Building of the Dome of the Rock Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Dome of the Rock, a spectacular octagonal monument to Islam that still dominates the landscape of the holy city of Jerusalem, was constructed to affirm the Umayyad Dynasty and to demonstrate the arrival of Islam in Jerusalem.

Summary of Event

In the year 685, the Muslim caliph ՙAbd al-Malik ՙAbd al-Malik commissioned the construction of a domed monument on a rocky outcropping on the platform of Jerusalem known as the Al-Haram al-Sharif, or the Temple Mount. Architecture;Muslim An inscription on the inside wall credits ՙAbd al-Malik and dates the work to 72 a.h. (anno Hegirae), an early period in the Islamic era. The founding of Islam is dated from the year of the Hijra, or Hegirae, the migration of Muḥammad and his followers to Medina (dated in the Western calendar to 622). Calculating a lunar year of 354 days, a date of about 691 is reckoned for the construction. [kw]Building of the Dome of the Rock (685-691) [kw]Dome of the Rock, Building of the (685-691) Dome of the Rock Israel/Palestine;685-691: Building of the Dome of the Rock[0430] Architecture;685-691: Building of the Dome of the Rock[0430] Engineering;685-691: Building of the Dome of the Rock[0430] Religion;685-691: Building of the Dome of the Rock[0430] ՙAbd al-Malik (646-705) ՙUmar I

It was during the initial visit by the caliph ՙUmar I ՙUmar I to Jerusalem that the seeds were sown for building this monument. The story of the city’s surrender to ՙUmar by the Christian patriarch Sophronius (c. 560-638) is filled with legend. Nevertheless, a number of basic themes persist.

Jerusalem had always held a special place in Islam. The Qur՚ān mentions that prayers once were directed toward that city before Muḥammad established the qibla (the direction of prayer) at Mecca. The subject of prayer arose during ՙUmar’s visit. Sophronius invited the caliph to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. ՙUmar declined, not wanting to set a precedent for the possible Muslim takeover of this historic Christian site. Instead, ՙUmar wandered the city until he came to the raised platform where the Jewish temples of Solomon and Herod had once stood—the latter destroyed by the Romans in 70. The Christians had never showed interest in developing this site. It was then a pile of ruins, the perfect place for the caliph’s prayers.

Muslims had also understood Jerusalem as the location of “the farthest mosque” (Masjid al-Aqsa) where Muḥammad had begun his night journey into heaven. According to one report, Muḥammad had shared with ՙUmar a description of the site. Thus, ՙUmar carefully explored the site by turning over stones, removing rubble and placing it in the folds of his robes, and dumping it over the side of the wall. Eventually he discovered the unusual outcropping of rock that today lies at the center of the Dome.

ՙUmar was ready for prayer. Rejecting a suggestion that he kneel to the north of the rock where he could face both the rock and Mecca, he apparently chose to say his prayers from the southern edge of the platform. It was there that the Muslims built the Dome of the Rock.

The year 661 began a shift of power in the Islamic empire from Medina to Damascus and then to Baghdad, with the rule of the Umayyads and the ՙAbbāsids respectively. Jerusalem as a city received a boost in recognition and significance when the first Ummayad MuՙĀwiyah I Muՙāwiyah I (r. 661-680) was proclaimed caliph in Jerusalem, receiving the homage of Arab-Muslim leaders. The city soon became known among Muslims as Bayt al-Maqdis—the house of the holy.

Although Jerusalem Jerusalem;Islam and was still predominantly Christian, the Muslim population continued to grow. Some Jews also were invited to return to Jerusalem to serve as menial laborers on the Al-Haram al-Sharif. There are written reports that laborers were sent from Egypt to work on a mosque, presumably the dome, in Jerusalem, and that funds were made available from Egyptian taxes. The pilgrimage report of the Gallic (Frankish) bishop Arculf in c. 690, the first major Christian to observe Islam’s rise, described a mosque that could hold as many as three thousand people for prayer. However, he described it as a simple wooden mosque of poor quality.

ՙAbd al-Malik became caliph following a period of turmoil within the Islamic empire, with the Shīՙite movement split. The city of Medina also rejected the Umayyads and named their own caliph: ՙAbd Allāh ibn al-Zubayr ՙAbd Allāh ibn al-Zubayr (r. 683-692). Under these circumstances, the Ummayad caliph turned his attention to Jerusalem. He repaired the city walls and gates and built a new governor’s residence. However, the crowning achievement was the Dome of the Rock, a structure that, according to the tenth century writer, geographer, and native of Jerusalem, al-Maqdisī (c. 946-c. 1000), was to be “unique and a wonder to the world.”

Little is known about the actual construction of the Dome of the Rock and how long it took. No contemporary journals documented the construction. Some have suggested that the work was commissioned in 685 and completed in 691, the date mentioned in the inscription. This range makes sense because the inscription would have been added during a later stage of the project. However, in 691, the caliph had just returned from Iraq, where he had been working to unify the empire. It also is likely that 691 marks the beginning of the project. Dated milestones showing road construction between Jerusalem and Damascus all suggest that building activity flourished throughout the 690’. It is likely that the project consumed most of the decade.

The construction became a building of extreme simplicity. An octagonal structure surrounded a circular drum that raised the dome three times the height of the ring. Colorful mosaics in geometric and floral motifs covered the walls inside. A single Arabic inscription some 787 feet (240 meters) in length with phrases from the Qur՚ān led visitors in a walk around the ancient rock at the center.

Significance

First, the construction of the Dome of the Rock helped establish Islam as a legitimate religion, on a level with Christianity. A number of later Muslim sources suggest that the dome’s purpose was to establish spiritual superiority, but that interpretation probably reflects the mood of later times. Seventh century social attitudes in Jerusalem were more likely about cooperation.

The style of the Dome of the Rock was not based solely on Islamic architecture but also on Christian buildings throughout the east. The octagonal shape imitated numerous churches from Bethlehem to Byzantium. The dome reflected the nearby Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The construction itself was carried out by Christian artisans: The architects came from Byzantium and the marble workers had completed a decade of work at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

The Arabic inscriptions clearly state the primary theological difference between Islam and Christianity, denying the divinity of Jesus. However, the primary focus may well be the praise of the one God and not a polemical attack against Christians. There are no comments questioning the death and resurrection of Jesus symbolized by the nearby Church of the Holy Sepulchre Church of the Holy Sepulcher . Ultimately, the Dome of the Rock did not replace the Christian churches of Jerusalem: It stood alongside them. Also, the construction of the dome served to unify the Muslim world. A number of later writers suggest that ՙAbd al-Malik constructed the Dome of the Rock to draw pilgrims (hajji) away from Mecca. It is true that a separate caliph ruled Arabia from Medina. However, ՙAbd al-Malik continued to send pilgrims to Mecca even after the dome’s construction.

A more important argument is that the design of the Jerusalem structure was never intended for large numbers to circle the rock inside. It was never intended to be a mosque for prayer. When its construction was complete, ՙAbd-al Malik went one step further and commissioned the building of the al-Aqsa mosque, which was then completed by his son al-Walīd I Walīd I, al- (r. 705-715). Its position on the south side of the Haram platform directed worshippers toward Mecca.

ՙAbd al-Malik and his architects provided a monument so unique that visitors are absorbed in the contemplation of the divine. The geometric precision, the use of light, the curves, and the floral designs all lead the visitor from focusing on humanity and its differences and toward the unity of the creator and creation. Architects refer to its “annular” character—there is a sense of circular movement with no hint of hierarchy, no point of beginning or end.

Finally, the Dome of the Rock has become symbolic of Jerusalem. Until the twentieth century, nearly every depiction of the city (mostly by Western Christians) highlighted the dome. Travel brochures and other images still depict the dome as Jerusalem’s civic centerpiece. The Dome of the Rock, though a Muslim monument, signifies a city in which three monotheistic faiths—Judaism, Islam, and Christianity—come together.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Armstrong, Karen. Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths. New York: Ballantine Books, 1997. An overview of the history of Jerusalem with emphasis on the interaction of three major monotheistic faiths. Illustrations, map, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bloom, Jonathan, ed. Early Islamic Art and Architecture. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2002. A historical overview of the art and architecture of Islam, including the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Illustrations, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duri, Abdul Aziz. “Jerusalem in the Early Islamic Period: Seventh-Eleventh Centuries a.d.” In Jerusalem in History, edited by K. J. Asali. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Olive Branch Press, 2000. Covers the period in Jerusalem’s history during which the Dome was constructed. Illustrations, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grabar, Oleg. The Shape of the Holy: Early Islamic Jerusalem. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. A carefully detailed study of Islam in Jerusalem prior to the start of the Crusades (1099), based on both literary texts and archaeological evidence. Includes a chapter on the Dome of the Rock and an appendix listing dome inscriptions. Illustrations, plans, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Makiya, Kanan. The Rock: A Tale of Seventh-Century Jerusalem. New York: Pantheon Books, 2002. A historical novel by an Iraqi-born architect about the Dome of the Rock and those associated with its construction and legend, revealing a shared history between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity in Jerusalem. Best for readers with some knowledge of the three major world religions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome. The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide. 4th rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. A guide for the general reader to the sites of the Holy Land. Illustrations, maps, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nuseibeh, Saïd. The Dome of the Rock. New York: Rizzoli, 1996. A comprehensive collection of photographs of the Dome of the Rock, with an essay by Oleg Grabar. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Raby, Julian, and Jeremy Johns, eds. Bayt-al-Maqdis: ՙAbd al-Malik’s Jerusalem. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992-1999. Explores the architecture of ՙAbd al-Malik and the history of religious architecture in Jerusalem. Some text in French. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosovsky, Nitza, ed. City of the Great King: Jerusalem from David to the Present. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996. Examines the significance of Jerusalem to Islam in chapters on the spiritual meaning of the city to Muslims, the city in medieval Islamic literature, and Islamic construction plans for the Haram platform. Illustrations, maps, plans, bibliography, index.

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