Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
Fax: (401) 863-9423
Constructed between 685-691 CE under the Umayyad Caliph 'Abd al-Malik bin Marwan, the Dome of the Rock is the earliest Umayyad monument, as well as the oldest Islamic structure to survive intact to the modern period. The building is a shrine, and not a mosque. It is located on the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) of Jerusalem, beside the al-Aqsa Mosque, whose first form had been built by the Caliph 'Umar. The Dome of the Rock's design and dimensions reflect architectural language borrowed from Christian and Byzantine prototypes (such as the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the form of the maryriums). The octagonal building is decorated both internally and externally with Arabic inscriptions that reaffirm the Shahada and Tawhid. This is the first instance of monumental Islamic inscription.
There is no accepted tradition explaining the building's construction. Some theorize that it may have been an attempt by 'Abd al-Malik to create a new Haram at Jerusalem as Ibn al-Zubayr had seized the Ka'ba at Mecca, removing it from Umayyad control. However, this seems unlikely as not only is this explanation entirely absent from the historical record, but it also would have been a religiously dangerous move for the Caliph to openly violate the Hajj, one of the clear tenets of the faith, less than seventy years after the Prophet's death. It also would fail to explain the continued Umayyad interest (e.g. al-Hajjaj's reconstruction) in the Ka'ba following its retaking if the Dome of the Rock was supposed to absorb its ritual significance. Others have posited that it commemorates the Isra' (Night Journey) of the Prophet in Sura 17. The Dome of the Rock then would be at the site where the Prophet's Mi'raj (Ascension into heaven) occurred. However, not only do many Qur'anic scholars not accept Jerusalem as the correct or necessary interpretation for the destination of the Isra', but a smaller shrine was later built on the Haram al-Sharif commemorating the Mi'raj, suggesting that the larger, earlier shrine was not fulfilling this role. It has also been understood as an Umayyad attempt while Islamizing Jerusalem to articulate and affirm their role within the religion by creating a dynastic shrine. The reason(s) for the construction of the Dome of the Rock will probably remain elusive however due to the lack of evidence and information concerning the ritual use of the space, making it difficult to discern its function.