Chapter 7/19 of book SEE JERUSALEM by INAM R SEHRI
Before Islam, there were definitely holy and blessed places on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem; including a Byzantine church destroyed by Persians in year 614 AD - at place where Al-Aqsa stands now.
The Salat [prayer or Nimaz] was made mandatory for Muslims when Prophet Muhammad pbuh came back from Mer’aj; see the holy Qur’an 17:1. Al-Aqsa, literally means ‘the farthest’ - ‘farthest from Makkah’, an indication to Jerusalem - though the Holy Qur’an does not mention the city by name.
A common misconception: most Muslims consider the Golden Dome of Jerusalem as Al-Aqsa Mosque; these are two different buildings. Golden Dome is a shrine whose significance is derived from the Foundation Stone [holy ROCK], which lies at its heart. As opposed to the Dome of Rock’s Byzantine style, Aqsa Mosque is the feature of early Islamic architecture. It is about 100 yards away from the Golden Dome and is one of the oldest & holiest in the world. During Nabi Muhammad pbuh's lifetime - the term used for Aqsa as mosque didn’t mean a physical structure but location.
Before the Muslims’ take over, Jerusalem was held by the Byzantine Empire, and Emperor Justin had a 6th century Christian church here dedicated to the holy Mary, which was burnt down by the Persians. When Caliph Umar RA, in 638 AD, visited the Temple Mount in the company of Archbishop Sophronius - he said prayer on the Foundation ROCK, the site from where Nabi Muhammad pbuh ascended to heaven.
Then Caliph Umar established a small mosque there for Muslims – most probably over the remains of that demolished church. That structure was later expanded by the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik and finished by his son al-Walid I in [705 or] 715 AD. The building was repeatedly destroyed by earthquakes and rebuilt, until the reconstruction in 1033 AD by the Fatimid caliph ‘Ali az-Zahir and that version of the structure is what can be seen in the present day.
Since then the Muslims are in control of Jerusalem city. The period of Muslim worship on the Temple Mount was only interrupted by the Crusaders, who held Jerusalem during 1099-1187 AD and plundered the Golden Dome and Al-Aqsa Mosque (far less generous than Muslim Caliph Umar, who had spared the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and remains of other religions when he took over Jerusalem).
The place of Caliph Umar’s first mosque is still available to see by tourists; which is a room near the niche of the present Aqsa mosque – called Masjid e Omar.
The Haram comprises nearly one-sixth of the walled Old City and can accommodate thousands of worshippers on festival prayers like Eid. Al-Aqsa itself is 35,000 sq ft in size and including its outer precincts it can accommodate up to 50,000 worshipers. The mosque itself, divided by columns into seven aisles, allows room for about 5000 Muslims to bow down their heads before Allah on the carpeted floor.
It has four minarets and a beautiful, tile-covered facade with 14 Romanesque arches. The Mosque’s main ablution fountain, known as El-Kas [the cup], which is used by worshipers, is located between Al-Aqsa and the Golden Dome. It originally dates back to 709 AD [before completion of Al-Aqsa] AND re-erected by Sultan Qaitbay in 1455 AD.
AL-AQSA Mosque is on the southern end of the Golden Dome, which non-Muslim visitors can access from the Western Wall plaza through Moroccan [Maghrabi] Gate. Muslim visitors can enter from any side – but after showing their passports to the Security Guards proving they are Muslim tourists. Tourists must dress modestly, and women should cover their hair, arms and legs. Shoes are not allowed inside the mosque but are left outside on shelves on entrances.
Archaeologists believe that when the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099 AD, they concluded that the mosque was the true site for Solomon's First Temple – and NOT the [Golden] Dome of the Rock as claimed by Jewish literature.
Across the centuries, Al-Aqsa Mosque has been extensively restored and renovated; most recently during 1938-43, when columns of white Carrara marble, supplied by Mussolini, were installed and a new ceiling was built at the expense of King Farouk of Egypt. In 1967, it was little damaged by gunfire and in 1969 fire damage was deliberately done which destroyed some of the priceless 12th century interior detail. Despite this, the 7-aisled interior is impressive and is home to a striking and carved mihrab.
The early Muslim caliphs of Jerusalem used to reside in Al-Aqsa compound, but Crusaders converted it to the Order of the Temple in 1149 AD; they used the mosque first as their Royal Palace, then as the headquarters of the new Knights Templar AND finally made it church. One of the mosque’s many rooms still has the medieval rose window it had when it was Crusader rulers’ high residence.
After Makkah and Madina, the Jerusalem city is the third most revered holy site in Islam. The magnificent Golden Dome and the nearby Al-Aqsa are the principal remaining shrines on the Temple Mount. The structure has undergone many repairs and decorative additions through the centuries, but its basic design remained substantially unchanged and it stands as the greatest achievements of Islamic architecture related with the ancient time zone.
The AL-AQSA witnessed a turbulent 20th century. On 20th July 1951, while on visit to Al-Aqsa Mosque, King Abdullah of Jordan was shot dead here by a Palestinian while attending Friday prayers in the company of his grandson, Prince Hussein. The Palestinian gunman fired three fatal bullets into the King's head and chest; Prince Hussein was hit too but a medal that had been pinned to Hussein's chest deflected the bullet and saved his life. The assassin named Mustafa Ashu, 21 then, was shot dead by the king's bodyguards at the spot.
Inside AL-AQSA, once there was a Mimber of Nur Ad Din Zinki [1146-74 AD]. Even prior to the liberation of Jerusalem from the Crusaders, Zinki had got this pulpit built in Aleppo in 1168 AD, with the intention of installing it here when AQSA be freed. Zinki; however, passed away before his dream could be realised. It was at the hands of Saladin Ayyubi that the pulpit made its way to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The pulpit was made from cedar wood, decorated with ivory and sea shells. A crown, an emblem of the Tankaziyah state, also features but was probably added later.
The original mimbar was burnt to ashes in a terrorist attack on Al-Aqsa Mosque on 21st August 1969 by a mental-case Australian Christian named Rohan. A new mimbar was then made in Jordan; its shape, size & decoration made identical to the old one and was installed in the mosque in 2007.
Behind the mimbar or pulpit is a rock, originally from the Dome of the Ascension, which bears the left footprint of holy Jesus it is believed. Near the mihrab is a small mosque, known as the Mosque of Omar [RA]. Under the mosque is a large hall. It leads to one of the original entrance passages to the Temple Mount during the period of the Second Temple. In the courtyard on the extreme south-west is a large building, formerly known as the Mosque of the Moors, which now contains the Islamic Museum.
There are 15 green coloured gates leading to the Masjid al Aqsa of which 10 are open and five are closed; most gates are located on the western boundary wall. The keys to all the gates, with the exception of the Moroccan gate are held by the Islamic Waqf. However, they can only open or close gates with the consultation of the Israeli police on duty, which control access to the site.
The steps that lead up to the central plaza, where the Golden Dome sits, are spanned by handsome arched columns dating from the Mameluke period. Some sects of Muslims call these the 'Scales' as they believe that the scales used to weigh the souls of human beings will be hung here on the Judgement Day. See a letter, a tribute, a gratitude on media pages from an American tourist [thesacredplaces.com is referred]:
“I loved it! It was a life goal for me to visit Al-Aqsa Mosque; it was full of peace, harmony and lovely people – they all were very kind and helpful. To try and explain this place in words is difficult but here goes. Built on rock that includes bait ul maqdis, the first qibla of Muslims, as well as various different monuments of many prophets. Every tourist, Muslim or not, should go and see the 3rd holiest site in Islam.
You have to keep your passport with you safe at all times to prove to the guards at the masjid doors that you are a tourist. There is plenty of walking and not much can be done my wheel chair.”
It is Al-Aqsa Mosque's main ablution fountain, known as el-Ka’as [the Cup], and is located in north in between the mosque and the Golden Dome in the Haram compound. It is used by worshipers to perform wudu, a ritual washing of the hands, arms, feet, and face before saying prayers. It was first built in 709 AD by the Umayyads, re-built by the Ayoubi Sultan Al-Adel Abu Bakr in 1193 AD but in 1327–28 Governor Tankiz expanded it to house more worshipers. Lastly, in year 1455, Sultan Ashraf Qaitbey brought it in better shape which the tourists see now a days.
Water in it was originally supplied from Solomon's Pools near Bethlehem but now it gets water from pipes connected to Jerusalem City's main water supply.
AQSA-in Arab Israel Conflict:
The site has been the most contested piece of the Holy Land since Israel took control of East Jerusalem, including the Old City, in 1967. However, the conflict dates even further back - before the creation of Israel even.
The Jerusalem belonged to the international community then under the UN control. It was granted this special status for its importance to the three Abrahamic religions.
After the 2nd Arab-Israeli war in June 1967, Israel took control of the Old City from Jordan; of course, including al-Aqsa compound. In 1980, Israeli parliament passed a law that declared Jerusalem the ‘complete and united capital’ of Israel. Since then, the Islamic Waqf has control over matters inside the Aqsa Plaza, while Israel controls external security and other anti-social activities.
Aqsa Mosque was shut down only once [and for the first time since 1969], after an armed scuffle between Palestinians and Israeli forces. In this episode of 14th July 2017, two Israeli police officers died and also three Arabs – so the mosque was subsequently closed for two days.
Al-Aqsa is a small area, but symbolically it is a large part of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Efforts by international forums & agencies are going on to reach an amicable solution based on humanity and peaceful mutual survival whatsoever - BUT the visits of the internatinal travellers to the Aqsa mosque and Bait ul Maqdas or other spots of religious heritage were never hindered or even discouraged by any Israeli government.
AL-AQSA at night  @ inamsehri.com
Eid in Aqsa Mosque  @ inamsehri.com
Basement of the Aqsa Msq  @ inamsehri.com.