Albright Institute Hosts Workshop on the Haram al-Sharif

Capitalizing Jerusalem: Mu’awiya’s Urban Vision – 638-680

By Helena Flusfeder

On Monday, June 8, the Albright Institute hosted a workshop on “Capitalizing Jerusalem: Mu’awiya’s Urban Vision 638-680,” organized by art historian and former National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow, Professor Beatrice St. Laurent of Bridgewater State University and her colleague, Isam Awwad, Chief Architect and Conservator at the Haram al-Sharif from 1972 to 2004, who is also an Albright Associate Fellow. Eight other scholars, including specialists in the Islamic and Byzantine periods, participated in the closed workshop.

Dome of the Rock

In their presentation on the influence of Mu’awiya’s Urban Vision on the construction of the buildings in the vicinity of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, St. Laurent and Awwad identified the building known as Solomon’s Stables in the southeast corner of the Haram al-Sharif as a mosque, proposing that it was originally built by Mu’awiya, the first Umayyad caliph in 639 CE. They further suggested that this Mosque of Mu’awiya might have been the prototype for the first al-Aqsa Mosque.

The researchers proposed that it was “part of Mu’awiya’s grander religio-political urban scheme in Bayt al-Maqdis, as Jerusalem was known at the time, thus re-sacralizing an already significant sacred precinct and proclaiming dominion of that space for early Islam.” They are also convinced that, “prior to his death in 680, Mu’awiya planned and began construction of the Dome of the Rock in the area northwest of his mosque and the reconstruction of the Double Gate as an entrance to both the upper area of the precinct and the Dome. In addition, having already built his palace outside the precinct he also initiated construction of the administrative structures west of his palace establishing Jerusalem as his capital.”

Prof. St. Laurent further pointed out that one of the models for the Dome of the Rock seems to have been “the commemorative early Christian octagonal church, including the Kathisma Church on Bethlehem Road which was built around a central rock and discovered in the mid-1990’s.” She proposed that Mu’awiya was also strongly influenced in his plan for the Dome of the Rock by the church built on a Herodian platform overlooking the harbor at Caesarea. The researchers also proposed that Mu’awiya was instrumental in planning the administrative complex south of the Haram; and that there was a link between South Arabia and Jerusalem’s urban plan. Prof. St. Laurent has been researching the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock for the last 25 years.

Participants in the workshop included Gideon Avni, Head of the Archaeological Division, and Jon Seligman, Director of the Excavations, Surveys & Research Department both of the Israel Antiquities Authority; Meir Ben-Dov, a pre-eminent archaeologist and co-director with Benjamin Mazar of the first Israeli archaeological expedition in Jerusalem from 1968-78; Shimon Gibson of the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem; Miriam Rosen-Ayalon, the Leo A. Mayer Professor Emeritus of Muslim Art and Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Milka Levy-Rubin of the Rubin Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Curator of the Humanities Collection at the National Library in Givat Ram, Jerusalem.

“The survival of the Mosque of Mu’awiya raises an important issue. Up to now, the Dome of the Rock was considered the oldest surviving Islamic monument in the world. The rather plain mosque of Mu’awiya displaces by fifty-one years the physically imposing Dome of the Rock adding an entirely new gloss of simplicity, benevolence and quiet diplomacy to the early Islamic period in Jerusalem,” St. Laurent said.

A lively discussion ensued with not all of the participants agreeing with the presenters.

St. Laurent was recently awarded a Seymour Gitin Distinguished Professorship at the Albright and will be in residence at the institute for four and a half months in early 2016.