The Dome of the Rock
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Essentially unchanged for more than thirteen centuries, the Dome of the Rock remains one of the worlds most beautiful and enduring architectural treasures. Adorned with its magnificent gold dome and elaborate quranic inscriptions, the structure intimately represents the worlds second largest religion in a city historically associated with the three Semitic faiths. Representation, however, is not the only effect of this site. Despite its intended purpose, the Dome of the Rock inherently stands as the focal center of a millennium-old religious controversy. Located on what is essentially the worlds holiest site (obviously a speculative assertion) and inscribed with proclamations of Islamic religious superiority, the Dome symbolizes far more than Muhammads ascension to heaven.
Since the Domes completion in 691 C.E., the buildings image has consistently inspired passionate debate, mass rioting, and even armed conflict among both practicing religious groups and politically charged individuals. Perched atop Jerusalems Temple Mount, the image of the Dome has been interpreted in a variety of ways by a powerful assortment of groups. Specifically, we find that the historic structure acquires most of its significance in the eyes of practicing Jews and Muslims – as well as some Christian fundamentalists. Muslims and Jews, however, are not the only groups who have also asserted themselves in this historic arena of conflict. Over the centuries, political bodies have also attempted to exert influence – both interpreting and manipulating its image in an attempt to serve their own agenda. In the following text, I will analyze the ways in which different religious groups (primarily Muslims and Jews) and political entities interpret the image of the Dome. In doing so, I hope to uncover the significant factors of the image that have historically maintained controversy and conflict within Jerusalem, as well as abroad.
Before we begin to analyze the traditional and contemporary ways in which different religious sects and political entities interpret the image of the Dome, we must first objectively and systematically deconstruct its image. While the structure takes on different meaning depending on ones personal religious or political slant, the Dome does present a clear, objective message that was certainly intended by its creators. Built by the 9th Caliph, Abd al-Malik, and set on a traditional holy site, the Dome of the Rock physically dominates the urban landscape of Jerusalem. Although an Islamic site, Greek architects were employed to erect the eight-story octagonal structure – its arches on piers and columns, grilled windows, and intricate system of proportions, therefore, seem to derive directly from Byzantine church architecture. The Domes rotunda serves as “a grandiose imitation of the one found on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – deliberately of the same style, but far more extravagant.” Similarly, we find that the muddled floor-plan of the Church is also outdone by the scrupulously ordered design of the Domes base. Later Christian architects and artists would adopt the Domes design and attempt to imitate the aesthetically pleasing structure. Upon its completion, Christian and Jews entered the holy city and witnessed this impressive Islamic structure before anything else became visible in the citys landscape. Protruding from its octagonal base, the great dome, originally embossed in brass gilt, marked the city from a distance as a site now dominated by those dedicated to the “One True Faith.”
Although sharing and incorporating preexisting Christian (and to some extent, Jewish) architecture, the Dome of the Rock improved upon previous structures. The result, it would seem, was that the Dome resembled many of the Christian buildings already built within the city. Yet, because of its Temple Mount location and Islamic structural improvements, the Dome dominated its rival neighbors. The symbolism of such progress and architectural superiority inherently hints at the Muslim interpretation of both Judaism and Christianity in relation to Islam. Cyril Glasse discusses such in her work:
“In the case of the Dome of the Rock, the symbolism of its Quranic forms echoes the significance of the Temple Mount as the site of the Temple of Solomon. It is the culmination of the revelations of Moses and Jesus in the restoration of the primordial Abrahamic unity which is Islamthe calligraphic inscriptions recall the relationship between Jerusalem and Jesus, and the apocalypse to come.”
In addition to the structures architectural composition, elaborate Quranic inscriptions further elaborate this message of religious superiority. Carole Hillenbrand alludes to such:
“The Dome of the Rock, which had been built in 72/691 as a triumphant statement of the superiority of Islam over other faiths, especially Christianity, displays a careful selection of Quranic inscriptions which tilt at the Trinity and the Incarnation. Islams uncompromising monotheism is emphasized in a long band of inscriptions measuring around 240 metres in length: the message is unambiguous: There is no god but the One God and He has no partner.”
Artfully constructed and etched in Quranic verse, the Dome sits upon its ominous perch and serves as the center of Jerusalem. Regardless of ones religious or political slant, the sheer magnificence of the building cannot be ignored – nor can its intrinsic message. From an uninfluenced perspective, one cannot help but observe the Dome as an attempt to establish a new faith above the history of older traditions within the city. As Jacob Massine poignantly concludes, “The Dome of the Rock tangibly asserts Islams completion or finalization of the earlier religions of Judaism and Christianity.”
Although the Dome inherently depicts an image of religious superiority, the structures presence is not always interpreted as such. As we turn to the general Jewish community (including its several fundamentalist sects, international Jewish presence, and primary Israeli base) and their perceptions of the Islamic edifice, we tend to find a much different meaning within the image. Considering its fixed location atop the most holy Jewish site, conventional wisdom may lead one to believe that the Jewish community observes the Dome as the most egregious spiritual travesty. As Hillenbrand describes, the loss of a sacred site can serve to severely demoralize a people:
“Building new monuments in the name of ones own religion…was always an exceedingly humiliating and painful experience for the conquered. The appropriation of the sacred monuments of another faith which are still in daily use, and their transformation,