Ancient History, History, Medieval History

The Church of the Resurrection, part 3

The previous post made a passing reference to the building of the Dome of the Rock which still sits on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The construction of this shrine and the remaking of the Temple Mount as a Muslim holy site is significant enough that we should consider it before continuing the story of the Church of the Resurrection.

Abd Al-Malik ibn Marwan became the fifth Umayyad Caliph in 685 CE.  He is considered by some to be one of the greatest rulers of the Muslim world because he provided the Muslim world with a single, unified currency, won a series of wars against the Byzantine Romans, and made Arabic the state language of all Islamic lands.

Despite all of the successes of his reign, Al-Malik’s caliphate did not have a very good beginning. After the death of the first Caliph Muawiyah in 680 CE, the Muslim world descended into five years of chaos known as the Second Fitna. His father Marwan I was one of several claimants to the caliphate who received at least some support among the Arab tribes, but when he died in 685 CE, Al-Malik inherited the caliphate.

Al-Malik had to unify Islam, which was a hefty task. When he assumed the caliphate, a rival caliph (Abd-Allah ibn al-Zubayr) had the support of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The holy city of Mecca would not come under his control until after a seven-month siege in 692 CE. Thus it was that Al-Malik found himself involved in massive construction projects in Jerusalem.

To Islam, Jerusalem is Al-Aqsa – the far away place. Atop Mount Moriah (the Temple Mount), Muhammed was said to have ascended to heaven during his “Night Journey.” A generation before, Caliph Umar had constructed a small prayer house on the proposed site, and it was here that Al-Malik was headed.

The city was largely unchanged from the days when the Christians had surrendered it to Caliph Umar, and its central feature was the Church of the Resurrection – about half a mile from Al-Aqsa.

What did Al-Malik think of this great Christian shrine dominating the holiest city he ruled. For Al-Malik, the Church of the Resurrection had to be contested by a Muslim shrine of even grander scope. According to the 10th century Muslim geographer Al-Maqdisi:

Caliph Abd al-Malik, seeing the greatness of the martyrium of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and its magnificence, was moved lest it should dazzle the minds of Muslims and hence erected above the Rock the dome which is now seen there.

In Jerusalem, as in the world, the Muslim monument must overshadow the Jewish and Christian sites. For Al-Malik, far from Mecca, this was a necessity for the continued expansion of his faith.

To rival the Anastasis, he began construction of a dome of similar but slightly larger proportions. In essence, Al-Malik’s engineers copied and improved upon Constantine’s Anastasis rotunda. Everything about the dome, called Qubbat as-Sakrha in Arabic, was meant to rival the Christian church.

  • While the Anastasis rises above the rock of Jesus’ tomb, this new dome would rise above the Foundation Stone. This stone, part of the bedrock, was revered by Jews and Muslims – albeit for very different reasons.
  • If the Anastasis commemorated Christ’s resurrection, the new Dome commemorated both the creation of the world and its final judgment.
  • The Anastasihad Golgotha in its courtyard. The new Dome would have a smaller dome – Qubbat al-Silsila – where the righteous and wicked would be divided in the end times.
  • Near the Anastasis was the Martyrium – Constantine’s great basilica. Across the open courtyard of the Al-Aqsa was a new mosque which would dwarf the basilica.

In every way, the new complex was bigger and better than the Christian site to its west.

Al-Malik did not live to see the completion of his Al-Aqsa complex. He died in 705 and the finishing touches were added by his son Al-Walid. It did not really matter, however, because in 692 Mecca fell and with it fell all of Al-Malik’s rivals. The Second Fitna was over, and he spent the last thirteen years of his caliphate focused on other matters.

Jerusalem and its new shrines were not considered terribly significant once Mecca and the Qaaba were in Umayyad hands. Still, the Church of the Resurrection was no longer the most prominent site in Jerusalem, and the similarities between the two structures were not lost on pilgrims who journeyed there.

Just one last historical curiosity. In 746 and again in 1033, both the mosque and the dome were damaged by earthquakes which seem to have had no effect on the Church of the Resurrection. Isn’t that interesting?

Next time, we look at the “Mad Caliph” and the actions that ultimately led to the Crusades.

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