A structure whose history is as striking as its beauty, the Al Aqsa mosque is a key site to visit for all travellers undertaking their pilgrimage. And while it’s a fantastic place to stop-off as part of your journey, it's important to understand the history of the area and how the mosque's cycle of destruction and rebuilding feeds into its character.
So, what is it and why is it so special?
What makes it unique?
Located in Jerusalem's Old City, Al Aqsa is not only a mosque and is in fact made up from multiple elements. These include the Dome of the Rock - an Islamic shrine added in 691CE and what may experts believe is the oldest if not the first dome that was built in the history of the religion. Originally constructed from wooden boards, the building's gold-plated roof marks it out as one of the most well-known sights in all of Jerusalem. And ringing the site are the famous seventeen gates with names like 'The Iron Gate' and 'The Gate of Ablution' which provided protection in ancient times. And four ancient minarets ring the edges of the compound, with the Bab al-Silsila tower producing the call to Prayer.
What has it been through?
Any structure as old as the mosque has to undergo preservation and repairs but Al-Aqsa has been built up from the ground up – twice! The site was originally destroyed by an earthquake in 746 and to help finance the reconstruction, Caliph Abu ja’fat al-Mansur had the gold and silver plating of the detailing on the sides of the mosque smelted down to make coinage; literally having the mosque pay for its own repairs! And after that, it was destroyed again by another earthquake in 1033. And after experiencing significant change and destruction during the crusades, it was once again destroyed in 1969 after an arsonist set fire to the Mimbar and Qibly mosque – whereupon it was soon rebuilt and restored.
Despite the beauty of the site, the area has been an unfortunate site of conflict throughout its otherwise rich history. The compound was first captured during the crusades by the Templars 1099, before being reconquered by Saladin in 1187. The site is also plays a significant role in Judaism and has seen boycotts and protests, as seen last year when Muslim protestors took part in a boycott of the mosque in support of Palestinian worshippers.