It has dominated the Jerusalem skyline for 1,300 years, but there is no single accepted explanation for why it was built




The Dome of the Rock has dominated the Jerusalem skyline for 1,300 years and sparked debate among scholars of early Islam as to why such a lofty structure was really built.

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For years there has been two accepted answers to the question of why the shrine was erected 691 years ago on the Temple Mount. A recently published article by an Israeli researcher now provides a third explanation, which has stirred up controversy anew.

Several researches say that the Umayyad caliph, Abdel Malek Ben Marwan, decided to build the dome out of a need for a religious focal point outside of Mecca. During the period of his reign, Mecca was ruled by his rival, Abd Allah Ibn al-Zubayr, who had revolted against the Umayyads and conquered that holy city. Other researchers say Abel Malek needed a structure to compete with the palatial churches the Christians had built in Jerusalem, in order to reinforce Muslim rule in the city.

A recent article by Dr. Milka Levy-Rubin in the Cathedra journal published by Yad Ben-Zvi, says the Dome of the Rock was built in order to restore Jerusalem’s place on the regional map of holy sites, not vis a vis Mecca, but rather as a rival to Constantinople, the Byzantine capital. This is why the Muslims depended on the Jewish traditions at the site.

Levy-Rubin says the builders of the golden dome saw themselves as followers of David and Solomon, and saw the structure as nothing less than a transformation of the Jewish holy temple. The Dome of the Rock, Levy—Rubin suggests, must be seen not only in terms of the Kaaba in Mecca and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, but also against the backdrop of the rivalry between the Umayyads and Constantinople in the heart of which stood the tremendous church of Hagia Sofia.

The Dome of the Rock was built in order to restore Jerusalem’s place on the regional map of holy sites, not vis a vis Mecca, but rather as a rival to Constantinople

Between the fourth and seventh centuries Jerusalem was an important Christian focal point for the Byzantine Empire. Giant churches were put up and filled by pilgrims. But the city had to compete with the capital of the empire in Constantinople, which began to situate itself as "the new Jerusalem.” An expression of this competition can be seen in the legend about the local governor who tried to send a holy stone where Mary had rested Jesus, to Constantinople, but the stone would not leave Jerusalem and he had to place it inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The competition reached its peak in the sixth century when Emperor Justinian completed construction of the largest and most palatial building of that period – the Hagia Sofia Church. Sources from the period related to the palatial church as the newest replacement for the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and according to a later source, once construction was over Justinian said: “We defeated you, Solomon!” He even ordered that a statue of Solomon be erected at the church to mark the Christian victory. 

The church was describe as a “divine throne,” and remains of the holy cross in Jerusalem were brought there. In 638 the competition ended when the city was captured by Muslims and Constantinople became a focus of Christianity.

Many researchers looked into the links between the new Muslim rulers of Jerusalem and Jewish tradition, particularly the Temple Mount. Conqueror of Jerusalem Amar Ben Al Khatib, went to the Temple Mount led by an embittered Jew where he was astounded to see how the Christians had turned the place into a garbage heap. More than one tradition says the Christian desire to humiliate the Temple Mount was so bad that “women would dispose of their menstrual pads from Byzantium to be discarded there,” as it says in “Praise Jerusalem,” a Muslim source from the eighth century. The desecration of the holy site and chutzpah of the Christians to declare Constantinople as the “new Jerusalem” was a motive behind the great building project of the Dome of the Rock, Levy-Rubin says.

This was a period when rivalry between the Byzantines and the Muslims was at its height “and Muslims still aspired to conquer Constantinople,” Levy-Rubin says. “The political aspiration was supported by theological claims that Constantinople was arrogant in declaring itself as having claimed Jerusalem’s spot and a divine throne, and that the Christians had deliberately contaminated the Temple Mount.”

FILE Photo: Pilgrims circle the Kaaba at the Great mosque, Islam's holiest shrine, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.Credit: AP
Evidence of this also exists in the writings of 10th century historian Muhammad al-Tabari. “God sent a prophet to the city buried in trash and said Jerusalem would be cleansed. Another prophet was sent to Constantinople where he stood on a hilltop and said: 'Oh Constantinople, what did your people do to my home? They destroyed it.'" Al-Tabari also tells of a prophecy of destruction of Christian Constantinople due to its sinful treatment of Jerusalem.

The building itself is almost unique. It is not a mosque but a memorial in the Roman-Byzantine style, similar to the Pantheon in Rome. At first. the building was used differently than a regular mosque. In the past, many researchers noted the Jewish traditions that could be found in the early structure. Most of these traditions appear in “Praise Jerusalem.” According to a number of the traditions, ceremonies to commemorate the Temple were conducted there, including the use of incense, ritual purity, services carried out by priests and even special ceremonies conducted on Mondays and Thursdays – similar to the Jewish tradition of reading publicly from the Torah on the same days.

The Jewish tradition has also entered the language and Jerusalem has received the names of Beit al-Makdes and Heikal, both of which imply the place was the site of the Jewish Temple. “There were both Jews and Christians involved in this ritual, what stands behind it is the desire to restore the sanctity to this place that was intentionally desecrated by the Byzantines,” says Levy-Rubin.

Levy-Rubin notes that the hybrid character of the Dome of the Rock began to disappear by the end of the 7th century, when it received a clear Muslim nature – that which has lasted until today. The traditions concerning the link between Mecca and Jerusalem strengthened at the time, and the belief that this was the place where Mohammed rose to the heavens on his nighttime journey also took hold at the time. The mosque built nearby was identified as the “farthest mosque,” the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Later the name al-Aqsa was extended to include the entire Temple Mount, and today the Palestinians treat the entire complex – all 144 dunams (36 aces) – as a mosque. It seems the circumstances surrounding the facts will continue to keep researchers busy for a very long time.

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