Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock

Era 7AD
Location Jerusalem

The building known as the Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount in Jerusalem was built by ‘Abd al-Malik (Umayyad caliph between 685 and 705), whose patronage of buildings was focused on Jerusalem, and either begun or completed in c691-2. Why al-Malik built this structure here, whether it was built as a mosque, and why he adopted the unusual plan are all unclear. The site, the Rock on which it is built was (and is) a site of considerable significance to Jews and Christians, as the site of the Temple, of Abraham’s sacrifice and of Adam’s creation. The construction of a Moslem building on the site of the Temple certainly displayed the defeat of the unbelievers and perhaps intimated at their bringing-in to the fold of the true faith. The scale and splendour of the building showed it as an assertion of the power and strength of the new faith and its new state, an assertion made against an ever-present Christian threat. But al-Malik was also in the process of fighting a civil war with other Arab leaders, one he did not win until 692: the Dome of the Rock surely also spoke to his contested position as ruler and the resources he could command: he reportedly used seven years’ worth of the tax revenues of Egypt, the wealthiest province of the Roman and Byzantine empires, to pay for it.

What the building was is uncertain. It was perhaps a shrine, though it does not seem to have been built as a challenge to Mecca as a Moslem pilgrimage centre. The plan is striking. The Dome of the Rock was built as an octagon enclosing a dome mounted on a cylinder. The octagonal structure is about 60 metres in diameter, but only about 13 metres high, with two colonnades inside that enclose a rock at the centre and four doors at the cardinal points. The golden dome, in contrast, rises above to a height of over twenty metres. The Umayyads were unused to monumental building and so must have taken the form of the Dome of the Rock from Roman and Late Antique examples. The octagonal plan has caused it to be linked with Roman and Late Antique buildings in the west of the Mediterranean. However, since Al-Malik did not go west, it seems more likely that he was influenced by imperial and Christian buildings he had seen for himself in the eastern Mediterranean (the Church of the Ascension in Jerusalem itself; Qal’at Sem’ān, the great pilgrimage church of St Symeon the Stylite near Aleppo were both octagonal buildings).

The Dome of the Rock was originally decorated outside and inside with mosaic: now, the exterior mosaics are almost all replacements but these inside are largely seventh century. It contains about 1280 metres2 of mosaic in all, including a frieze of text some 240 metres in length running around the outer and inner faces of the octagon. The mosaics are all aniconic with an astonishing range of ornament. Trees, fruits and garlands abound; there are leaves, shells, vases, baskets, crescents and stars, scrolls and cornucopia, a range of decorative borders and of formal decorative elements such as rosettes and palmettes. The motifs employed derive from across the whole vocabulary of Late Antique art in the Mediterranean (acanthus designs, for one) and Sassanid Persia (the stylised trees with their tulip-shaped flowers, for example). Symmetry was clearly an important consideration, as was the use of colour, varying from subtle tones of blues and greens to sharply-alternating tones of red and green in some of the garlands, for example. Blues and greens dominate on the gold background. Red, silver and mother-of-pearl are used as highlights. In contrast to its use in Ravenna and Poreč, the mother-of-pearl tends to be used in surfaces that face away from the light, thus working almost as a form of artificial lighting. In less conspicuous parts of the programme, as with other more valuable materials in other mosaics, the mother-of-pearl is replaced by white paint or paste. The inscription is made of gold letters on a turquoise background, a combination of colours that was used widely in mosaic inscriptions and which was to prove popular in manuscripts of the Qur’an.

The mosaics and the architecture interact in a variety of ways. The compositions overflow from one wall onto the next, a device that serves to tone down the angle of the walls, creating a sensation of continuous movement. It is a part of the modulation of the design to the architecture, and one seen in mosaics in the Christian world - the question of how to cope with the edges – though there, the problem is less acute because scenes tended to be broken up into discrete architectural areas. It has been suggested that in this Islamic context, the enfolding effect of mosaic, softening the edges inside and out, might have echoed the Ka’aba in Mecca which was decorated with changing textiles. In the Dome of the Rock, the use of flickering lamps presumably added to this effect. Although the same sequences and units in the decoration recur, creating a sense of a continuity of design without beginning or end, certain parts of the mosaic are set in such ways as to as to be more obvious or brighter than others, particularly from the viewing points – such as the four entrances – dictated by the architecture. The inner face of the octagon, for example, is more colourful than the outer and is enhanced and brightened with mother-of-pearl inlays.

The mosaics of the Dome of the Rock are ‘purely’ ornamental and aniconic. The Qur’an does not forbid the figural representation of humans but it does oppose the worship of idols, and a fear of idolatry, one we shall see later in the eighth century in Christian Byzantium and the Iconoclastic Dispute, led to a preference for avoiding representational art in public at least. But no aniconic imagery is ever simply decorative. It is highly likely, as with figural imagery, that the choices and uses of motifs were deliberate, not just aesthetic, responses to themes assigned by the patron. For example, many of the jewel motifs – in the form of actual crowns, necklaces, bracelets - are identifiable as pieces of Byzantine or Persian imperial regalia. Thus, in different ways, they form symbols of holiness, power and sovereignty and may, like the architecture of the building, suggest the defeat of the unbelievers and their bringing into the fold of the true faith. The mosaic inscription was meant to be read, at least in parts, for the writing is clear and certain key words or phrases are highlighted. It too made a statement about the victorious presence of Islam in the Christian city of Jerusalem and conveyed a sense of mission and of eschatology. The ultimate receiver of the messages of the inscriptions is – as in a Christian church – the divinity, Allah, in this case. Jesus appears here in his Moslem role; the mosaics exalt God’s glory and supreme sovereignty; they highlight a paradisiacal landscape, various subtle visual markers hint at Moslem beliefs about sanctity.

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