Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies
Bar-Ilan University Ramat-Gan, Israel

Jerusalem: Life Throughout the Ages in a Holy City

Internet Educational Activities <sglick@iea.org.il>
March 1997
Yisrael Shalem     8/12

The Early Arab Period - 638-1099

Introduction - Jerusalem's Significance to Islam

While Jerusalem was changing hands between Byzantine and Christian rulers, the prophet Mohammed was forming a new religion in the Arabian Peninsula - Islam. Mohammed and his early followers knew of the sanctity of Jerusalem and maintained a theoretical closeness to Judaism. During Islam's early years the qibla (direction of prayer) was north towards Jerusalem, only later during Mohammed's stay in Medina did begin to face Mecca (south) instead.

Another source of Jerusalem's significance to Islam is a story in the Koran, known as the "Night Journey of Mohammed". In this story, Mohammed is transported by night on a white, winged steed, named al-Buraq, from the Great Mosque in Mecca to the "Furthest Mosque" (in Arabic - Al Aqsa). After praying in cave beneath the nearby "Foundation Stone", the Prophet continued on to heaven, before returning to Mecca the same night. Despite the fact that in the Koran the site of the "Furthest Mosque" is never mentioned and that other cities, such as Kufa, were initially identified with this event, by the late seventh century the connection between Jerusalem and the "Night Journey of Mohammed" was firmly entrenched in Islamic tradition. This story was to become the raison d'etre for Islam's two most important shrines in Jerusalem, the Al Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock, and the driving force behind Moslem ambitions to rule the city to this day.

The Moslem Conquest of Jerusalem

In 638, following a protracted siege, the residents of Jerusalem surrendered to the Caliph Omar ibn Khattib. Accounts of the actual surrender vary, but both Christian and Moslem sources describe Omar entering the city dressed in a simple camel hair cloak and presenting its residents with a letter of protection. In this letter they were guaranteed protection for person and property under the condition they pay a tax, (levied as form of humiliation on "protected" minorities), known as Jiziya. The early Arab historian Tabari claims that the original letter of protection included a prohibition on Jewish residence in Jerusalem, however this seems unlikely given that other sources mention Omar seeking Jewish advice on matters dealing with Jerusalem.

The Temple Mount Transformed

Omar recognized the sanctity of the Temple Mount, perhaps at the behest of his Jewish advisors, Shortly after his arrival in Jerusalem he cleared the site of refuse, apparently with the aid of Jewish workers, where they came from is uncertain, and planned to erect a large mosque at its southern end. Among Omar's close advisors was a converted Jew named Ka'ab El Akhbar. Ka'ab proposed that the mosque be erected on the northern side of the Temple Mount so that worshipers could face both the Foundation Stone and Mecca simultaneously. Omar rejected the proposal as an attempt at "Judaizing" Islam and the Mosque was subsequently built in the south, where the present-day El Aqsa stands, an effectively forcing worshipers to, literally, turn their backs to the Jewish holy place. From this it may be deduced that Moslems hadn't yet associated Jerusalem and the Foundation Stone with the "Night Journey of Mohammed".

The Gaullic bishop Arculf , who lived in Jerusalem from 679-688, describes the new mosque as a rectangular wooden structure, built over ruins and capable of accommodating 3000 worshipers.

Several accounts from this period noted that Jews and Jewish converts to Islam participated in clearing the Temple Mount at the time of Omar. Some of these sources even mention close cooperation between these two divergent groups. This seems strange given later Jewish attitudes towards the Temple Mount and apostates. Some modern scholars regard this phenomena as a by product of messianic anticipation which was produced by the political events of the mid-seventh century.

Mecca of the North?

At the end of the seventh century the Islamic world was ruled from Damascus by the Omayad caliph Abdel Malik. At this time Abdel Malik's political rival in the Arabian peninsula, Ibn Zubayr, rebelled and took control of the important pilgrimage cities, Mecca and Medina. In order to offset the effect of the rebellion and establish an alternative pilgrimage site closer to Damascus, Abdel Malik built the Dome of the Rock over the Foundation Stone, sometimes erroneously referred to as the Mosque of Omar, connecting Jerusalem with the "Night Journey of Mohammed". The tenth century Moslem Jerusalemite historian El Muqadasi, offers an alternate reason for establishing the Dome of the Rock.. El Muqadasi claims that Abdel Malik built the shrine in order to compete in grandeur with the cities monumental churches.

The original form of the Dome of the Rock has been preserved to this day; a perfect octagon, supporting a round drum with a massive dome rising above it. The roof of the dome has been changed, materially, many times. Below it is a large wooden frame, which supports the inner plaster and wood dome from above. The inside of the dome is decorated with intricate arabesques. The outside of the structure, today covered in with glazed tiles, was decorated with an elaborate mosaic until the 16th century.

El Walid Builds Al Aqsa

Abdel Malik's son and successor, El Walid, continued monumental building on the Temple Mount. Between 705-715 he erected a "new" Al Aqsa Mosque to replace the earlier wooden structure. The new stone structure was in basilica form, reflecting the important role still played by Byzantine architecture. It consisted of a central hall, on a north-south axis, with seven colonnaded aisles extending to either side (east-west). This building was much larger than the present day Al Aqsa, which has only three colonnaded aisles to either side of its central hall. Above its southern wall stood a large dome. This massive structure (Just like today's Al Aqsa) stood above hollow vaults, known as "Solomon's Stables", which originate in the Second Temple Period. As a result of these "shaky" foundations the mosque was destroyed twice by earthquakes in 747 and 1033.

These two structures completely transformed the landscape of Jerusalem and became the most visually outstanding edifices on the eastern skyline of today's Old City.

What's in a Name?

Following the construction of the Dome of the Rock, the Temple Mount received a new name Haram Esh Sharif - the Noble Compound. The name change is peculiar given that among the various names applied to the city of Jerusalem was in the early Arab period was Beit Al Maqdis, literally 'the Temple', and clearly borrowed from the Hebrew Beit HaMiqdash. Other names for Jerusalem, which appear in the early Arab period, include iliya. Iliya probably a holdover from Aelia Capitolina, the Roman name for the city, but some Arab sources identify it with the prophet Elijah, while still others claim that it means 'house of God'. Arab sources also include the name Sahyun or Sihyun, apparently derived from the Hebrew - Zion.

According to the historian Moshe Gil the current Arabic name for Jerusalem - Al Quds, similar to the Hebrew HaQadosh - 'the Holy' began being commonly used in the 11th century and even appears in Jewish documents found in the Cairo Geniza.

The Omayad Palaces of Jerusalem

Excavations conducted by Prof. Benjamin Mazar near the south-west corner of the Temple Mount unearthed the ruins of several immense buildings from the Omayad period. This complex of buildings has alternately been designated palaces, lavish pilgrims' hospices or a combination of both. Most of these buildings were constructed around a central colonnaded court. The made ample use of massive Herodian ashlars, which were left from the destruction of the Temple Mount area by the Romans in 70 C.E. and had an internal water system which used clay pipes. (It's possible to visit these ruins in the archeological garden near Dung Gate).

It is evident from their numerous small rooms that these buildings were meant to accommodate many people. This could indicate that they were built as part of Abdel Malik's "alternate Mecca" policy and that they were intended to house pilgrims. This seems logical given their proximity to Moslem holy sites and evidence that a bridge linked the largest of these structures with the Temple Mount. It seems that the Double and Triple or Hulda Gates were open at this time and facilitated passage to Moslem shrines on the Temple Mount for people residing in this part of the city. Their grand scale and fragments of lavish decor found at the site, however, raise the possibility that they were palaces, or at the very least, not intended for common people.

Abbasid Rule - 'Off The Beaten Track'

In 747 Jerusalem was rocked by a major earthquake. Many of the city's major edifices were destroyed, including the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Omayad 'palaces' south of the Temple Mount. Three years later the city, and what was left of the Omayad dynasty, fell to the invading Abbasid armies. At this time a hadith (statement attributed to the prophet Mohammed or one of his close associates) was published stating: "Black banners (the symbol of the Abbasid dynasty will go forth from Khurasan and nothing will stop them until they are raised in Iliya". This hadith seems to indicate that Abu al Abbas, the first Abbasid caliph claimed it was his destiny to capture Jerusalem.

After the city's capture, the new rulers repaired the earthquake-damaged Al Aqsa mosque, but, otherwise, ignored the city; as evidenced by the fact that they left the large Omayad-built palace/hospices near the Temple Mount lying in ruin. During the 117 years in which they ruled the city very few Abbasid caliphs ever visited it. Islam's new ruling dynasty made their capital in Baghdad and had little interest in distant Jerusalem.

While Jerusalem was being ignored by its rulers in the East, a new emperor in the West was showing a much keener interest in the city and in the welfare of its Christian residents. Charlemagne sent a delegation to the Abbasid caliph Harun El Rashid and another to Jerusalem in an effort to obtain special status for the Latin in the city. Later he received gifts from the Patriarch of Jerusalem, including a key to the Church of the Holy Sepuchre and a banner of the city. Charlemagne went on to be ninth century Jerusalem's most prolific builder. He built several monasteries, a hospice, a market and a library.

The next 200 years would be characterized by great political instability. The country frequently changed rulers, but was mostly controlled by various Egyptian-centered dynasties, such as the Tulnids and Fatimids, although briefly by Seljuk Turks as well. During this time the plains of Palestine were often a battleground, as different armies attempted to push north or south along its Mediterranean coast. Jerusalem, in the hills to the east, was occasionally scathed, but generally ignored. In the early eleventh century there were a series of attacks on the city's Christian population and the Fatimid Caliph El Hakim destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. These attacks were to precipitate several local rebellions, as a result of which the Jewish community suffered from violent depredations. Several documents in the Cairo Geniza tell us special taxes levied on Jerusalem's impoverished Jewish community, including Karaites, and the general state of insecurity in the country, especially on the roads.

The medieval Chronicle of William of Tyre informs us that in the mid-eleventh century the Fatimid caliph Mustansir rebuilt the walls and towers of Jerusalem. The cost was to be born by the city's residents. The Christians, who were unable to bear their share of the financial burden. The Byzantine emperor Constantine IX intervened on their behalf, agreeing to pay their share of the building costs on the condition that an internal wall be built around the Christian quarter and that only Christians would reside there. Mustansir accepted this condition and even removed Moslems from this neighborhood of the city. Among the Christians who settled in Jerusalem at this time were merchants from the Italian city of Amalfi. They would play an important role in the development of the Crusader city fifty years later.

The Fatimid rulers of Jerusalem were driven from the city by invading Seljuks in 1073. The Seljuk or Turcoman rulers brutalized the city's population. As a result of the harsh conditions in Jerusalem, the Jewish community's highest institution of learning, the Palestinian Yeshiva moved to Tyre. Seljuk rule didn't last long. The Fatimids of Egypt exploited the beginning of the First Crusade to invade Palestine. In 1098 they launched a forty day campaign against Jerusalem and captured the city after destroying several sections of its walls.

Less than a year later Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders.


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