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Crowning Jerusalem’s sacred mount, the Dome of the Rock is a place of both prayer and protest. Extensive restoration and archaeological research are uncovering fresh clues to the shrine’s origins.

Below Article is taken from 

Naional Geographic Magazine - September 2023 issue

Inside the Dome of the Rock

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BY Andrew Lawler



“Any viewer’s tongue will grow shorter trying to describe it,” marveled the inveterate traveler Ibn Battuta while visiting Jerusalem in 1326. “This is one of the most fantastic of all buildings, of the most perfect in architecture and strangest in shape.” 

For more than 13 centuries, the Dome of the Rock has been the jewel in the crown of Jerusalem’s sacred acropolis, a sprawling area known to Jews and Christians as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Haram al Sharif—the Noble Sanctuary. As Islam’s oldest building, the dome ranks with the neighboring Church of the Holy Sepulchre in spiritual importance and the Taj Mahal in grace. Simple geometry dressed in sumptuous materials gives this iconic structure a timeless appeal.

One chilly winter morning, the shrine slowly fills with women in long coats and hijabs. They sit on the plush red-and-gold carpet, alone in contemplation or in small groups to study the Quran. While men flock to the much larger Al Aqsa Mosque a hundred yards to the south, this tranquil space is mostly the domain of Muslim women and children.

Sireen Karim, a middle-age kindergarten teacher dressed in black, gestures at the mass of stone that dominates the center of the building. 

“This is where Muhammad, peace be upon him, ascended to heaven to meet all the prophets, and where he came back with the message to pray five times a day,” she says. “It also healed his sadness. And this is where we come to cure our grief and ease a troubled state of mind.”

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At the heart of the Dome of the Rock is a limestone outcrop revered by Muslims as the place from which Muhammad ascended on his mystical journey into heaven. One of the world’s largest collections of Islamic mosaics covers some 13,000 square feet of the shrine’s interior.

The sacred slab is the color of moon rock, its coarse and pitted surface contrasting sharply with the splendor surrounding it. Two concentric rings of marble and porphyry columns and piers encircle it, supporting a dome laced with fantastically intricate shapes. The walls carry flowing Arabic inscriptions, as well as one of the world’s largest collections of medieval mosaics. From below, these tiny glass-cubed pixels resolve into lush palms, ripe grapes, and a fortune in diadems and necklaces. An occasional pigeon flies through one of the four open doors, whirring in circles within the round expanse.

A narrow set of worn marble steps leads beneath the rock to a rough-hewn grotto called the Well of Souls. A Muslim tradition asserts the waters of paradise flow under the cave, while some Christians and Jews have long imagined that the space conceals a secret passage filled with valuable artifacts.

In 1911 European treasure hunters bribed their way inside and hacked away at the cave floor in vain hope of finding the famed Ark of the Covenant. Their desecration sparked weeks of angry rioting. Seventy years later, senior Israeli rabbis bored a hole at the base of the Western Wall and tunneled their way east to try to locate the sacred object. The illicit search yielded nothing but a brief scuffle between rabbinical students and Muslim guards and fears of a regional conflict.

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A mother and her daughters pray in the Well of Souls, a grotto beneath the venerated stone. Here, according to some, the spirits of the dead await the final judgment.

The Dome of the Rock has miraculously survived looters, earthquakes, religious strife, bloody invasions, and more prosaic threats like pigeon droppings clogging its drainpipes, sending rainwater trickling into the walls. Its striking image adorns coffee mugs, tea towels, and screensavers, and framed pictures of its dome hang in mosques, living rooms, and public buildings around the world.

“Almost two billion people are connected to this place,” says Sheikh Omar Kiswani, director of the 36-acre religious complex, as we stand on the sunlit stone platform that supports the dome like the setting of a jewel. “When the Prophet Muhammad descended from heaven, by God’s wish, all the prophets gathered here to pray,” says the bearded cleric, sweeping his arms to take in the paths, gardens, courtyards, and buildings that are considered a single vast mosque. “That’s why praying here is equal to 500 prayers elsewhere.”

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Only Muslims may worship in the dome and the surrounding 36-acre Al Aqsa compound—a rule dating back centuries meant to maintain Jerusalem’s fragile peace. But a growing number of Jews demand the right to pray on the plaza, threatening to upend the tradition.

Shaped by Faith

Jerusalem’s Old City is layered with history, beliefs, and divisions. It’s the site of two now vanished temples that for centuries were the central place of Jewish worship. It’s where Jesus of Nazareth is believed to have been resurrected after his Crucifixion. Here too is the stone Muslims revere as the spot where the Prophet Muhammad began his nighttime journey to heaven. These events consecrated the city to three great religions, leading to eras of both peace and bloodshed.

Today the Dome of the Rock also stands at the center of one of the world’s thorniest geopolitical disputes, and its golden vault is a frequent backdrop to violent confrontations between Palestinian worshippers and Israeli police. 

(Jerusalem's sacred sites are a combustible mix of religion and politics)

“Any church or synagogue in the Holy Land is a place of peace,” says Kiswani, sighing. “Only here is it a war zone.”

Muslims extol the shrine as Islam’s most important site after Mecca and Medina, while Palestinians honor it as the cherished symbol of their nation. For many religious Jews, however, the structure is an abomination fated to be destroyed to make way for a new Jewish temple. Some evangelical Christians also insist it must be replaced by a new temple to set in motion the return of Jesus Christ. Such a volatile mix of beliefs sends shudders through politicians across the region, who fear any attempt to raze it would result in a catastrophic war. 

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“We have to strip away the politics imposed on the building, like peeling an onion, to understand why and how it was built,” says Beatrice St. Laurent, an American art historian who studied the site for 30 years with her Palestinian colleague, Isam Awwad, who passed away in 2018. Their results provide an intriguing new take on the mysterious old shrine and the visionary Muslim leader who might have built it.

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Above: The Cotton Merchants’ Gate, one of seven providing access from Jerusalem’s Old City into the Al Aqsa compound, dates to the 14th century. Israeli security tightly controls every entry point, leading at times to protests and violent confrontations. 

Above: Activist and Quran teacher Hanady Halawani has been repeatedly banned from the Al Aqsa compound by Israeli security forces. 

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Read the full findings at

Naional Geographic Magazine - September 2023 issue

Inside the Dome of the Rock


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