Among the defining moments of the life of the Prophet Muhammad was his fabled night-journey to Jerusalem. In the course of a single evening, Muhammad traveled from Mecca to Jerusalem, and from there to Heaven, where he subsequently spoke with Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Specifically, the tradition of the Prophet’s journey only refers to his visit to ‘the Temple’, which Muslims have interpreted to mean the Great Temple of Jerusalem, or what then remained of it. The Masjid Al-Aqsa next to the Dome of the Rock marks the spot where Muhammad made his ascension, and it is the centerpiece of an extensive complex of mosques and shrines that have dominated the Temple Mount since the Middle Ages. After the holy shrines of Mecca and Medina, the Masjid Al-Aqsa is universally recognized among all Muslims as the third most sacred site in Islam.
In the sixteen centuries prior to the arrival of the Muslims, Jerusalem already enjoyed the honor of being one of the world’s holiest cities, first for Jews, and later for Christians. By the 7th century it was Islam’s turn. Jerusalem was held to be a sacred site to Muslims even before they conquered the Holy Land. According to tradition, it was from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem that the Prophet Muhammad ascended to Heaven for one night and spoke with the other great Holy Prophets. In the early 600s, the armies of Islam swarmed out of the Arabian Peninsula conquering everything in their path. The armies of both Persia and Byzantium fell in quick succession, and in 638 AD Jerusalem was conquered and annexed to the rapidly expanding Islamic Caliphate. Interestingly, the local Jewish population welcomed the Muslims as liberators, and the two groups peacefully co-existed for many years afterwards.
The Muslims treated Jerusalem with great reverence, and made the cleansing of the Temple Mount, which had been ill-used by the Byzantines, a top priority. A few decades later, the first incarnation of the Masjid Al-Aqsa was completed. The next three hundred years was something of an interfaith golden age as Jews, Christians and Muslims alike were all permitted to enjoy the pilgrimage sites of Jerusalem. The situation changed radically in the 10th century, when Jerusalem came under the influence of a succession of new Muslim powers: first the Fatimids of Egypt, and then the Seljuk Turks. Under these new rulers the non-Muslims of Jerusalem were persecuted, and many of their holy sites systematically destroyed.
The cessation of Christian pilgrim privileges ultimately resulted in centuries of holy wars that wracked the region. Although the Christians did manage to take Jerusalem for a brief time during the 12th century, Muslim armies under Saladin eventually reconquered the city. Jerusalem and the Temple Mount subsequently remained under Muslim control until the 20th century, during which time it was an important center of Islamic life and culture. In 1516 the Ottoman Turks occupied Jerusalem. During their rule the mosque and other Muslim shrines on the Temple Mount were periodically rebuilt and renovated.
As the nations of Europe came to dominate world politics in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Ottoman’s were increasingly pressured to allow non-Muslim pilgrims and immigrants back to Jerusalem. This culminated in the Edict of Toleration in 1856. Since then, the Muslim population in and around Jerusalem has slowly been losing ground to other groups. This process accelerated after the 1948 war, and the city was lost to Muslim control altogether after the 1967 war. Jerusalem has since been a central focal point of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Today, an uneasy truce allows Muslims to continue to visit the Dome of the Rock, even as Jews pray fervently mere yards away on the other side of the Western Wall.
The spectacular, gold-crowned Dome of the Rock is commonly mistaken as the sole and primary Islamic shrine on top of the Temple Mount. However, it is only the most visible part of a large complex, which includes The Dome of the Rock, the Dome of the Chain, the Masjid Al-Aqsa and other buildings. Technically speaking, it is the Masjid Al-Aqsa which is Jerusalem’s chief Muslim pilgrimage destination and the third holiest site in the Islamic world. According to tradition, at marks the spot from which Muhammad made his ascent to Heaven. The Al Aqsa Mosque has been frequently repaired over the years do to damage from earthquakes, fires and the like. The mosque is topped by a silver dome that would be quite impressive on its own if it were not so overshadowed by its golden-topped neighbor.
The most famous structure in the complex is the stunning Dome of the Rock with its massive gold-plated onion dome. The Dome of the Rock stands on the site where Muslims believe Abraham’s altar once stood, and where he almost sacrificed his son. This is also the location of the foundation where the Second Temple once stood, and the structure has better survived the ravages of time. The third shrine, the Dome of the Chain, completes the trio of must-see Islamic sites here. Legend has it that a chain once dangled from the center of the dome which could only be held by the truly righteous. The Dome of the Chain is now used as the first stop for visiting pilgrims where they could clean and prepare themselves before entering the other two more important buildings.
The Masjid Al-Aqsa, the Dome of the Rock and the Dome of the Chain tower over east side of the Old City of Jerusalem from their perch on the old Temple Mount. Unlike Islam’s other major holy sites in Mecca and Medina, the Muslim shrines on the Temple Mount are (theoretically) open to visitors of all faiths. However, access for both Muslims and non-Muslims is periodically restricted to religious and security concerns. Visitors should check in advance. In general, the Temple Mount is open Saturdays through Thursdays from 8:00am-3:00pm (extremely subject to change). The cost of admission is NIS36.00. Web: www.noblesanctuary.com (official website)
In addition to the major shrines on the Temple Mount, there is also a small Islamic Museum tucked away next to the mosque. Jerusalem is also home to a very ancient Muslim Quarter, which boasts a small but very active Islamic community. Within the Muslim Quarter are a number of minor Islamic shrines, notably the Tomb of Tashtamuriya, a 14th century Emir.