Books: The Muslims’ transformation of Christian Jerusalem

Computer-generated reconstructions relate Islamic architecture to other key monuments


This new work by Oleg Grabar has a Proustian flavour about it, for after a life creating a new school of Islamic art scholarship at Michigan and then Harvard, he has returned to his earliest academic interest, the interpretation of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. As a young scholar at the American School of Oriental Research in the Fifties, he was in Jerusalem at a particularly propitious moment. Père de Vaux and the Dominicans were digging up Qumran and with an international team piecing together and translating the Dead Sea Scrolls, using the superb facilities of the Palestine Archaeological Museum. Kathleen Kenyon and the British School were excavating ancient Jericho, and the list of luminaries in Jerusalem was an impressive one: Kraeling, Detweiler, Meilenberg, the Cros; Dorothy Garrod, Diana Kirkbride, Lankester Harding and Peter Parr. Grabar conveys the excitement of these early days in his introduction.

Now he returns from the eminence of the Institute for Advanced Studies to his fascination with the greatest of all early Islamic structures. But this time he widens his focus, to encompass the larger topic of its significance for the history and evolution of medieval Jerusalem.

He concentrates on the period from the building’s inception in AD 692 to the fall of Jerusalem to the Crusaders in 1099, four centuries later. For his analysis he relies on documentary sources, archaeological material and a detailed survey of the structure and its unique mosaic decoration. To relate the Dome of the Rock to the topography of the city and other key monuments such as the Holy Sepulchre, he has used computer-generated reconstructions. These are the work of Mohammad al-Asad, who has produced some glamorously colourful and instructive images. The brilliant photographs of the mosaics are by Saïd Nuseibeh, a member of Jerusalem’s most distinguished Palestinian family. All future scholars and art historians will remain in his debt for his total and complete documentation.

Dr Grabar insists on the essentially Islamic nature of Jerusalem, built on the destruction of the Herodian Temple, and its foundation on the Roman and early Christian past. Here his key evidence includes the Madaba sixth-century map, which records how consistent the city plan became. The jumbled polychrome cubism of Jerusalem depicted in the map is directly reflected in a modern air view of the city. In the Christian era, the two other major Byzantine buildings were the Nea Church and the Basilica on Mount Zion, which he notes neatly hemmed in the desolation of the Temple area. Dr Grabar has an interesting thesis about what actually happened when Umar arrived in Jerusalem in 638 and confronted the Patriarch Sophronius. He suggests that there was a polite accommodation and that the appropriation of the Temple area was of little interest to the Christians. As for the Jews, all sources agree there were none in Jerusalem at that moment.

Thus the Muslims acquired a traditionally sacred space, which they then developed as a highly visible statement about the new faith. The Dome of the Rock, floating on the gigantic stone platform of the Haram area, was the most conspicuous feature of this programme. Covered with green and golden mosaic, within and without, the iconographic interpretation is still questionable. Dr Grabar admits that even thirty-five years down the line, he still cannot definitively resolve the question, but there is no doubt about their stunning quality and vitality. He reproduces the text and translation of the unique dedicatory inscriptions in their entirety. What is striking is the repetition of the unique nature of God and the rejection of the Trinity, along with the recognition of Jesus as a prophet—but no more.

After a summary of the Umayyad remains including the Aqsa mosque and the newly-excavated residential area to the north of the Haram, Dr Grabar moves fast forward to AD 1050. He concedes the difficulty of trying to disentangle the complexity of Jerusalem’s evolution in the intervening period (“the masses of trees and bushes totally obscure the forest”). His justification is the immensely detailed account of the city by the Persian traveller Nasir-i Khosraw in AD 1047. Here his account neatly interfaces with the computer reconstructions on the city in Fatimid times.

Dr Grabar concludes that by then a subtle change had taken place and the relationship between the Christians and Muslims was no longer a confrontation. By the eleventh century, Islam, Christianity and Judaism shared a common spiritual and material interest in the Holy City, and by then had learned to live together.

Let us hope that the light Dr Grabar has shone on the history of a sensitive topic may make such pragmatism prevail.

o Oleg Grabar, The shape of the holy (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1997), 248 pp, 3 b/w ills, 78 col. ills, £45; $65 (hb) ISBN 0691036535