So why did Jerusalem assume an importance to the Muslims that was third only to Mecca and Medina?
Importantly for Islam, the Koran itself (17th surah) tells of Mohammed's famous dream in which he took a night journey on the winged horse El Buraq along with the Angel Gabriel. The night journey went from "the sacred temple to the temple that is more remote"; that is, from Mecca to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Here Mohammed worshipped with his predecessors including Abraham, Moses and Jesus. They escorted him up a ladder of light to the presence of God where he received revelation, then descended again. The Rock on the Temple Mount refers to the rock from which Mohammed is reputed to have ascended to heaven.
The rock, surrounded by a walkway for pilgrims
But by the time Caliph Omar visited the city to inspect his troops’ victory in 638 AD, the site of King Solomon's temple mount had been desolate for 700 years. Omar was offend-ed. He decided to restore the Temple Mount and erect a lavish Moslem edifice, now called the Dome of the Rock/ Mosque of Omar. But it took some time to get the project going; it was not started until Caliph Abd el-Malik arrived from Mecca in 661 AD and was completed within 30 years.
Designed by Byzantine architects engaged by the Caliph, the Dome of the Rock was the greatest monumental building in early Islamic history. Yet the blog From Lebanon to Jordan in Analysing art and the Dome of the Rock suggested that religious art and architecture's main role was to reinforce memory and experience. The Dome of the Rock opposed Byzantium ideas and art, and since Christianity was coupled with the Byzantine political power, the Umayyds had to oppose it.
Thus the mosque became a visual proclamation of the New Faith in the city of Judaism and Christianity. The new building was to rival the finest sanctuaries of Mecca and Medina, and its presence was also to stimulate the local economy by becoming a focus for pilgrimage. It was certainly to surpass the best Christianity had to offer, from the basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. They succeeded well.
Dome of the Rock
The Dome of the Rock was a very ambitious building project. Standing in isolation and visible from all sides, it is a unique building in Islamic culture. The aisled rotunda allowed early pilgrims to walk about Mohammed's rock under a dome and colonnade. The Dome of the Rock therefore is based more on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre built by Constantine in 335 AD, and less on Mohammed's centre in Medina. Perhaps it was built by the Caliph Abd-al-Malik specifically to rival that memorable church.
The octagonal building has an inner drum of sixteen piers and columns, and an outer arcade of 24 piers and columns. Four of the eight sides have doors set in them and in the other four there are windows. All this supports a wooden dome of 60’ diameter. The dome has no liturgical significance, but it is the crowning glory of the building. It is the cosmic heaven, and a perfect surface for gold. It was initially covered in gold leaf but that was all stolen, revealing the lead beneath. Now it is covered in a gleaming bronze alloy.
There may have always been tiles on the exterior walls of the building, but the stunning beauty we see today didn't arrive until 1545. The outer side walls were covered with blue and green Iznik tiles, around the many windows. The interior of the dome was decorated with mosaic, faience and marble, all commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent. As expected, the decorative elements consisted entirely of flora, geometry or Koranic inscriptions.
Iznik tiles, blue and green
All this decoration seems surprising. Most Islamic architecture puts value only on what’s inside the building, so that the outside of a building is irrelevant and often hidden; a Muslim building may well be concealed by being totally surrounded by adjacent buildings. Enclosed space is the most important element of Islamic architecture; decoration is normally reserved for the articulation and embellishment of the interior. If there is to be any minimal decoration on the outside of a building, it is usually limited to the domes or gates.
But if Islamic architecture is normally hidden architecture, the Dome of the Rock has provided a notable exception, standing in its isolated glory on the top of Jerusalem. In fact it is not of pure Islamic architecture nor is it a mosque - the Dome of the Rock was built as a commemorative site for Muslim pilgrims. Thus if worshippers want to face Mecca and prostrate themselves, they can do so outside, or in Al Aqsa Mosque next door. On Ramadan, this could mean tens of thousands praying in the open spaces.
The Spiritual Archive blog cited the British authority on Muslim architecture, KAC Creswell, who wrote in the 1920s: “..the size of every part is related to every other part in some definite proportion; the building instead of being a collection of odd notes becomes a harmonious chord in stones. Some of the ratios involved are fundamental in time and space, they go right down to the very basis of our nature, and of the physical universe in which we live and move.” I agree.