. The work included replacement of large numbers of tiles dating back to the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, which had become dislodged by heavy rain. In 1960, as part of this restoration, the dome was covered with a durable aluminium and bronze alloy made in Italy. The restoration was completed in August 1964. In 1998, the golden dome covering was refurbished following a donation of $8.2 million by King Hussein of Jordan, who sold one of his houses in London to fund the 80 kilograms of gold required.
The interior of the dome is lavishly decorated with mosaic, faience, and marble, much of which was added several centuries after its completion. It also contains Qur’anic inscriptions. Surah Ya-Seen is inscribed across the top of the tile work and was commissioned in the sixteenth century by Suleiman the Magnificent. Additionally, al-Isra is inscribed above this.
According to Professor Shlomo Dov Goitein, the inscriptions decorating the interior clearly display a spirit of polemic against Christianity, while stressing at the same time the Qur’anic doctrine that Jesus Christ was a true prophet. The formula la sharika lahu, “God has no companion,” is repeated five times, the verses from sura Maryam 16:34-37, which strongly deny Jesus’ sonship to God, are quoted together with the remarkable prayer: Allahumma salli(with ya; read salli without ya) ala rasulika wa’abdika ‘Isa bin Maryam—”In the name of the One God (Allah) Pray for your Prophet and Servant Jesus son of Mary.” He believes that this shows that rivalry with Christendom, together with the spirit of Islamic mission to the Christians, was at the work at the creation of the famous Dome.
On the walls of the Dome of the Rock is an inscription in a mosaic frieze that includes the following words:
Bless your envoy and your servant Jesus son of Mary and peace upon him on the day of birth and on the day of death and on the day he is raised up again. It is a word of truth in which they doubt. It is not for God to take a son. Glory be to him when he decrees a thing he only says be, and it is.
This appears to be the earliest extant citation from the Qur’an, with the date recorded as 72 after the Hijra (or 691-692 C.E.), which historians view as the year of the Dome’s construction.
During the Crusades, the Dome of the Rock was given to the Augustinians, who turned it into a church, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque became the royal palace of Baldwin I of Jerusalem in 1104. The Knights Templar, who believed the Dome of the Rock was the site of the Temple of Solomon, set up their headquarters in the Al-Aqsa Mosque adjacent to the Dome for much of the twelfth century. The “Templum Domini,” as they called it, was featured on the official seals of the Order’s Grand Masters (such as Evrard de Barres and Regnaud de Vichier), and it became the architectural model for Templar churches across Europe.
Ayyubids and Mamluks
Jerusalem was recaptured by Saladin on Friday, October 2, 1187, and the Haram was reconsecrated as a Muslim sanctuary. The cross on top of the Dome of the Rock was replaced by a golden crescent and a wooden screen was placed around the rock below. Salah al-Din’s nephew al-Malik al-Mu’azzam Isa (615-24/1218-27) carried out other restorations within the Haram and added the porch to the Aqsa mosque.
The Haram was the focus of extensive royal patronage by the sultans during the Mamluk period, which lasted from 1250 until 1510.
Ottoman Empire 1517-1917
Large-scale renovation was undertaken during the reign of Mahmud II in 1817.
British Mandate 1917-1948
The Dome of the Rock was badly shaken during an earthquake in Palestine on Monday, July 11, 1927, rendering useless many of the repairs that had taken place over previous years.
1948 to Present
Under Jordanian rule of Jerusalem, Jews were forbidden from entering the Old City. Israel took control of the Dome of Rock during its victory in the Six-Day War in 1967. The Chief Rabbi of the Military Rabbinate, Shlomo Goren, entered the Dome of the Rock with a Torah book and the shofar. Goren was sharply criticized by the Israeli Defense Ministry, who, noting Goren’s senior rank, called his behavior inappropriate. The episode led the Chief Rabbis of the time to restate the accepted laws of normative Judaism that no Jews were allowed on the mount due to issues of ritual impurity. The secular authorities welcomed this ruling as it preserved the status quo with the Waqf, the Islamic authority. Later that year, in a speech to a military convention, Goren said “Certainly we should have blown it up. It is a tragedy for generations that we did not do so. […] I myself would have gone up there and wiped it off the ground completely so that there was no trace that there was ever a Mosque of Omar there.”
A few hours after the Israeli flag was hoisted over the Dome of the Rock in 1967, at the conclusion of the Six-Day War, Israelis lowered it on the orders of General Moshe Dayan, and invested the Muslim Waqf (religious trust) with the authority to manage the Temple Mount-Haram al-Sharif in order to “keep the peace”. Groups such as the Temple Mount and Eretz Yisrael Faithful Movement wish to relocate the Dome to Mecca and replace it with a Third Temple. Since Muslims consider the ground under the Dome to be sacred this would be a highly contentious move, and would probably provoke much violence. The majority of Israelis also do not share the movement’s wishes. Most religious Jews feel that the Temple should only be rebuilt in the messianic era, and it is their belief that it would be presumptuous of people to force God’s hand. However, some Evangelical Christians consider this a prerequisite to Armageddon and the Second Coming. This view is steeped in the belief that there will be a prophetic rebuilding of the Temple in place of the Dome of the Rock.
The dome is formally owned and maintained by the Ministry of Awqaf in Jordan.
Until the mid-nineteenth century, non-Muslims were barred from the area. Since 1967, non-Muslims have been allowed some entry, but non-Muslim prayers on the Temple Mount are not allowed.
After Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount in 2000, in what was considered by some a provocative gesture that set off Muslim rioting, non-Muslims were forbidden to enter the Temple compound.
In 2006, the compound was reopened to non-Muslim visitors free of charge. Non-muslims may never enter on Fridays, Saturdays, or Muslim holidays. Entry is through a covered wooden walkway next to the security entrance to the Western Wall known as the Mugrabi or Maimonides Gate. Entry to the mosques themselves is prohibited to non-Muslims, as is access to the Temple Mount through the Cotton Market. Visitors undergo strict security screening, and items such as Hebrew prayerbooks or musical instruments are not allowed.
In addition to these restrictions put in place by the Muslim Council, most Orthodox rabbis regard entry to the compound as a violation of Jewish law. This restriction is based on the belief that even though the Temple was destroyed centuries ago, the precise location of the Holy of Holies, the sanctuary that was only entered by the High Priest, is not known. Hence the restriction is applied to the entire compound. However, some rabbis believe that modern archaeological and other evidence have enabled them to identify areas that can be safely entered without violating Jewish law.
- Rizwi Faizer, The Shape of the Holy: Early Islamic Jerusalem, Rizwi’s Bibliography for Medieval Islam. Retrieved May 27, 2008.
- Tractate Yoma 54b.
- ↑ Vayechi 1:231.
- 1 Chronicles 21:25, and 2 Samuel 24:18-25.
- Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims Before the Crusades, p. 204.
- Victoria and Albert Museum, Drawings of Islamic Buildings: Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem. Retrieved May 27, 2008.
- Abu-Bakr al-Wasiti, Fada’il Bayt al-Maqdis, p. 80-81.
- Encyclopedia Britannica, Dome of the Rock. Retrieved May 27, 2008.
- Shams al-Din al-Maqdisi, Ahsan al-Taqasim fi Mar’rifat al-Aqalim, 2nd ed. (Leiden, 1967) pp. 159-171.
- Shlomo Dov Goitein, “The Historication Background of the Erection of the Dome of the Rock,” Journal of American Oriental Society, Vol. 70, No. 2, 1950.
- Glass, Steel, and Stone, Dome of the Rock. Retrieved May 27, 2008.
- Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad.
- Abu-Bakr al-Wasiti, Fada’il Bayt al-Maqdis, p. 80-81.
- www.hzzretz.co.il, Photo of Shlomo Goren inside the Dome. Retrieved May 27, 2008.
- www.jcpa.org, The Political Role Of The Israeli Chief Rabbinate In The Temple Mount Question by Yoel Cohen. Retrieved May 27, 2008.
- www.archaeology.org, Letter from Jerusalem: A Fight Over Sacred Turf by Sandra Scham. Retrieved May 27, 2008.
- www.kinghussein.gov.jo, Hashemite Restorations of the Islamic Holy Places in Jerusalem. Retrieved January 21, 2008.
- Marshall J. Breger and Thomas A. Idinopulos, Jerusalem’s Holy Places and the Peace Process. Retrieved May 27, 2008.
- BBC, Eyewitness: Inside al-Aqsa. Retrieved May 27, 2008.
- Graber, Oleg. 2006. The Dome of the Rock. Belknap Press.
- Graber, Oleg. 1996. The Shape of the Holy: Early Islamic Jerusalem. Princeton University Press.
- Nuseibeh, Said. 1996. The Dome of the Rock. Thames & Hudson.
- Peterson, Andrew. 1994. Dictionary of Islamic Architecture. London: Routledge.
Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 10.16.2017, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.