The Dome of the Rock’s Importance to Umayyad Cultural Policy

Michael describes how the Dome of the Rock’s construction and architecture reflect the cultural syncretism policy of the Umayyad empire.

This article was written before the events of October 7th. I hope for a peaceful resolution to this conflict where both Israel and Palestine can benefit and move towards a brighter future. As evidenced by this paper, Israel/Palestine has such a rich history that is often used to gain political advantage. This article will be focusing on the cultural components of the Dome of the Rock and its status as a monument in Jerusalem.

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem has dominated the skyline of the Holiest city in the world since its construction atop one of the holiest sites in Judaism. In 691 CE, Caliph Abd al-Malik finished its construction about 30 years after the Umayyad Caliphate seized control of Jerusalem from the Byzantines, appropriating the design of the Dome of the Rock (DotR) from the local inhabitants and structures of the city. The DotR epitomises non-interventionist Umayyad cultural policies that allowed cultural syncretism across the new Umayyad empire. 

Abd al-Malik began constructing the DotR as potentially a distraction from the civil war that followed during his ascension as Caliph. The DotR transforms the Temple Mount into the centre for multiple faiths, reinforcing the broader trend of the gradual cultural syncretism within Jerusalem and across the Umayyad Caliphate. The DotR serves as an Islamic shrine to commemorate the site of the Night Journey of the Prophet Muhammed whilst also appropriating customs of the newly-incorporated peoples to ensure a smoother transition in power from the Byzantines to the Umayyads through a policy of non-intervention.

Abd al-Malik’s policy of leaving the locals alone is represented by the DotR, letting the mixture happen naturally through the gravity which a structure so grand and opulent had. The policy of leniency and inaction meant Islam meshed with local Chrisitan and Jewish cultures throughout the Umayyad’s early conquests in the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain.

Built on the Temple Mount, the site of the DotR possessed a substantial amount of significance to Judaism as the ruins of the Second Temple. Placing it here and modelling the shrine after Byzantine martyria asserted Umayyad cultural and political hegemony over Byzantine Christianity and Judaism whilst also making the DotR a focal point of the city, borrowing Christian and Jewish religious symbols in an ostentatious display of superiority.

It has much very similar measurements and shapes to other previously-existing Byzantine churches, like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus was crucified according to Christian theology, with an internal diameter of 20.90 m, a height of 21.05 m, and an octagonal shape. The interior has many hallmarks of Islamic architecture and design, including: Umayyad Kufic calligraphy with a dark blue background as well as Islamic mosaics. Abd al-Malik ensured his Islamic shrine would reflect his territory’s identity by incorporating Christian-Syriac architectural elements, located on the holiest site in Judaism with Quranic calligraphy verses on the interior.

Within the DotR, architects included a new, specific script which aligned with the geometric layout of the shrine, later called Kufic, gradually becoming the hallmark for official inscriptions which featured Arabic script in both a religious and political content. The incorporation of Kufic script demonstrates the importance of the DotR primarily as a statement on Arabic culture and control over Jerusalem and the surrounding regions. The Kufic mosaic inscriptions, made with gold tesserae on a blue-green background, symbolise the importance of Arabic within the new territories as a non-negotiable facet of Arab and Umayyad culture, inscribed in the centre of the DotR. These designs stress the Arab identity as the foundation for this new syncretic culture, with the local customs adding to it, Arab culture unifying different ethnic groups of the Levant.

Many mosques and Islamic holy sites having been inspired by the dome on the DotR, demonstrating the permanent effect which this syncretic culture had on Arab and Islamic culture as a whole. This novel architectural style created a unique culture in Syria, incorporating imaginative and innovative syncretic concepts combining Christian and Islamic motifs. The narrative surrounding the construction of the DotR and its architecture show Abd al-Malik’s lenient cultural policies which allowed the locals in the newly conquered Umayyad territory of Jerusalem to gradually integrate into the hegemonic Arab identity.

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