I’m writing a post about the Dome of the Rock, but I’m stuck. It’s not good when you’re boring even yourself, though how anyone could make the Dome of the Rock boring is mind-boggling. So I’m taking a break from that and wanted to share a little bit of history and a short reminiscence about the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
The Al-Aqsa Mosque, on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, is definitely overshadowed by its neighbor, the Dome of the Rock. When I visited, the Dome of the Rock, –so beautiful, so rich in history, so significant to Islam — felt like a tourist site, while the nearby Al-Aqsa mosque felt like a religious site. It was the first mosque I entered in my life, and I was overwhelmed by the quiet, my bare feet on the carpets, slightly annoyed but respectfully covering my head, feeling somewhat exotic with bare feet and a scarf over my head. After the noise of tourists in the Dome of the Rock — the explosion of color from the mosaics, the wonder and fascination elicited by the rock — the Al-Aqsa mosque was calm, and cool, and soothing. And a great introduction to Islam. (I’ll come back to this.)
Quickly, the Al-Aqsa mosque shares with the Dome of the Rock the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Al-Aqsa Mosque, which means “the farthest mosque,” is so named because according to the Koran, Muhammed traveled from Mecca to this site in Jerusalem, “the farthest place,” during his Night Journey. The current structure was built in the 11th century, replacing earlier 8th century structures. The Al-Aqsa mosque has an enclosed courtyard as most mosques do, but it can be difficult to tell because this courtyard includes the Dome of the Rock and the rest of the Temple Mount.
Because the Dome of the Rock has become such a focus, I don’t think we even realize it sits in the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex, surrounded by the Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard walls. It’s the third most important mosque in Islam after the mosques at Mecca and Medina, though, so it actually makes sense that its walls would enclose the entire Temple Mount. It’s important.
Most of the interior dates to the 20th century,
though the painting in the dome is from the 14th century and has been restored, (Click this link for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture site. The restoration won their prize in 1986 and the images are impressive.)
and the mihrab, which indicates the direction Muslims face when they pray, was made and installed under Saladin in the 12th century:
I said at the beginning that the Al-Aqsa Mosque was a great introduction to Islam because, well, imagine this: You know the basics of Islam, but you have no experience with it. You go to Jerusalem to see the Dome of the Rock and the Western/Wailing Wall, and the old city, and to eat hummous and falafel. On the bus from Tel Aviv, there are young soldiers with machine guns slung over their soldiers. This is well outside your comfort zone. You know that things are often contentious in Jerusalem. You’re just a little bit nervous.
Your first contact with Islam in this context is hearing the call to prayer. I’m telling you, if you haven’t heard it before, there’s nothing like it. Then you eventually go into the Al-Aqsa Mosque because it’s near the Dome of the Rock, not because you’ve been dying to see it. And what you find is quiet. And coolness. And there’s something about going into a religious structure barefoot. There are people sitting around in groups chatting, or learning, other people praying, only a few gawking tourists. When your background with religious structures has almost wholly consisted of Christian churches, this is a very different experience. Then you emerge back out into the heat, and the sun, and the dust, refreshed and exhilarated by it all.
Now granted, this may seem to be more of a travel post than an art history post. And I don’t think that anyone would consider the Al-Aqsa Mosque as one of the top mosques, architecturally speaking. But it and the Dome of the Rock, and being in Jerusalem and Egypt after that, initiated my love of Islamic art and architecture. So in a way, this experience is responsible for my subsequent master’s thesis on the Great Mosque at Damascus and many of these blog posts. It was a gentle and beautiful introduction.