Early Arab Period, 632-1099


The 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.


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 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.


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.


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.


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.

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

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