The Dome of the Rock: A Whirlwind Tour

The Dome of the Rock popped up on the screen recently in an Islamic architecture class that I’m sitting in on, and I thought, oh yeah!  The Dome of the Rock!  When I looked into it again after class, I realized that I’d forgotten how rich and complicated it is. So rich and complicated that I’ve really been struggling with this post, trying to figure out what the point is.  Here’s what I’ve come up with: 1) The Dome of the Rock is breathtaking beautiful; 2) The Dome of the Rock is somewhat mysterious; and 3) The Dome of the Rock may be an Islamic building, but it’s firmly rooted in architectural traditions that came before it.

Let’s start with the beauty. Take a look:

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, 691 CE

Wow flipping wow!  Doesn’t that knock your socks off? Here are a couple of close-ups:

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, 691 CE

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, 691 CE

Just amazing, isn’t it? The Dome of the Rock was built in 691 CE in Jerusalem, making it one of the oldest Islamic buildings, built only 60 years after Muhammad’s death.  It’s been renovated several times in the over 1,000 years since it was built, but the form and much of the interior decoration remain remarkably similar to its origin.  It’s not a mosque, as is commonly thought, but it marks the place of Muhammad’s trip into heaven, called his Night Journey.  I’m not going to go into all of the theology and narrative here, but quickly, Muhammad was taken from Mecca to Jerusalem where he was tested by God, then up to heaven where he met many past prophets and was given instructions that Muslims should pray five times per day.  And the spot from where he ascended is this rock, the star of the Dome of the Rock:

Dome of the Rock, interior, The Rock, 691 CE, Jerusalem

It’s kind of hard to get a grip on. Here’s another view:

Dome of the Rock, interior, (the rock is on the left side of the photo), 691 CE, Jerusalem

In addition, both Judaism and Christianity believe this site to be holy: the place where God gathered dust to create Adam, Abraham prepared to sacrifice Isaac, and Solomon’s Temple was built.  We’re talking holy.  When I was there, we were also told that under the rock was David‘s threshing floor (you know, THAT David, King David, of Biblical fame), but I don’t think that’s accepted by scholars. (I just read that “this site, the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite was originally sacred to the harvest deity known as Tammuz (another name for the deity Adonis),” adding another historical level.).¹ Either way, it would be pretty amazing to go under the rock. (This isn’t always allowed; I’m not sure if it is now or not.)

The Dome of the Rock, interior, cave under the rock, 691 CE, Jerusalem

Ok. Getting back to it. Based on the inscriptions on the interior, scholars also think that the Dome of the Rock originally had a propagandistic purpose: to celebrate and make clear the victory of Islam and to rival the beauty and sumptuousness of Christian churches.

Dome of the Rock, interior, 691 CE, Jerusalem

And the interior mosaic decoration, which is mostly vegetal, includes “jewels, crowns and breastplates – the insignia of royal power in the Byzantine and Sasanian empires,” indicating again the victory of Islam over these other powerful civilizations.²

Dome of the Rock, interior mosaics, 691 CE, Jerusalem

The form of the building, an octagonal structure with a dome covering it and an ambulatory (interior walkway, usually separated from the central part of a building by columns or piers), is Greek, Roman, and Byzantine in origin.  It makes sense that, at this early point in Islam, there wouldn’t necessarily be a style of architecture that’s Islamic. But the Dome of the Rock is considered to be (because it is) a purely Islamic building.  It’s become so iconic that we often don’t think of it in relation to other octagonal buildings, like San Vitale in Ravenna, built in the 6th century CE, so before the Dome of the Rock.

Basilica of St. Vitale, 6th century, Ravenna, Italy

and a peek inside:

Basilica of St. Vitale, 6th century, Ravenna, Italy

Nearby, the Chapel of Ascension:

Chapel of Ascension, 7th century, Jerusalem

and the original Church of the Holy Sepulchre:

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, 4th -19th century, Jerusalem

are/were centrally planned octagonal buildings, though it’s almost impossible to distinguish that at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now.

Centrally planned structures like the Dome of the Rock were traditionally martyria (a building either holding the relics of, or paying homage to, a saint/martyr), so it makes sense that the early Muslims would have used this shape to mark the site of Muhammad’s Night Journey.  Although it may be that this meaning was attributed to the site later. (How fascinating is that?)  Which begs the question, why was it built over the rock?  Was it part of the propaganda, celebrating victory by claiming a site holy to both Christians and Jews?

A few more tidbits, because I can’t resist. 1) The interior columns and capitals were taken from older building (thus they don’t match each other);

2) The exterior Iznik tile work (from Iznik, a tile production center in Turkey, particularly famous and desirable in the mid-16th century) was ordered by and completed under Suleiman the Magnificent (who was from far away Constantinople);

and 3) the Crusaders made the Dome of the Rock into a church in the 12th century (and the nearby Al-Aqsa Mosque into a palace), putting it in a similar context to other religious buildings that have been used by various religions:

The Great  Mosque of Cordoba:

Great Mosque at Cordoba (Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba) was built as a church, then was a mosque, and has been a Catholic church since the 13th century; begun 7th cent, Cordoba, Spain

The Great Mosque of Damascus:

Great Mosque of Damascus, was Christian church on Roman temple site; Christians and Muslims even shared the building for awhile, 7th cent, CE, Damascus, Syria

Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia):

Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia), Istanbul, 4th century CE, was built as a church and converted to a mosque in 1453, now a museum.

And there you have it.  A whirlwind tour of the history and context of the Dome of the Rock.  I hope you enjoyed your tour and you’ll come back and see us again soon!

1)   http://sacredsites.com/middle_east/israel/jerusalem.html

2) Richard Ettinghausen and Oleg Grabar, “The Art and Architecture of Islam 650-1250,” London: Penguin Books, 1987: 32.

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