An unprecedented look inside one of Jerusalem’s holiest—and most controversial—landmarks

The Dome of the Rock, an architectural masterpiece and Islam’s third most sacred site, is revealing its secrets to scholars who were granted groundbreaking access.

Crowning Jerusalem’s sacred mount, the Dome of the Rock is a place of both prayer and protest. Extensive restoration and archaeological research are uncovering fresh clues to the shrine’s origins.

“Any viewer’s tongue will grow shorter trying to describe it,” marveled the inveterate traveler Ibn Battuta while visiting Jerusalem in 1326. “This is one of the most fantastic of all buildings, of the most perfect in architecture and strangest in shape.” 

For more than 13 centuries, the Dome of the Rock has been the jewel in the crown of Jerusalem’s sacred acropolis, a sprawling area known to Jews and Christians as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Haram al Sharif—the Noble Sanctuary. As Islam’s oldest building, the dome ranks with the neighboring Church of the Holy Sepulchre in spiritual importance and the Taj Mahal in grace. Simple geometry dressed in sumptuous materials gives this iconic structure a timeless appeal.

One chilly winter morning, the shrine slowly fills with women in long coats and hijabs. They sit on the plush red-and-gold carpet, alone in contemplation or in small groups to study the Quran. While men flock to the much larger Al Aqsa Mosque a hundred yards to the south, this tranquil space is mostly the domain of Muslim women and children.

Sireen Karim, a middle-age kindergarten teacher dressed in black, gestures at the mass of stone that dominates the center of the building. 

“This is where Muhammad, peace be upon him, ascended to heaven to meet all the prophets, and where he came back with the message to pray five times a day,” she says. “It also healed his sadness. And this is where we come to cure our grief and ease a troubled state of mind.”

The sacred slab is the color of moon rock, its coarse and pitted surface contrasting sharply with the splendor surrounding it. Two concentric rings of marble and porphyry columns and piers encircle it, supporting a dome laced with fantastically intricate shapes. The walls carry flowing Arabic inscriptions, as well as one of the world’s largest collections of medieval mosaics. From below, these tiny glass-cubed pixels resolve into lush palms, ripe grapes, and a fortune in diadems and necklaces. An occasional pigeon flies through one of the four open doors, whirring in circles within the round expanse.

A narrow set of worn marble steps leads beneath the rock to a rough-hewn grotto called the Well of Souls. A Muslim tradition asserts the waters of paradise flow under the cave, while some Christians and Jews have long imagined that the space conceals a secret passage filled with valuable artifacts.

In 1911 European treasure hunters bribed their way inside and hacked away at the cave floor in vain hope of finding the famed Ark of the Covenant. Their desecration sparked weeks of angry rioting. Seventy years later, senior Israeli rabbis bored a hole at the base of the Western Wall and tunneled their way east to try to locate the sacred object. The illicit search yielded nothing but a brief scuffle between rabbinical students and Muslim guards and fears of a regional conflict.

The Dome of the Rock has miraculously survived looters, earthquakes, religious strife, bloody invasions, and more prosaic threats like pigeon droppings clogging its drainpipes, sending rainwater trickling into the walls. Its striking image adorns coffee mugs, tea towels, and screensavers, and framed pictures of its dome hang in mosques, living rooms, and public buildings around the world.

“Almost two billion people are connected to this place,” says Sheikh Omar Kiswani, director of the 36-acre religious complex, as we stand on the sunlit stone platform that supports the dome like the setting of a jewel. “When the Prophet Muhammad descended from heaven, by God’s wish, all the prophets gathered here to pray,” says the bearded cleric, sweeping his arms to take in the paths, gardens, courtyards, and buildings that are considered a single vast mosque. “That’s why praying here is equal to 500 prayers elsewhere.”

Today the Dome of the Rock also stands at the center of one of the world’s thorniest geopolitical disputes, and its golden vault is a frequent backdrop to violent confrontations between Palestinian worshippers and Israeli police. 

(Jerusalem's sacred sites are a combustible mix of religion and politics)

“Any church or synagogue in the Holy Land is a place of peace,” says Kiswani, sighing. “Only here is it a war zone.”

Muslims extol the shrine as Islam’s most important site after Mecca and Medina, while Palestinians honor it as the cherished symbol of their nation. For many religious Jews, however, the structure is an abomination fated to be destroyed to make way for a new Jewish temple. Some evangelical Christians also insist it must be replaced by a new temple to set in motion the return of Jesus Christ. Such a volatile mix of beliefs sends shudders through politicians across the region, who fear any attempt to raze it would result in a catastrophic war. 

Yet while the Taj Mahal and the Holy Sepulchre have clear origins as tombs for famous people, the reason for the dome’s construction is a source of contention and uncertainty. 

“We have to strip away the politics imposed on the building, like peeling an onion, to understand why and how it was built,” says Beatrice St. Laurent, an American art historian who studied the site for 30 years with her Palestinian colleague, Isam Awwad, who passed away in 2018. Their results provide an intriguing new take on the mysterious old shrine and the visionary Muslim leader who might have built it.

Six centuries after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its Jewish Temple complex, the acropolis lay in ruins. For Byzantine Christians, this desolation was proof that their faith had triumphed over Judaism. A Muslim army took control of Christianity’s holiest city without a fight just a few years after Muhammad’s death in Medina in A.D. 632. When the new rulers sought to establish their own place of worship in Jerusalem, the choice was obvious.

One tale has it that Muhammad’s father-in-law, Umar, personally cleared away filth and debris to expose the sacred outcrop. It would be several decades before a building rose over that chunk of revered bedrock. According to early sources, the architects were two Jerusalem residents: a Muslim theologian named Raja ibn Haywa, and a Christian named Yazid ibn Salam. 

Dissecting the Dome of the Rock’s centuries of history

They didn’t have to look far for inspiration. The fourth-century Holy Sepulchre, with its massive rotunda over what Christians believe is the tomb of Jesus, lay within sight. And eight-sided churches—a shape with roots in ancient Rome—stood at Caesarea on the nearby Mediterranean coast and along the Sea of Galilee.

In 1992 construction workers expanding the highway from Jerusalem to Bethlehem encountered the ruins of another octagonal building. Rina Avner of the Israel Antiquities Authority led the subsequent excavation in an olive grove next to a gas station. She determined it was the long-lost Church of the Kathisma, or the Seat of Mary. Built in A.D. 456, the church’s inner and outer rings surround a sofa-size rock said to be where Mary, pregnant with Jesus, rested on her way to Bethlehem. Avner believes the church, which became a popular pilgrimage site for early Muslims, served as a model for the Dome of the Rock three miles to the north. “This was a time when Christian holy places could still be shared,” she says, “and their lore and beliefs carried over into Islam.”

Yet the Dome of the Rock is not simply a grander copy of a Christian sanctuary. Instead of the austere facade of most Byzantine churches, the shrine’s original exterior was sheathed in glass mosaics that blazed in the Jerusalem sun. The building’s four doors that open to the cardinal points also have no obvious precedent in the region. 

Domed palaces with four entrances and churches with exterior mosaics did exist more than a thousand miles to the south in the wealthy kingdom of Saba in southwest Arabia, according to St. Laurent, a Harvard-trained art historian, and Awwad, the longtime chief architect and conservator of the Noble Sanctuary. They also point out that the intricate mosaics show influence from the Sasanian Empire to the east in what is today Iraq and Iran.

The crowns that form a motif recall royal headgear captured from the Sasanian monarch by Islamic forces. These influences suggest that Muslim rulers brought artisans from distant places to Jerusalem. The builders also gathered stones and columns from Jerusalem’s Jewish, Roman, and Byzantine ruins to incorporate into the structure. The result was a remarkable synthesis of traditions from the far ends of the fast-expanding Islamic empire.

Once completed, the dome became for a time the scene of elaborate rituals. Early chroniclers record attendants dressed in costly robes, anointing the rock with a golden oil made of saffron, musk, and ambergris. Others spread incense into the air with censers, the smoke spreading into the city as a sweet-smelling call to prayer and drawing pilgrims and shopkeepers to circle the stone, a practice that may have its roots in pre-Islamic Arabian traditions.

But why did Muslim leaders pour so much time, effort, and money into this richly ornamented shrine? For today’s believers such as Karim and Kiswani, it celebrates the Prophet’s mystical journey into the skies. There is, however, no mention of that association in the few texts that are contemporary with the dome’s construction. 

Some argue that the new Umayyad dynasty, established in 661, sought to bolster Jerusalem’s prestige at the expense of Mecca, the power center of its political foes. The Dome of the Rock, according to this thinking, was designed to rival the Kaaba, a sanctuary centered on a sacred stone that Muslim pilgrims circle. Others insist that the dome asserted Islam’s presence in what was then an overwhelmingly Christian city; they note its cupola is almost identical in size to the Holy Sepulchre’s largest dome.

What is certain is that the building pays homage to the piece of bedrock at its heart. Along with the story of Muhammad’s mystical ascension, there are claims it marks the spot where Adam was created, where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac, and where the dead will be judged at the end of time. Some say it is the site of the holiest part of the vanished Jewish sanctuaries. The Quran mentions Solomon, and the Umayyad rulers may have chosen to honor a stone many associated with that famously wise king. When Crusaders from Europe conquered Jerusalem after a ferocious fight in 1099, they mistook the dome for Solomon’s temple and made it a church.

Until recently, the primary evidence for pinpointing the dome’s date of construction and its principal patron was an inscription on one of the building’s arcades. The mosaic lettering records the year 691 and probably the name of Umayyad caliph Abd al Malik, who reigned then, though his name was replaced by a later ruler eager to take credit. Abd al Malik has therefore long been presumed to be the building’s founder, with the date marking either the start or end of construction.

But a golden opportunity—quite literally—to gather fresh clues came in the early 1990s when the dome was in desperate need of repairs following a botched renovation by an Egyptian team in the 1960s. Though Israel controls security on the acropolis, the king of Jordan remains custodian of the holy site. King Hussein sold his London home to raise $8.2 million to purchase 176 pounds of 24-karat gold plating to gild the exterior dome. Workers also removed modern aluminum and concrete repairs and replaced them with traditional materials, including mahogany beams and lead sheets.

Awwad managed the ’90s restoration and allowed St. Laurent to document the process. Seizing this rare chance, the two scholars probed the building from foundation to finial, crawling among the rafters, scrutinizing more than a thousand old photographs, and locating discarded materials from earlier renovations. 

One of their most intriguing finds is that the famous inscription was placed over earlier mosaics. Based on this and other evidence, St. Laurent and Awwad argue that the building’s first benefactor was Abd al Malik’s predecessor, the controversial founder of the Umayyad dynasty named Muawiya. A merchant’s son who became one of Muhammad’s scribes, Muawiya was a “brilliant and wily opportunist,” according to one Islamic historian. He became governor of Syria, a region that included Jerusalem, as strife broke out among contending leaders of the nascent empire. The traumatic conflict split the Muslim community between what came to be known as Sunnis and Shiites. 

After his rival was assassinated in 661, Muawiya embarked on a monumental building program, including repairing the walls and gates of the Noble Sanctuary. St. Laurent and Awwad contend that the Dome of the Rock was part of that massive project, and it was designed as a seat of royal power as well as for religious purposes. “It looks just like the crowns in its mosaics,” St. Laurent notes of the building’s distinct geometric shape and bejeweled exterior. 

Their most controversial claim is that the shrine was open not only to Muslims but also to Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians during what St. Laurent calls “a period of inclusivity.” As commander of the faithful, Muawiya asserted his role as leader of all the monotheistic faiths. That the city’s new Islamic rulers allowed Jews to return and permitted Christian worship is well attested in contemporary documents, supporting the idea of a fleeting era of something more than simple religious tolerance. Seen this way, says St. Laurent, the dome was the diadem in “Muawiya’s vision of unity.”

Such harmony is elusive in the modern Holy City. In 1984, encouraged by an extremist mentor, Yehuda Etzion gathered 660 pounds of stolen dynamite and a handful of other ultranationalist Jews. Their goal was to blow up the dome. 

“It was necessary,” Etzion explains calmly when I visit his home inside a well-guarded West Bank settlement. “This was the only way to build the third temple.” Many Jews believe the dome stands on the site of the two previous temples. An informant tipped off police before the group could act, and Etzion spent five years in prison for conspiracy to commit a crime.

Other attacks were more successful. In 1982 an Israeli army recruit from Baltimore went on a shooting rampage in the shrine, killing two and seriously wounding several others. The Jerusalem waqf, the Islamic foundation that oversees the acropolis, claims there have been dozens of attempts by Jewish extremists to damage or destroy the building.

Etzion now insists that the dome’s demolition should come only with the agreement of the waqf, a highly dubious scenario. But his vision has moved from fringe to mainstream. Jewish religious and political leaders who in the past avoided any talk of removing the shrine now openly speak about constructing a third Jewish temple. In the meantime, a growing number of religious Jews demand the right to pray on the platform long reserved only for Muslim worship—an Israeli policy designed to prevent friction between adherents of the two faiths.

In recent years these Jews have tested the limits of that restriction, roaming the grounds in groups protected by Israeli police. A new right-wing Israeli government includes several ministers eager to allow Jewish prayer on the acropolis, heightening tensions.

In April of this year police stormed the Al Aqsa Mosque twice during Ramadan, smashing doors and windows, firing rubber bullets, and injuring 12 people. Police claimed they quelled rioters armed with fireworks who had barricaded themselves in the building, but their actions were denounced by Arab nations and Muslims around the world.

Far less media coverage attends another, quieter, crisis. In 2016 Hussein’s son and successor, King Abdullah II, launched a multimillion-dollar project to address major problems plaguing the Dome of the Rock’s interior, including buckling mosaics, flaking plaster, and rotting wood. Much of the damage came from the leaky 1960s roof or seeped into the walls when the 48 original waterspouts clogged with pigeon dung.

Progress has been slow. Jordanian and Al Aqsa officials blame Israeli police, who control anyone and anything entering the gates. 

“They interfere with everything we do!” exclaims Bassam al Hallaq, head of the site’s restoration department, as we stand beside the low wooden rail surrounding the rock. “Every day I have a problem.” He jabs his finger at an area where the brown paint has worn off. “I want to paint this exactly the same color, but I can’t get permission.”

When Al Hallaq attempted to replace a fallen tile in 2019, he was handcuffed and held at a police station for more than six hours. Israeli police declined to comment on his allegations, but given hardening relations between Jerusalem’s Jews and Muslims, the difficulties of repairing and maintaining the ancient structure are likely to worsen.

As sunlight spills over the Mount of Olives shortly after dawn, Hanady Halawani meets me outside one of the acropolis gates. Small and thin, Halawani is part of a movement to make the dome a center for teaching the Quran to Palestinian women. “We started with 50 students and seven teachers,” she says. “Now we have 17 teachers and 650 students—and that is only the women’s project!” For Halawani, religious learning and political activism are intertwined. “Al Aqsa is a place of worship, and our presence there protects it from the occupiers.”

Israeli officials, suspicious of her organizing efforts, have repeatedly banned her from entering the sacred site, which is why we meet outside the compound. Halawani claims to have been arrested 67 times and says she has done 13 stints in prison, including three in solitary confinement. As we speak, she glances nervously at the armed Israeli police officers who pass by. 

In recent decades the dome has emerged as a potent “national as well as a religious symbol” for Palestinians, explains Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh. In his book-strewn office north of the Old City, he says the dome retains its power as a place “where heaven and earth are tied together.” But he worries that the mixture of politics and faith on both sides is growing ever more volatile. “People are getting more religious,” he says. Meanwhile, political extremists also are on the rise. “It is a scary future to think about.” 

When I return to the compound, two dozen religious Jews shepherded by armed Israeli police are circling the perimeter, some bowing and touching their foreheads in signs of prayer. I remove my shoes and enter the dome, encountering Fatah Kayem and his two sons, Ibrahim and Muhammad, as they stroll through the peaceful space. 

“It is sacred because this is where the Prophet came,” the 51-year-old accountant tells me. “And we also say it is at the heart of the capital of the Palestinian state. We come here to pray that God removes all injustices.”

As he speaks, two pigeons flutter furiously in the cavernous space, looking for a way out. Below, the rock stands as mute witness to a tumultuous past as well as an uncertain future. 

Writer Andrew Lawler is the author of Under Jerusalem: The Buried History of the World’s Most Contested City. Photojournalist Ziyah Gafić focuses on Muslim communities around the world.

This story appears in the September 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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