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Letter from Jerusalem

28 September 2015

From the October issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here

Approaching Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, my wife and I knew we were on contested ground. On Fridays, only Muslims are allowed in. At the Cotton Merchants’ Gate to the Haram al-Sharif, Israeli soldiers looked at our British passports with lazy suspicion; we were passed to the Muslim guardians of the site who tested our faith by making us recite Qur’anic verses. Here confessional identity is everything. When Ariel Sharon visited Temple Mount in 2000 – defying Maimonides, who said the place was too holy for Jews to visit – he provoked the second intifada.

After prayers, we watched Palestinians chant anti-Israel slogans outside the Dome of the Rock. The Dome has become a symbol for Palestinian national aspiration, reproduced on countless posters and key rings; but the golden dome is also used by Israel in tourist literature. Like so much else here, both sides lay claim to the monument.

The Dome of the Rock is often described as quintessentially Islamic: the site where the Prophet Mohammed undertook his night journey to the heavens. But the story is more complex. The Night Journey narrative is more usually attached to the al-Aqsa mosque nearby. And the octagonal building is not a mosque, but a shrine. But a shrine to what?

Soon after the Prophet’s death in 632, the Arabs conquered Jerusalem. Within 50 years the fledgling empire’s centre of gravity had shifted to the Levant. The Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik had just defeated a usurper from Mecca when he began building on the site of Herod’s Temple, which had been destroyed by Vespasian in 70 AD. (Jews now pray at its surviving Western Wall.) Perhaps the caliph thought the sacred rock was the centre of the world or the site of the Day of Judgement; but nobody really knows. One theory is that he was building a dazzling alternative to the Kaaba in Mecca.

Whatever his motivation, Abd al-Malik resacralised a Jewish site using Byzantine designs and Roman materials. The designers were Muslim but the builders Christian and Jewish. The green and gold mosaics inside do not show human forms: like its sister Umayyad mosque in Damascus, it displays fruits, plants and jewel-encrusted trees that reflect a Qur’anic paradise. Synthesising earlier traditions, the building created its own dazzling Islamic aesthetic.

The writing running round the outside contains some of the earliest attested quotations from the Qur’an – mainly praising Jesus as the son of Mary, not of God. This was both an elegant appeal to the People of the Book, and an unsubtle expression of Islamic dominance. Intriguingly, the inscriptions mention Mohammed as an ‘intercessor’ with God, a doctrine that contradicts the Qur’an and never really caught on outside Sufi circles. This alternative theology was preserved thanks to the Dome’s charismatic aura.

When the Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099 they turned the Dome into a church, adding their own touches – including a grille surrounding the rock itself, which Saladin kept after he retook the city. (It’s now in the Islamic Museum across the esplanade.) In the 16th century, the Ottoman sultan Suleiman retiled the whole building in shimmering blue, and over the years it has undergone much renovation and recasting. Even the brilliant golden dome – actually an aluminium alloy – was dull lead before the 1960s, and was replaced again in 1999.

We spent hours walking round the Dome with a copy of Oleg Grabar’s superb guide, concentrating on the smaller details: curled volutes on Corinthian columns, the Mamluk-era Arabic writing, the 1,200 square metres of patterned mosaics – what the critic Lisa Golombek describes as the ‘draped universe’ of Islamic art. The building tells the story of Islam more eloquently than any book or sermon: the imperial reach, the spiritual power, the diverse origins, all harmonised into one spectacular, aesthetically blissful whole.

Given the volatile situation in the Middle East, I began to fear for the place. Could a Jewish extremist intent on rebuilding the Temple sneak in and destroy it – setting off World War Three in the process? What would ISIS do with the place? The medieval theologian Ibn Taymiyyah, a puritan often quoted by Islamist radicals, had little time for the Dome of the Rock. It offended his sense of a pure Islamic past floating above history.

For now the Dome of the Rock is a living haven, with guides hawking their services at inflated prices, men lying asleep on the carpet, Turkish women taking selfies. As we left, I spotted a pink balloon nestling in the arched corner next to a cute mosaic of a cucumber. Somehow it looked right at home.

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