Al-Aqsa Mosque also known as al-Aqsa, is the third holiest site in Islam and is located in the Old City of Jerusalem. The site which includes the mosque (along with the Dome of the Rock), also referred to as al-Haram ash-Sharif or "Noble Sanctuary," is the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, the place where the Temple is generally accepted to have stood. Muslims believe that Muhammad was transported from the Sacred Mosque in Mecca to al-Aqsa during the Night Journey. Islamic tradition holds that Muhammad led prayers towards this site until the seventeenth month after the emigration, when God directed him to turn towards the Ka'aba.
The al-Aqsa Mosque was originally a small prayer house built by the Rashidun caliph Umar, but was rebuilt and expanded by the Ummayad caliph Abd al-Malik and finished by his son al-Walid in 705 CE. After an earthquake in 746, the mosque was completely destroyed and rebuilt by the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur in 754, and again rebuilt by his successor al-Mahdi in 780. Another earthquake destroyed most of al-Aqsa in 1033, but two years later the Fatimid caliph Ali az-Zahir built another mosque which has stood to the present-day. During the periodic renovations undertaken, the various ruling dynasties of the Islamic Caliphate constructed additions to the mosque and its precincts, such as its dome, facade, its minbar, minarets and the interior structure. When the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099, they used the mosque as a palace and church, but its function as a mosque was restored after its recapture by Saladin. More renovations, repairs and additions were undertaken in the later centuries by the Ayyubids, Mamluks, Ottomans, the Supreme Muslim Council, and Jordan. Today, the Old City is under Israeli control, but the mosque remains under the administration of the Palestinian-led Islamic waqf.
Masjid al-Aqsa translates from Arabic into English as "the farthest mosque." Its name refers to a chapter of the Qur'an called "The Night Journey" in which it is said that Muhammad traveled from Mecca to "the farthest mosque," and then up to Heaven on a heavenly creature called al-Buraq al-Sharif. For centuries, al-Masjid al-Aqsa referred not only to the mosque, but to the entire sacred sanctuary. This changed during the period of Ottoman rule (c. early 16th-century to 1918) when the sanctuary complex came to be known as al-Haram ash-Sharif, and the mosque founded by Umar came to be known as al-Jami' al-Aqsa or al-Aqsa Mosque.
The al-Aqsa Mosque is located in the Temple Mount, referred to by Muslims as the "Haram al-Sharif" ("The Noble Sanctuary"), an enclosure expanded by King Herod the Great beginning in 20 BCE. Residing on an artificial platform, the mosque is supported by arches constructed by Herod's engineers to overcome the difficult topographic conditions resulting from the southward expansion of the enclosure into the Tyropoeon and Kidron valleys. At the time of the Second Temple, the present site of the mosque was occupied by the Royal Stoa, a basilica running the southern wall of the enclosure. The Royal Stoa was destroyed along with the Temple during the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. Emperor Justinian built a Christian church on the site in the 530s which was consecrated to the Virgin Mary and named "Church of Our Lady." The church was later destroyed by Khosrau II, the Sassanid emperor, in the early 7th-century and left in ruins.
Analysis of the wooden beams and panels removed from the building during renovations in the 1930s shows they are made from Cedar of Lebanon and cypress. Radiocarbon dating indicates a large range of ages, some as old as 9th-century BCE, showing that some of the wood had previously been used in older buildings.
It is unknown exactly when the al-Aqsa Mosque was first constructed and who ordered its construction, but it is certain that it was built in the early Ummayad period of rule in Palestine. Architectural historian K. A. C. Creswell, referring to a testimony by Arculf, a Gallic monk, during his pilgrimage to Palestine in 679–82, notes the possibility that the second caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate, Umar ibn al-Khattab, erected a primitive quadrangular building for a capacity of 3,000 worshipers somewhere on the Haram ash-Sharif. However, Arculf visited Palestine during the reign of Mu'awiyah I, and it is possible that Mu'awiyah ordered the construction, not Umar. This latter claim is explicitly supported by the early Muslim scholar al-Muthahhar bin Tahir.
According to several Muslim scholars, including Mujir ad-Din, al-Suyuti, and al-Muqaddasi, the mosque was reconstructed and expanded by the caliph Abd al-Malik in 690 along with the Dome of the Rock. Guy le Strange claims that Abd al-Malik used materials from the destroyed Church of Our Lady to build the mosque and points to possible evidence that substructures on the southeast corners of the mosque are remains of the church. In planning his magnificent project on the Temple Mount, which in effect would turn the entire complex into the Haram al-Sharif ("the Noble Sanctuary"), Abd al-Malik wanted to replace the slipshod structure described by Arculf with a more sheltered structure enclosing the qibla, a necessary element in his grand scheme. However, the entire Haram al-Sharif was meant to represent a mosque. How much he modified the aspect of the earlier building is unknown, but the length of the new building is indicated by the existence of traces of a bridge leading from the Umayyad palace just south of the western part of the complex. The bridge would have spanned the street running just outside the southern wall of the Haram al-Sharif to give direct access to the mosque. Direct access from palace to mosque was a well-known feature in the Umayyad period, as evidenced at various early sites. Abd al-Malik shifted the central axis of the mosque some 40 metres (130 ft) westward, in accord with his overall plan for the Haram al-Sharif. The earlier axis is represented in the structure by the niche still known as the "mihrab of 'Umar." In placing emphasis on the Dome of the Rock, Abd al-Malik had his architects align his new al-Aqsa Mosque according to the position of the Rock, thus shifting the main north–south axis of the Noble Sanctuary, a line running through the Dome of the Chain and the Mihrab of Umar.
In contrast, Creswell, while referring to the Aphrodito Papyri, claims that Abd al-Malik's son, al-Walid I, reconstructed the Aqsa Mosque over a period of six months to a year, using workers from Damascus. Most scholars agree that the mosque's reconstruction was started by Abd al-Malik, but that al-Walid oversaw its completion. In 713–14, a series of earthquakes ravaged Jerusalem, destroying the eastern section of the mosque, which was subsequently rebuilt during al-Walid's rule. In order to finance its reconstruction, al-Walid had gold from the dome of the Rock minted to use as money to purchase the material. The Umayyad-built al-Aqsa Mosque most likely measured 112 x 39 meters.
In 746, the al-Aqsa Mosque was damaged in an earthquake, four years before as-Saffah overthrew the Ummayads and established the Abbasid Caliphate. The second Abbasid caliph Abu Ja'far al-Mansur declared his intent to repair the mosque in 753, and he had the gold and silver plaques that covered the gates of the mosque removed and turned into dinars and dirhams to finance the reconstruction which ended in 771. A second earthquake damaged most of al-Mansur's repairs, excluding those made in the southern portion in 774. In 780, the successor caliph Muhammad al-Mahdi had it rebuilt, but curtailed its length and increased its breadth. Al-Mahdi's renovation is the first known to have written records describing it. In 985, Jerusalem-born Arab geographer al-Muqaddasi recorded that the renovated mosque had "fifteen naves and fifteen gates".
In 1033, there was another earthquake, severely damaging the mosque. The Fatimid caliph Ali az-Zahir rebuilt and completely renovated the mosque between 1034 and 1036. The number of naves was drastically reduced from fifteen to seven. Az-Zahir built the four arcades of the central hall and aisle, which presently serve as the foundation of the mosque. The central aisle was double the width of the other aisles and had a large gable roof upon which the dome—made of wood—was constructed. Persian geographer, Nasir Khusraw describes the Aqsa Mosque during a visit in 1047:
The Haram Area (Noble Sanctuary) lies in the eastern part of the city; and through the bazaar of this (quarter) you enter the Area by a great and beautiful gateway (Dargah)... After passing this gateway, you have on the right two great colonnades (Riwaq), each of which has nine-and-twenty marble pillars, whose capitals and bases are of colored marbles, and the joints are set in lead. Above the pillars rise arches, that are constructed, of masonry, without mortar or cement, and each arch is constructed of no more than five or six blocks of stone. These colonnades lead down to near the Maqsurah.
Jerusalem was captured by the Crusaders in 1099, during the First Crusade. Instead of destroying the mosque—which they called "Solomon's Temple"—the Crusaders used it as a royal palace and as a stable for horses. In 1119, it was transformed into the headquarters for the Templar Knights. During this period, the mosque underwent some structural changes, including the expansion of its northern porch, and the addition of an apse and a dividing wall. A new cloister and church were also built at the site, along with various other structures. The Templars constructed vaulted western and eastern annexes to the building; the western currently serves as the women's mosque and the eastern as the Islamic Museum.
After the Ayyubids under the leadership of Saladin reconquered Jerusalem following the siege of 1187, several repairs were undertaken at al-Aqsa Mosque. Saladin's predecessor—the Zengid sultan Nur al-Din—had commissioned the construction of a new minbar or "pulpit" made of ivory and wood in 1168–69, but it was completed after his death; Nur ad-Din's minbar was added to the mosque in November 1187 by Saladin. The Ayyubid sultan of Damascus, al-Mu'azzam, built the northern porch of the mosque with three gates in 1218. In 1345, the Mamluks under al-Kamil Shaban added two naves and two gates to the mosque's eastern side.
After the Ottomans assumed power in 1517, they did not undertake any major renovations or repairs to the mosque itself, but they did to the Noble Sanctuary as a whole. This included the building of the Fountain of Qasim Pasha (1527), the restoration of the Pool of Raranj, and the building of three free-standing domes—the most notable being the Dome of the Prophet built in 1538. All construction was ordered by the Ottoman governors of Jerusalem and not the sultans themselves. The sultans did make additions to existing minarets, however.
The first renovation in the 20th-century occurred in 1922, when the Supreme Muslim Council under Amin al-Husayni (the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem) commissioned Turkish architect Ahmet Kemalettin Bey to restore al-Aqsa Mosque and the monuments in its precincts. The council also commissioned British architects, Egyptian engineering experts and local officials to contribute to and oversee the repairs and additions which were carried out in 1924–25 by Kemalettin. The renovations included reinforcing the mosque's ancient Ummayad foundations, rectifying the interior columns, replacing the beams, erecting a scaffolding, conserving the arches and drum of the main dome's interior, rebuilding the southern wall, and replacing timber in the central nave with a slab of concrete. The renovations also revealed Fatimid-era mosaics and inscriptions on the interior arches that had been covered with plasterwork. The arches were decorated with gold and green-tinted gypsum and their timber tie beams were replaced with brass. A quarter of the stained glass windows also were carefully renewed so as to preserve their original Abbasid and Fatimid designs. Severe damage was caused by the 1927 and 1937 earthquakes, but the mosque was repaired in 1938 and 1942.
On August 21, 1969, a fire occurred inside al-Aqsa Mosque that gutted the southeastern wing of the mosque. Among other things, the fire destroyed Saladin's minbar. Initially, Palestinians blamed the Israeli authorities for the fire, and some Israelis blamed Fatah, alleging they had started the fire so as to blame the Israelis and provoke hostility. However, the fire was started by neither Fatah nor Israel, but a tourist from Australia named Denis Michael Rohan. Rohan was a member of an evangelical Christian sect known as the Worldwide Church of God. He hoped that by burning down al-Aqsa Mosque he would hasten the Second Coming of Jesus, making way for the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount. Rohan was subsequently hospitalized in a mental institution. In response to the incident, a summit of Islamic countries was held in Rabat that same year, hosted by Faisal I, the late king of Saudi Arabia. The al-Aqsa fire is regarded as one of the catalysts for the formation of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in 1972.
In the 1980s, Ben Shoshan and Yehuda Etzion, both members of the Gush Emunim Underground, plotted to blow up the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Etzion believed that blowing up the two mosques would cause a spiritual awakening in Israel, and would solve all the problems of the Jewish people. They also hoped the Third Temple of Jerusalem would be built on the location of the mosque. On January 15, 1988, during the First Intifada, Israeli troops fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters outside the mosque, wounding 40 worshipers. On October 8, 1990, 22 Palestinians were killed and over 100 others injured by Israeli Border Police during protests that were triggered by the announcement of the Temple Mount Faithful, a fringe group of religious Jews, that they were going to lay the cornerstone of the Third Temple.
On September 28, 2000, then-Prime Minister of Israel Ariel Sharon and members of the Likud Party, along with 1,000 armed guards, visited the al-Aqsa compound; a large group of Palestinians went to protest the visit. After Sharon and the Likud Party members left, a demonstration erupted and Palestinians on the grounds of the Haram al-Sharif began throwing stones and other projectiles at Israeli riot police. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the crowd, injuring 24 people. The visit sparked a five-year uprising by the Palestinians, commonly referred to as the al-Aqsa Intifada. On September 29, the Israeli government deployed 2,000 riot police to the mosque. When a group of Palestinians left the mosque after Friday prayers (Jumu'ah,) they hurled stones at the police. The police then stormed the mosque compound, firing both live ammunition and rubber bullets at the group of Palestinians, killing four and wounding about 200.
The rectangular al-Aqsa Mosque and its precincts are 144,000 square metres (1,550,000 sq ft), although the mosque itself is about 35,000 square metres (380,000 sq ft) and could hold up to 5,000 worshipers. It is 272 feet (83 m) long, 184 feet (56 m) wide.
Unlike the Dome of the Rock, which reflects classical Byzantine architecture, the dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque is characteristic of early Islamic architecture. Nothing remains of the original dome built by Abd al-Malik. The present-day dome was built by az-Zahir and consists of wood plated with lead enamelwork. In 1969, the dome was reconstructed in concrete and covered with anodized aluminum instead of the original ribbed lead enamel work sheeting. In 1983, the aluminum outer covering was replaced with lead to match the original design by az-Zahir.
Al-Aqsa's dome is one of the few domes to be built in front of the mihrab during the Umayyad and Abbasid periods, the others being the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus (715) and the Great Mosque at Sousse (850). The interior of the dome is painted with 14th-century-era decorations. During the 1969 burning, the paintings were assumed to be irreparably lost, but were completely reconstructed using the trateggio technique, a method that uses fine vertical lines to distinguish reconstructed areas from original ones.
The mosque has four minarets on the southern, northern and western sides. The first minaret, known as al-Fakhariyya Minaret, was built in 1278 on the southwestern corner of the mosque, on the orders of the Mamluk sultan Lajin. The minaret was built in the traditional Syrian style, with the base and shaft square and divided by moldings into three floors above which two lines of muqarnas decorate the muezzin's balcony. The niche is surrounded by a square chamber that ends in a lead-covered stone dome.
The second, known as the Ghawanima minaret, was built at the northwestern corner of the Noble Sanctuary in 1297–98 by architect Qadi Sharaf al-Din al-Khalili, also on the orders of the Sultan Lajin. Thirty-seven meters in height, it is almost entirely made of stone, apart from a timber canopy over the muezzin's balcony. Because of its firm structure, the Ghawanima minaret has been nearly untouched by earthquakes. The minaret is divided into several stories by stone molding and stalactite galleries. The first two stories are wider and form the base of the tower. The additional four stories are surmounted by a cylindrical drum and a bulbous dome. The stairway is externally located on the first two floors, but becomes an internal spiral structure from the third floor until it reaches the muezzin's balcony.
In 1329, Tankiz—the Mamluk governor of Syria—ordered the construction of a third minaret called the Bab al-Silsila Minaret located on the western border of the al-Aqsa Mosque. This minaret, possibly replacing an earlier Umayyad minaret, is built in the traditional Syrian square tower type and is made entirely out of stone. It is an old Muslim tradition that the best muezzin ("reciter") of the adhan (the call to prayer), is assigned to this minaret because the first call to each of the five daily prayers is raised from it.
The last and most notable minaret was built in 1367, and is known as Minarat al-Asbat. It is composed of a cylindrical stone shaft (built later by the Ottomans), which springs up from a rectangular Mamluk-built base on top of a triangular transition zone. The shaft narrows above the muezzin's balcony, and is dotted with circular windows, ending with a bulbous dome. The dome was reconstructed after the Jordan Valley earthquake of 1927.
There are no minarets in the eastern portion of the mosque because historically there were very few inhabitants on that side and so there was little reason to have an additional minaret to call Muslims to prayer. However, in 2006, King Abdullah II of Jordan announced his intention to build a fifth minaret overlooking the Mount of Olives. The King Hussein Minaret is planned to be the tallest structure in the Old City of Jerusalem.
The facade of the mosque was built in 1065 CE on the instructions of the Fatimid caliph al-Mustansir. It was crowned with a balustrade consisting of arcades and small columns. The Crusaders damaged the facade during their era of rule in Palestine, but it was restored and renovated by the Ayyubids. One addition was the facade's covering with tiles. The second-hand material of the facade's arches includes sculpted ornamental material from taken from Crusader structures in Jerusalem. There are fourteen stone arches along the facade, most of which are of a Romanesque style. The outer arches added by the Mamluks follow the same general design. The entrance to the mosque is through the facade's central arch.
The porch is located at the top of the facade. The central bays of the porch were built by the Knights Templar during the First Crusade, but Saladin's nephew al-Mu'azzam ordered the construction of the porch itself in 1217.
The al-Aqsa Mosque has seven aisles of hypostyle naves with several additional small halls to the west and east of the southern section of the building. There are 121 stained glass windows in the mosque from the Abbasid and Fatimid eras. About a fourth of them were restored in 1924.
The mosque's interior is supported by 45 columns, 33 of which are white marble and 12 of stone. The column rows of the central aisles are heavy and stunted, having a circumference of 9 inches (23 cm) by 3 inches (7.6 cm) and a height of 16 inches (41 cm) by 5 inches (13 cm). The remaining four rows are better proportioned. The capitals of the columns are of four different kinds: those in the central aisle are heavy and primitively designed, while those under the dome are of the Corinthian order, and made from Italian white marble. The capitals in the eastern aisle are of a heavy basket-shaped design and those east and west of the dome are also basket-shaped, but smaller and better proportioned. The columns and piers are connected by an architectural rave, which consists of beams of roughly squared timber enclosed in a wooden casing.
A great portion of the mosque is covered with whitewash, but the drum of the dome and the walls immediately beneath it are decorated with mosaics and marble. Some wretched paintings by an Italian artist were introduced when repairs were undertaken at the mosque after an earthquake ravaged the mosque in 1927. The ceiling of the mosque was painted with funding by King Farouk of Egypt.
The minbar ("pulpit") of the mosque was built by a craftsman named Akhtarini from Aleppo on the orders of the Zengid sultan Nur ad-Din. It was intended to be a gift for the mosque when Nur ad-Din would liberate Jerusalem and took six years to build (1168–74). Nur ad-Din died and the Crusaders held control of Jerusalem, but in 1187, Saladin captured the city and the minbar was installed. The structure was made of ivory and carefully crafted wood. Arabic calligraphy, geometrical and floral designs were inscribed in the woodwork. After its destruction by Rohan in 1969, it was replaced by a much simpler minbar. In January 2007, Adnan al-Husayni—head of the Islamic waqf in charge of al-Aqsa—stated that a new minbar would be installed; it was installed in February 2007. The design of the new minbar was drawn by Jamil Badran based on an exact replica of the Saladin Minbar and was finished by Badran within a period of five years. The minbar itself was built in Jordan over a period of four years and the craftsmen used "ancient woodworking methods, joining the pieces with pegs instead of nails, but employed computer images to design the pulpit [minbar]."