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     Dome of the Rock
     Caliphate in Damascus
     Egyptian masters

Mamelukes and Turks

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The Arab conquests: 7th century

One of the most dramatic and sudden movements of any people in history is the expansion, by conquest, of the Arabs in the 7th century (only the example of the Mongols in the 13th century can match it). The desert tribesmen of Arabia form the bulk of the Muslim armies. Their natural ferocity and love of warfare, together with the sense of moral rectitude provided by their new religion, form an irresistible combination.

When Muhammad dies in 632, the western half of Arabia is Muslim. Two years later the entire peninsula has been brought to the faith, and the Arab nomads are Muslim in the desert to the east of Palestine and Syria.


The great Christian cities of Syria and Palestine fall to the Arabs in rapid succession from635. Damascus, in that year, is the first to be captured. Antioch follows in 636. And 638 brings the greatest prize of all, in Muslim terms, when Jerusalem is taken after a year's siege.

It is a moment of profound significance for the young religion, for Islam sees itself as the successor of Judaism and Christianity. The city of the people of Moses, in which Jesus also preaches and dies, is a holy place for Muslims too. Moses and Jesus are Muhammad's predecessors as prophets. A link with Muhammad himself will also soon emerge in Jerusalem.


Muslim Jerusalem: from the 7th century

The courtesy of the Arab captor of Jerusalem, in his treatment of the Christian defenders, has become legendary. He is Omar, the second caliph (his young daughter, Hafsa, is one of Muhammad's widows). Entering the city on a white camel, he is invited by the Christian patriarch to pray in the church of the Holy Sepulchre. He declines - on the grounds that if he does so, his followers will wish to turn the building into a mosque.

Instead he turns his attention to the Temple Mount, site of both Solomon's and Herod's temples, which has remained in ruins since the destruction of the temple by the Romans six centuries earlier. Here Omar builds a mosque. And from here, it is later believed, his father-in-law Muhammad ascends one night to heaven.


The mosque built by Omar no longer exists (its name, al-Aqsa, is reused for a subsequent building). Soon, under another caliph, the Temple Mount acquires the magnificent monument which is the third holiest shrine in Islam after Mecca and Medina. This is the Dome of the Rock (Al-Qubbat as-Sakhrah), covering the bare rock at the highest point of the Temple Mount - later also believed by the faithful to be the place from which Muhammad ascends. Jerusalem is launched on its long career as a largely Muslim city.

The caliph has two good reasons to build a superb shrine here. He wants to attract pilgrims (Mecca is in the hands of a rival), and he wants to outdo in splendour the domed Christian church of the Holy Sepulchre.


The Dome of the Rock:691

The Dome of the Rock, completed in 691 and the earliest surviving example of Muslim architecture, borrows in spectacular fashion the themes of Byzantine mosaic and domed roof. This city of Jerusalem, taken from the Christians only half a century previously, still has the skills and crafts first developed for use in imperial churches.

The dome itself is a great wooden structure. The caliph has both interior and exterior of the shrine lavishly decorated in a combination of polished marble and glittering glass mosaic against a gold background. Much of the material is acquired in Constantinople, and it is possible that some of the craftsmen are imported with it.


The caliphate in Damascus: 661-750

When the first Umayyad caliph becomes firmly established, after 661, he makes Damascus his capital. Syria begin a century at the centre of affairs, a position reflected in the superb Umayyad mosque in Damascus. It is built in 705 on the site of a Christian church dedicated to John the Baptist (whose supposed tomb the mosque still contains).

Unrest between rival Arab factions leads to a revolt in Persia in 747. It is headed by descendants of al-Abbas, an uncle of the prophet Muhammad. Abbasid forces reach and capture Damascus in 750. The Umayyads are hunted down and destroyed. Under the new Abbasid caliphate, the centre of the Muslim world shifts to Mesopotamia and the new city of Baghdad.


Egyptian masters: 9th - 11th century

In 877 a Mameluke sultan of Egypt sweeps up through Palestine and Syria. His invasion begins more than two centuries of Egyptian dominance - a familiar situation in this part of the world at many periods of history. Separated from Mesopotamia by a broad swathe of desert, this half of the Fertile Crescent is more easily controlled by Mamelukes in Cairo than from Baghdad.

Three successive Egyptian dynasties (Tulunid, Ikhshidid and Fatimid) retain power in the region until the late 11th century. By then there are new contenders on the scene - the Seljuk Turks, and the Christian crusaders.


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