Haram al-Sharif: first qibla, second mosque and third holiest site in Islam
Nestled in the old city walls of Jerusalem, the Haram al-Sharif, or al-Aqsa Sanctuary, is the single most sacred site in the Holy Land. As the first qibla in Islam and third holiest site after Mecca and Medinah, this vast promenade also marks the blessed site of Prophet Muhammad’s [pbuh] ascension to heaven. Indeed, Allah has blessed and honored this site for mankind to reap spiritual and material benefits even before the Prophet’s [pbuh] ascension.
As Surah al-Isra reveals:
(Holy is He Who carried His servant by night from the Holy Mosque (in Makkah) to the Farther Mosque (in Jerusalem) whose surroundings We have blessed that We might show him some of Our Signs. Indeed He alone is All-Hearing, All-Seeing. ) [Al-Isra 17:1]
The Surah here refers to the al-Aqsa Sanctuary as the farthest mosque (or Masjid al-Aqsa in Arabic) and indeed the entire sanctuary is considered to be the second mosque built on earth- forty years after the Ka’bah was built. To commemorate the sacredness of this sanctuary as well as the historical events which had occurred within, Muslims across time have built numerous mosques and monuments within its boundaries. The most famous of these include the glimmering gold Dome of the Rock and the black-domed Masjid al-Aqsa.
Dome of the Rock- Icon of Islam
The Dome of the Rock or ‘Qubbet as-Sakhra’ is often held up as the first work of Islamic architecture and also the finest and most iconic symbol of Islam. As the name suggests, this mosque enclaves a sacred rock which many believe the Prophet Muhammad [pbuh] used to ascend to heaven during al-Isra and al-Miraj. Under the first ruling Muslim dynasty the Ummayads, ‘Abd al-Malik made a concerted effort to beautify Jerusalem and endow it with the gleaming Dome of the Rock as well as the Masjid al-Aqsa.
The eight-sided building has undergone very little alteration since it was completed in the late sixth century. Some scholars have even stated that judging from the design of the building, a dome over the rock and double octagonal walls, it was not meant to serve as a mosque at all but solely meant to commemorate the sacred rock. Centrally focused on the rock, the building appears to have been built as a place of pilgrimage which could be circumambulated like the Ka’bah.
Built in typical Byzantine style, the mosque seamlessly combines marble columns, striking blue mosaics, stained glass windows with a glittering golden dome. Qubbet as-Sakhra is accessible through flights of stairs each crowned by an arcade which leads to the raised platform on which the mosque sits. The large central dome (around 25 meters high and 20 meters in diameter) is placed on a cylindrical wall or ‘drum’ which is decorated with sixteen windows and is supported by twelve stone columns arranged in a circle within the mosque. The wooden dome which is covered with gold-plated lead is located directly above the sacred rock.
Each of the eight exterior walls of the octagon is divided into seven panels. The lower section is gray veined marble and the upper is decorated with magnificent porcelain tiles from Turkey. Intricately designed windows adorning the top of every panel let in light which softly illuminates the inside of the mosque. Mosaics of deep blue and green glass which once enveloped the upper panel walls were almost completely replaced in the Ottoman period by Turkish tiles, however some originals remain inside.
At the very top of these exterior walls, a narrow band of Arabic inscription written in white letters against a blue background weaves 250m of Qu’ran around the building. These inscriptions which highlight the tenants of Islam and the prophet Muhammad as the final messenger, reflect the important role of the Dome of the Rock in a Jerusalem filled with monuments to Judaism and Christianity.
The mosque has four entrance from the north, south, east and west which take you through to the most lavish and spectacular interior designs of the monument. The mosaics inside the Qubbet as-Sakhra apply elaborate geometric patterns against a gold foil and in mother-of-pearl background intertwined with vegetal (stylized fruits, flowers and trees). The supporting bars above the central columns have even retained their bronze facing from the Mamluk and Ottoman period and are classically decorated with palmettes, acanthus leaves and vine tendrils.
Internally, the dome of Qubbet as-Sakhra is also magnificently decorated with concentric circles of painted and gilded arabesques which date back to the restoration of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1818.
Masjid Al-Aqsa: Spiritual Centre of Jerusalem
The second building constructed on the Haram al-Sharif is the black-domed Masjid al-Aqsa. Built 709 – 715 AD by Caliph Abd’ al-Malik, this large mosque accommodates around 5,000 people and is dedicated to Bilal the first muezzin of Islam.
Masjid al-Aqsa has also been significantly re-built and modified several times due to major earthquakes and religious conflicts in the region. For example, under the Crusaders the mosque was converted into a church known as ‘Solomon’s Temple’ up until 1187 AD when Saladin reclaimed Jerusalem and the Haram as a Muslim sanctuary. It also believed that the mosque was preceded by an earlier construction associated with Caliph Umar Ibn al-Khattab who cleared the Haram al-Sharif of debris and erected a simple mosque named Masjid al-’Umari.
In the light of this history, the present mosque is an elegant building- spacious, calm and perfectly suited to prayers and quiet contemplation. It has nine entrances; seven through the northern wall, one on the east and another on the west sides.
Topped with graceful arches, the northern entrances lead into the seven aisles of the mosque which are separated by massive columns. Of the 45 columns, 12 are made of stone and 33 are made from white marble- some of these marble columns were even donated by Benito Mussolini! The main arched doorway leads into the central aisle which has a beautifully painted and carved elevated roof and an elegant mihrab. The masjid’s walls are also decorated with 121 stained-glass windows styled in geometric patterns and Qu’ranic inscriptions which illuminate the interior. .
The graceful silver-black dome which we see today is the outcome of a series of reconstructions, some of which occurred as recently as 1969. The dome, which had been previously reinforced using concrete and anodized aluminum, was reconstructed using lead enamelwork to match the original design of the architects.
Internally, the dome is decorated with intricate mosaics and marble designs from the fourteenth century. Mosaics above the central aisle arch and around the drum of the dome are even older and date back to 1035 AD. Saladin also gave the mosque a magnificent carved wooden minbar to commemorate the freedom of Jerusalem from the Crusaders, which was sadly burnt in an arson attack in 1969. It’s important to note that when the Qu’ran refers to Masjid al-Aqsa, it is not the black-domed mosque later named in its honor which is implied but the entire al-Aqsa sanctuary.
Blessed Land and Not Blessed Buildings
Finally, while we must celebrate the magnificent mosques and monuments built by Muslims to commemorate this holy sanctuary, we must remember that it is the land of the al-Aqsa Sanctuary that is blessed and not its buildings. Indeed at the time of the Prophet Muhammad mosques were built only with functionality in mind. Designs were simple and mosques constructed using sun-dried mud bricks. Despite their humble simplicity, these mosques wholeheartedly fulfilled their essential purpose as a communal space for the faithful to gather and to pray.