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A 5 pages term paper on The Dome of the Rock

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Dome of the Rock

         The Dome of the Rock, or Qubbat as-Sakhra (was built over at the rock known as Sakhra) as it is called in Arabic, is most certainly one of the most important and distinctive monument in the Islamic history. It is considered to be the first Muslim masterpiece in the field of architecture. It shows in great detail the brilliance and the distinction of the Islamic architecture. The dome of the rock is located in one of the holiest cities to the Muslims-Jerusalem.

         “The dome marks the spot below where the hollow rock is located. It is covered inside and out with colored mosaics and Arabic calligraphy. The monument is itself part of a larger complex called Al Haram Al Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary.” (Hasan, 1999)1

Art Work

         The earliest architectural monument of Islam that retains most of its original form is the Dome of the Rock (Qubbat al-Sakhrah) in Jerusalem, constructed in 691-92 on the site of the Jewish Second Temple (Blair & Bloom, 1995)2. Muslims believe it to be the spot from which Muhammad (Salalaho-Alaihay-Wasulum) ascended to heaven. It has mosaics depicting scrolling vines and flowers, jewels, and crowns in greens, blues, and gold. It is the oldest existing Islamic monument, located on Temple Mount, previously the site of the Temple of Jerusalem. The rock over which it is built is sacred to both Muslims and Jews (Dome of the Rock)3.

         The year in which it was built is stated to be 687 A.C. nearly half a century after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (Salalaho-alaihay-wasulum). This was the period, which can be described as the beginning of the rise of the Islamic Empire. When Caliph 'Umar Ibn al-Khattab (ra) entered Jerusalem in 637 A.C., he ordered the creation of a sober wooden mosque on a deserted platform, considered to be the spot where the prophet Muhammad ended his Night Journey to Jerusalem and ascended to heaven. In the year 660 A.C., in Jerusalem, the Arab leaders met and elected Mu'awiyah as their king. Mu'awiyah became the founder of the dynasty of the Umayyads. After the death of Mu'awiyah's son, Yazid (680-693), Caliph Abd al Malik had the mosque known as the Dome of the Rock.

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         Ernst J. Grube in "Architecture of the Islamic Wrld", makes a comparison between the Great Mosque of Damascus and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem saying, “The Great Mosque in Damascus follows an established type and helps to create a tradition; the Dome of the Rock, standing alone on its platform and visible from all sides, remains a unique building in Islamic culture.  (Hasan, 1999; pp.11)1

         By looking at and analyzing the Byzantine, Syrian, Persian, Hellenic, or Roman art for resemblance in the architectural techniques and designs of the dome, signs of their influences are easy to detect. The builders and artists who created the dome were people coming from all areas of the newly acquired and conquered Muslim lands. Therefore there is distinctive blend of diverse craftsmanship used in building the dome and this has been brought to focus by various historians and archeologists. But even with these similarities present, the architecture of the dome of the rock has its own unique and distinctive style.

         This dome is set upon a drum, which, in turn, rests upon the basic octagon that represents the earth, like a perfect crystal. The original facing consisted of glass mosaics, magnifying the beauty of the earth created by God, but the porcelain of the present-day dome, with its dominant blues, growing denser and darker as it descends from the drum to ground level, doubtless recalls the transition, almost dematerialized and transparent, from the crown in the sky formed by the drum to the walls of the basic octagon. (Garaudy, 1994)4

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         In the Middle Ages, rival of the Islamic empire and the predecessor in the area, was the Byzantine-Christian Empire. The dome of the rock is built close to the dome of the Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre and its construction and design has got some similarities with it.

         Hasan (1999)1 writes that the several buildings of the Dome of the Rock are said to have borrowed from but the one bearing the most visual similarity is the nearby Holy Sepulcher (335 C.E.). The resemblance results from the use of a dome and rotunda, concentric aisles in which there is a “central ring” that supports for the dome with an “ambulatory around it and an outer wall around that.” The Holy Sepulcher originally received its light from windows in the drum which supports the dome, similar to the 16 windows of the Dome of the Rock in the same location (Hasan, 1999).

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         The delicate lacework of the azure tiles in the gilded areas becomes less and less frequent as one descends from the drum to the ground, though the golden light of heaven and of the cupola which is its messenger never ceases to filter downwards. Even the flagstones of veined Marble that make up the lowermost foundation seem to shimmer with the last rays of this celestial light. Upon the beehive framework of gilded porcelain where sunshine and shade play ceaselessly, the arcades, with identical curves but with designs that vary from one arch to the next, dance their round dance about the octagon, hardly interrupted by the doorways at the four cardinal points that mark out this place as the center of the world. Above the arches surrounding the mausoleum, the subtle inflections of the Nakshi calligraphy sing Earth's last song to the Glory of God, before we reach the crown into the City of God, or rather, into a world wherein beauty gives us its earthly metaphor. (Garaudy, 1994)4

         The Dome of the rock symbols the site from where Prophet Muhammad (salalaho-alaihay-wasalam) made his Miraaj or Night Journey into the heavens and back to Makkah. At the beginning, before restoration, the curve of the cupola was slightly horseshoe-shaped, something that must have accentuated its apparent upward movement, recalling the "night journey" or Miraaj of the Prophet (s) into the heavenly spheres.

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         “Glory be to Him, Who transported His Servant one night from Masjid-I-Haram to the distant Temple, whose surroundings We have blessed, so that We might show him some of Our signs: the fact that He All-Hearing, All-Seeing.” (BANI ISRA’IL Qur'an 17:1).

Political Environment

         To understand the motives, which prompted Abd al-Malik to build the dome of the rock it would be better to understand the political environment of the middle Ages. During this period the Muslim conquests were on their peak. Throughout the 7th and 8th centuries, the spread of Islam was very extensive and rapid.  The holy Muslim warriors raged a jihad, or "holy war" against surrounding territories.  These wars could only be directed against groups of other faiths. The success of these Muslim warriors is absolutely astonishing.  In 634 Damascus was captured.  In 636 they took control over Syria from the Byzantine Empire.  During the battle of Qadisiya in 637, they destroyed the Sassinian Empire of Persia.  Egypt was invaded in 640 and conquered within a year.  Between 711 and 713 they reached Spain through their acquired territories in North Africa and conquered most of it. They then attempted to gain ground in France but were defeated.  The rise and spread of the first true global civilization was accomplished with extreme quickness.

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         Consequently there seems to be two accepted motives for why Abd al-Malik built the mosque, that he either wanted to celebrate his power and victory over the Byzantine Empire or that he wanted it to rival the Ka’ba because of the political affiliations it had with leaders in Mecca. Whichever is true, the building of a monument over a holy site in Jerusalem provided him an opportunity to do both. In order to do this Abd al-Malik and his architects had to use an architectural language understood by both Muslims and Byzantine Christians. (Hasan, 1999)

         It is very difficult to fully comprehend the logic of this decision. There are many suggestions that the Caliph wished to impose the Islamic superiority on the rest of the world by building an Islamic monument finer than any built by rival religions. It could have meant to be a political statement that the Moslems are now supreme in Jerusalem, better represented on its landscape than the Christians with their dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It may also be said that he wanted to influence his rivals in the Islamic empire. The importance of this site can be understood by the fact that he Caliph had resolved to sanctify to this building all the tribute levied in Egypt over a period of seven years. But the most important thing was the erection of the holy symbol that supports and promotes the oneness and continuity of the Abrahamic, i.e. Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith.

         “The Dome of the Rock on Jerusalem's Temple Mountain could become the corner stone for the future Universal Temple . . .the inside story of the dome contains a message from its designers that could lead to reconciliation between the three major religions who consider Jerusalem a sacred city.”(The Academy of Jerusalem)5

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         Jerusalem is a land, which is sacred for Jews, Christians and Muslims. This is the place of the life and ascension of Jesus. This is the place from where the Prophet rose from Earth to Heaven to contemplate the Ordinance of God.

         It teaches him the Oneness and Infinity of God. When he looks down earthward once more, he can contemplate the rock where, according to the Jewish and Christian tradition, Abraham set out to accomplish his sacrifice, and where according to the Muslims, the Prophet (s) rose to Heaven. He can feel himself returning to the clay from which he was created, as though he were nothing more, in God's hand, than a living particle of the honey-colored rock, gold and amber in the infinitely soft, penetrating light of the God Who created it, just as he created this mountain, these stars, the crystal of the world and its vault, and this temple, made by men's hands at the call of God. (Garaudy, 1994)

         The great strength of Islamic art as a whole lies in its ability to synthesize native design elements with imported ones. Abstract decoration of the surface is an important factor in every work of Islamic art and architecture, whether large or small. The dome of the rock is not just a piece of architecture but it has also got a historic background based on the political and religious history of the Middle Ages. There is no doubt that even if it is looked and analyzed only as an architectural site it would turn out to a unique and distinctive building. It is easy to become aware of the high quality workmanship that has created this brilliant monument. The design, although seems to be borrowed from other buildings of that time such as the dome of the Holy Sepulcher, Cathedral of Bosra and St. George at Ezra, it can still be safely called part of the Islamic architecture. The dome of the rock was built in the period marking the starting point of a new empire therefore a more characteristic Islamic architecture was yet to emerge.

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         “The Dome of the Rock presents the first example, and a very striking one, of the Islamic world-view. The very site where it was established, the structure of the building, its dimensions and proportions, the forms to be found within it, the colors that enliven it, its external outline, and the symphony of its internal space, are all representative of the faith that inspired its construction.” (Garaudy, 1994)

         The religious importance of the site where the dome is built to the Abrahamic faiths namely the Jews, Christians and the Muslims has been there since the descent of Moses and Jesus on earth. The dome of the rock is and should be taken as a representation of unity and purity of faith.


  1. Hasan, A. Arabic and Islamic Architecture May 19, 1999 (28th Feb.2002)
  2. Blair, S. S. and Bloom, J. M. (1995) The Art and Architecture of Islam, 1250-1800. Mar 1, 2002
  3. Dome of the Rock. Britannica Concise. Mar 1, 2002 http://education.yahoo.com/search/be?lb=t&p=url%3Ad/dome_of_the_rock
  4. Garaudy,  R. The Dome of The Rock 1994. The American Muslim, Spring 1994, as "Palestine: Land of Divine Revelation."             (28th Feb.2002)
  5. The Academy of Jerusalem Co-Instructive Courses. (28th Feb.2002)

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