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A visit to Masjid Al Aqsa and its surroundings


(By Javeed Mirza) Today is Sep 11, Friday afternoon Juma time, and I am in the ancient mosque in Jerusalem, next to the Dome of the Rock, also called Bayt al Muqaddas (house of reverence). The Qutba is being delivered by the venerated Imam of the masjid. He climbs with difficulty the steps of the mehrab and delivers his sermon. The solemnity of the occasion is shared by the congregation which has taken up places outside the mosque and inside its compound. The compound has hundreds of olive trees and some of the believers are seen under the shade of the trees.

Attending the Friday prayers at this exalted place is a much sought after goal of millions of Muslims. The majestic presence of the old man delivering the qutba is keenly heard by the congregationists. Like most sermons, it is a call for following the Righteous path and doing good deeds. The Dua (Prayer) is an emotional outpouring for Justice and for the end of occupation, among other expressions of sorrow and hope.

Another name for the mosque is al-Haram ash-Sharif (“the Noble Sanctuary”). The premises of Masjid Al Aqsa is actually a larger territory comprising more than hundred structures in 37 acres, but the Zionists isolate the place to just the Dome of the Rock and Masjid Al Aqsa, calling it Mount Temple… alluding to the Third Temple that their revered King Solomon built a thousand years before Islam and claim that it was located around this site of Masjid Al Aqsa.

Isolation of the site to just the main mosque, the Palestinians say, allows the Zionists to tamper with other monuments in this large territory as the latter are seen to lack significance.

This ancient mosque is around 100 yards south of the Mosque on the Dome and is reached by descending down a number of steps and walking a descending slope. This was first built by the second Khalifa, Umar ibn Al-Khattab, after he came to visit Jerusalem after the victory of the Muslim army over the local rulers. (There is a funny story of Umar’s arrival in Jerusalem on a donkey from Madina with his steward and the two sharing the donkey ride alternatively.

The Patriarch Sophronius, a representative of the Byzantine government, had insisted on meeting him in order to surrender and was stunned to see Umar come walking while the steward was seated on the donkey). Umar’s mosque was made of wood and lasted 40 years. On this site the Umayyad dynasty’s caliph Abd al-Malik constructed the Dome of the Rock and the Masjid Al Aqsa and the same were completed by his son Al-Walid in 705 CE. Subsequently there were major earthquakes. It’s present structure owes the construction work to the Fatimid dynasty’s caliph Ali AzZahir.

The existing mosque is said to have been constricted significantly due to the devastations. Periodic restorations were conducted. Today, in its present form, it is still a magnificent site with very high ceiling stretching to 100 feet in the middle and has fine decorative glass and wood works. Excellent calligraphy, mosaic and marble work, geometrical and flower designs bedeck all aspects of the ceiling and walls. This ancient mosque has two levels of basement made of solid huge granites. One area has a library that is home to 500,000 books on Islam.

The lower basement is kept lighted. It is said that the Prophet Mohammed told his followers, that if they are unable to visit the mosque Al Aqsa, they should contribute and send Olive oil to keep this part of the mosque lighted. The mosque was currently undergoing repair close to the front in the middle section, the place from where the Imam gave his sermon. The Juma prayer was conducted along the lines followed by the Turkish and is distinct from that followed by the Arabs. The Turkish format of the prayer is distinct in that it has a separate place from where the Muezzin calls the Azan and from where other Qari’s recite the Quran. The highMehrabis another distinctive mark of the Turkish design. It is an elevated place of standing from where the Imam gives the sermon and is a landmark place inside the mosque. It is made of intricate wood designs. It is said that the original wooden mehrab donated by the famous Kurdish king Salah Uddin in the 12th century was destroyed in a fire created by a crazed Christian tourist from Australia in August 1969. Now, they have a new one. It is around 12 feet in height and is reached by climbing around 20 steps. They say that the existing mehrab at the tomb of Prophet Abraham (the patriarch of the Jews, Christians and the Muslims) is a twin of the original mehrab that was in this mosque.

The Dome of the Rock is distinguished by its golden dome. On Fridays, women pray here while men pray in the main Masjid al Aqsa nearby. The regular conducting of prayers is done in the nearby Masjid al AQSA. It is an impressive structure, serene inside and outside. The tiles and decorative work inside the mosque are a feast for the eyes. There is excellent mosaic work and inlaid marble stones as well as gold lining. There is the beauty of the arches and the calligraphy and geometrical designs and tempered glass. In the center is the tomb and there is an identified place with the Prophets Foot print from where he ascended to Heaven. There is a basement inside the mosque which can accommodate around 50 people and here too prayers are offered. The mosque was undergoing construction. A few of Prophet Mohammed’s hair are also preserved here and shown on the 10th day of Muharram.

The masjid Al Aqsa is located inside the Old city section of Jerusalem. Access to it is allowed from 2 of the 8 gates that surround the gated structure with high (15 to 50 feet at different points) and thick walls (base of around 10 feet). It is constructed of solid brown granite got from the local mountains. The Old city, was demolished and built a number of times by various rulers. Its current construction was built in the period from 1535-42 by the Ottoman Turkish sultan Suleiman. Damascus gate is the more impressive one. I was staying close to its nearby Herod’s gate. Outside the gates there was abundance of fruits being sold. Among them were Guava, Mango, Figs, Apple, Grapes and Bananas etc. There are steep steps, made of granite, that lead to a labyrinth of lanes and by lanes, intertwining with houses and dwellings on either side. The lanes are narrow. Some of the lanes allow one way passage of small cars and motor cycles. It is very easy to get lost in the web of the lanes if one is not watchful of the route. There are schools and shops and communities living here. The Eastern sector of the Old city is inhabited by 300,000 Muslims. The City has the Jewish sector, the small Armenian sector and the Christian sector. A small Morrocon sector was demolished and subsumed under the Jewish sector after the occupation subsequent to the 1967 war. One of the lanes had the identification showing the path that Jesus Christ walked on the way to crucifixion. At the end of the road was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It was a momentous place, crowded with visitors, mostly European, basking in the limelight, reverence and the sobriety of the place. The visitors doused pieces of cloth or napkins in the red stained water coming from the stone platform where Jesus Christ was bathed after his crucifixion. The place from where he was resurrected was also lined with a huge crowd. The priests, attired in black, helped the worshippers pay homage.

The Old city of Jerusalem has the most enviable history among all cites of the world. It has been the home and the center of conflict between its protagonists, the Jews, Christians and Muslims for most of its duration. All the religions had their base there as well as centers of learning. It sprouted the best of thought and the worst of fighting and saw many upheavals. The Romans ruled it before the time of Jesus Christ. The Crusades and the conquest of the area by Christian kings in the twelfth and thirteen century were a distinguishing element. The Muslims ruled it for the most recent past for over a thousand years. It is now the reign of the Zionists. Today, the Israeli government controls the entire area, which it considers part of its national capital. However, the UN only recognizes it as part of occupied Palestinian territory. The city itself is seen to be a large maze of hills and valleys. There is a decent amount of greenery and mostly brown mountains, the stone of which has been liberally used in construction throughout the area. Its high altitude gives it milder weather than its surroundings and in the summer the variance in temperature can be as much as 20 degrees. Narrow and winding roads skirt the city. There is construction and new developments within and in the surrounding areas of the city.

The Al Aqsa mosque is technically under the autonomous institution of the Waqf board of the Jordanian Govt. This happened after Jordan lost Jerusalem to the Israeli army in the 1967 war. Israel however allowed the Waqf board to run the administration of the Al Aqsa complex. The ubiquitous Israeli army, in full battle gear and olive dress, manned different corners of the Old city, and has a heavy presence in the East sector where Palestinians live. The Jordanian employees of the Waqf board could be seen in white shirts with walkie-talkies, coordinating, mediating and colluding with the Israeli army authorities. The Moroccan gate was the access point for the non-Muslims to visit the Al –Aqsa. The timing for non-Muslim visitors would start at 7am and go on until mid-day. The Arabs would be restricted at this time. The Israeli army stationed at the Moroccan gate would then move in with the tourists to protect them and allow the visitors (mostly Jews) to pray there. Adjoining the Moroccan gate was the Israeli sector and the famed Western wall, called the Kotel ha Maaravi. It is a remnant outside wall of the Second Temple after the Romans demolished it in 70 CE. It is popularly called the Wailing Wall… a name derived from the expression of anguish and grief expressed at the site by the Jews. It is the holiest site for the Jews. Thousands of Jewish worshippers, in traditional attire, were walking around the area and construction work was also seen.

Close to the Moroccan gate, on the other side of the Wailing Wall, is a small structure where the Prophet in his famous Meraj ascendancy to Heaven came from Madina on the Burraq (a variant of Horse) and tied the Burraq at this structure. There is seen an iron circular ring on the lower level, one that was used to tie the Burraq. From here the Prophet walked up the Dome Rock, the highest point in this area, and from here he was taken by the Archangel Gabriel to the Heavens. Prayers are also done at this site.

The significance of the Al Aqsa mosque is from this linkage of the Prophets travel to Heaven and his coming back with the order from Allah to have his followers pray a minimum of 5 times each day. It is said that the Prophet, at this site, led the prayer which had in its congregation all the past prophets. Also, in his early period of stay in Madina, (after the forced emigration from Mecca to Madina), the direction of the Qibla for the namaz was the Masjid Al Aqsa. The Prophet had entered into a contract of coexistence and coordinated living against common enemies called the Madina charter, with the inhabitants of Madina. It is said that in deference to the wishes of the sizable Jewish population of Madina, he acceded to their request to make the direction of Jerusalem as the direction of the namaz or Qibla. This lasted for 17 months and then Gabriel directed him to change the direction to the Kabah in Mecca.

The Jews also ruled this part of the world, for a couple of centuries, about 1000 years before Christ. Their famous kings were David and his son Solomon. The perennial quest by the Orthodox Jews, seeking to find the revered Third temple constructed by King Solomon has made them penetrate and do excavations under the foundations of this ancient mosque and adjacent structures. There is seen to be a continuous archeological digging effort in the vicinity and underground to locate this lost holy temple. In the process, the Palestinians see them undermining their existing structures. The Jews identify the Lost Temple with their Jewish identity and strive to assert this by staking a claim to this place. Their leaders periodically (the ex-PM Ariel Sharon and currently their Agriculture minister) come to the Dome Mosque, backed by Israeli army personnel, and offer prayers at the site and strut around. The recent peak in resistance described as the “Third Intifada” was sparked by such provocations by the Agriculture minister with his entourage and military personnel closing the premises to the Arabs and giving scope to the Arab contention that the Zionists were planning to make the Muslim’s third holiest place as their own.

The city of Hebron lies on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Driving towards the city, one can see the neat and impressive looking settler colonies dotting the landscape on one side and the not so neat and not so developed living areas of the Palestinians on the other side of the road. The monster cement wall, separates the settler communities from the Palestinians and fragments the Palestinians by crisscrossing the streets and was constructed from a purely security point of viewto monitor every single Palestinian movement (the rationale was to stopsuicide bombers from getting into Jewish living areas. The second Intifada had seen such bombers and the Israeli authorities attribute the stoppage of suicide bombing to the erection of this cement barrier).

The wall has served to dismember the Palestinian communities who had lived together for generations and affected their economy adversely. It serves to disburse the Palestinians and create pockets of living that can be easily controlled. It is around 15 feet tall and inclined at the top with wire barricade in some places and snakes the landscape almost everywhere, stretching 500 Km or so. It has border crossings at different points and is manned by heavily armed soldiers with guns, road blocks, bunkers and surveillance equipment.The crossing takes hours and is sometimes subject to the whim of the soldiers and the production of requisite documents. It is the ugliest manifestation of the “occupation” and is an external projection of the great walls that divide the hearts and minds of the Palestinians and the Israelis.
In the city of Hebron there is a revered site for the Jews and Muslims and Christians called the Ibrahimi mosque or the Cave of the Patriarch’s. It is the site of Prophet Abraham’s mosque and the maqbara (resting place) of him and his wife Sara and also that of Yakub (Jacob) and his wife Leah and that of Isaq (Isaac) and wife Rebecca. Hebron is a predominantly Palestinian city, with a few hundred settlers. The Arabs surround the Ibrahimi mosque and, as always, tens of boys and girls from ages 3 to 11 from the refugee camps come to accost the visitors begging for money. Adults too seek alms and sell souvenirs. They ask for “Zakat” (one of the five essential pillars of Islam and a mandated requirement for a Muslim to give 2.5% of his earnings to the Poor) and seek alms saying that they are “Miskeen” (Poor and Pathetic). Unkempt and persistent boys and girls, similar to the beggars of India, endearing and drawing attention to their plight remind one of the generations of such kids growing up in refugee slums, with little education and less hope. The mosque inside is comparatively small and unimpressive and draws less crowd.

The original wooden mehrab of the 12th century is intact. Sarah and Prophet Ibrahim’s tomb is also a contentious site. It was here that there was the firing by a Brooklyn born Zionist, Baruch Goldstein in Feb 1994. It resulted in the death of 29 worshippers and injury to 125 worshippers. He was a member of the Jewish Defense League. The Israeli govt. then demarcated the mosque into two wings and one was allocated exclusively for the Jews. The Ibrahimi tomb, allocated to the Muslims, is open to Israeli visitors at fixed timings during the day (wherein the Muslims are not allowed) and is exclusively meant for the Israelis during their religious holidays. There are totally separated paths for the two communities to enter and the Israeli section of the mosque holds the tomb of Prophet Isaac and his wife Rebecca. Israeli soldiers and barbed wire protect this section. One of the factors contributing to the violence surrounding the Dome of the Rock is the notion that the Israeli govt. will partition the mosque from its surroundings just like it did the Ibrahimi mosque.

In the background of the turmoil fueling the Palestinian rage is the “occupation” of the Arab land, its usurpation, denial of praying rights at Masjid Al Aqsa to the Arabs from outside the old city of Jerusalem, constant clamping of conditions for praying on a daily basis (restrictions to men below 50 years). Men living ten miles away in the West Bank said that they were not allowed to enter the premises and that it wasmany years since they visited the Dome Mosque. The alienation of the youth, generations of frustration growing up in Refugee camps, high unemployment, loss of hope due to absence of any route to betterment have created a tinderbox that is easy to ignite. The few youth that I saw at masjid Al Aqsa, faces covered with scarf, who were willing to fight the Israeli army in spite of their puny strength and armed only with stones, could possibly be from the refugee camps andseem to be willing martyrs.
The Mount of Olives is a scenic place close to Jerusalem and captures the beauty of the locale. It is the place from where Jesus Christ ascended to Heaven. I was surprised to see Native Americans do their traditional dance here. I was told that the group also had Polynesian Maoris among them. No doubt it is a much visited place and a revered site for the Christians and the Muslims and Peace seekers. (The Muslims differ on their understanding of Christ’s ascendancy to Heaven… the Muslim version being that on the verge of crucifixion, Jesus was uplifted into Heaven and another person with Jesus’s look alike face was crucified).

There were side trips to the tomb of Younusalaisalam (Prophet Younus also called Noah of Ark) and to that of Salman Farsi (a revered companion of Prophet Mohammed). The sites are disputed as their abodes of rest are cited to be elsewhere too… both the places were very modest and its upkeep done by custodians from centuries, who in turn received financial aid from the visitors. One of them was in a desolate place and run by a Bedouin family.

The Dead Sea is a few hours’ drive from Jerusalem. It is a huge sea and borders Jordan. It is a place of disrepute for the Muslims. They are advised to bypass it as it is a cursed place. The location at the Dead Sea that we went had a tourist facility for entering and swimming in the lake. There were European tourists swimming. The salt content here is said to be 10 times that in the Ocean and hence no animal can live and people cannot drown in it as it pushes them to the surface. The soil is said to have healing properties and those venturing into the sea would put the soil on their skin. Many commercial products developed from the sea were seen and sold at this facility and elsewhere.

Mr. Javeed Mirza can be reached at [email protected]

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