Islam comes to Jerusalem
Simon Sebag, National Post · Feb. 16, 2012 | Last Updated: Feb. 16, 2012 3:10 AM ET
Abd al-Malik did not suffer fools gladly. When a sycophant complimented him, he snapped, “Don’t flatter me. I know myself better than you.” According to the image on his rare coins, he was severe, thin and hook-nosed. His hair was curly, shoulder length, and he wore long brocaded robes with a sword at his belt, but his critics later claimed that he had big eyes, eyebrows grown together, a protruding nose, a cleft lip – and halitosis so noxious that he was nicknamed the “flykiller.” Yet here was another royal lover who liked to muse on eroticism: “He who wishes to take a slave girl for pleasure, let him take a Berber; to produce a child, take a Persian; as a domestic servant, a Byzantine.” Abd al-Malik grew up in a rough school. At 16, he was commanding an army against the Byzantines; he witnessed the murder of his cousin, Commander of the Believers Othman; and matured into a sacred monarch never afraid to get his hands dirty. He started by reconquering Iraq and Iran. When he captured a leading rebel, he publicly tortured him in front of the Damascene crowds, placed a silver collar around his neck and led him around like a dog before “straddling his chest, butchering him and tossing his head out to his supporters.”
Mecca remained for the moment beyond his control, but he possessed Jerusalem, which he revered as much as Muawiya had. Abd al-Malik envisaged the creation of a united Islamic empire out of a second civil war, with Bilad al-Shams – Syria-Palestine – as its heart: He planned a highway between Jerusalem and Damascus. Muawiya had planned to build over the Rock: now Abd al-Malik assigned seven years’ worth of his Egyptian revenues to create the Dome of the Rock.
The plan was exquisitely simple: a dome, 65 feet in diameter supported by a drum, all resting on octagonal walls. The Dome’s beauty, power and simplicity are equalled by its mystery: We do not know exactly why Abd al-Malik built it – he never said. It is not actually a mosque but a shrine. Its octagonal shape resembles a Christian martyrium, indeed its dome echoes those of the Holy Sepulchre and Hagia Sofia in Constantinople yet its circular walkways designed for circumambulation recall the Kaaba of Mecca.
The Rock was the site of Adam’s paradise, Abraham’s altar, the place where David and Solomon planned their Temple later visited by Muhammad on his Night Journey. Abd al-Malik was rebuilding the Jewish Temple for the true revelation of God, Islam.
The building has no central axis but is encircled thrice – first by the outside walls, next by the octagonal arcade and then right under the dome, bathed in sunlight, the arcade around the Rock itself: this declared that this place was the centre of the world. The dome itself was heaven, the link to God in human architecture. The golden dome and the lush decorations and gleaming white marble declared this was the new Eden, and the place for the Last Judgement when Abd al-Malik and his Umayyad dynasty would surrender their kingdom to God at the Hour of the Last Days. Its wealth of images – jewels, trees, fruit, flowers and crowns – make it a joyful building even for non-Muslims – its imagery combined the sensuality of Eden with the majesty of David and Solomon.
The Dome’s message was therefore also imperial: Since he had not regained Mecca from his rebels, he was declaring the grandeur and permanence of his dynasty to the Islamic world – and possibly, if he had not retaken the Kaaba, he might have made this his new Mecca. The gold dome projected his glory as an Islamic emperor. But it had a wider audience: Just as Justinian’s Hagia Sofia in Constantinople had surpassed Solomon, so Abd al-Malik was surpassing Justinian, and Constantine the Great too, a rebuke of the Christian claim to be the new Israel. (Ironically, the mosaics were probably the work of Byzantine craftsmen, lent to the Commander by Justinian II during a rare peace between the empires.)
After it was finished in 691-692, Jerusalem was never the same again: Abd al-Malik’s astonishing vision seized the skyline of Jerusalem for Islam by building on the mountain, disdained by the Byzantines, which ruled the city. Physically the Dome dominated Jerusalem and overshadowed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – and that was Abd al-Malik’s purpose, believed later Jerusalemites such as the writer al-Muqaddasi. It worked: Henceforth right up into the 21st century, the Muslims mocked the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – the Kayamah in Arabic – calling it the Kumamah – the Dungheap.
The Dome both complemented and vanquished the rival yet related claims of Jews and Christians, so Abd al-Malik confronted both with the superior novelty of Islam. Circling the building, he placed 800 feet of inscriptions that denounce the idea of the divinity of Jesus with a directness that hints at the close relationship between the two faiths of monotheists: They shared much but not the Trinity. The inscriptions are fascinating because they are our first glimpse at the text of the Koran which Abd al-Malik was having collated into its final form.
The Jews were less important imperially but more important theologically. The Dome was maintained by 300 black slaves assisted by 20 Jews and 10 Christians. The Jews could not help but see the Dome with hope: Was it their new Temple? They were still allowed to pray there and the Umayyads created an Islamic version of the Temple rituals of purification, anointment and circumambulation of the stone.
The Dome has a power beyond all this: It ranks as one of the most timeless masterpieces of architectural art; its radiance is the cynosure of all eyes wherever one stands in Jerusalem. It shimmers like a mystical palace rising out of the airy and serene space of the esplanade which immediately became an enormous open-air mosque, sanctifying all the space around it. The Temple Mount became instantly – and still remains – a place for recreation and relaxation. Indeed the Dome created an earthly paradise that combined the tranquillity and sensuality of this world with the sanctity of the hereafter, and that was its genius. Even in its earliest years, there was, wrote Ibn Asakir, no greater pleasure than “eating a banana in the shade of the Dome of the Rock.” It ranks with the temples of Solomon and Herod as one of the most successful sacred-imperial edifices ever built and, in the 21st century, it has become the ultimate secular touristic symbol, the shrine of resurgent Islam and the totem of Palestinian nationalism: It still defines Jerusalem today.
Soon after the Dome was built, Abd al-Malik’s armies recaptured Mecca and resumed the jihad to spread God’s kingdom against the Byzantines. He expanded this colossal empire westward across northern Africa and eastward into Sind (today’s Pakistan). But within his realm, he needed to unify the House of Islam as a single Muslim religion with an emphasis on Muhammad, expressed in the double shahada that now appeared on many inscriptions: “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is the apostle of God.” The Prophet’s sayings – hadith – were collected and Abd al-Malik’s full edition of the Koran became the invincible source of legitimacy and holiness. Rituals became more rigidly defined; graven images banned – he stopped minting coins bearing his own image.
Abd al-Malik now called himself Khalifat Allah, God’s Deputy, and henceforth Islamic rulers became the caliphs. The official versions of Muhammad’s earliest biography and the Muslim Conquest excluded the Christians and Jews from Islam. The administration was Arabized. Like Constantine, Josiah and St. Paul rolled into one, Abd al-Malik believed in a universal empire of one monarch, one God, and it was he more than anyone who oversaw the evolution of Muhammad’s community into today’s Islam.
Jerusalem had a shrine in the Dome but not an imperial mosque, so Abd al-Malik and his son Walid, who succeeded him, next built the Further Mosque, al-Aqsa, Jerusalem’s mosque for ordinary Friday prayers, at the southern boundary of the Temple Mount. The caliphs saw the Temple Mount as the centrepiece of Jerusalem just as Herod had. For the first time since AD 70, they built a new Great Bridge across the valley for pilgrims to enter the Temple Mount from the west, over Wilson’s Arch, today’s Gate of the Chain. To enter from the south, they created the domed Double Gates, which matched the Golden Gate in style and beauty.
? Excerpted from Jerusalem by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Copyright © 2011 by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.