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.

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 …

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