The Academy of Jerusalem   /  Co-Instructive Courses  /  Blowing Up the Dome of the Rock


Source: The Art and Architecture of Islam   650-1250 c.e. (pp.28-34)

Completed in 691, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is the earliest remaining Islamic monument, and in all probability the first major artistic endeavour of the Umayyads.  The reason for its erection are not given in literary or epigraphic sources.  It eventually became connected with the miraculous Night Journey of the Prophet at the Masjid al-Aqsa (the 'remoter mosque', Koran XVII,I) — generally presumed to be in Jerusalem, although the earliest evidence in our possession is not clear on this point — and with Muhammad's ascent into Heaven from the Rock.  This is today the conception of the Muslim believer.  In fact, however, the location of the mosque on Mount Moriah, traditionally accepted as the site of the Jewish Temple and associated with many other legends and historical events, its decoration of Byzantine and Sasanian crowns and jewels in the midst of vegetal motifs, its physical domination of the urban landscape of Jerusalem, and its inscriptions with their many precisely chosen Koranic quotations suggest that the original purposes of the Dome of the Rock were to emphasize the victory of Islam that completes the revelation of the two other monotheistic faiths, and to compete in splendour and munificence with the great Christian sanctuaries; it is even possible that to the Umayyads it had the meaning of a dynastic shrine with Solomonic connotations through the representation of paradise-like trees.  Only after the full establishment of the Islamic state as the governing body of the Near East did these precise early aims fade away, to be replaced by a religious explanation probably derived from popular piety.

The building is admirably located on an artificial platform, itself part of a huge area known today as the Haram al-Sharif (the 'Noble Sacred Enclosure'), created in Herodian times.   The platform is ascended by six flights of stairs, tow on the southern and western sides, one each on the other two.  An arcade crowns each flight.  Both stairs and arcades can only be documented from the tenth century onward, and no information exists about access to the platform in Umayyad times.  Not quite in the centre of the platform, the mosque has a large central dome (about 20 metres in diameter and about 25 metres high) consisting of two wooden shells originally gilded on the outside and placed on a high drum pierced by sixteen windows in its upper part.  It rests on a circular arcade of four piers and twelve columns; around the central part two ambulatories are separated by an octagonal arcade of eight piers and sixteen columns.  The marble columns, together with most of the capitals, were taken from older buildings; the piers are in heavy stone masonry; a continuous band of tie-beams separates the capitals of the columns and the shafts of the piers from the spandrels.  The sloping roof of the octagon abuts the drum of the dome just below the windows.  Outside, each side of the octagon is divided into seven tall and narrow panels separated by pilasters.  Five contain windows with double grilles dating from the sixteenth century; the original ones probably had marble tracery on the inside and ironwork on the outside.  There are four entrances preceded by porches, one on each of the cardinal points.  Above the roof of the octagon runs a parapet.

The building is richly decorated.  The mosaic which — together with marble — adorned the outside were almost completely replaced in Ottoman times by magnificent Turkish tiles, but inside more remains.  The walls and piers are covered with marble.  Mosaics decorate the upper parts of the piers, the soffits and spandrels of the octagonal arcade, the outer spandrels of the circular arcade, and both drums; only the latter show traces of extensive repairs and restorations, which, however, did not alter significantly the nature of the designs.  Marble now sheaths the inner spandrels and the soffits of the circular arcade as well as three friezes, one between the two drums, the other two above and below the windows of the outer wall.  It is likely, however, that these areas were originally covered with mosaics, which — from the remaining decoration of the porch — one can surmise were also used on the vaults of the porches.  The ceilings of the octagon and of the dome are Mamluk or Ottoman carved woodwork, which the Umayyads also probably used, for instances exist in other buildings.  The tie-beams were covered with repousse bronze plaques.  Finally we must imagine the thousands of lights which supplemented the meagre illumination from the windows, making the mosaics glitter like a diadem crowning a multitude of columns and marble-faced piers around the sombre mass of the black rock surmounted by the soaring void of the dome.

In its major characteristics the Dome of the rock follows the architectural practices of the Christian empire.  It belongs to the category of centrally planned buildings known as martyria and, as has often been pointed out, bears a particularly close relationship to the great Christian sanctuaries of the Ascension and the Anastasis.  Similarly, most of the techniques of construction — the arches on piers and columns, the wooden domes, the grilled windows, the masonry of stone and brick — as well as the carefully thought out and intricate system of proportions also derive directly from Byzantine church architecture.  The same is true of the decoration.  Although few examples remain, wall mosaics and marble facings were common in Christian sanctuaries.  The endless variations on vegetal subjects, from the realism of certain trees to highly conventionalized garlands and scrolls to all-over carpet-like patterns, are mostly related to the many mosaics of Christian times in Syria and Palestine.  The same holds true for the decoration of the tie-beams.

Yet it would be a mistake to consider all this a mere re-use of Byzantine techniques and themes.  In addition to the fact that its significance was not quite the same as that of its immediate ecclesiastical models, this first monument of the new Islamic culture departs in three areas from the traditions of the land in which it was built: the nature of the mosaic decoration, the relationship between architecture and decoration, and the composition of the elevation.

The mosaic decoration, which has remained almost entirely in its original state on a huge area of about 280 square metres, does not contain a single living being, man or animal.  Evidently the Muslims already felt that such would be inconsistent with the official expression of their faith, and they were selective about the artistic vocabulary offered by the lands they had conquered.  However, the mosaics were not entirely decorative: curiously, the inner facings only of the octagonal and circular arcades and the drums introduce jewels, crowns, and breast-plates — the insignia of royal power in the Byzantine and Sasanian empires.  Their position, added to the fact that no pre-Islamic artist would willingly mix royal symbols with vegetal designs, indicates that these are the regalia of the princes defeated by Islam, suspended, like trophies, on the walls of a strictly Muslim building.

At the same time, writing, in the form of a long mosaic inscription running below the ceiling of the octagons, appears with both decorative and symbolic significance: decorative because it takes over the function of a border to the rest; symbolic because, although barely visible from the ground, it contains all the Christological passages of the Koran, thereby emphasizing the Muslim message in Christ's very city; and because the later caliph al-Mamun saw fit to substitute his own name for that of the founder, Abd al-Malik, without changing the date of construction, thus showing his acceptance of the aims and purposes of the building.  Unable to use the traditional figurative imagery derived from Antiquity, the Muslim world expressed its ideas in non-figurative terms.

Alongside classical motifs the mosaics have palmettes, wings, and composite flowers of Iranian origin.  Thus the Umayyad empire drew upon features from the whole area it had conquered, amalgamating them to create an artistic vocabulary of its own.

Finally the mosaics of the Dome of the Rock introduced two decorative principles which were to continue to develop in later Islamic art.  The first is the non-realistic use of realistic shapes and the anti-naturalistic combination of naturalistic forms.  When they felt that a more brilliant decoration was needed, the artists did not hesitate, for instance, to transform the trunk of a tree into a jewelled box.  The possible combinations of forms and themes are limitless, without the restraints imposed by the naturalism of classical ornament.

The second principle is that of continuous variety.  On close analysis, the mosaics of the Dome of the Rock show comparatively few types of design — mainly the acanthus scroll, the garland, the vine scroll, the tree, and the rosette.  Yet nowhere do we find exact repetition.  Certain differences are qualitative, as when an apprentice reproduced the design of a master.  But in most instances each variation within a theme represents an individual interpretation.

As far as future development is concerned, the most significant artistic feature of the Dome of the Rock is the establishment of a new relationship between architecture and decoration.  Until this time the Mediterranean had continued, albeit with modifications, the classical principle of decoration, especially ornamental decoration, as the servant of architecture, emphasizing certain parts of the building, but rarely suppressing the essential values of the construction itself.  The builders of the Dome of the Rock, however, hid almost all their clearly defined, classically based structure with brilliant marble and mosaic.  Particularly striking in this respect is one of the soffits of the arches of the octagon.  We see three bands of design, two of which take over one half of the surface, the remaining one the other half.  However, the composition is asymmetrical, for the wider band is not in the centre but towards the inner side of the building, thus deliberately destroying the basic unity of the surface.  Furthermore, one motif, and one only, continues on to the vertical surface of the spandrel, thereby emphasizing one curve of the arch.

This does not mean that the mosaicists of the Dome of the Rock completely rejected the architecture they decorated: in using trees for high rectangular surfaces and scrolls for square ones, they certainly adapted their ornamental forms to the areas provided by the architects.  But in the choice of many specific motifs (for instance the rosettes on the soffits) as well as in the total covering of the available walls, they created an expensive shell around the structure which broke away from the traditions of the area.  Whether the Umayyads developed this taste on their own, or whether by the end of the seventh century they were already under the influence of an 'oriental' fashion known through Sasanian stuccoes covering mud-brick walls, is still very much open to debate.

The third original feature of the Dome of the Rock is the way in which the dome itself juts out of the octagons.  The effect is quite different from that of San Vitale in Ravenna or of the palace church in Aachen (with which the Dome of the Rock is frequently compared — justifiably so, if one looks at plans alone).  The Umayyad designer made the dome more significant from the outside than from the inside, where it is in fact nearly invisible because of its height and the location of the Rock.  It is as though the building has two messages: one to proclaim to the rest of the city that Islam has sanctified the Jewish Temple; the other to convey the impression of a luxurious shrine for restricted and internal purposes.

Set on a traditional holy site, and drawing on the lands conquered by Islam for methods of construction and decoration, the Dome of the Rock yet created an entirely new combination of artistic conceptions to fulfill its purpose.  It is a most splendid and singular achievement.

The Art and Architecture of Islam  650-1250 (pp.28-34):
Richard Ettinghausen and Oleg Grabar, Yale University Press, New Haven and London (1994), Penguin (1987)

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