Oleg Grabar: Dome of the Rock ... Both Mosque and Work of Art





[Mr. Grabar is professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton N.J. His book on the Dome of the Rock will be published in the early fall by Harvard University Press.]

No one visiting Jerusalem can escape the gilt dome and shining tiles of the Dome of the Rock. In contrast to the sensuous solidity of the yellow-brown Palestinian masonry that surrounds it, it is a colorful, striking and architecturally unique monument on the vast platform of the Haram al-Sharif, "the Noble sanctuary," the Muslim space in the third holiest city in Islam. That space is also called "the Temple Mount," because of its association with the second Jewish Temple destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70, as its shape and many of its means of access were determined by Herod the Great's monumental creation of the first century.

The visual power and aesthetic appeal of the Dome of the Rock have made this Muslim holy place a standard feature of Israeli tourism posters. Its picture also appears on hundreds of souvenirs and photographs found in Palestinian and Arab offices and households all over the world. It is a common motif decorating walls in the streets of Tehran in Iran and it appears on Iranian paper money as a sign of the building's symbolic importance to Muslims everywhere.

But what is it? When was it built and why? What does it mean today?

The structure belongs to an architectural tradition of commemorative buildings extending from the church of Santa Constanza in Rome to the Rothko chapel in Houston. The large rock at its center has a cavern underneath and natural shapes on its surface have been interpreted as imprints of human feet. Its originality within its architectural tradition lies in the near perfection of its geometry and proportions, in the absence of a dominant entrance among the four doorways placed on the four cardinal points, and in its colorful external decoration. The original mosaics of its external wall were replaced in the 16th century by tiles brought from the western Anatolian centers of Ottoman production, and artfully reproduced over the past half century.

The interior is a stunning display of architectural solidity (piers and columns from older buildings; a double dome of wood) and decoration. Marble panels cover the lower walls and mosaics above, the largest display of wall mosaics until Palermo in the 12th century. These mosaics contain a vast array of vegetal motifs, both natural and fantastic, which some scholars have sought to explain as references to Paradise, to Solomon's mythical palace, or to Jewish liturgical practices. The mosaics go back for the most part to the creation of the building in A.D. 691, as is revealed by an inscription in Arabic. This inscription is almost 800 feet long and occurs in the upper part of the octagonal arcade. It contains passages from the Quran mixed with prayers and praises and a clear statement of the mission of the Prophet to complete the divine revelation given to Jews and Christians and bring the latter to the true faith. It also contains a formal statement of the Christology of the Quran, a sort of proclamation of Muslim understanding of the faith that had, for centuries, dominated Jerusalem....



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