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Moslem Jerusalem 638-1099, Teddy Kollek and Moshe Pearlman, Jerusalem: Sacred City of Mankind, Steimatzky Ltd., Jerusalem, 1991.

Dome_of_the_RockThe caliph Omar, as we have seen, was careful not to harm Jerusalem. This was because of its special sanctity for the adherents of the new religion of Islam. It was by no means as holy as Mecca, where Mohammed was born, or Medina, which welcomed him after his flight from his home town and where he eventually died. But the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was the place in the vision of Mohammed to which he was carried from Mecca one night on his legendary steed el-Burak, and from there was caught up through the seven heavens into the presence of the Almighty. The opening verse of the surah (chapter) of the Koran on The Children of Israel reads “Glorified be He who carried His servant by night from the Inviolable Place of Worship (Mecca) to the Far Distant Place of Worship (Jerusalem), the neighborhood of which We have blessed…”

Small wonder, then, that Jerusalem should have had special significance for the caliph Omar when he entered the city after its surrender. The tradition of special locations holy to Islam only sprang up much later, and possibly for reasons other than religion. There is a medieval story which relates that Omar asked the Christian Patriarch Sophronius to take him directly to the site of the Jewish Temple. Sophronius is said to have been disturbed by this request since the Christians had turned the Temple area into a dunghill and refuse heap. He was somewhat evasive, but Omar was insistent, and, so the story goes, when they reached the site, Omar was so shocked that he made the Patriarch crawl through the muck on his hands and knees as a punishment for Christian abasement of a site venerated by—Moslems!

Omar built a wooden mosque in the Temple compound. The glorious domed building which rises today in the area and which bears his name, the Mosque of Omar, was not in fact built by him. It is more correctly known as the Dome of the Rock, or Mosque of the Dome, and it stands, so Moslems believe, on the spot from where Mohammed made his mystic flight to heaven. The rock within is also believed to have been the improvised altar on which Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac, the rock of Mount Moriah, as well as the site of the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple.

This great shrine was built by a later caliph, Abd el-Malik (685-705), of the Umayyad dynasty, and was the work of Byzantine architects and craftsmen of the region. It underwent considerable repairs in the centuries that followed, and received numerous decorative additions; but this magnificent, octagonal, gold-domed building is substantially the same today as it was when completed in the year 691. It stands on the highest point of the Jewish Temple compound, renamed by the Arabs “Hara mesh-Sharif” (Noble Sanctuary), and is approached on all sides by broad flights of steps. Each of the eight outer walls is graced with slender arches. The four doors to the mosque are set at the points of the compass. An inner circle of pillars supports the giant cupola, an outer ring of columns supports the arcade. Immediately beneath the dome is the Rock, “as-Sakhra” in Arabic.

Abd el-Malik was moved to build this superb Moslem shrine by political, economic and religious considerations. His authority was being challenged by a rival caliph who was in possession of Mecca, and this city, as the birthplace of Mohammed, had powerful political pull. It also attracted considerable revenues from pilgrims—many of whom came from Abd el-Malik’s dominions. A shrine in Jerusalem would enhance the political importance of the city, and it would also serve as a substitute for pilgrimage to Mecca, drawing to itself some of the accompanying revenues. Moreover, the presence of so many handsome local churches prompted the caliph’s wish to outdo the Christian glory, and the Dome of the Rock was assuredly an admirable instrument for this purpose.

Any Moslem ruler would have been proud to have this fine structure attributed to him, and a later caliph, al-Ma’moon, of the House of Abbas which succeeded the Umayyad dynasty, tried to usurp the honor. The building was in need of repair—it was now 813—and when the renovations were completed, the masons changed the name of the original plaque, removing Abd el-Malik and substituting the Abbasid al-Ma’moon as “the servant of God” who had built the mosque. But they left the rest of the inscription—and forgot to change the original date!

In 1016 the building was gravely damaged by earthquake. It was repaired and strengthened six years later. In 1067, another earthquake struck Jerusalem. The Rock was split, but the structure escaped severe damage.

During the Crusader occupation of Jerusalem (1099-1187), the Dome of the Rock was converted into a Christian church, known as Templum Domini, because of the association of the site with the Jewish Temple. Christian images and paintings were introduced into the sanctuary, and a gold cross was set atop the dome. Early Crusader pilgrims started the practice of chipping off pieces of the Rock and carrying them back home as holy souvenirs. To stop it, the Crusader kings had it covered with marble and erected an iron grille round it. The grille remains to this day. (Incidentally, the religious and military Crusader Order which took over the Temple compound became known as the Order of Templars. When, later the Order established churches in Europe, they followed the circular design of the Dome of the Rock and were sometimes called Temple Churches. The most celebrated is the Temple Church in London.)

With the Moslem reconquest of Jerusalem in 1187, Saladin removed all sign of Crusader occupancy (except for the grille round the Rock) and decorated the interior, adding marble facing to the walls and mosaics to the inside of the dome.

The main Mameluke additions in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were the marble pulpit, which still stands, and the copper coverings to the doors. (They also had to repair the dome which caught fire in 1448 and collapsed even though, as one writer put it, “all Jerusalem rushed to save it.”)

Impressive renovations were made in the sixteenth century by the Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66), notably the replacement of windows in the dome with stained glass of floral design painted in gold, and the facing of sections of the outside walls with exquisite Kashani titles. (They were either brought specially from the celebrated tile center in Persia, or craftsmen from Kashan were brought to Jerusalem to work. Many of the present tiles are inferior nineteenth-century copies of the originals.)

A few years ago, the dull grey cover of lead on the dome was replaced by a layer of gold-plated aluminum. Once again it was the color of the pure gold with which Abd el-Malik is said to have decorated it (but which he then ordered to be shielded by a covering of hair, wool and leather to protect the gold from the weather). There are few more spectacular sights in the world today than the vision of the golden dome upon the Temple Mount seen at dawn from the Mount of Olives.

The builder of the Dome of the Rock was long credited with the erection of the nearby silver-domed Mosque of El-Aksa, at the southwestern end of the Temple compound. The original building, however, is now held to have been the work of Abd el-Malik’s son, the caliph Waleed, early in the eighth century. Nothing remains of that eight-century structure beyond a few of the pillars in the colonnade to the east of the dome.

The silver and gold covering of the original doors were used later in the century to finance a post-earthquake restoration, the first of several in the succeeding years. The most important, however, was the reconstruction carried out in 1034 by the Fatimid caliph Al-Zahir. The dome and seven northern doors of today’s rectangular house of worship, large enough to hold five thousand worshippers, are his work. He is said to have used as building materials the columns and capitals of destroyed churches in the area.

During the Crusader period, the mosque became the headquarters building of the Order of Templars, who built additional wings. They called it Palatium Solomonis, the palace of Solomon, considering it to have been the site of the residence Solomon had build just south of the Temple. The vaults beneath the mosque were used as stables by the Crusader knights—they may still be seen—and were accordingly called, and are known to this day, as the “Stables of Solomon.” They are not, however, Solomonic. They were constructed by Herod to support this southeastern section of the Temple esplanade.

Saladin restored El-Aksa to its former state, decorated the dome with mosaics (which may be seen today), and added a beautiful mihrab which is still in daily use. (The mihrab is the niche reserved for the imam who leads the prayer. It marks the kibla, the direction of Mecca.) From Aleppo he brought the handsomely carved cedar-wood pulpit which had been specially made for this Jerusalem mosque by his predecessor who had hoped to be the one to conquer Jerusalem. Saladin also marbled the floor and the walls, decorating the upper parts with mosaics. The northern porch and arches were added early in the thirteenth century.

Today’s Mosque of El-Aksa is the building as reconstructed during the period of the British Mandatory Administration in this century. It was completed in 1943. In keeping with the practice of inscribing the names of Moslem rulers and princes who financed repairs or decorations on marble wall-plaques, the last reigning monarch of Egypt, King Farouk, is honored with this inscription on the wall just west of the main entrance- “The Supreme Moslem Council has restored the eastern transept, the central aisle, and the front of the northern aisle of this blessed Mosque Al-Aksa.. The Egyptian Government gave the wooden ceiling in the central aisle [at a cost of 10,000 pounds sterling] in the reign of H. M. the good king, Farouk I. May God preserve him and support his kingdom.”

It was at the entrance to this mosque that King Abdullah of Jordan, grandfather of King Hussein, was assassinated by an Arab extremist in July 1951.

Jerusalem was never the capital of the Arab Empire. Under Abd el-Malik and the rest of the Umayyad caliphs, with one exception, the seat was Damascus. (The exception was Abd el-Malik’s second son, Suleiman, who founded the town of Ramla—near today’s international airport at Lod. It was the only city in Palestine built by the Moslems.) Abbas al-Saffah, who overthrew the Umayyad caliph in 750 and founded the Abbasid dynasty, moved the capital to Mesopotamia, and his successor established it in the new imperial city of Baghdad which he built.

Under the Umayyads and the early period of the Abbasids, conversions to Islam increased, but Christians and Jews were tolerated and allowed control of their communal affairs. In Jerusalem, monks and pilgrims suffered little interference from the Moslem administration, though desert monasteries were occasionally sacked by Bedouin. The problems of the Jerusalem Christian community were largely internal, caused by the widening breach between the Eastern (Greek Orthodox) and Western (Latin) Churches which has continued to this day. Before the Arab conquest, the Eastern Church was itself torn by schisms, the patriarchate of Jerusalem remaining faithful to the Orthodoxy which, for convenience, is called Greek. Jerusalem shrines, equally venerated by all Christians, became the exclusive possession of one sect, and there was a period when they were closed to other Christians. After the conquest, with Jerusalem now within the Arab dominion, it was cut off from the premier Latin patriarchate of Rome the principal eastern patriarchate of Constantinople.

Curiously enough, it was during the early Moslem period that the universal character of the Christian Holy Places in Jerusalem came to the fore. The Moslems respected Christian and Jewish shrines, and found pilgrimages profitable. They therefore encouraged pilgrims from all over the west and east. Specific recognition of universal Christian interest in Jerusalem was given by Haroun el-Rashid, most noted of the Abbasid rulers, when he allowed Charlemagne, emperor of the West, to endow and maintain centers for western pilgrims. This understandably irked the Jerusalem Patriarch, and is said to have embittered the factional conflict even more.

Moslem rule had brought a change of status for the Christians. In the Byzantine period there were the rulers, first class citizens, now they were second class. The Jews were now also second class citizens; but under the Christians they had been less, treated intolerantly at best, but often savagely persecuted. For a time, too, they had not been allowed to settle in Jerusalem. Under the Moslems they were. Returning to the city shortly after Omar’s conquest, they lived in the southern quarter close to the “Wailing” Wall. As they grew in number, they spread to the northern section, near the Damascus Gate. The Pilgrim Festivals, notably the Feast of Succot, again saw numerous visitors from communities elsewhere in Palestine and from the Diaspora.

Not that Islam had suddenly become benign and enlightened towards those of other religions. Inside Arabia, the Jews were treated with little mercy. Their rejection of Islam had been a keen disappointment to Mohammed who had expected them to be attracted by his equal insistence on monotheism (although with Mohammed as the Prophet), his acceptance of the rite of circumcision, and his reverence for the Hebrew patriarchs and for Jerusalem. Neighboring Jewish tribes were gravely ill-used. But as Arab dominion spread, notably under the caliph Omar, it became good politics not to exterminate or banish all who refused Moslem conversion, as few would be left to people the conquered territories. And so a practical toleration replaced the early bigotry, though the Jews were still subjected to special hardships, some remaining from the restrictions of Christian rule.

At the beginning of the ninth century, the Abbasid caliphs began to rely increasingly on Turkish mercenaries, and these in time assumed more and more power. By the middle of the century, some of the leaders of these hireling groups were governors of provinces, wielding virtually independent control. One of them who started out as aide to the Governor of Egypt in 868 soon made himself Governor and he broke with the court in Baghdad. He was Ahmed ibn-Tulun. In 877 he conquered Palestine and Syria, and Jerusalem became part of an Egyptian province.

Under the Fatimid dynasty in the next century, Jerusalem was to experience both a high and low point. The Fatimids (claiming descent from Fatima, daughter of Mohammed) conquered Egypt in 969 and founded the new capital—Cairo. A few years later, under caliph Al-Aziz, Fatimid rule was extended to Syria and Palestine. It was during the beneficent reign of Al-Aziz (976-996) that Christians and Jews in Jerusalem enjoyed considerable freedom. It was under his successor, Al-Hakim (996-1021), known as “the mad caliph,” that Jerusalem suffered havoc.

Al-Hakim banned pilgrimages to Jerusalem and ordered the destruction of all churches and synagogues throughout the empire. It was at this time that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was destroyed, doing more, it is said, than any other single act to pave the way for the Crusades, for here was a shrine venerated throughout Christendom. Al-Hakim’s order had another repercussion. When news of the burning down of the sacred church reached the countries of the west, the rumor was circulated that the caliph had acted at the instigation of the Jews, and massacres followed.

After the death of Al-Hakim, the Holy Sepulchre and other churches were rebuilt and pilgrimages were resumed. The next fifty years were comparatively uneventful (except for three earthquakes, on of which gravely damaged the Dome of the Rock).

Then came another army of Turkish invaders. They were the Seljuks, an outlying branch of the Turks who came from the far eastern provinces of Islam, not far from the borders of China. They had been converted to Islam at the end of the tenth century while serving as mercenaries to the Moslem rulers of Persia and northwest India. They, like their earlier counterparts, soon overthrew their masters, and by 1055 were in power in Baghdad. In 1071 they overran most of Syria and Palestine, and held Jerusalem for the next twenty-five years, except for a few months in 1076 when it was recovered by the Fatimids.

The Seljuks pillaged Jerusalem and followed a policy of persecution of both Christians and Jews. It was their maltreatment of the Christians, stopping of pilgrimage, and abuse of those pilgrims who succeeded in arriving, which gave additional prompting to the counter-offensive of the Christian world—the first Crusade. Shortly before this happened, the Fatimids re-established their authority in Jerusalem. But the western armies were on their way. On July 15, 1099, the Crusaders captured Jerusalem.

Glimpses of Jerusalem during the Moslem occupation are offered by several pilgrim records and, more absorbing, by the account of a knowledgeable and highly literate Moslem geographer. The Christian pilgrims in this period concerned themselves almost exclusively with the holy places with which we are already familiar, and they need not long detain us. The French bishop Arculf in about the year 670, however, notes something of Moslem interest. He saw the temporary mosque put up by Omar, showing clearly that the Dome of the Rock had not yet been built. He says-

“On the spot were the Temple once stood, near the eastern wall, the Saracens [Arabs or Moslems] have now erected a square house of prayer, in a rough manner, by raising beams and planks upon some remains of old ruins; this is their place of worship, and it is said that it will hold about three thousand men.”

Of Christian sites not before mentioned, Arculf visited Mount Zion where he “saw a square church, which included the place of our Lord’s Supper…and the spot where the Virgin Mary died.” Thus, in his day, Mount Zion was already traditionally associated with the Last Supper and with Mary’s death. Today’s Coenaculum (Latin for refectory), venerated as the scene of Jesus’ last Passover meal, is the “upper room” of a building erected some centuries later. It still stands on Mount Zion, as does the recently built Dormition Abbey (Dormitio Sanctae Mariae—the Sleep of Saint Mary) on the site of the church seen by Arculf.

The Anglo-Saxon pilgrim Willibald, who reached Jerusalem in 721, makes one observation of special interest after visiting the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives. It had “two columns standing within,” and Willibald says “the man who can creep between the wall and the columns will have remission of his sins.” This is the first mention of a concept which was to develop a high importance and to play a considerable role in the ideology of the Crusades, the concept of pilgrimage to gain remission of sins.

The Breton monk Bernard the Wise arrived in Jerusalem in about 870 and was “received into the hostel of the most glorious emperor Charles [Charlemagne, who had been granted, as we have seen, the right to build such centers by Haroun el-Rashid], where all are admitted who come to this place for devotional reasons and speak the Roman tongue.”

Bernard is the first to describe the “Ceremony of the Holy Fire-”

“…On Holy Saturday, which is the eve of Easter, the office is begun in the morning in this church [of the Holy Sepulchre], and after it is ended the Kyrie Eleison is chanted, until an angel comes an lights the lamps that hang above the aforesaid sepulcher. The patriarch gives this fire to the bishops and to the rest of the people, that each may with it light up his own house.”

The “Holy fire” was a celebrated miracle in the Middle Ages, and it is said to have been cited as one of the causes of the persecution of Christians and the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by the mad caliph Hakim. An eastern Christian writer Abulfaragius says that

“the author of this persecution was some enemy of the Christians, who told Hakim that, when the Christians assembled in their Temple at Jerusalem, to celebrate Easter, the chaplains of the church, making use of a pious fraud, greased the chain of iron that held the lamp over the tomb with oil of balsam; and that, when the Arab officer had sealed up the door which led to the tomb, they applied a match, through the roof, to the other extremity of the chain, and the fire descended immediately to the wick of the lamp and lighted it. Then the worshippers burst into tears, and cried out Kyrie Eleison, supposing it was fire which fell from heavens upon the tomb; and they were thus strengthened in their faith.”

This miracle was probably instituted after the time when so much encouragement was given to the pilgrims under the reign of Charlemagne. It is not mentioned in the works that preceded Bernard, but it is often alluded to by subsequent writers, and continues still to be practiced by the Greek Orthodox Church.

Undoubtedly the liveliest of the Jerusalem reports in the period before the Crusades is that of a Moslem, a native of the city, who set down his words towards the end of the tenth century, a few years before the destructive action of the caliph Hakim. He is the geographer known as Mukaddasi—Arabic for “He who comes form the Holy City”—and he was born in Jerusalem in the year AD 946. Jerusalem has a special place in his narrative of his long and varied journeys.

“Among provincial towns, [he writes] none is larger than Jerusalem, and many capitals are in fact smaller…Neither the cold nor the heat is excessive here, and snow falls but rarely. The Kadi Abu’l Kasim, son of the Kadi of the two Holy Cities, inquired of me once concerning the climate of Jerusalem. I answered, “It is betwixt and between—neither very hot nor very cold.” Said he in reply, “Just as is that of Paradise.” The buildings of the Holy City are of stone, and you will find nowhere finer or more solid constructions. In no place will you meet with a people more chaste. Provisions are most excellent here, the markets are clean, the mosque is of the largest, and nowhere are holy places more numerous…All the year round, never are her streets empty of strangers.”

Mukaddasi now describes the city and its main Moslem shrines.

“Jerusalem is smaller than Mecca and larger than Medina. Over the city is a Castle, one side of which is against the hill-side, while the other is defended by a ditch. Jerusalem has eight iron gates…The Mosque of El-Aksa lies at the southeastern corner of the Holy City. The stones of its foundations, which were laid by David, are ten ells, or a little less in length. They are chiseled, finely faced, and jointed, and of hardest material… This Mosque is even more beautiful than that of Damascus, for during the building of it they had for a rival and as a comparison the great church belonging to the Christians at Jerusalem, and they built this to be even more magnificent than that other.

“In the court of the mosque, on the right-hand side, are colonnades supported by marble pillars and pilasters; and on the further side are halls, vaulted in stone. The center part of the main building of the mosque is covered by a mighty roof, high pitched and gabled, behind which rises a magnificent dome. The ceiling everywhere, with the exception of that of the halls on the further side of the court, is formed of lead in sheets, but in these halls the ceilings are faced with mosaics studded in.”

Mukaddasi now described the Dome of the Rock-

“The Court of the Haram Area is paved in all parts; in its center rises a platform, like that in the mosque at Medina, to which, from all four sides, ascend broad flights of steps. On this platform is the Dome of the Rock, which rises above an octagonal buildings having four gates, one opposite to each of the flights of steps leading up from the court…All these are adorned with gold, and closing each of them is a beautiful door of cedar wood finely worked in pattern.

“…Within the building are three concentric colonnades, with columns of the most beautiful polished marble, and above is a low vaulting. Within these again is the central hall over the Rock; the hall is circular, not octagonal, and is surrounded by columns of polished marble supporting round arches. Built above these, and rising high into the air, is the drum, in which are large openings; and over the drum is the Dome… The Dome, externally, is completely covered with brass plates, gilt, while the building itself, its floor and its walls, and the drum, both within and without, are ornamented with marble and mosaics… At the dawn, when the light of the sun first strikes on the cupola, and the drum catches the rays, then is this edifice a marvelous sight to behold, and one such that in all Islam I have never seen its equal.”

Of the Jerusalem in the tenth century, Mukaddasi tells us-

“From Jerusalem comes cheeses, cottons, the celebrated raisins of the species known as Ainuni and Duri, excellent apples, bananas—which same is a fruit of the form of cucumber, but the skin peels off and the interior is not unlike the water-melon, only finer flavored and more luscious—also pine nuts;…also mirrors, lamp-jars and needles.”

And he adds-

“The best honey is that from Jerusalem, where the bees suck the thyme.”

Posted in: Early Arab Period

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