The Dome of the Rock
as Image of the Ancient Jewish Sanctuary
By Pamela Berger Published
by Brill, Leiden/Boston 2012, 367 pages, $164
The Dome of the Rock, often represented with an Islamic crescent on top, became the image for the Temple in Jewish, Christian and Moslem art for over 500 years. How and why this historical anomaly persisted is the subject of a fascinating in-depth study of Jewish, Christian and Moslem imagery and its interpretation spanning more than 2,000 years of biblical & later history by Dr. Pamela Berger, professor of Medieval Art at Boston College, Boston, MA.
For the Jews, the Rock represents the site of both Temples: for the Moslems the Rock symbolizes the site of the “Night Journey” of Muhammad from earth to heaven while for Christians it recalls Jesus’s association with the Jewish Temple. Interestingly, for all the three religions the Dome of the Rock is commonly used to portray “The Temple” in art imagery.
Dr. Berger, in her scholarly, well-researched book, describes works of art using this image, evaluating how feelings of mutual respect and recognition between these three religions throughout history waxed and waned and how it led to its universal use and acceptance from the 15th century till the 1930’s.
Tetradrachma showing façade of Temple in Jerusalem and the “Table of Shewbread” in centre, 132-135 CE. Courtesy Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
The earliest known representation of the Temple occurs on a tetradrachma coin used in the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome 131-135 CE. The star on top of the Temple alludes to the name of the commander of the revolt, Shimon Bar Kochba (“son of a star” in Aramaic). The Dura Europos Synagogue in Syria, 245 CE, boasts the first surviving paintings showing the Temple and is similar to the Bar Kochba coins. Berger, who has written about Temple/Tabernacle images in Dura, believes that perhaps these coins were an inspiration for the Dura Europos paintings.
Therefore, with an established visual tradition of representing the Jewish Temple how did the Islamic Dome of the Rock image emerge to represent the Temple?
Ever since it was brutally razed by the Romans, the site of the Temple continued to be remembered and revered by Jews, Christians and later Moslems alike even though the site was totally destroyed and left as exposed bedrock littered with debris, a haunting symbol of all the Jews had lost.
Interestingly, our relationship with the site of the Rock midrashically goes back to Bereishit as the source of Adam’s creation, the sacrifices of Adam, Cain, Abel and Noah as well as Akedat Yitzchak and Jacob’s Ladder and David’s sacrifice.
Later in Isaiah 28:16 the Rock is referred to as the “Foundation Stone” or Even ha-Shetiyah. This lay in the most sacred part of the Temple, the Holy of Holies, and the Ark of the Covenant rested upon it. According to the sages of the Talmud (Yoma 54b) it was from this rock that the world was created, itself being the first part of the Earth to come into existence. In the words of the Zohar (Veyechi 1: 231): “The world was not created until G-d took a stone called Even haShetiya and threw it into the depths where it was fixed from above till below, and from it the world expanded. It is the centre point of the world and on this spot stood the Holy of Holies.” In Midrashic sources, the prophet Yonah, when swallowed up by the large fish, saw the base of the Even ha-Shetiyah in the abyss beneath the Temple. Such sources describe it as a precious stone plucked from beneath G-d’s throne, or as a covering of the source of all the waters the world drinks. It has been told that the Ten Commandments were hewn from that Rock, which was also said to be the navel of the world (Tanchuma, Kedoshim,10). According to Dr. Berger these midrashim were probably familiar to those Jews who throughout the ages continued to visit the Temple site and weep and anoint the Rock.
From the 7th century on, Dr. Berger points out that there was a multi-directional flow of influence from Judaism to Islam; Jewish folklore material relating to biblical figures being imported into Arab tales and vice versa, as both traditions used one another’s stories. In both traditions the Rock is close to Heaven.
Eventually the Even ha-Shetiyah, the Foundation Stone, became al-Sakhra, the Rock, in Arabic. For the Moslems, too, the Rock was the “last remaining vestige of the Holy of Holies in the ruined temple.”
Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah, Sefer Avodah, opening page, northern Italy 1457-65. Courtesy Sotheby’s
Dr. Berger relates that when the invading Moslem forces captured Jerusalem in 638 CE, their arrival was seen as a great deliverance for the Jews who were again allowed to walk freely into the city and to live and pray on the Temple Mount. The Moslems built a rudimentary mosque on the southern part of the Temple Mount – later to be called al-Aqsa. In 691/692 CE, a Moslem caliph Abd al-Malik built the Dome of the Rock, a wooden, octagonal shrine, and it is documented that the Jews became servants there; keeping the place clean, making glass vessels for the lights and kindling them (reminiscent of the rituals in ancient times). Even a synagogue may have existed on the esplanade.
Dr. Berger maintains that by the 9th century the Dome of the Rock had already merged with the ancient Temple in the popular imagination and from then on the Jewish Temple was seen in imagery as polygonal or circular covered by a dome; even though the Christians and Jews knew that the Bible had described the Temple as rectangular. Evidentially the physical reality of the building in that place simply supplanted the ancient demolished historical reality.
When the Crusaders entered Jerusalem in 1099 CE, they wiped out nearly the entire Jewish population along with the Moslems. They also identified the site of the Dome of the Rock as that of the Temple, calling it “Templum Domini” and the nearby al-Aksa mosque was associated with the Temple of Solomon. After Saladin expelled the Crusaders in 1187 CE, the Jews returned to Jerusalem. The visual tradition remained the same in Byzantine, Western and Islamic Art with the circular, or polygonal domed building used as the image for the Temple.
The earliest surviving depiction of the Temple as the Dome of the Rock in Jewish art is in Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah, Sefer Avodah (the eighth of the fourteen books), northern Italy, 1457-65. This manuscript, previously owned by Michael and Judy Steinhardt, New York, was recently bought jointly (Sotheby’s May 2013) by the Israel Museum and the Metropolitan Museum, for approximately 5.5 million dollars – the highest price ever paid for a Judaic item!
Reflecting amicable Jewish/Islamic relations, 15th century Rabbi Meshullam ben Menachem of Volterra observes that on Tisha B’Av the servants at the Dome of the Rock made sure to extinguish the candles, exhibiting an affinity between the practices of Jews and Moslems. Dr. Berger observes that from the texts that Tisha B’Av was actually commemorated by Moslems too! The Jews did not suffer any type of persecution by the Moslems in this period.
Sefer Zevach Pesach, commentary on the Haggadah by Don Yitzhak Abravanel, with Temple in the image of the Dome of the Rock, as Hebrew book Printer’s mark. Giustiniani, Venice, 1545
By the mid 16th century, this polygonal domed image appeared widely in Jewish books, especially as a Hebrew Printer’s mark, such as on Sha’ar Blette (title pages) in the books of Marco Antonio Giustiniani, Venice 1545-52. Though Giustiniani was a gentile, he worked for Jews, since the Jews of Venice were forbidden to own Hebrew presses at that time.
In Jewish art of the 16th century the Dome of the Rock symbolically stands for the Temple at the end of days, seen in the final page of the Venice Haggadah, 1609; showing the walled-Jerusalem with an octagonal domed Temple building and depicting the Messiah riding a donkey lead by the prophet Elijah towards the Gate of Jerusalem. The 18th century Washington Megillat Esther (Library of Congress), continues this tradition with images of the Temple alluding to the Jews’ desire for redemption; showing dancers rejoicing and the Messiah at the End of Days approaching Jerusalem with the domed Temple building.
In descriptive views of Jerusalem the Dome of the Rock as the Temple was found in many different motifs including Shabbat tablecloths, ketubot, many textiles as well as Christian, Moslem and Jewish decorative maps, placing the holy sites around a centralized Jerusalem. A 19th century Italian textile shows the Dome of the Rock as the Temple in the triadic image of Midrash Shlomo, Beit HaMikdash and the Kotel Maaravi. Midrash Shlomo was the name given to the Al-Aksa mosque as the site of Solomon’s Temple and is thus depicted next to the “Beit haMikdash“.
Until 1930 this iconography was widespread in the Holy Land and in the Diaspora, suggesting a modicum of respect and friendship between Jews and Moslems. After 1930 the image of the Dome of the Rock is no longer found in Jewish Art or it is kept in the background. The unprecedented riots of August 1929 in Jerusalem and Hebron resulting in the deaths of 133 Jews was the immediate cause. The continued rise in the Middle East of nationalist politics had changed the region forever and the imagery reflects this.
So the question remains: why until 1930, was the polygonal/circular Dome of the Rock adopted by Jews to depict our most sacred spot on earth and the Temple of the End of Days, the embodiment of the desire for redemption?
One reason, in my opinion, is the mere fact that the domed structure was a reality on that holy spot, a realistic image before one’s very eyes and this caused it to be artistically rendered again and again in our works or art.
Dr. Berger believes that another reason is that until 1930 the Jews regarded the Moslems neutrally. The image of the Dome with the crescent didn’t have a negative connotation. Both Jews and Moslems fought the Christians and when the Crusaders were defeated they rejoiced together. Anti-Semitism towards Jews in Moslem lands was less marked and developed than in Europe. European Jews in times of persecution readily sought refuge in Moslem countries. Historically understood in this light one can begin to appreciate the use of the image of the Dome of the Rock for the Temple.
In her easy to read, flowing, eloquent presentation of the material, Dr. Berger shows us how one apparently small iconographic detail can be an eye opener to an entire weltanshaung of harmonious and peaceful relationships between Arabs and Jews. She concludes by suggesting that we should use our imagery of the past as a role model for the future to try to find a peaceful solution to the Middle East problem to invoke the holiness of the place of the Foundation Stone together – thus rather stretching an examination of art appreciation and imagery into matters a little beyond the scope of the material. As for the rebuilding of the Beit haMikdash on the Even HaShetiyah
– “this will have to be left for the Messiah”!