Al Aqsa Mosque is located in the Old
City of Jerusalem within the
walls of what is believed to be the Temple of Solomon (where the Ark of the
Covenant and the Ten Commandment tablets were kept) and the Second Temple of
Herod, and is in the corner of the enclosure next to the Western or Wailing
Wall. This area is the Temple Mount and is of deep religious significance
for both Muslims and Jews. In this area is the Dome
of the Rock that shelters the spot where Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammed,
accompanied by the angel Gabriel, ascended to heaven on his winged horse. That
same spot is believed by Jews to be the place where Abraham was prepared to
do God's bidding and sacrifice his son Isaac.
The literal translation of the name of this mosque in Jerusalem is "the Farthest
Mosque," meaning that in the Prophet Mohammed's time it was farthest from the
holy city of Mecca in the country of Saudi
Arabia. The Al Masjid el-Haram Mosque surrounding the Kaaba in Mecca
is the holiest site in Islam, followed by the Mosque
of the Prophet in Medina.
Al Aqsa Mosque is also known as "the Noble Sanctuary," and is the third holiest
site in Islam. The Islamic faithful believe that the Prophet began his "Night
Journey" to heaven in the Al Masjid el-Haram in Mecca, was transported to the
Al Aqsa Mosque or Temple Mount and then to heaven from the holy rock. Mohammed
led Muslims prayers while facing this spot until about seventeen months after
his hijra (emigration) to Medina.
Originally a small prayer house built by the same Caliph who built the Dome of the Rock, it was completed sometime around 705 AD. Crusaders occupied the mosque in Jerusalem when they captured the city in 1099. It was used both as their palace headquarters and a Christian church. They even called the Islamic structure the Temple of Solomon. It was used as a mosque again after Saladin recaptured Jerusalem in 1187. A Christian Church dedicated to the Virgin Mary was built on the site about 100 years before the mosque, and some Christians claimed stones from the church were used in the construction of the mosque. Its construction was financed by minting coins from the gold on the Dome of the Rock.
The Al Aqsa Mosque was damaged and repaired many times after earthquakes over the centuries. In the sixteenth century, ruling Ottomans undertook extensive renovations of the Temple Mount as a whole, including the Fountain of Qasim Pasha, the Dome of the Prophet, and the Pool of Raranj. Unlike the Dome of the Rock, which is Byzantine in origin, the dome on the mosque is purely Islamic in design. There are four minarets. King Abdullah of Jordan has been granted permission to erect a fifth minaret in honor of his father, King Hussein, who donated the funds for the gold Dome of the Rock. It is planned to be the highest structure in the Old City. As many as 400,000 worshippers can be accommodated in the mosque property—another 5,000 in the interior of the structure. The interior of the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem is supported by 45 columns, most of which are white marble, and boasts 121 stained glass windows. King Farouk of Egypt funded the painting of the ceiling.