The Wonders of Islam
The Dome on the Rock
The Dark Ages: Islamic Empire
This is Cordoba in Spain. That’s the great Mosque of Cordoba up there. And this handy little gadget is an astrolabe. Some people call this the first computer and what this thing does is calculate exactly where you are, by using the stars.
Islamic stargazers perfected the astrolabe in the Dark Ages to to work out the direction of Mecca, so they always knew which way to pray. It filled their art with cosmic patterns. Later on, I will be showing you how to use one of these, I hope, but first we need to travel back in time to the beginnings of Islam, to the first fascinating creations of Islamic art and architecture.
So right now, we’re here in Cordoba, Spain. But to go back to the beginnings of Islamic art we need to go right across the Mediterranean to here. Jerusalem – the heart of the religious dark ages. What huge dramas have been enacted here. What important art has been created? Most of it’s gone unfortunately, but not all of it.
The Dome on the Rock
Some of it has survived, notably that magnificent golden dome on the horizon – the Dome on the Rock. It’s one of the most significant buildings ever put up, a piece of architecture that changed history. You couldn’t really ask for a more dramatic location, could you? If you think it looks good from up here on the Mount of Olives, just wait until we get closer.
Mohammad died in 632 A.D. and for the first 50 years or so after his death, Islam was preoccupied with conquest. The speed at which the Islamic empire expanded was remarkable. In just a few decades, it went from nothing to gigantic. It was the most dramatic, most aggressive and fastest feat of empire building the world has seen.
This is the Islamic Empire, just 100 years after Mohammad’s death. Up here, the whole of Spain, all of North Africa, the entire middle east, as far across as the borders of India. But all this astonishingly successful conquest, didn’t leave much time for art. Almost nothing survives from the first years of Islam.
Clearly, art was not a priority. And then, out of nothing, as if by magic, this appears, the Dome of the Rock. Nothing in Islamic art prepares us for this. It’s just suddenly there. A definitive Islamic creation, seemingly conjured out of thin air. It’s like a flying saucer or something, that’s landed out of nowhere and something you can sense immediately, even from this distance, as the powerful geometry of it, that air of mathematical clarity and that’s something that continues in Islamic architecture.
As you can see, it’s an octagon, it’s got eight sides. Octagons have a special symbolic presence, because they combine the geometry of a circle with the geometry of a square.
I’ll show you. If I draw a circle here… and then… two intersecting squares… here… and here… The shape they form, the shape in the middle… That’s the octagon.
The octagon is a surprisingly popular Dark Age shape with powerful, sacred meanings. If the Earth is a square and heaven is a perfect circle, the octagon is a symbolic bridge between the two.
All the proportions of the Dome of the Rock are meaningful. So these walls here… the walls of the octagon… each of those is about 20 metres long. And the Dome in the middle, the height of that is again about 20 metres and the diameter of it is also 20 metres.
All these proportions have been carefully calculated, have a purpose. It’s as if the entire building has been shaped by a divine mathematics. And those divine mathematics have given it a sacred meaning.
This location, Temple Mount, is the holiest spot in Jerusalem. This is where King Solomon built the first Jewish Temple, the one destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and then Herod, the infamous King Herod, built the second temple here as well.
Herod’s temple was made entirely from white marble and was so huge, it covered 67 acres of the sacred location. So grand, so pompous and to my eyes, so inelegant!
So the Dome of the Rock sits on layer upon layer of crucial religious history and when the Muslims conquered Jerusalem in 638 A.D. and claimed this site for Islam, they took possession of what is probably the most loaded religious spot on earth. And that’s just the outside!
For me, this mysterious interior is one of the most atmospheric achievements of the Dark Ages. There’s something so haunting about the way the light works in here, the shimmer of the mosaics, the whispers of the calligraphy.
Basically, it’s a circular shrine. It’s not a mosque, it’s a place of pilgrimage that has been built around a sacred site. The site it’s all been built around is the site of this holy rock here. The Jews believe this is the Rock on which Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac. And the Ark of the Covenant is thought to lie hidden somewhere underneath, as well.
Islam has a different tradition. Islam believes that this is the holy rock from which the prophet Mohammad set off on his great night journey to heaven.
The angel Gabriel came to visit Mohammad at Mecca and brought him here to Jerusalem. From this rock, the prophet ascended to heaven and there, in Paradise, he met God and God instructed him on the Muslim duty of prayer.
So this holy rock, like the architecture around it, is a point of contact between man and God and that’s the religious message of the whole building.
This type of encircling architecture, built over a precious site, something we found in the round churches at Bysantium. Remember, San Vitale in Ravenna and Santa Costanza in Rome.
Caliph Abd al-Malik
The Muslim Caliph Abd al-Malik who built the Dome of the Rock was deliberately taking on the architecture of the Christians. This round shape, the proportions, none of it was an accident.
Abd al Malik also added an explicit inscription, which runs all the way round, which gives the date on which the Dome was finished – 691 A.D. it also includes a stern message to the Christians. “O, you people of the book”, it says, meaning the Bible. “Jesus is only a messenger of God. God is the only one God.”. It’s a deliberate challenge to the Christians. Jesus is just a prophet. There is only one God and God’s don’t have sons. This entire building is taking on Christianity. Floor to ceiling is covered in the most exquisite mosaics. Gold and green… there’s a palm tree and these beautiful jewelled crowns.
And all the pieces of the mosaic are set at different angles, so they reflect the light differently at different times of day and all this, all these glorious mosaics, were intended to evoke a vision of paradise.
“When you look there in Paradise” says the Koran,” you will see the lights that cannot be imagined. Fruits of every kind and all that you ask for.”.
At a stroke, Islam had invented for itself an unmistakable new architecture. And at the centre of this new architecture, was a vision of paradise.
The Islamic paradise is a green and verdant alternative to the harsh desert landscape in which Islam was born. These lands where water is precious and so is hope.