April 25, 2020
In Jerusalem, to the east of the modern city center, in the Old City, one of the most important Muslim shrines of the world, often called the miracle of Islam, is located. It is called Qubbat As-Sakhrah or the Dome of the Rock. Its unusual architectural design, history, and cultural value present a significant interest both for pilgrims and historians. The following work is a profile of the Dome of the Rock, which provides an insight into its history, purpose, and architectural design.
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Figure 1. The Dome of the Rock: A view of the south-east side
The Dome of the Rock has been built by Abd al-Malik, the Umayyad Caliph, in 688-691 years to commemorate Muhammad’s ascension to heaven. However, it is also believed that the reason for building it was more complex and subtle: Abd al-Malik wanted to create a beautiful Muslim temple that could compete with the majestic Christian churches and would be a symbolic statement of the superiority of Islam (Grabar, 2006).
The Temple Mount, on which the dome was built, had been considered sacred even before the advent of Islam. The Jews revered it as a place where the first Temple of Jerusalem – the Temple of Solomon – was built. In the Jewish tradition, this place is also considered the cornerstone of the Universe, i.e. the Foundation Stone, where the Lord began its creation. According to the Islamic tradition, Mohammed ascended to heaven from the top of the Temple Mount, where God gave him the precepts of the Islamic faith (Gonen, 2003).
Figure 2. The Dome of the Rock: The interior
The architecture of the Dome of the Rock makes an unusual visual impact, being quite different from the other mosques. It is one of the most ancient and beautiful monuments of early Islamic architecture, having the correct proportional shape. The lower octagonal part of the building is divided into two parts by the colonnade, creating a double loop (see fig. 2). The basic dimensions of the octagonal structures are linked to this loop, inside of which there is the Foundation Stone. The semicircular windows contain colorful stained glass, creating an effect of pearlescent shine. Each outer wall is 20 meters in length, which is equal to the diameter and height of the dome. The building rises to 34 meters above the ground in the center of the broad courtyard, enclosed by a stone wall (Necipoglu & Bailey, 2009). A large dome crowning the building was originally made of gold which was later replaced with copper and aluminum, covered with gold leaf (see fig. 1). Beautiful and colorful Turkish tiles that adorn the facade of the shrine are exact replicas of the original Persian tiles provided by Suleiman the Magnificent. The Arabic inscriptions in the upper part of the building are verses from the Quran that tell about the ascension of Muhammad (Necipoglu & Bailey, 2009).
The architectural design of the Dome of the Rock shows its close connection with nature. Not only it is built by using the top of the sacred mountain as its foundation, but its four doors are also aligned with the four points of the compass. The northern entrance is called the Gate of Paradise and the eastern one – the Gate of the Prophet David. The southern gate, the Gate of Prayer, serves as the main entrance to the Dome (Grabar, 2006). In addition, the building is crowned with a traditional Islamic crescent which is positioned in such a way that the viewer looking through it faces Mecca (see fig. 1).
Being a sacred place, the Dome of the Rock houses several holy relics. First of all, the Islamic theologians say that inside the Dome of the Rock, there is a genuine Foundation Stone. It rises to a half or two meters above the floor of the building. The sacred relic is surrounded by a gilded grille so that none of the visitors could touch it. Near the rock, there is a reliquary that dates back to the Ottoman era and contains hair from the beard of Muhammad and his footprint. Finally, at the northern gate of the Dome of the Rock, there is a slab of green jasper called the Stone of Eden. It contains several nails and fixing elements, which leads some researchers to suggest that during the Crusades, a crucifix was attached to the plate. However, according to the Muslim tradition, the slab was brought here by the prophet Muhammad, who drove 19 nails into the plate telling that they support the entire world. Nowadays, there are three nails in the stone: Muslims believe that the devil managed to pull out many of them, trying to destroy the world (Grabar, 2006).
Initially, the purpose of the dome was two-fold: to protect the Islamic sanctuary from the heat and cold and to provide shelter for the pilgrims. At the time, there was no concept of mosques. Therefore, the building was not used by analogy with the Christian church, is an architectural monument. However, due to an increased number of pilgrims, it has been turned into a house of prayer. The pilgrimage to the Dome of the Rock involves the following ritual: the pilgrims walk around it, as well as the Foundation Stone (by using the mentioned loop), seven times prior to praying (Grabar, 2006). During the old days, each pilgrim who managed to pray here after walking around the Foundation Stone received a paper confirming their right of going to Paradise after their death. This paper was put in their grave at the burial. Nowadays, the Dome of the Rock remains the architectural monument and the place of pilgrimage. Until the middle of the 20th century, the entrance to it had been open only to Muslims. The ban was lifted in 1967, but the people who profess a religion different from Islam cannot pray in the Dome of the Rock and bring the religious items there (Grabar, 2006).
Figure 3. The maze on the nave floor of Chartres Cathedral
Being a sacred place, the Dome of the Rock has certain similarities with other religious complexes, such as Chartres Cathedral in France. First of all, both of them are built on the hills that were considered sacred for a long time. In particular, the Chartres hill housed several sanctuaries and sacred groves, including the Roman temple. The Gentiles thought that the sacrifice at this place was bound to be accepted by the gods (Ball, 2009). In addition, both of the buildings are the places of pilgrimage that involves specific rituals, which is reflected in their architectural design. In the case of Chartres Cathedral, its main nave floor is paved with a circular maze symbolizing the way of Jesus Christ to Calvary, and the pilgrim has to go through it on their knees while praying (see fig. 3). At the same time, there are also certain differences between these sacred places. First of all, the contrary to the Dome of the Rock, which was modified several times by the Templars and Muslims in accordance with their religious traditions, Chartres Cathedral has remained almost intact. Being left untouched by the destruction and robbery, it has never been refurbished or rebuilt. Moreover, the main axis of Chartres Cathedral does not go strictly from west to east but rather from north-west to south-east (Ball, 2009).
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Thus, the Dome of the Rock is of a great religious and cultural significance, as it is one of the oldest monuments of early Islamic architecture being built on the place that had been considered sacred even before the advent of Islam and used by the representatives of various religions throughout its history. As a result, it is often viewed as a monument that unites Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, which adds to its cultural and historical value. After all, Jerusalem, the city where it is located, has always been considered the holy city of these religions.
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