Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa Mosque

Era 11AD
Location Jerusalem

The Al-Aqsa mosque (?709-15), also on the Temple Mount, may have been begun by al-Malik; it was certainly finished by his successor and son, al-Walid, replacing an earlier seventh-century structure. The drum of the dome and walls below both have mosaics, though these are now covered in whitewash. Both buildings, and their mosaics, continued to be venerated and repaired by both the successor dynasties to the Umayyads, the Ayyubids, Fatimids and Mamluks alike.. Exactly what happened when is unclear. Al-Muqqadasi, writing in 985, described mid-eighth century earthquake damage and restorations by al-Mahdi, including mosaics, though we have no details of these. In the eleventh-century, under the Fatimids, there was a further reconstruction, and the mosaics of the mosque probably date to this rebuilding of 1035 rather than to 1187-88 as has also been suggested. These mosaics are extensive. The ornamental pendentives of the dome are covered in gold mosaic (silver is also used) except in the centre where dish-like shapes (presumably made of plaster) with wreaths of vegetal motifs and peacock eyes are embedded in the architecture. These have a striking effect, especially when the sun shines on them. The drum of the dome has sixteen panels of mosaic alternating with sixteen windows. These panels display vases with floral crowns, small water basins and bushes and trees, reminiscent of seventh- and eighth-century Umayyad work. There may also have been external mosaic on the dome, perhaps described by Nasir-i Khosraw. (Evidence also exists suggesting that there were wall mosaics on a splendid gate on the west side of the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem).

We also know that the Crusaders added either paintings or mosaics of Biblical scenes with Latin inscriptions to the al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock when they converted these mosques to their own use. These were removed when the buildings were re-converted to mosques. It was Salah al-Din who decorated the niche of the mihrab of the al-Aqsa with an inscription in gold glass on a green background dated to 1187-8..

It is another one I haven't been able to visit.


Among the debates about the probable eleventh-century mosaics is the question of the mosaicists. Some argue that the mosaicists were Byzantine and that al-Zahir (1021-36), the Fatimid caliph who restored the al-Aqsa, had a good relationship with the Byzantine emperor, who sent him Byzantine artists in return for being allowed to build or restore Christian churches in the city. This sounds slightly like another re-working of an old, familiar story about Byzantine mosaicists and Islamic mosaics (told also of the mosaics of the Dome of the Rock, Great Mosque in Damascus and Great Mosque of Cordoba). Constantine IX (1042-1055) restored the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, after the damage caused by al-Hakim in 1009 when the caliph ordered mosaics in the church to be destroyed. It is likely that this repair work included renewal of the mosaics, though by whom remains an open question. It is not impossible that the mosaicists of the al-Aqsa were those men who had kept the Dome of the Rock in good order, and even that the mosaicists used on the Holy Sepulchre were the same, artists taking work wherever it was on offer. Whatever the truth might be, again, the important point is less whodunit but instead why were mosaics used on this building at this time. The al-Aqsa was a revered and venerable mosque; it was built at the end of the seventh century by the Umayyads, also responsible for the Dome of the Rock and the Great Mosque of Damascus, and so plausibly contained mosaics from the start. Like those mosques, it said more about Islam than Byzantium both then and in the eleventh century; like them, it was a challenge to the glory of the Christian churches of the region, and mosaic was part and parcel of its being.