As the golden cupola of the Dome of the Rock glints in the hot sunlight of Jerusalem, it’s hard to deny the mysticism that surrounds this iconic symbol of a city that draws millions of visitors of all faiths and nationalities every year.
For centuries this magnificent building has sat atop the area known as Temple Mount and found itself at the heart of a city torn apart by religious and territorial conflict. A city that for more than one religion represents the center of the Earth…
Though located in the middle of the Old City of Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock is actually a Muslim shrine. Despite its controversial location (it is constructed on the site of the Second Jewish Temple), it is a magnificent example of Islamic architecture and is the oldest existing, still standing Muslim building in the world.
The construction was ordered by Caliph Abd-al Malik ibn Marwan and was completed in 691CE. It broke new ground for Islamic architecture as the rotunda form had previously been a feature of Christian buildings. Indeed, some studies suggest that the architects of the Dome of the Rock used the nearby Church of the Holy Sepulcher as a rough blueprint.
The choice of Temple Mount as the location for a magnificent new shrine seems to be down to a few reasons: not only did the Temple Mount have a commanding view of ancient Jerusalem, but it was also the site of the Second Jewish Temple which had been destroyed during a Roman siege in 70CE.
In addition, the area was already dominated by the aforementioned Holy Sepulcher, so positioning a mosque in a more elevated location and on former sacred grounds was a statement of Islam asserting its superiority (at that time) over all over faiths.
The original idea behind the Dome of the Rock was the building of a Muslim shrine with the titular “rock” at the heart of the building. This Foundation Stone signified the location of the culmination of Mohamed’s magical journey from Mecca from where he ascended to his private audience with Allah in heaven. With this spiritual foundation, the Dome of the Rock and Temple Mount remains to this day one of the most important worship and pilgrimage sites in the Muslim world.
But it’s not quite that straightforward, as you’d expect in this part of the world…
The Foundation Stone and the Temple Mount area is also seen as the center of creation for Jews. They believe this is the location of the Holy of Holies from the Temple Period, which was only entered by the High Priest, and also the location where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. Indeed, many Orthodox rabbis expressly forbid Jews to enter the Temple Mount as the precise whereabouts of the Stone and the Holy of Holies are not known, hence the whole Temple Mount is off-limits.
Starting to get an idea of why this little country is seemingly so volatile…?
As only people of the Islamic faith are allowed to enter the Dome of the Rock itself, non-Muslims can only stand and gaze at the magnificence of the building and let their minds wonder back through its rich history. Think back to the crusades when the Augustinians occupied this holy place and turned the nearby Al Aqsa mosque into a royal horse stable, or when the Knights Templar believed it was their right to have their headquarters there throughout much of the 12th century with a belief it was built on the site of the Temple of Solomon.
And can you imagine the significance to the warring nations of the Arab world when the flag of Israel and the Star of David was flown from the Dome after the Six Day War and people entered with the Torah in hand…
Today the Dome of the Rock is amicably managed by the Ministry of Awqaf in Amman, Jordan but the battle rages on in the arenas of religious doctrines and theorems…
To get to the Dome of the Rock, you enter through a wooden walkway next to the Western Wall (another must see in Jerusalem). Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the mosques on the Temple Mount and you will be subjected to some heavy screening. Note that items such as Jewish prayer books will be prohibited. Hours are also fairly limited: 7:30–11:30 am and 1:30–2:30 pm during summer and 7:30–10:30 am and 1:30–2:30 pm during winter. Non-Muslims won’t be allowed in after 2:30 pm and may not enter on Fridays, Saturdays, or Muslim holidays.
Whatever your faith and whatever your view of the political and religious issues, the Dome of the Rock and Temple Mount remain magnificent and atmospheric sites not to be missed on any visit to Jerusalem.