Notes on the Dome of the Rock – Part 1: Initial Thoughts

The Dome of the Rock has always been present in my mind, at least since I began to be interested in the three Abrahamic religions, beyond seeing Judaism and Islam as two adversaries to my, then, Christian faith. Before that the structure mostly appeared as a curious background image to the stories about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which every now and then would appear on television, whenever some new dramatic event had happened there.

Dome of the Rock seen from the south through the arches leading into the plateau
Dome of the Rock seen from the south through the arches leading into the plateau
Dramatic photo of the southern entrance to the Dome of the Rock
The southern entrance to the Dome of the Rock

The structure became more tangible in the period, when I began to question my Christian faith, and I began to delve into my preliminary studies of Judaism and Islam. On the one hand being a building placed on the place of the Holy of Holies, that is, where the Temple had stood and should be rebuilt again. On the other hand it would signify the place, where the final messenger would step up to heaven, after having traveled to Jerusalem from Mecca on his winged steed.
The former would eventually become the stronger feeling, most likely both because my already existing familiarity with the Jerusalem of the New Testament, as well as my growing conviction that Judaism was where I would find myself. I never hated the Dome of the Rock though, nor what it necessarily represented for Muslims. Not even when I clashed with it as a symbol for the Palestinian struggle, in my years as a convinced Zionist. I always admired the building and its beauty, and I still am.

It is interesting that the Dome of the Rock, more than the Aqsa Mosque, catched my attention. Not that there’s anything weird about it, this seems to be the case for most non-Muslims all over the world. The Dome is obviously more visible, with its vibrant colors and golden dome, whereas the mosque is rather monothome – at least from the outside. For the non-Muslim – and I need to emphasize the “non” in non-Muslim – the Aqsa Mosque can seem as if it’s supposed to be the lesser of the two buildings, being placed to the south of the Temple Mount, with the Dome of the Rock in the center, and not being particularly colorful, whereas the Dome of the Rock has its beautiful blue and golden color, not to talk about the amazing mosaics which adorn it, themselves in all kind of colors and forms. And for Christians and Jews, it is the place, where the Dome of the Rock is placed, which is of importance, where the Temple stood, where the sacrifices were done, where God, according to the tradition, would have His “resting place”.

The Dome of the Rock seen from the Eastern side of the plateau
The Dome of the Rock seen from the Eastern side of the plateau

Until this point my approach to the Dome of the Rock was mostly based on a mix of religious awe of the place, and admiration of beauty of the building. This would change during the course of my Graduate studies. The program was Religious Studies, the focus was the compared religious history of the three Abrahamic religions in the Holy Land, as well as the comparative study of religious law in Judaism and Islam. The former offered me courses on religious expressions and architecture, where I soon became enamored by Islamic architecture, with the focus of the crucial importance of the details in the wholeness of the architectural composition. Once again the Dome of the Rock stood out, not quite being the product of Islamic architectural tradition – which obviously was in its infancy when it was built. Rather it was heavily inspired by Byzantine architectural tradition, with its dome and octogon shape, built rather for circumvention, than it was for directing prayer in a specific direction. The message of the Dome of the Rock was clear though, Islam is the truth, Jesus was never what the Christians claimed he was, and Islam – not Christianity – is the dominant religion.

Of course, with the conflict of national narratives, rather than the religious ones – though they definitely are intertwined, and the changing of Christianity with Judaism, today the Dome of the Rock stands as a symbol of the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli occupation of what Palestinians – and their supporters – consider the Palestinian homeland. And for some Zionist groups this seemed to be an agreed upon symbolism of the Dome of the Rock, having them want to remove it, in order to rebuild the Jewish Temple. And as it has been for a little more than 1300 years, the Dome of the Rock thrones over Jerusalem, waiting for the final decision.

The front facade of the Dome of the Rock's southern side
The front facade of the Dome of the Rock’s southern side

Some final notes:

I feel it important to share my own feelings about the Dome of the Rock, and a clarification of a couple of statements I’ve made above.

First, I admire the Dome of the Rock, and I’m saddened by those, who wish to destroy it, even if I understand where they are coming from. Even when I still was religious, I believed that this was a decision to be made by God, if ever He wanted to make one. For me, turning the Dome of the Rock into a question about national narratives is based in egos. I see it as a monument of history, testifying to the progress of Jerusalem, talking not only about Islamic Jerusalem, but the Jerusalem that has been even before then. I will be talking more about that in later notes about the Dome of the Rock.

Regarding Zionism. I won’t call myself an anti-Zionist, but I’m definitely not a Zionist anymore, and I don’t believe in the merits of Zionism of today. But when I write this, then it’s important to point out that that’s a feeling I hold for all nationalist expressions, whether Jewish, Palestinian, American, or something fourth. While I won’t make the claim that there never was a room for nationalism in the past, today I see nationalism more as a problem than a solution. I generally don’t accept nationalist narratives, since their sole purpose is self-centered, insisting on one group being heard, while another being ignored. Our planet does not need groups insisting on each their own importance placed before other groups, if the other groups are even acknowledged.

Finally, I talk about myself as not being religious. I’m not. That doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in a Higher Being, or that I’m not following religious traditions. I am. I will probably talk about my conversion another time, but for now all that needs to be said, is that I was very religious, both as a Christian and later as a Jew – and yes, my conversion – for all those this might be important for – was Orthodox and approved by halachic authorities. And I haven’t given up on my vows. I do however see things differently than the Jewish Orthodox establishment, and that’s what I will end this with.

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August 4, 2020