Al-Aqsa Mosque: The significance of one of Islam’s holiest sites

An aerial view shows Al-Aqsa, with the Dome of the Rock in the centre, a site which is highly revered amongst Muslims and is steeped in history (AFP)

Nadda Osman

Middle East Eye  /  April 15, 2022

We take a look at the history, significance and tensions surrounding Al-Aqsa and answer key questions about why it is revered

Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque is the third-holiest site in Islam, drawing tens of thousands of pilgrims from across Palestine and the wider Muslim world each year.

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The mosque also serves as a symbol of Palestinian resistance and has often been targeted by Israeli forces in raids and by hardline groups wishing to rebuild a temple in its place.

Spanning 14 hectares, the mosque includes the golden-domed Dome of the Rock, arguably one of Jerusalem’s most recognizable landmarks, as well as the ancient Al-Qibli Mosque, both of which are considered sacred.

The huge site, also known as Haram al-Sharif,  or “noble sanctuary,” in Arabic, traditionally had 15 gates, which allowed worshippers to pour into its grounds from the surrounding Old City of Jerusalem.

However, only 10 of these are still in use and are controlled by heavily armed Israeli soldiers and police officers.

Here, Middle East Eye provides a comprehensive guide to the holy site and answers key questions about its religious and cultural significance:

Where is it and what is the meaning behind the name?

Located in the southeast corner of the Old City of Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa’s Dome of the Rock is visible from across the city.

The entire complex contained within the outer walls includes an area of 144,000 square metres, and has mosques, prayer rooms, courtyards and religious landmarks. 

In Arabic, Al-Aqsa has two meanings: “the furthest,” which refers to its distance from Mecca, as mentioned in Islam’s holy book, the Quran, and also “the supreme,” referring to its status among Muslims.

Muslims also believe the site is where the Prophet Muhammad led his fellow prophets in prayer during a miraculous night journey, known as the Miraj.

Why is the site so important?

Besides its religious importance, Al-Aqsa is a symbol of the culture and nationhood of the Palestinian people.  

The glistening golden Dome of the Rock is recognizable to Muslims from around the world, and to pray at the site is considered to be a great privilege.

In the years before modern borders, pilgrimages to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina would include a stopover in Jerusalem.

The vast courtyards of Al-Aqsa still draw tens of thousands of worshippers who gather every Friday for congregational prayers.

During the holy month of Ramadan, the area is especially busy with worshippers, who go to the mosque for the special nightly taraweeh prayers.

On Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, the mood of the area becomes more celebratory and includes singing, processions and the gifting of sweets to passers-by.

For Jews, the site is known as the Temple Mount, where many believe two ancient Jewish temples once stood – the temple built by King Solomon (Suleiman in Arabic), which was destroyed by the Babylonians, and the second temple, destroyed by the Romans.

The site is home to the “Foundation Stone,” where observant Jews believe the creation of the world began.

Since the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem began in 1967, the site has been the subject of contention between Muslim worshippers and those groups that want to restore full Jewish control over the area.

What are some of the main landmarks at Al-Aqsa?

Al-Aqsa is home to several landmarks associated with the city of Jerusalem and features some of the best-preserved historic architecture from the early Islamic period.

Besides the religious buildings and structures, there are 32 water sources on the site, including wells used for ablutions.

Several mimbars, or pulpits, and historic schools can also be found inside Al-Aqsa’s walls, some dating back to the Mamluk and Ayyubid eras.

The Dome of the Rock

According to Islamic belief, the Dome of the Rock contained the first Qibla, or direction towards which Muslims prayed.

According to Islam, Al-Aqsa was one of the earliest mosques, following the Kaaba, the black cuboid structure in Mecca, where Muslims perform the Haj and Umrah pilgrimages and direct their prayers.

The mosque plays a key part in the Prophet Muhammad’s miraculous night journey to the heavens, known in Arabic as al-Isra wa al-Mi’raj. 

Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad met the 124,000 prophets who preceded him and led them in prayer at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

In Arabic, the Dome of the Rock is referred to as Qubbat al-Sakhra, and holds  a religious and historical significance.

The structure was commissioned by the Umayyad Caliph Abdul Malik ibn Marwan between 691-692CE, over a rock from which the prophet was believed to have ascended to heaven.

Islamic belief states that a divine ladder descended from the highest level of paradise to the Rock of Ascension. The rock stands around one-and-a-half metres above the floor, in a location called “the Prophet’s chapel”.

The Dome of the Rock is one of the earliest examples of Islamic architecture and forms the archetypal structure of later mosques and Islamic structures. Its octagonal structure has four entryways, and its interior is decorated with verses from Surah al-Isra in the Quran. These inscriptions are also some of the earliest surviving examples of the text of the Quran.

Inside the mosque, worshippers are met by grand stained glass windows, intricately decorated with Islamic motifs and typography.

The mosque is also home to one of the oldest surviving mihrabs, a niche in the mosque’s wall showing the direction of prayer towards Mecca.

The Western Wall

One of the most important sites at Al-Aqsa is the Western Wall, also known as the al-Buraq wall, on the southwest fringe of the mosque.

The wall is between the Gate of the Prophet and the Moroccan Gate, and the area also has a small mosque, which was constructed between 1307 and 1336CE. 

Standing around 20 metres tall and 50 metres in length, the wall is believed to be where the Prophet Mohammed tied a winged horse-like creature, known as al-Buraq, before he ascended to heaven.

The Western Wall is sacred for Jews, who believe that it is the last remaining structure of the Herodian temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70CE. 

Each year, tens of thousands of Jews gather and pray at the site, posting prayers between niches in the wall. 

Al-Qibli Mosque 

The silver-domed structure is towards the southern wall of Al-Aqsa and is the first building constructed by Muslims at the site. It is considered one of the most significant structures on the site and is  where the imam stands to lead worshippers in prayer. 

When Muslims entered Jerusalem in 638CE, Islam’s second caliph, Omar bin al-Khattab, and his companions ordered the construction of the mosque, in what was at the time a barren and neglected area. 

Originally, the mosque was a simple building that sat on wooden trusses, but the structure that is seen today was first built by the Umayyad Caliph Walid bin Abdul Malek bin Marwan at the start of the eighth century.

Throughout history, the mosque has experienced numerous earthquakes and attacks, which have left a mark on the original structure.

Its last major refurbishment was during the Ottoman period, during which the sultan Suleiman the Magnificent restored a number of sites within the mosque area, installing plush carpets and lanterns.

Today, Al-Qibli Mosque has nine entrances. The main entrance is in the middle of the building’s northern facade. Inside, stone and marble columns tower high, supporting the structure.

The stone columns are ancient, while the marble ones were part of renovations in the early 20th century. 

With enough room to host around 5,500 worshippers, the mosque has a length of 80 metres and width of 55 metres.

Inside, the mosque’s dome is wooden and the columns are decorated with glass mosaics, which feature illustrations of plants, geometric patterns and verses from the Quran. 

How has the site become a symbol of Palestinian resistance?

For Palestinians, Al-Aqsa serves more than a religious function and is the centre of the cultural life, where they go to celebrate, congregate and mourn. 

Many Palestinians who frequent the mosque have been visiting since they were young, and, for them, Al-Aqsa is the most widely recognized symbol of their country.

Many also break their fasts at the mosque during Ramadan and go to pray there on Fridays, depending on the restrictions Israeli occupation forces have in place. 

Another reason for the Palestinian attachment to the mosque is the threat to its existence posed by hardline groups who want the area to be the home of a rebuilt temple.

Despite opposition to the idea by mainstream Jewish religious leaders, calls to rebuild the temple have been getting louder in recent decades and have drawn religious and political support.

The site is home to what is believed to be Palestine’s first museum, the Islamic Museum, which was established in 1923 and contains rare archaeological and artistic collections, as well as manuscripts of the Quran.

History of tensions at Al-Aqsa

The Al-Aqsa Mosque, along with the rest of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, was captured by the Israelis during the 1967 war.

After the conquest and subsequent occupation, Israeli authorities allowed Jews to perform prayers at the Western Wall but not inside Al-Aqsa.

As a result of those restrictions, Jews and foreign tourists can enter the site only through the Maghribi Gate. 

Nevertheless, there have been countless attacks on Al-Aqsa, mostly by Zionist groups, but Israeli authorities have also been criticized for carrying out excavations and demolitions in the area.

In 1988, during the First Intifida, Israeli forces attacked Muslim worshippers who were in the courtyard outside the Dome of the Rock, using teargas and rubber-coated steel bullets, and injuring many. 

One of the most notable recent incidents happened in September 2000, when then Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon toured Al-Aqsa, surrounded by heavily armed Israeli soldiers.

The act was seen as a major provocation and inflamed tensions, with many attributing the start of the Second Intifada to the incident.  

In 2015, nationalists entered the site to mark the anniversary of Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, provoking Palestinian protests and Israeli military suppression of any dissent. Known as “Jerusalem Day,” 17 May is a date that usually sees an uptick in aggression. 

Muslims frequently face difficulties when entering Al-Aqsa due to Israeli security measures with young men, especially, blocked from entering during periods of heightened tensions.

Muslims in the West Bank can only enter the site with a permit: restrictions vary, including a total bar on certain days.

The atmosphere is particularly tense during Ramadan, when Israeli authorities can place bans on Palestinian worshippers who want to pray at the site, or when members of the Knesset tour the area.

Nadda Osman is a British-Egyptian journalist and editor based in the UK; she reports on human rights, social trends and issues as well as culture and arts in the Middle East and north Africa region