Resting on the temple mount, also called the
Haram al-Sharif by the Arabs, is a Moslem shrine, which houses a large rock as
its centerpiece. It is believed that here is where the departure of Muhammad’s
mythical “Night Journey” took place, whereby he contemplated the heavens.
Ironically this is also the place where the Jews believe the most sacred room in
the temple once stood . This room was also known as the Holy of Holies and
is believed to be the site where their next temple must be built.
The Dome of the Rock was the first Muslim masterpiece built in 687 A.D., half a century after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. This monument is a major theme in Islamic art, whose fundamental purpose is to express the faith revealed in the Qur'an. This "art" is decipherable only if one recalls the view of the Islamic faith.
The Dome of the Rock presents the first example of the Islamic world-view. The site where it was established, the structure of the building, its dimensions and proportions, the forms to be found within it, and the colors that enliven it are all representative of the faith that inspired its construction.
The craftsmen, and the mosaic artists who took part in the creation of this building came from all regions of the new "Arab empire" and brought to the task their own techniques and their own styles of work.
The Caliph had resolved to consecrate to this building all the tribute levied in Egypt over a period of seven years. There are many theories about why the Caliph wanted the dome built. It could be that he wished to "challenge the World" by building an Islamic monument finer than any built by rival religions, or that he was attempting to divert the stream of pilgrims from Mecca where a rebel, Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr, had seized power, or that he wanted to build something better than the cross-town rival Church of the Holy Sepulcher, or perhaps he had some motive that may have been pure.
When he entered Jerusalem in 637 A.C., Caliph 'Umar Ibn al-Khattab ordered the erection of a wooden mosque on a deserted platform strewn with debris. The Umayyad, Abd-al-Malik, had the Dome built on this site, close to the dome of the Christian Church of the Holy Sepulcher and resembling it in many ways. The Dome of the Rock was thus the symbol of the oneness and continuity of the Abrahamic, that is, the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith.
One of the foremost questions about the Dome of the Rock is how it springs full-blown out of nowhere. Scholars have been perplexed that the Bedouins, without an architectural history beyond the tent, should be able to create an architectural masterpiece with their first attempt. Some conclude that the Dome of the Rock was the result of the Roman and Christian/Syrian craftsmen who were connected to a tradition of building. While the evidence is that these craftsmen did handle the construction, the organization of the elements of the design and decoration was totally the conception of the Umayyad and the Muslims.
The external appearance of the monument expresses the essential message
of this faith. The transition from the double square that forms the basic
octagon to the spherical cupola symbolizes the transition from Earth to Heaven
as it does in the most ancient cosmogonies of the Middle East. It may also be said, however, that in 6th century Byzantine
architecture the central plan of buildings used as shrines was round or
octagonal. These formulas derived
from the Roman Mausoleum were obviously influential in this design as well.
The cupola, which is strikingly similar to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, has a diameter and a height that are much the same (a little under 25 meters). This cupola stands out more strikingly than those of Byzantine churches because it is made out of wood and does not necessitate, as in the case of vaults made of stone, those buttresses or side cupolas that weigh down the external outlines of Hagia Sophia and the monuments inspired by it.
This cupola has been covered with gold ever since it was built, due to the devoutness of the master-builders, Rija ibn Haya and Yazid ibn Salim, who spent upon this luminous covering all that remained of the wealth that had been entrusted to them for the purpose of erecting the monument.
At the outset, before the successive restorations, the curve of the cupola was slightly horseshoe-shaped, something that must have put emphasis on its apparent upward movement, recalling the "night journey" into the heavenly spheres.
This dome is set upon a drum, which, in turn, rests upon the basic octagon that represents the earth. The original facing consisted of glass mosaics, but the present day mosaics are made of porcelain. The doorways at the four cardinal points to the dome mark out this place as the center of the world. Above the arches surrounding the mausoleum, are the subtle inflections of the Nakshi calligraphy, which are there to give glory to God.
The dome’s daylight comes from sixteen stained-glass windows through which it descends towards man, its reliefs and shadows filtering through the arches, pillars, and columns that articulate the space. Written word reveals itself in the places to which one's gaze is first directed, especially in the border of the cupola, in the niche of the Mihrab, and in the frame of the doorway, but also in the friezes on the wall, under the capitals of the columns. All of these phrases reveal one thing. That Allah is one God and Mohammed is his prophet.