Located in the Old City of Jerusalem and built on top of the Temple Mount, Al-Aqsa Mosque, also known as the Al Aqsa Compound or Haram esh-Sharif in Islam, is regarded as one of the holiest sites in Islam after Mecca and Medina. It is believed by the Muslims that Muhammad took a single night journey around the year 621, from the Great Mosque of Mecca on the back of a winged baby-horse called Buraq to the farthest mosque, which came to represent the physical world. By tradition, the farthest mosque is believed to be the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, from where Muhammed is said to have led the other prophets in prayer. While the name of the mosque, Al-Aqsa, literally stands for the farthest, which refers to the Night Journey of Muhammed from Mecca, the word farthest indicates farthest from Mecca, which is widely believed to imply Jerusalem, although the Quran does not mention the name of the city.
Sometimes, the Dome of the Rock is confused with the Al-Aqsa Mosque. However, the term Al-Aqsa is often used to refer to the entire area that includes the silver-domed mosque on the southern side of the Temple Mount Plaza, along with the Dome of the Rock, the Gates of the Temple Mount, and the four minarets.
Al-Aqsa Mosque is located close to the site of the Second Temple, on the Temple Mount, between 516 BC and 70 AD, the holiest site in Judaism. However, according to Matthew 21:13, the Christians also revere it as the location where Jesus turned over the tables and drove out the moneychangers. According to Muslim tradition, Al-Aqsa Mosque dates back to Jacob, the son of Isaac. However, originally a small covered prayer house was built on the site by Umar, a senior companion of Muhammad, who later succeeded Abu Babk as the second caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate on 23 August 634.
Subsequently, it was rebuilt and expanded by the fifth Ummayad Caliph, Abd al-Malik and completed by his son al-Walid in 705 AD. Although the structure was completely destroyed by a devastating earthquake in 746, it was rebuilt by the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur in 754. Unfortunately, that was not the last time. During the ensuing centuries, the structure was destroyed several times by earthquakes, always to be restored by the ruling caliph. It was completely rebuilt by the Fatimid caliph Ali az-Zahir when the mosque was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1033. During that time, the central aisle was double the width of the other aisles, and a wooden dome was constructed on its gable roof.
During the First Crusade when Jerusalem was captured by the Crusaders in 1099, they renamed Al-Aqsa Mosque as Solomon’s Temple, and the Dome of the Rock was named Templum Domini or the Temple of God. Simultaneously, the Dome of the Rock was converted into a Christian Church while Al-Aqsa became the royal palace and the stable for the king’s horses. However, after the foundation of the Templar Knights of the Order of Solomon’s Temple, a Catholic military order in 1119, it was transformed into its headquarters.
During this period, the mosque underwent some structural changes which included the addition of an apse, the expansion of its northern porch, along with various other structures. However, when Saladin recaptured Jerusalem following the siege of 1187, he immediately undertook several repairing and reconstructive jobs to prepare the mosque for Friday prayers, including the removal of the toilets and storing place built by the Crusaders at al-Aqsa. He also instructed his men to cover the floors with precious carpets, and scented the interior with rosewater and incense.
While the Dome of the Rock reflects the Byzantine architecture, the 272 feet (83 m) long and 184 feet (56 m) wide huge rectangular Al-Aqsa Mosque is an example of early Islamic architectural style. The wooden dome plated with lead enamelwork, constructed by the Fatimid caliph Ali az-Zahir, was reconstructed in concrete and covered with anodized aluminium in 1969. However, in 1983, the aluminium outer covering was again replaced with lead to match the original design by az-Zahir. The interior of the dome is aesthetically painted with 14th-century-era decorations.
The facade of the mosque, crowned with a balustrade consisting of arcades and small columns, was built in 1065 AD, by the Fatimid caliph al-Mustansir Billah. Although damaged by the Crusaders, it was restored and renovated subsequently by the rulers of the Ayyubids dynasty, founded by Saladin. The façade, covered with tiles, consists of fourteen stone arches, most of which are of Romanesque style. A new minbar or pulpit, made of ivory and wood, was commissioned by the Zengid sultan Nur al-Din, the predecessor of Saladin, in 1168/69 which was completed after his death. The Nur ad-Din’s minbar was added to the mosque in November 1187 by Saladin, and the northern porch of the mosque with three gates was built by the Ayyubid sultan of Damascus, al-Mu’azzam in1218. The two naves and two gates to the mosque's eastern side were added in 1345, by the Mamluks under al-Kamil Shaban. The Ottomans, who assumed power in 1517, did not undertake any major renovations or added any new construction to the mosque, but they built the Fountain of Qasim Pasha, restored the Pool of Raranj, and built the three free-standing domes, including the Dome of the Prophet, constructed in 1538.
Apart from the seven aisles of hypostyle naves, Al-Aqsa Mosque has several additional small halls to the west and east of the southern section of the building. Since the Abbasid and Fatimid eras it is decorated with 21 stained glass windows. The mosaic decoration and the inscription, two lines just above the decoration near the roof on the spandrels of the arch facing the main entrance near the main dome area which date back to the Fatimid period, were revealed from behind the plasterwork of a later date that covered them.