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The Dangers of Divinity

Oleg Grabar brings more to the task of describing early Islamic Jerusalem than scholarship. A much-respected historian of Islamic architecture, he also has immense knowledge of the complex and mostly unhappy history of the city, and of how the three faiths that believe the city is holy have made and unmade its religious monuments. His theme is the way in which the main monuments of Islamic Jerusalem came into existence during the first two centuries after the Muslim conquest of the seventh Christian century. He also considers their relationship with the Christian monuments of the preceding Byzantine rule.

The early turning points of the history of Jerusalem in the Christian era were the destruction of the Temple by the Roman emperor Titus in 70 CE, and the further destruction of the entire Temple area during the suppression of the Bar Kochba revolt that ended in 135 CE. Grabar assumes some knowledge of these matters on the part of his readers, and refers to them only obliquely, although he makes the point that the rulers of the Christian Roman Empire insisted on maintaining the Temple area in the same desolate state as their pagan predecessors had. The Christian Roman rulers did so as a symbolic religious gesture of the culpability of the Jews. The suppression of memory of the Jewish presence had certainly been thorough; during the last persecution of Christians under Diocletian, the Roman governor of the Palestinian city of Caesarea in 310 CE had no idea that a city called Jerusalem (to which later Roman emperors had given a quite different name) had ever existed. When the name was mentioned in a trial, he apparently thought it was a secret Christian center of rebellion, and had a witness tortured to find out its location.1

Jerusalem was under Christian rule from the time of the emperor Constantine in the early fourth Christian century until the Persian occupation of the city and its sack in 614. The reoccupation by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius was brief: the Byzantines lost control of Syria to the new Muslim power, and within seven or eight years of Muhammad’s death the second Muslim Caliph, Umar (634-644), traveled to Jerusalem to accept its peaceful submission—a voyage remarkable in itself, since he did not come with soldiers from the victorious armies. Umar declined to pray with the Christian patriarch in his church, on the grounds that such an act would have subsequently rendered the place holy to Muslims, and so excluded Christians. Instead, he went to the Temple Mount (Mount Moriah), a large, deserted area at this stage still covered with rubble from the destroyed Herodian Temple and its colonnades. Here he prayed; every detail of his movements in the city subsequently became important to following generations of Muslims. The Prophet Muhammad had originally decided to turn toward Jerusalem when he prayed—a decision he subsequently modified in favor of Mecca. Umar resisted a suggestion that he should reinstate Jerusalem as the city toward which Muslims should pray.

In Jerusalem, as elsewhere in their new empire, the Muslims formed at first only a modest proportion of the population. Most people in the city were Christian, a minority Jewish—the Jews had even briefly been placed in control of the city by the victorious Persians, some twenty years earlier. But the Muslims needed a prayer mosque, and one was constructed on the Temple Mount, at first in wood. Forty-odd years after the Muslim conquest, at the end of the seventh Christian century, the western half of the Temple Mount (later known as the noble sanctuary, the Haram al-Sharif) had gone some way toward being transformed into a Muslim religious center. A beautiful building in memory of Muhammad was constructed over a cleft in the large rock there that had perhaps had some earlier religious function. The new building—the Dome of the Rock—contained inscriptions that record a date corresponding to 692 CE, during the time of the Caliph Abd al-Malik (685-705). It was situated on its own platform, raised upon the main Temple platform.

During the same period the earlier wooden mosque, located at the southern end of the Temple Mount, and placed perhaps on the same axis as the Dome of the Rock, was replaced by a large and dignified place of prayer, the predecessor of the present al-Aqsa Mosque. Other constructions complemented these, especially new monumental gates that gave access to the newly cleared Temple Mount, and also, because of the graded nature of the terrain, flights of steps.

The architectural inspiration of the Dome of the Rock itself is not mysterious. It was designed and built according to Byzantine or “Roman” models, especially in the design of the rotunda or dome. The most important of these models was the nearby memorial of the Holy Sepulcher, whose dome was closely imitated by the new Muslim building. There were, of course, important modifications of the decorative motifs on the surfaces of the building, which had to be quite differently executed for a Muslim patron than for a Christian one, particularly in view of the Muslim ban on representing the human form. Grabar is enlightening about the rich mosaic decoration of the interior—the exterior also had a similar decoration, but it has long since been replaced. The jeweled and luxuriant foliage of the mosaics provided, according to Grabar, a “rich and imaginary landscape” on which luxurious gifts (made to the holy shrine) were depicted. “It was a landscape to be seen and felt, not one in which specific ritual actions were required.”

Why was the seventh-century Islamic shrine built over a particular cleft in the rock of the Temple Mount, and why was it organized, as some Christian churches in Palestine were organized, to display a holy object rather than to accommodate a congregation of worshippers? Grabar, after careful consideration of the evidence, finds that the answers remain somewhat obscure. The site had been associated with Abraham, known to Muhammad as a hanif or patriarch figure, who was claimed as a predecessor of the Prophet, and also with King David. In later Muslim tradition, but perhaps not yet at the time of the construction of the first Muslim sanctuary, the Temple platform was said to have been the arrival point of the miraculous “night journey” of Muhammad from Mecca to the “further mosque” (masjid al-aqsa, Koran 17:1) in Jerusalem. It was also connected with the Prophet’s Ascension into Heaven, and with a miraculous bridge by which the just, assembled in Jerusalem, might enter Heaven on the Last Day. Other explanations have been offered: the Temple platform site may have had connections with the prayers offered by the Caliph Umar in 637-638 CE, or (Grabar believes) with the Umayyad caliph, Muawiyah (661-680), who first interested himself in Jerusalem.

Certainly the Dome of the Rock is one of the most beautiful medieval buildings in existence. A clue to the motives that led to its construction may lie in the contemporary inscriptions within it. These have been neglected because they seemed to derive from conventional Koranic texts, but Grabar suggests other possibilities. He observes that while they assert the oneness of God as proclaimed by His prophet, and ask for a divine blessing upon Muhammad, and equally upon Jesus, they also emphasize “the position of Jesus in Islam as a prophet and envoy,” and they do so in a rather conciliatory spirit. The anti-Christian polemic of the Koran is also present, but Grabar finds it muted. The Koranic quotations that the inscriptions cite about Jesus avoid, he says, “the problematic issues like the virgin birth and especially the death and resurrection of Christ, where the fundamental divergences between Islam and orthodox Christian dogma are most obvious.” It is also interesting that none of the Koranic quotations in the Dome of the Rock inscriptions makes any reference to the Prophet’s night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem.

The main drift of Grabar’s often complex argument is that the Muslim ruler who built the Dome of the Rock was adopting a rather tolerant attitude toward the Christians, intending to transform the ideological meaning of Christian Jerusalem into something more acceptable to Muslims, and not just to negate it. There is much to commend in Grabar’s position. Other historians have maintained that at the end of the seventh Christian century the Umayyad rulers seemed to want to emulate the Eastern Roman Byzantine Empire and to see themselves as its future heirs. Their coinage, their palace decorations, and other aspects of their imperial identity—all have been cited as evidence of their affinities with Byzantium. This may indeed be so, although internal Muslim disputes may also have influenced the way that the Umayyads gave preference to Syria, and therefore Jerusalem, at the expense of Arabia—a preference that may have been owing to their quarrel with a hostile notable of Mecca, who had at that time closed the Islamic pilgrimage to Syrian Muslims. Whatever the truth of the matter, the history of the Dome of the Rock seems to confirm the picture of an early Islam that, although imperialist, was willing, up to a point, to tolerate the culture of its Christian adversaries.

Grabar makes much of the most remarkable feature of the Temple platform site: the dramatic isolation of its main buildings and their complete detachment from the complex jumble of the rest of the city. The British historian Robert Hillenbrand, in his fine book on Islamic architecture, also refers to the exceptionally large public space of the Haram al-Sharif site. “In general the Muslim world made little play with squares and piazzas, preferring to keep such open spaces within the private domain.”2 This observation helps us to understand how Islamic towns developed in the sites of formerly Hellenistic and late Roman cities. The great colonnades and wide streets of the ancient cities were usually (as happened, for example, in Jerusalem, Damascus, and Aleppo) silted up by later Muslim construction. The Islamic authorities were not at all interested in preserving the ancient streets, market, and meeting spaces; as a result the agora and fora of the Hellenistic cities virtually disappeared.

It is unlikely that the Muslim builders made a conscious aesthetic decision to isolate the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque on the Haram al-Sharif; when they were built, much of the platform must still have been covered with rubble. But Grabar points out that the early buildings on the Haram al-Sharif—the Dome of the Rock, the earlier prayer niche of the al-Aqsa Mosque, and the (long-sealed) Double Gate were all built on a north-south axis. He shows hypothetical computerized drawings that emphasize this point. However, still in the Umayyad period (661-750 CE) another large complex of buildings, excavated relatively recently, was constructed just outside the southwestern corner of the Haram al-Sharif enclosure. The Temple Mount still would still have been set apart, but perhaps somewhat less starkly than Grabar and Hillenbrand imply.

The dramatic effect of the site’s isolation has lasted into our own day: it is often featured on the posters put out by Israeli tourist organizations to advertise Jerusalem. The visitor does not have to enter the Dome of the Rock or approach it closely to experience its powerful effect; it dominates the scene of the Old City from several other important vantage points, including the Holy Sepulcher Church.

No commentary on Jerusalem is neutral. Grabar asserts that he writes with scholarly detachment; but I think he is overconfident when he implies that such scholarship lifts the writer above political conflict. He refers to the distorting effects on scholarly inquiry both of different religious allegiances and of the Israeli, Jordanian, and other political and national groups that support research, influences that he refers to without much explanation as being “flamboyant.” He suggests that scholarly objectivity can easily overcome them without being influenced by any faith, text, or belief. But there is no hint in his book that the Temple Mount has become one of the most politically dangerous places in the world. The 1984 plots to destroy the Muslim religious buildings there with high explosives—and similar plots at other times—were devised by Jewish religious fanatics, not by misplaced archaeological zeal. It is true that archaeology has to be clearly distinguished from fanaticism, but the history of archaeology in Jerusalem has from its nineteenth-century beginnings been determined to a large extent by political and religious interests; their influence has increased with time, and today they are dominant.

When serious foreign archaeology began in Palestine at the end of the Crimean War, the British investigators acting for the Palestine Exploration Fund were army officers and NCOs, soldiers who were as careless of their own safety as they were indifferent to Muslim religious susceptibilities. The officers in charge, Charles William Wilson and Charles Warren (military engineers who both became well-known generals later on in their careers), tunneled under the Haram al-Sharif between 1868 and 1870, later finding, among other things, the so-called Hasmonean Tunnel whose opening caused such a furor last autumn. The Turkish authorities seem to have had little idea of how to deal with the excavators; the Turkish prohibitions against interfering with the walls of the Haram were regularly disregarded, and the object of the British expedition was to do precisely that. Warren remarked that “gunpowder could not be used, except when we were away from all buildings, and then only for breaking up large stones which lay in our way.”3 In this, as in so many other matters, the British in Palestine set bad precedents that were followed by some of their Israeli successors. By contrast, some other British archaeologists, and some Israeli archaeologists, have behaved with discretion and sensitivity.

Holy places and their surroundings are very often treated by those who revere them as divinely owned. Not for nothing did the Crusaders refer to the Holy Land as “the patrimony of the crucified one”; they could therefore call for Christian soldiers to vindicate God’s right hand in His land. Meron Benvenisti, the city’s former deputy mayor and one of its keenest and best-informed observers, has written that when such people refuse all compromise, they do so not because they are incapable of compromise in ordinary human relations; rather, they think that in the case of Jerusalem compromise is out of the question because they are not entitled to relinquish the holy city.4 The attitudes of the Gush Emunim and of Hamas today are not dissimilar from those of the Crusaders. In this context Grabar’s lofty tone, although praiseworthy, seems naive. I suspect that few of the combatants in the bitter cultural wars of Jerusalem will read his book; but of those who do some will not believe in the evenhanded view and detachment he advocates, especially when they read that he is a former Aga Khan Professor at Harvard.

In the modern Middle East, archaeology and nationalism are virtually inseparable. Some Arab governments, notably those of Iraq and Egypt, have used archaeology not only as a tool of propaganda but to support the myths that establish modern national identity. Nasser in his role as the heir of the Pharaohs, Saddam Hussein as the new Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, were both staking out national claims, not talking vaguely about “heritage.” In Israel archaeology has been used as a vital component of national identity from the very beginning; in Jerusalem it has been especially important from 1967 onward. The most sensitive of all the Israeli national and religious symbols, the Western Wall of the Temple, on the edge of the Temple Mount, is itself an archaeological site. According to Karen Armstrong’s recent Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths, the heavily dramatized presentation of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the museum that houses them (“The Shrine of the Book”) has an “aggressive edge.” The museum has an ideological equivalent in the Museum of Islam, which has been set up on the Haram al-Sharif.

In such an atmosphere, Jerusalem archaeology has had little chance to be politically neutral. The resulting distortions usually affect the ways findings are presented rather than the findings themselves. The Hasmonean Tunnel (which probably had undramatic functions of water supply and drainage) is being carefully preserved, notwithstanding the provocative manner in which its re-opening was promoted and publicized. There are, of course, scholars who refuse to allow themselves to be influenced by nationalists—the Jerusalem scholar Myriam Rosen-Ayalon,5 a careful student of early Muslim architecture, is one whose name immediately springs to mind. More often, political and religious affiliations determine what is to be excavated and published, and what not.

Grabar’s book gives an extremely informative and finely judged analysis both of the earliest Islamic involvement in Jerusalem and of the quality and the meaning of the buildings that it produced. Unfortunately it has to be read in the bleak atmosphere of hostility and intolerance in Jerusalem, which tends to muffle rational discussion among those concerned for the unhappy city. One can only hope that the quality of its scholarship and its very tone of fairness and objectivity will gain it a hearing.

  1. 1

    E.D. Hunt, “Constantine and Jerusalem,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 48 (1997), pp. 405-424.

  2. 2

    Robert Hillenbrand, Islamic Architecture: Form, Function, and Meaning (Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 21.

  3. 3

    Charles William Wilson and Charles Warren, The Recovery of Jerusalem: A Narrative of Exploration and Discovery in the City and the Holy Land (London: Bentley, 1871), p. 67.

  4. 4

    Meron Benvenisti, City of Stone: The Hidden History of Jerusalem (University of California Press, 1996), p. 102. Karen Armstrong, in Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths (Ballantine Books, 1996), also has some lively things to say, from a slightly different point of view, about present-day Jerusalem.

  5. 5

    She has published The Early Islamic Monuments of al Haram al-Sharif: An Iconographic Study (Institute of Archeology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1989).

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