Built on top of the Temple Mount, known to the Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, the Dome of the Rock, a building of extraordinary beauty and elegance dominating the cityscape of Old Jerusalem is one of the earliest surviving buildings of the Islamic world. Constructed between 688 and 691 AD under the patronage of the Umayyad caliph Abd Al-Malik, the structure and ornamentation of the building are rooted in the Byzantine architectural tradition, although the 7th century represents an early stage in the emergence of a distinct Islamic visual style.
The enormous open-air platform of the Temple Mount, built during the reign of Herod the Great, and now houses Al-Aqsa mosque, is a holy site for the Christians, Jews, and Muslims. According to Jewish tradition, it was the place where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son. They believe it to be the site of the First Temple built by King Solomon, the son of David, which was subsequently destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar II of the Neo-Babylonian Empire in 586 BC. The Second Temple, constructed under the auspices of Zerubbabel in 516 BC, was destroyed by the Roman Empire in 70 AD, while subduing the Jewish revolt. At the same, it is regarded as a holy place by the Muslims as it is related to Muhammad’s one night journey from Mecca and the site of his ascending to heaven, where he met the other prophets like Moses and Christ, witnessed paradise and hell.
The structure of the Dome of the Rock is positioned near the centre of a wide raised platform, comprising an octagonal base topped by a huge gilded wooden central dome with a diameter of around 65 feet. Surrounded by an octagonal arcade of 24 piers and columns and mounted on an elevated drum, the dome rises above a circle of 16 piers and columns.
There is a large rock at the centre of the Dome of the Rocks, which is traditionally believed by the Jews to be the location where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Ismael, while the Muslims believe it to be the site of Muhammad’s ascending to heaven. The rock is enclosed by two covered passageways and an octagonal exterior wall.
The columns of the building are clad in marble on their lower registers, and their upper registers are adorned with exceptional mosaics. The ceiling of the structure rests on eight weight-bearing pillars. While the twelve columns in the Dome of the Rock represent the twelve months in the year, the four supporting pillars around the neck of the dome signify the four seasons in the year. There are 52 windows around the building of the Dome of the Rock, signifying the 52 weeks in a year, while the seven mihrabs or the prayer niches, situated together close to the northern entrance, represent the seven days of a week. Apart from that, there are three more mihrabs situated together inside the dome, signifying the three holiest places in Islam, the Kaaba, Masjid-e-Nabwi, and Masjid al-Aqsa.
Both the exterior and interior of the structure, including the inner portion of the Dome, are richly decorated with marble, mosaics, and metal plaques. Although the patterns and techniques of the mosaic in the Dome of the Rocks are mostly similar to those found in Byzantine public buildings, there is at least one basic difference.
Instead of any figurative art, it is ornamented with Arabic script and vegetal patterns created with leaves and creepers, intermixed with images of different jewels and winged crowns, worn by Sasanian kings.
The Temple Mount was a prohibited place for non-Muslims until 1967, when non-Muslims were permitted limited access, on condition of holding a valid passport, dressed modestly, and carrying no arms, religious items, or prayer books. However, it is forbidden to practice Christian or Jewish prayer at the Temple Mount, and non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the Dome of the Rock.