WHEN YOU ENTER THE AL-AQSA SANCTUARY, you are spoilt for a choice of where to go’, said my diary. It was certainly true; for commemorative domes, moulded outdoor mimbars, ceremonial ablution fountains, ancient schools, mausoleums and musty reception rooms dotted its precincts.
An un-named pilgrim had noted centuries ago that Al-Aqsa was so congested with invisible spirits that should he attempt – of all things – to cuff a fellow worshipper, his blow would probably strike some prophet or angelic being instead.
My notes continued: ‘On the Noble Sanctuary’s eastern plateau are Solomon’s Throne and the Golden Gate. As you walk towards the south-facing Al-Aqsa mosque and the underground Al-Marwani, the golden Dome of the Rock to your right glints through the trees’.
An interesting monument was the Throne of Solomon. I was told it had been constructed where the prophet-king had passed away while leaning on his staff supervising the jinn. This shadowy people – whom Solomon had subjugated as his slaves – carried on working until insects gnawed away at his stick, and his lifeless body finally crashed to the ground.
I read further: ‘On Al-Aqsa’s western flank abutting the Muslim Quarter and the Al-Buraq (Western) wall are seven entrance gates, three minarets, five fountains, eight domes, the Islamic museum, the women’s mosque and the tombs of King Hussein (great-grandfather of Jordan’s King ‘Abdullah) and Muhammad ‘Ali of India’.
I had also written that according to the 15th century scholar, Imam Jalal ud-Din Suyuti, the Dome of the Prophet – which was close to the Dome of the Rock – had marked where Prophet Muhammad had led 124, 000 prophets in prayer before his Ascension.
We were about to go on a tour of the Dome of the Rock conducted by one of the Sanctuary’s guards, who doubled as a guide. I remembered him from a previous visit several years before. He had refused to accept I was Muslim on two grounds. Firstly, I did not have a ‘zubab’, the raisin-type blotch that some worshippers have on their foreheads from prostration. And secondly, the name in my passport was not ‘Muslim’. Consequently, he had refused me entry into Al-Aqsa.
Only after I stubbornly refused to go away and after some persuasion from his discomfited colleagues, had he considered letting me recite from the Qur’an to prove my faith. I remember reciting half the chapter of the Fatiha and then, suddenly, seeing red. I am normally quite contained, but it was towards the end of a testing trip, and this man had just pushed me over the edge.
“Enough!” I said, raising my voice. “Enough! I’m going inside!” Stirred from their sentry-duty boredom three young Israeli soldiers stood by uneasily. What was going to happen now? Fortunately, some worshippers passing by recognised me. They came to my rescue, and started to scold the Palestinian guard. Finally, after much shouting, I was waved through.
Two years later I was not one to hold a grudge. Security at Al-Aqsa was a thorny question and maybe, as Shaikh ‘Irfaan had suggested on this trip, I was just naturally suspicious looking.
“Ahlan wa sahlan,” said our guide, who unsurprisingly, was called Abu Ahmad. This time he did not give me a second glance. He led us into the Dome of the Rock via its eastern door. It was near the Dome of the Chain, the small cupola that marked the centre-point of the Sanctuary. This door, called the Door of David, was one of the four entrances in the octagonal shaped monument.
“There are five doors and they represent the five foundations of Islam,” said Abu Ahmad, much to my surprise. Where was the fifth door? The doors all faced a compass point, and ours opened towards ‘Amman in Jordan.
I had entered the Dome of the Rock many times, but on each occasion it made me gasp. This time was no exception. The Jerusalem historian, Muqaddasi, notes that Caliph Abdul Malik ibn Marwan had constructed it in CE 692 as a counter-point to the Holy Sepulchre.
Whilst more Byzantine than Islamic (the Muslim realm was still very much in its infancy) the Dome of the Rock has been embellished with the love and care of fourteen centuries. Its sumptuously textured interior is a feast of patterned stone, stained glass, Qur’anic calligraphy, decorative tie beams, colourful arabesque ceilings and richly-veined marble.
We approached the holy rock. The octagonal outer arcade of Dome of the Rock was braced by a ring of eight arched piers and sixteen Corinthian columns. A broad ambulatory separated this ring from the inner one, which had four piers and twelve columns supporting the drum of the dome. We stopped at a wooden grille and gazed over a floodlit expanse of dusty rock.
“You are looking at a rock of Paradise,” said Abu Ahmad triumphantly, as he echoed the timeless words of Ibn ‘Abbas who had quoted his cousin, Prophet Muhammad, as saying that the rock of Jerusalem was from Paradise.
“This is the rock that tried to follow the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings on him, during his Ascension. This is the rock that the Archangel Gabriel had to hold down, so keen was it to follow the most beloved of Allah’s Creation into the Heavens,” said Abu Ahmad.
I moved around the wooden barrier to a domed reliquary that housed three hairs of Prophet Muhammad. It was also said to mark an imprint of his heel, or the place where Gabriel’s wing tip had held the rock. There was an opening where one could feel the indented rock, and I did so. When I withdrew it, my fingers smelt of musk.
“That’s the scent of Paradise,” explained Abu Ahmad.
Judaic lore described the rock as the ‘Foundation Stone’ of the world and Jerusalem historian, Mujir ud-Din ul-‘Ulaini, had written in 1495 that the holy rock rested upon the crown of a celestial palm growing on the banks of a river in Paradise. Asiyah, the wife of the Pharaoh, and Miriam, the sister of Moses, sat in the shade of this tree weaving heavenly garments1.
As I fixed my eyes on the rock I could see that its surface was pockmarked with the ugly scars of saws and chisels. Crusaders had hacked off chunks of the rock to sell as holy relics after 1099, forcing the Christian authorities to encase it in protective marble. The Persian traveler, Nasir i-Khusraw, had reported 52 years before the fall of Jerusalem that it appeared as if someone had walked on the rock when it was soft, because he had counted seven footprints on it.
As Abu Ahmad pointed out the features of the Dome of the Rock, I realised that no tour could ever do justice to its detail. I would have to lie on my back for days just to take everything in. K.A.C. Creswell, the English traveler, had written that instead of being a collection of ‘odd notes’ the Dome of the Rock was a harmonious chord in stones, like a ‘sort of living crystal’2.
Even the marble could tell stories. One black bordered slab, veined with reddish-coloured lines depicted what I was assured were the shapes of two birds facing each other. I was not so convinced. “That’s when Solomon rebuked the haughty and boastful sparrows who bragged they could topple him, and were frozen in stone,” suggested Abu Ahmad.
He showed us another slab (it was near the Door of David, first window to the left) which depicted the Arabic letters of ‘Allah’. That was more believable.
Abu Ahmad then led us to a flight of stairs that descended into a cave beneath the holy rock. It was a chamber of about 50 square metres (ancient accounts say that 60 persons could fit into it). Above us was a circular hole. Abu Ahmad explained that it had been used to drain blood during animal sacrifices in some earlier era.
Also in the chamber were a raised platform, the station of Abraham, and two prayer niches dedicated to Prophet Zacharias and Prophet Muhammad. Legend claimed that they had all prayed in this cave. Zacharias, Mary’s spiritual care-giver, had implored God for his own child (John the Baptist) from here.
On an earlier visit another guide, a young literalist Salafi, had poured scorn on these legends. “The early prophets were giants, and so it’s impossible that Abraham could have prayed on that small platform,” he intoned.
My immediate response had been that if these prophets were such giants, then how did they all fit into Al-Aqsa when Prophet Muhammad led 124, 000 of them in prayer? The young man, wisely sensing that us South Africans were not going to tolerate his nonsense, changed the subject.
“We are now standing above the Well of the Souls,” said Abu Ahmad. He went on to say that the pious spirits of the dead gathered here in Al-Aqsa, and that the bad ones went to a dark place in Yemen.
What Abu Ahmad was referring to was a cistern directly beneath us that led into an ancient underground water system. Here, the lines between the seen and the unseen began to blur, for Abu Hurairah – a master of Muhammadan tradition – had quoted the Prophet as saying that all the fresh waters of the world emanated from under this rock.
My personal experience was that Al Aqsa often took one to realms far beyond its symbolism. Dionysius had once written that visible things were images of invisible things, and that extraordinary beauty became an image of unseen beauty3. I had been fortunate enough to have witnessed a few startling signs of Al-Aqsa’s invisible, inner beauty. I can remember that after one midday prayer an old man had hobbled up to me, saying in Arabic that everything in Al-Aqsa was blessed.
“The stones are blessed, the sky is blessed, the trees are blessed, the birds are blessed, the mosque is blessed, your clothes are blessed and you are blessed,” he had said. Had I not been in Al-Aqsa, I would have had reason to think that he was mad. I recognised him as an elder from the Mount of Olives.
He then took out a small bottle of ‘itr, or musk, and dabbed a drop on my hand. ‘Itr, with its natural oils, has a lasting fragrance. But I defy anyone to explain how my camera could still smell of musk well over a year after the incident.
A Cape Town friend of mine, Jamil, dreamt of his late mother. She had been a kindly and charitable Hindu lady. Jamil told me that one night she had appeared in his sleep. “She was dressed in white and told me that she was going to pray at Al-Aqsa,” he said, amazed that his mother even knew about Al-Aqsa.
Another incident, witnessed by a number of worshippers from the Old City, occurred on a fateful morning in October 1990. This was when the Israeli authorities, reacting to Palestinian fury at the Temple Mount Faithful invading the Sanctuary, had killed twenty-three worshippers.
Those who were there on that autumn day had told me that the blood of their martyred kinsfolk had displayed unusual qualities. “Blood usually attracts flies, but this time there were no flies. And then we smelt the blood. It was like nothing on this earth, like musk,” said Abu ‘Ala, a Jerusalemite.
We ascended the stairs out of the cave. It was a humbling experience to have stood underneath the very location that Prophet Muhammad had ascended into the heavens. I felt it spiritually appropriate that we had been positioned under his noble feet, as it were.
I approached the wooden fence surrounding the rock once again and peered up into the Dome. The Qur’anic verses of The Throne, a key Qur’anic verse, flowed around the drum like a holy vine. Cascading arabesques filled the inside of the ceiling in a rich tapestry of shape and colour.
Looking up at the Dome reminded me of a night sky with a full moon behind the clouds. In spite of it being night, the sky becomes a rich cobalt blue, and the clouds turn grey and milky like mother of pearl. The magical play of light and perspective makes it appear as if the sky has lowered itself to the earth.
When I looked up into the Dome for one last time, and sunshine lit up the stained glass windows like sixteen moons, it had almost the same effect on me – except that his time, as the arabesques and Qur’anic verses rushed to meet my vision, my heart wanted to rise up and fly into the heavens.
1 Mujir ud-Din ul-‘Ulaini, Uns al-Jalil fi Tarikh al-Quds wal Khalil, 1495. Also: http://thehope.org/domlegend02.htm
2 KAC Creswell, Early Muslim Architecture, Oxford, 1932.
3 Dionysius the Areopagite, the Bishop Athens, reportedly converted to Christianity by St Paul.