Essay: Islamic Monument Comparison Between the Dome

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Islamic Monument

Comparison between the Dome of the Rock and the Khirbat al-Mafjar, Jordan

The Islamic faith is one which has always blurred the line between secular and sacred life. For the observant Muslim, there are few aspects of one's daily life which are viewed as being necessarily separate from the tenets, practices and community rites of the faith. Therefore, a discussion on the distinctions between secular and sacred spaces in the Islamic faith is somewhat inherently cloudy. Even as spaces are designed for secular uses, the proclivities of the community will often see this space become a pat of the religious life as well. Indeed, worship and adherence are two characteristics of Islamic faith that are permeating and consequential even in irreligious pursuits such as business and socialization.

It is with this understanding that we proceed with a more detailed consideration of the differences and commonalities between secular and sacred spaces as they are rendered in Islamic culture. It is thus that we host a comparative discussion between the Dome of the Rock located in Jerusalem and the Kirbat al-Mafja in Jordan. The contrast between the two structures -- which is considerable -- denotes the distinctive approaches separating secular and sacred spaces, at least with respect to two monumental landmark constructions. Beyond this though, the two monuments selected for consideration reflect the manner in which Islamic modes of architectural expression have changed over time and across different Caliphates. Caliphates refer to the bodies of government that ruled the Muslim world in the years following Prophet Muhammad's death and would set the template by which Shariah law and theocratic rule would become a preferred mode of authority. Through different eras, different Caliphates would take on differing levels of religious orthodoxy or secular modernism, and in a regard, this too is reflected in the two structures due for consideration. It is with this in mind that we reflect on the dimensions of Space, Surface and Iconography as they are represented in each.

Space:

The Dome of the Rock is considered today among the holiest spaces in the Islamic faith, if not for its mysterious originally intended purpose than for its singularity and the degree to which it attracts visitors, pilgrims and worshippers from throughout the world. It is thus that it has evolved into a place of unparalleled sacrament to the Muslim world. Its interior is a space the speaks to this democratic impulse, providing a single open space within the octagonal structure. Its enormity is daunting indeed. This denotes a unique feature of the space, which uses a sprawling rotunda to facilitate a mass worshipping facility. To this juncture, spaces had largely been constructed to accommodate the most basic and utilitarian of needs for the fledgling Muslim communities. The Dome of the Rock would represent a first and most grand effort at courting enormous public gathering to the reinforcement of the faith's growing sphere of influence. The internal space is flooded by sunlight, which pours through hundreds of windows, and filters in such a way that one may deduce prayer hours could be timed by. Even still, its enormous scales gives it a dark, almost cavernous feel that gives the tradition of worship a pointedly minimalist environment.

To that end, it is perhaps in the interior space that the two structures are most distinct from one another. The article by Behrens-Abouseif provides generous description of the main hall of the Winter Palace known as Khirbat al-Mafjar. Predicating this with the explanation that the son of the caliph at the time of its construction had been something of a 'playboy' and that this palatial estate serves as a vacation home. Its recreational purpose is unequivocally suggested by the aesthetic approach to the interior. According to Behrens-Abouseif, "the hall is reached from a projecting porch; sixteen pillars support the vaults of its roof. The porch was richly adorned with stucco floral motifs and representations of athletes, half-naked girls, gazelles, and sheep. A central niche was intended for a stucco statue of the caliph."

Several aspects of this strike as immediately contrary to our expectations. Notably, the intention of constructing a grand statue of the caliph has a highly Pagan and Roman connotation that diverges from present Islamic practices. Bordering on a manner of idolatry, this presentation of a mortal figure demonstrates the Umayyad integration of some distinctly European and imperialistic qualities. Even more striking though is the presentation of the naked female form, which diverges most dramatically from Islamic values of modesty and sexual privacy. This is a particularly unexpected break from religious imperatives and highlights the pointedly secular nature of the space. Quite to the point, as we proceed into a discussion later in this account on the iconography evoked for the space, the theme of sexuality will emerge as an important potential interpretation.

Surface:

While the two structures present two distinctly different interior spaces, at least with respect to their main halls, there are some common characteristics driving surface aesthetics. The modesty which is commonly associated with Muslim culture, lifestyle and modes of expression may be a modality specific to certain generations but is not necessarily universal as demonstrated by the lavish edifice distinguishing the Dome of the Rock from any structures before it. This is especially conspicuous relative to our expectations of Muslim culture because it is a sacred space with association to the practice of worship. For its ornate and multichromatic upper surfaces, the incredible detail in its porcelain finish and, of course, its salient, gold dome, the building would be distinct both in its time and as compares to many of the public prayer spaces, ancient though many of these may be, throughout the Middle East. So denotes the article by Rabbat, which indicates that "not only did the Dome of the Rock, dated by an inscription to the year 72 (692), surpass all previous Islamic buildings, it even manifested a full-fledged stylistic, structural, and ornamental program which put it in a class apart as a meaningful architectural monument."

Still, it is compelling that Rabbat connects the structure to many of the architectural traditions which preceded the evolution of the Islamic identity. This constitutes an important explanation for its visual distinction in the ancient and modern world, emerging as a pointedly Islamic construction of previously existing forms and simultaneously standing apart from the architectural norms which would be forthcoming with the solidification of the Islamic identity. As a nascent faith, some historians have interpreted the Dome of the Rock as one of Islam's first statements toward this conscious solidification. Rabbat contends that of the many historians which have debated its meaning, "Grabar sees the Dome as a monument which used Biblical connotations and Christian-Byzantine forms to impose Islam's presence in the Holy City. The combination would imply that the new faith considered itself the continuation and the seal of the two preceding ones: Judaism and Christianity."

This denotes that while the Dome of the Rock is widely believed to be an extremely important spiritual destination for Muslim pilgrims, its original purpose was significantly imposed upon by political imperatives. The Umayyad Caliphate is credited with its construction, and for this reason, is often viewed as among the less conservative of dynastic families. The 2nd Caliphate to rule since Muhammad's death, the Umayyads would take an interest in the political consolidation of Islamic rule and would consequently approach the sacred space almost more as a representation of its cultural identity than of its faith in particular. It is thus unsurprising that a palatial grounds built in roughly the same time period by the Umayyad Caliphate would reflect the influences of the secular world.

Indeed, the Khirbat al-Mafjar is intended as a secular space and therefore takes on an even greater tendency toward some of the architectural themes made universal by the Roman Empire. Doubtless the political agenda in this instance was also to project the widening scope of influence of the Islamic faith, culture and authority. By taking on the surface modalities of the European empires before them, the Umayyads would be staking a claim to their faith's place in history, even if the religious imperatives were not developed with their full force in this context. Built between 743 and 744, its use of columns and galleys presents a highly Romanic adaptation, though much interpretation is left to the theoretical reconstruction of historians. The original palace was destroyed by an earthquake just following its construction, leaving its ruins for our consideration today. Thus, the edifices only hint at its former grandness. Still, we can deduce from what is available to us that archways, towers and courtyard enclosure were assembled using sandstone. To an extent, we are struck by the irony that the secular facility of the Dome of the Rock has retained so much of its extravagant luster (with the help of constant restorations over the centuries) while the vacation palace of Khirbat al-Mafjar is so faded. That said, the discussion on iconography here below denotes that one of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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