ART / ARCHITECTURE

How the Umayyad Caliphate Shaped Jerusalem Through Art and Architecture

by Mikaela Maalouf

The city of Jerusalem was founded around the year 3000 BC. While the city has been ruled over by numerous dynasties of various cultures and faiths, many of the important changes made to the physical layout of Jerusalem, and many of the Islamic structures still standing in the city today, were constructed under the Umayyad Caliphate (which lasted from 661 until 750 AD). As said by French historian, Oleg Grabar:

“A number of stories from [both] Christian and Muslim sources associate Jerusalem with Umayyad imperial ambitions […], expressions of authority, and power. (Grabar, Oleg, et al; 1996)”

Such expressions could often be seen through the construction of waqfs – waqfs are endowments made by usually somewhat wealthy Muslims to a religious, educational, or charitable cause, without the intention of reclaiming the asset at any point down the line. Here, we will look at three highly significant waqfs established under the caliphate in Jerusalem (The Dome of the Rock, Dome of the Chain, and al-Aqsa Mosque); as well as how the artwork the Umayyads made in conjunction with these edifices gave artistic significance to the city, and the significance of the location of each structure. Through this, we will take a virtual walk through the Umayyad monuments, and discover how the caliphate shaped the city of Jerusalem into an architecturally and artistically unique city.

Haram al-Sharif: Brief Overview

When visitors step into the old city of Jerusalem, they will undoubtedly encounter the magnificent architectural work of the Umayyad caliphate. Entering through the ornate and beautiful Golden Gate of the Haram al-Sharif (also referred to as Mount Moriah), visitors will be led on to the Dome of the Rock (a shrine) and the Dome of the Chain (a prayer house). Venturing further towards the Western Wall and Mughrabi Gate, they will encounter the al-Aqsa Mosque. All three of these structures were built under the caliphs of the Umayyad dynasty, and all three of them were established as waqfs. The Umayyads architectural power in Jerusalem was largely defined by these large-scale waqfs, and they characterized the Umayyads architectural legacy on Jerusalem. Discussed in the sections below, through the Dome of the Rock, the al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Dome of the Chain, visitors will be able to see how the Haram al-Sharif became the canvas on which the Umayyads displayed their architectural and artistic prowess. 

The Dome of the Rock: Architecture, Art, and Significance

Arguably the most well known of the three waqfs, the Dome of the Rock (on which construction began in 688 AD, under the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik) greatly displayed the Umayyads strength in physical manifestation. It also became one of the defining features of Jerusalem’s skyline, which emphasized the Umayyads dedication to Islam and architecture. Approaching the building, visitors will notice its grandeur and unique design. Laid on a clean, off-white patch of ground, surrounded externally by lush trees, the golden dome rises far up as a brilliant mark against a usually blue sky. The architectural rarity of the Dome of the Rock lies in the fact that much of its foundational structure is reflective of Byzantine architecture – however, the final structure emerged as distinctly Islamic in style, culminating in a beautiful ideation of traditional and unique/emerging constructions. With an octagonal base, the 20 meter diameter domed structure (symbolizing the vault of heaven, which is reflected as well in the other Umayyad structures adorning domes) was not only one of the first Islamic structures built, but to this day is a feat to behold.

Moving from admiring the architecture of the Dome of the Rock, visitors can begin to take in the Umayyads artistic works within the structure. Within the Dome of the Rock, they will witness that architecture and art are often interchangeable and interwoven. Designed interiorly with detailed tiles, the dome itself is one of this waqfs greatest pieces of art. Additionally, the columns lined around the interior of the dome were set in place not only in a geometrically even way, creating several small arches, but were also built using fine marble, colorful tiles, and jewels to form mosaics (see pictures to the right). Observing the intricate works of artistic expression, visitors will notice that these elaborate mosaics were often crafted with verses from the Quran, bringing together art (in the form of geometric spatiality and tile mosaics) and religion. The joining of these two elements is quite common in the Umayyad art produced in Jerusalem, especially within the structures established on the Haram al-Sharif. Examples of this type of artwork inside the Dome of the Rock can be seen scattered above many of the arches within the interior of the shrine.

While historians are unsure what the original purpose of the building the Dome of the Rock served, the physical placement of the structure is an important location to Muslims, Jews, and Christians. The Dome of the Rock protects the foundation stone, which is the place on which very important figures and prophets in all three religions are said to have made sacrifices (such as Adam, Noah, Abraham). For the Muslim community, it holds deep significance because it is the location where the Prophet Mohammad -as the Islamic historians indicate- landed there during his night journey from Mecca to  Jerusalem,and eventually proceeded to continue his journey to heaven to gather with “Allah” and the other prophets. Additionally, it is believed that this is where the resurrection trumpet will sound, marking the end of the world. Claim to the location has been contested for centuries, and today, aside from having religious and historic significance, it is a location of great political strife. Nonetheless, this grand building serves as one of the best examples of the Umayyads’ skilled work in the fields of architecture and art.

The Dome of the Chain: Architecture, Art, and Significance

The Dome of the Chain, (on which construction began in 691 AD, by Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik), is the third largest waqf situated on the Haram al-Sharif. Directly in front of the Dome of the Rock, the Dome of the Chain appears miniscule (see photo to the right). As it has an open facade, visitors will be able to walk in and out of the arches made by the domed ceiling and several beautifully detailed columns. Architecturally, the Dome of the Chain is extremely similar to the Dome of the Rock; both were made in a circular form, and both have domes situated on the top middle of the structure. However, artistically, it stands alone.

Moving into the open concept Dome of the Chain, visitors will again notice how similar it is to the Dome of the Rock. However, they will also see that its brilliant mosaics and internal art is unique to themselves. The tiled ceiling of the Dome of the Chain not only shows beautiful, colorful, and handcrafted designs, but contains several geometric shapes that hold significance within Islam, including circles, complex patterns (which point to the infinite nature of the Almighty), and repeating patterns which, “…demonstrate[s] that in the small you can find the infinite … a single element of the pattern implies the infinite total. (Hussain, Zarah; 2006)”

Like the Dome of the Rock, historians are unsure for what purpose this structure was originally built. Some believe that the Umayyads constructed it in part to further Islamicize the city, by reminding the people that judgment day will begin in Jerusalem. Today, it gives visitors a place of rest, to take in the Haram al-Sharif,  and to spend time in holy meditation. Its physical location marks the exact center of the Haram, and its open concept allows viewers to peacefully observe the courtyard. Under the crusaders, the Dome of the Chain became a Christian chapple, but was restored by the Ayyubids and has served as an Islamic holy site since. The Dome of the Chain is yet another prime example of Umayyad architecture that has stood the test of time, on the Haram al-Sharif.

The al-Aqsa Mosque: Architecture, Art, and Significance

Finally, situated a bit apart from the Dome of the Rock and Dome of the Chain, the Al-Aqsa Mosque (on which construction began under the Rashidun Caliphate, but was both finished and expanded under the Umayyads; with it finally being opened in 705 AD), is a large mosque, covering over 35,000 square meters of land. Graber states that, “[Caliph] Abd al-Malik wished to transform the simple mosque built several decades earlier, because it was too small, [and] because it no longer carried the new message his Jerusalem was supposed to convey…(Grabar, Oleg, et al; 1996)” The Mosque was built to face the qiblah (referring to the direction of the Kaaba, the sacred building in Mecca), and is visited by many, as it is the third holiest location in Islam. Arriving at the mosque, visitors will notice that the sandy coloured  building was constructed as a “…hypostyle hall of columns (Grabar, Oleg, et al; 1996)” between which are spaces for prayer. Like the Dome of the Rock, al-Aqsa Mosque adorns a dome, which portrays a symbolic vault of heaven.

Within the al-Aqsa Mosque, visitors will see that its internal artwork consists of mosaics that line the mosque’s wall, and reflect the pattern of largely detailed geometrical patterns and quranic inscriptions. Unfortunately, the interior of the al-Aqsa Mosque has needed much restoration, meaning that little of the original Umayyad artwork within it is left. However, many of the restorations have attempted to replicate these original pieces. 

This mosque is said to be the second oldest mosque built on earth, built just 40 years after the Masjid al-Haram (mosque in Mecca). Historically, because of its grandeur and geographic significance, the mosque became the center point of religion for the city, allowing for Jerusalem to arise as the religious and social heart of the region. Through the construction of this waqfs in particular, the Umayyad Caliphate secured the city as one of tremendous significance, and drew thousands of pilgrims to it each year, solidifying the Islamization of the city as a whole.

In all, after touring the Haram al-Sharif, visitors can see that the Umayyads and the architectural and artistic legacies that they left on Jerusalem profoundly shaped and transformed the city from a small, walled place, into the large cosmopolitan city that houses a “…dynamic composition of spirituality and culturally charged monuments. (Grabar, Oleg, et al; 1996)”. The waqfs that the Umayyads erected in Jerusalem created an image for the city that has drawn countless visitors to it, not only to worship, but to see and to take in the hugely detailed and expensive buildings that the Umayyads constructed. Additionally, the art that was made during the era of the Umayyads was expensive, detailed, and religiously oriented, demonstrating the Umayyad caliphs dedication to transforming Jerusalem into a visually significant and flourishing city, ornamented with the finest mosaics, paintings, and edifices. The combination of the waqfs established on the Haram al-Sharif and the unique and original pieces of art, have to this day left a deep rooted legacy of beauty within the city.

NAVIGATION

The city of Jerusalem was founded around the year 3000 BC. While the city has been ruled over by numerous dynasties of various cultures and faiths, many of the important changes made to the physical layout of Jerusalem, and many of the Islamic structures still standing in the city today, were constructed under the Umayyad Caliphate (which lasted from 661 until 750 AD). As said by French historian, Oleg Grabar:

“A number of stories from [both] Christian and Muslim sources associate Jerusalem with Umayyad imperial ambitions […], expressions of authority, and power. (Grabar, Oleg, et al; 1996)”

Such expressions could often be seen through the construction of waqfs waqfs are endowments made by usually somewhat wealthy Muslims to a religious, educational, or charitable cause, without the intention of reclaiming the asset at any point down the line. Here, we will look at three highly significant waqfs established under the caliphate in Jerusalem (The Dome of the Rock, Dome of the Chain, and al-Aqsa Mosque); as well as how the artwork the Umayyads made in conjunction with these edifices gave artistic significance to the city, and the significance of the location of each structure. Through this, we will take a virtual walk through the Umayyad monuments, and discover how the caliphate shaped the city of Jerusalem into an architecturally and artistically unique city.

Ammar Farhat, Intérieur avec personnages, Gouache, 1956.

Haram al-Sharif: Brief Overview

When visitors step into the old city of Jerusalem, they will undoubtedly encounter the magnificent architectural work of the Umayyad caliphate. Entering through the ornate and beautiful Golden Gate of the Haram al-Sharif (also referred to as Mount Moriah), visitors will be led on to the Dome of the Rock (a shrine) and the Dome of the Chain (a prayer house). Venturing further towards the Western Wall and Mughrabi Gate, they will encounter the al-Aqsa Mosque. All three of these structures were built under the caliphs of the Umayyad dynasty, and all three of them were established as waqfs. The Umayyads architectural power in Jerusalem was largely defined by these large-scale waqfs, and they characterized the Umayyads architectural legacy on Jerusalem. Discussed in the sections below, through the Dome of the Rock, the al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Dome of the Chain, visitors will be able to see how the Haram al-Sharif became the canvas on which the Umayyads displayed their architectural and artistic prowess. 

The Dome of the Rock: Architecture, Art, and Significance

Arguably the most well known of the three waqfs, the Dome of the Rock (on which construction began in 688 AD, under the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik) greatly displayed the Umayyads strength in physical manifestation. It also became one of the defining features of Jerusalem’s skyline, which emphasized the Umayyads dedication to Islam and architecture. Approaching the building, visitors will notice its grandeur and unique design. Laid on a clean, off-white patch of ground, surrounded externally by lush trees, the golden dome rises far up as a brilliant mark against a usually blue sky. The architectural rarity of the Dome of the Rock lies in the fact that much of its foundational structure is reflective of Byzantine architecture – however, the final structure emerged as distinctly Islamic in style, culminating in a beautiful ideation of traditional and unique/emerging constructions. With an octagonal base, the 20 meter diameter domed structure (symbolizing the vault of heaven, which is reflected as well in the other Umayyad structures adorning domes) was not only one of the first Islamic structures built, but to this day is a feat to behold.

Moving from admiring the architecture of the Dome of the Rock, visitors can begin to take in the Umayyads artistic works within the structure. Within the Dome of the Rock, they will witness that architecture and art are often interchangeable and interwoven. Designed interiorly with detailed tiles, the dome itself is one of this waqfs greatest pieces of art. Additionally, the columns lined around the interior of the dome were set in place not only in a geometrically even way, creating several small arches, but were also built using fine marble, colorful tiles, and jewels to form mosaics (see pictures to the right). Observing the intricate works of artistic expression, visitors will notice that these elaborate mosaics were often crafted with verses from the Quran, bringing together art (in the form of geometric spatiality and tile mosaics) and religion. The joining of these two elements is quite common in the Umayyad art produced in Jerusalem, especially within the structures established on the Haram al-Sharif. Examples of this type of artwork inside the Dome of the Rock can be seen scattered above many of the arches within the interior of the shrine.

While historians are unsure what the original purpose of the building the Dome of the Rock served, the physical placement of the structure is an important location to Muslims, Jews, and Christians. The Dome of the Rock protects the foundation stone, which is the place on which very important figures and prophets in all three religions are said to have made sacrifices (such as Adam, Noah, Abraham). For the Muslim community, it holds deep significance because it is the location where the Prophet Mohammad -as the Islamic historians indicate- landed there during his night journey from Mecca to  Jerusalem,and eventually proceeded to continue his journey to heaven to gather with “Allah” and the other prophets. Additionally, it is believed that this is where the resurrection trumpet will sound, marking the end of the world. Claim to the location has been contested for centuries, and today, aside from having religious and historic significance, it is a location of great political strife. Nonetheless, this grand building serves as one of the best examples of the Umayyads’ skilled work in the fields of architecture and art.

The Dome of the Chain: Architecture, Art, and Significance

The Dome of the Chain, (on which construction began in 691 AD, by Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik), is the third largest waqf situated on the Haram al-Sharif. Directly in front of the Dome of the Rock, the Dome of the Chain appears miniscule (see photo to the right). As it has an open facade, visitors will be able to walk in and out of the arches made by the domed ceiling and several beautifully detailed columns. Architecturally, the Dome of the Chain is extremely similar to the Dome of the Rock; both were made in a circular form, and both have domes situated on the top middle of the structure. However, artistically, it stands alone.

Moving into the open concepted Dome of the Chain, visitors will again notice how similar it is to the Dome of the Rock. However, they will also see that its brilliant mosaics and internal art is unique to itself. The tiled ceiling of the Dome of the Chain not only shows beautiful, colorful, and handcrafted designs, but contains several geometric shapes that hold significance within Islam, including: circles, complex patterns (which point to the infinite nature of the Almighty), and repeating patterns which, “…demonstrate[s] that in the small you can find the infinite … a single element of the pattern implies the infinite total. (Hussain, Zarah; 2006)”

Like the Dome of the Rock, historians are unsure for what purpose this structure was originally built. Some believe that the Umayyads constructed it in part to further Islamicize the city, by reminding the people that judgment day will begin in Jerusalem. Today, it gives visitors a place of rest, to take in the Haram al-Sharif,  and to spend time in holy meditation. Its physical location marks the exact center of the Haram, and its open concept allows viewers to peacefully observe the courtyard. Under the crusaders, the Dome of the Chain became a Christian chapple, but was restored by the Ayyubids and has served as an Islamic holy site since. The Dome of the Chain is yet another prime example of Umayyad architecture that has stood the test of time, on the Haram al-Sharif.

The al-Aqsa Mosque: Architecture, Art, and Significance

Finally, situated a bit apart from the Dome of the Rock and Dome of the Chain, the Al-Aqsa Mosque (on which construction began under the Rashidun Caliphate, but was both finished and expanded under the Umayyads; with it finally being opened in 705 AD), is a large mosque, covering over 35,000 square meters of land. Graber states that, “[Caliph] Abd al-Malik wished to transform the simple mosque built several decades earlier, because it was too small, [and] because it no longer carried the new message his Jerusalem was supposed to convey…(Grabar, Oleg, et al; 1996)” The Mosque was built to face the qiblah (referring to the direction of the Kaaba, the sacred building in Mecca), and is visited by many, as it is the third holiest location in Islam. Arriving at the mosque, visitors will notice that the sandy coloured  building was constructed as a “…hypostyle hall of columns (Grabar, Oleg, et al; 1996)” between which are spaces for prayer. Like the Dome of the Rock, al-Aqsa Mosque adorns a dome, which portrays a symbolic vault of heaven.

Within the al-Aqsa Mosque, visitors will see that its internal artwork consists of mosaics that line the mosque’s wall, and reflect the pattern of largely detailed geometrical patterns and quranic inscriptions. Unfortunately, the interior of the al-Aqsa Mosque has needed much restoration, meaning that little of the original Umayyad artwork within it is left. However, many of the restorations have attempted to replicate these original pieces. 

This mosque is said to be the second oldest mosque built on earth, built just 40 years after the Masjid al-Haram (mosque in Mecca). Historically, because of its grandeur and geographic significance, the mosque became the center point of religion for the city, allowing for Jerusalem to arise as the religious and social heart of the region. Through the construction of this waqfs in particular, the Umayyad Caliphate secured the city as one of tremendous significance, and drew thousands of pilgrims to it each year, solidifying the Islamization of the city as a whole.

In all, after touring the Haram al-Sharif, visitors can see that the Umayyads and the architectural and artistic legacies that they left on Jerusalem profoundly shaped and transformed the city from a small, walled place, into the large cosmopolitan city that houses a “…dynamic composition of spirituality and culturally charged monuments. (Grabar, Oleg, et al; 1996)”. The waqfs that the Umayyads erected in Jerusalem created an image for the city that has drawn countless visitors to it, not only to worship, but to see and to take in the hugely detailed and expensive buildings that the Umayyads constructed. Additionally, the art that was made during the era of the Umayyads was expensive, detailed, and religiously oriented, demonstrating the Umayyad caliphs dedication to transforming Jerusalem into a visually significant and flourishing city, ornamented with the finest mosaics, paintings, and edifices. The combination of the waqfs established on the Haram al-Sharif and the unique and original pieces of art, have to this day left a deep rooted legacy of beauty within the city.