What is the Al-Aqsa Mosque? – History, Construction, Significance, & Clashes in Recent Times

Al-Aqsa Mosque - history and construction

Al-Aqsa Mosque – history and construction

Standing on one of holiest hilltops in the world, the Al-Aqsa Mosque holds the honor of being the third-holiest site in Islam, right after Mecca and Medina. The Mosque, which was originally built in the 7th century, attracts millions of worshippers every year, especially on the holy month of Ramadan.

The location of the mosque – which is on a hilltop revered by both Muslims and Jews – has for many centuries triggered bloody confrontations between those two groups. In short, the Al-Aqsa Mosque has had the unenviable position of being the victim of several power wrangling and geopolitical issues in the region, as both Jews and Muslims lay claim to the hilltop (aka the Temple Mount).

The article below takes an in-depth look into the history of the Al-Aqsa Mosque as well as its significance, both geopolitical and religious.

Meaning in Arabic

The Al-Aqsa Mosque has been referred to in Arabic as Jāmiʿ al-Aqṣā (جَامِع ٱلْأَقْصَىٰ) and al-Masjid al-Aqṣā (ٱلْمَسْجِد ٱلْأَقْصَىٰ). The latter translates as “the furthest mosque”, which often refers to the al-Asa Mosque compound (i.e. Temple Mount or al-Haram al-Sharīf) – the entire hill compound which the mosque and other religious buildings sit on. On the other hand, the former refers to the mosque itself.

The building of the mosque has sometimes been referred to as (al-)Qibli Chapel (Muṣallā al-Qiblī) or (al-)Qibli Mosque. Those names make mention of the Islamic qibla, which is the direction of the Kaaba (the stone temple at the center of the holiest site in Islam, i.e. the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, Saudi Arabia) with respect to those praying.

Interior of the Al-Aqsa Mosque

The 10th-century Arab geographer al-Muqaddasi called the mosque  Al Mughattâ, which means “the covered-part” in Arabic. And to the 11th-century Persian poet and philosopher Nasir Khusraw, the mosque was Pushish, which means “covered part”. Image: Interior of the Al-Aqsa Mosque

Location of the Al-Aqsa Mosque

The Al-Aqsa Mosque is located on the south wall of the compound (i.e. the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif). The compound that houses the al-Aqsa Mosque is called Haram al-Sharīf (‘Noble Sanctuary’), which is also known as the Temple Mount to Jews. In addition to the mosque, the compound atop the hill houses the Islamic shrine Dome of the Rock, four minarets, and the gates.

Before the construction of the mosque, the site of the mosque housed the Royal Stoa, a basilica built by Herod the Great during the renovation of the Temple Mount.

During the siege of Jerusalem (which was part of the First Jewish-Roman War) in 70, the Royal Stoa was destroyed by the Roman army as they tried to crush a Jewish rebellion in what was then the Roman province of Judaea.

Seen as a very defining moment in the First Jewish-Roman War (66-73), the Siege of Jerusalem saw Roman soldiers, led by future Roman emperor Titus, lay siege to Jerusalem. The Roman army were sent in there to crush a fierce Jewish rebellion in what was then the Roman province of Judaea. During the five-month siege, the Roman army destroyed a number of important Jewish monuments, including the Second Jewish Temple, a temple renovated by King Herod the Great.

There have been some scholars that believed that the site where Byzantine Emperor Justinian (reign: 527-565) built the New Church of the God-Bearer (also known as Nea Ekklesia of the Theotokos or the Nea Church) is where the al-Aqsa was built. It would later turn out that Justinian’s church was built in the south part of the Jewish Quarter.

Read More: 10 Most Famous Byzantine Emperors and Empresses

Minarets of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound

The Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem has four minarets in total: three on the western flank and one on the northern flank. The minarets are situated around the edges of the compound. Image: Minarets of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound (L-R): Tribes’ Gate Minaret,Bab al-Silsila Minaret, Al-Ghawanimah (or Bani Ghanim Minaret), and Al-Fakhariyya Minaret

Did you know…?

It’s believed that during the reign of King Herod the Great (reign: 37-4 BC), the Roman Jewish client king of Judea, the Second Temple in Jerusalem was renovated. During the renovation, Herod also expanded the Temple Mount, building arches that would later be used to support the mosque’s foundation.


The Al-Aqsa Mosque that we see today was originally built between the later part of the 7th century and the early part of the 8th century – either during the reign of the fifth Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik (reign: 685-705) or the reign of the sixth Umayyad caliph al Walid I (reign: 705-715).

The mosque lies on the same axis as the Dome of the Rock, another equally famous Muslim structure on the Temple Mount (i.e. known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif or Al-Aqsa).

According to Guy Le Strange, the British scholar and Orientalist, the builders of the mosque possibly used materials from the ruined Church of Our Lady in constructing the mosque.

According to some sources, Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik (reign: 685-705), the caliph generally credited as the person who built the mosque, used laborers and craftsmen from Egypt in the construction. Those sources also state that the construction of the mosque took between six months and a year.

Did you know…?

In the mid-7th century, perhaps either during the reign of the second Rashidun caliph Umar (reign: 634-644) or that of the Umayyad caliph Mu’awiya I (reign: 661-680), a small prayer house was constructed in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

The Temple Mount – the hill in the Old City of Jerusalem which houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque

The Al-Aqsa Mosque is situated at the Southern end of the Haram al-Sharif (i.e. the Temple Mount)

The Al-Aqsa Mosque is located on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. The plaza, which is known to the Muslims as Al-Ḥaram al-Sharīf (“the Noble Sanctuary”), is called the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound or simply Al-Aqsa.

The Temple Mount is revered by all three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – as the holiest of holy. For example, Jews believe that the hill contains the Foundation Stone (also known as the Pierced Stone), a place where creation of the world began.

The Temple Mount also houses the Dome of the Rock (Qubbat aṣ-Ṣakhra), a revered Islamic shrine considered the oldest surviving work of Islamic architecture.

After a proposal from Jordan, the Old City of Jerusalem was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.

The early Islamic architectural style used for the Al-Aqsa Mosque

Early Islamic architecture refers to the architectural styles that were prevalent during the early years of the Islamic civilization, from the 7th to the 12th centuries. Islamic architecture encompasses a wide range of styles that reflect the diverse cultural influences of the Islamic world, including Persian, Roman, Byzantine, and Mesopotamian.

One of the most important features of early Islamic architecture is the use of geometric shapes and intricate patterns, which are often derived from Islamic calligraphy. Another significant element is the use of muqarnas, a type of decorative vaulting that creates a three-dimensional effect by layering small, carved domes on top of one another. Other important features include the use of courtyards and domes in religious buildings, and the incorporation of fountains and water features into urban design.

The addition of the mihrab to mosque design was pioneered by the Umayyads. The mihrab is a concave niche in the qibla wall of the mosque, and soon became a standard feature of all mosques. The al-Aqsa Mosque and the Great Mosque of Damascus, both featuring a hypostyle hall and a dome above the space in front of the mihrab, were influential in the design of later mosques in other regions.

Destruction, rebuilding and renovations over the centuries

Other names of the Al-Aqsa Mosque include the Qibli Mosque or Qibli Chapel or al-Masjid al-Aqṣā.

The Mosque suffered a significant damage in 746 when a powerful earthquake struck the region. It was then rebuilt in 758 by the second Abbasid ruler al-Mansur (reign: 754-775). The caliph financed the reconstruction using the proceeds from the sale of the gold and silver plaques that adorned the mosque’s doors. About two decades prior, the mosque took several hits after a number of earthquakes struck the area in 713 and 714. Following those earthquakes, the mosque was rebuilt by Umayyad Caliph al-Walid. It is said that he used the proceeds from the sale of gold from the Dome of the Rock to rebuild the mosque.

According to 15th-century Egyptian historian al-Qalqashandi, al-Walid also covered the walls of the mosque with mosaics.

In the decades that followed, another Abbasid ruler by the name of al-Mahdi (reign: 775-785) made further expansion to the mosque. By the time Al-Mahdi, the third Abbasid ruler, was through with the expansion, the mosque could boast of fifteen aisles and a beautifully designed central dome and porch. The Abbasid-era mosque also had the names of the Abbasid caliphs inscribed on the mosque’s gates. According to medieval Arab geographer al-Muqaddasi, the aisles were aligned perpendicularly to the qibla.

In 1033, another powerful earthquake – the 1033 Jordan Rift Valley earthquake – struck the area and damaged many structures in the Levant region, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The more than 7.0 magnitude earthquake, which also triggered a tsunami, ruined a significant part of the holy mosque.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque during the Fatimid Caliphate

During the era of the Fatimid Caliphate (909-1171), seventh ruler of the caliphate al-Zahir (reign: 1021-1036) took upon himself the task of rebuilding the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Upon completion, around 1066, the number of aisles had been reduced from 15 to 7, making the mosque relatively smaller than the previous. Also the interior of the mosque was given a bold central archway with vegetal mosaics and other decorations.

Also during the Fatimids, an arch was placed in front of the mihrab (i.e. a prayer niche that indicates the qibla). And on top of the mihrab arch are inscription that talks about the Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey from the Masjid al-Haram (i.e. the Grand Mosque in Mecca) to the Masjid al-Aqsa.

The Al-Aqsa mosque's mihrab

The Al-Aqsa mosque’s mihrab, indicating the qiblah

By decorating the mosque with mosaics, al-Zahir of the Fatimid Caliphate was reviving the architectural practice of the Umayyads, who were known for their admiration of mosaics.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque has been kept in almost the same design ever since the al-Zahir modifications of the 11th century, barring a few modifications here and there by the subsequent Islamic caliphates that followed after the Fatimid Caliphate. The likes of the Ayyubid (1171-1260) and the Ottoman (1517-1924) caliphates added things like minarets, minbar (i.e. a pulpit in a mosque to deliver sermons), and among others.

When and how did the Al-Aqsa Mosque become the HQ of the Christian Knights Templar?

Following the very bloody 1099 Siege of Jerusalem by the First Crusaders (1096-1099), the Al-Aqsa Mosque, like almost all other Muslim shrines in the Holy City, was Christianized. The mosque, which was renamed Templum Solomonis (Solomon’s Temple), would go on to serve as the headquarters of the Knights Templar, a fierce and very influential warrior-monk society of the Middle Ages. The Dome of the Rock, which was renamed Templum Domini (Temple of God), was used as a Christian church.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque during the reign of the Crusader Kings of Jerusalem

Baldwin II of Jerusalem (reign: 1118-1131), assigning the captured Al-Aqsa Mosque to Hugues de Payens and Godfrey, the founders of the Knights Templar

The Crusader king of Jerusalem embarked on a number of changes to northern porch of the mosque. An apse (i.e. a semicircular recess covered with a hemispherical vault) and a dividing wall were added. The Crusaders also built vaulted annexes to the west and east of the building. The western annex now serves as the women’s mosque, while the eastern is used as a museum, i.e. the Islamic Museum.

1187: The Al-Aqsa Mosque and the hilltop reverts into the hands of the Muslims

Having held Jerusalem since 1099, European monarchs of Western Christianity lost the Holy City in 1187 to Saladin and his Ayyubid fighters. Following the relatively bloodshed that came with the Muslim capture of Jerusalem (i.e. during the Siege of Jerusalem in 1187), the Al-Aqsa Mosque and other Muslim holy sites were restored.

Unlike the previous Christian rulers who barred Muslims from accessing those holy sites, Saladin is best known for allowing Orthodox and Eastern Christian worshippers and pilgrims to visit the Temple Mount and other holy sites in Jerusalem freely. Catholic Christians, on the other hand, had to pay to access the sites.

The Ayyubids carried out a number of repairs and renovation works on the mosque. For example, Saladin covered the floors of the mosque with beautiful carpets. He also completed the minbar (i.e. a pulpit in a mosque where the imam stands) that was commissioned by Zengid sultan Nur al-Din. Known as the Saladin Minbar, the pulpit was made of precious ivory and wood.

Al-Mu’azzam Isa, the Ayyubid emir of Damascus and nephew of Saladin, is credited with building the northern porch of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Built in 1218, the porch was fitted with three gates.

Al-Kamil Shaban of the Mamluks is credited with adding two gates and two naves to the eastern side of the mosque. The Mamluk Sultanate, which was established following the overthrow of the Ayyubid dynasty in the mid-13th century. They remained in power until the early 16th century when they were conquered by the Ottoman Empire.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque during the reign of the Crusader Kings of Jerusalem

Renovations made to the Al-Aqsa compound during the Ottoman period

A 19th-century chromolithograph of the Al-Aqsa Mosque’s interior

During the Ottoman period (16th century to early 20th century), the compound housing the mosque witnessed a number of additions, which were primarily ordered by the Ottoman governors of Jerusalem. For example, three free-standing domes, including the Dome of the Prophet, were built in the late 1530s. A decade prior to that the Fountain of Qasim Pasha was built. Located in the western esplanade of the compound, the fountain is meant for drinking and ablution. Ottoman governor of Jerusalem Sulayman Pasha al-Adil embarked on a massive renovation work on the mosque in 1816.

In 1922, renovation exercise was carried out by the Supreme Muslim Council. The renovation, which was commissioned by Turkish architect Ahmet Kemalettin Bey, was aimed at not only restoring the mosque but also the various monuments in the compound.

The renovations carried out included the strengthening of the ancient Umayyad foundations of the mosque and rectifying the interior columns. Beams were also replaced, while the arches and drum of the main dome’s interior were conserved. The southern wall was rebuilt, and timber in the central nave was substituted with a concrete slab.

During the renovations of the 1920s, previously concealed Fatimid-era mosaics and inscriptions on the interior arches were uncovered from beneath plasterwork. The arches were adorned with gypsum that was tinted with gold and green hues, and their timber tie beams were swapped out for brass. Additionally, a quarter of the stained glass windows were meticulously restored to preserve their original Abbasid and Fatimid designs.

In 1927, the earthquake that hit the area caused the roof of the mosque to weaken. About a decade later, the roof ultimately came down after a tremor hit the area. The SMC ordered the reconstruction as well as the upper part of the north wall.

Fountain of Qasim Pasha

The fountain was built in 1527 by Qasim Pasha (Güzelce Kasım Paşa), the Ottoman governor of the Eyalet of Egypt (wali of Egypt) during the reign of Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. It was the first public Ottoman building on the Haram al-Sharif (al-Aqsa Compound). Image: The Fountain of Qasim Pasha, which is also known as the Sabil an-Nāranj (“Sebil of the Bitter Orange”) and Sabīl Bāb al-Maḥkama (“Sebil of the Court House Gate”).

Attacks against the Al-Aqsa Mosque in modern times

From having the belief that an destroyed Al-Aqsa Mosque would usher in the Second Coming of Jesus to the belief that attack on the mosque would revitalize the spiritual state of Israel, these are some of the major attacks against the mosque:

The 1969 fire that destroyed some parts of the Al-Aqsa Mosque

Whole-heartedly believing that the demise of the Al-Aqsa Mosque would usher in the Second Coming of Jesus, an Australian arsonist by the name of Denis Michael Rohan set fire to the mosque on August 21, 1969. The fire was initially set to the 12th-century pulpit (minbar) of the mosque in prayer hall. It was initially thought that the fire was as result of a renovation work that was being carried out in the mosque.

It was also erroneously thought that the fire was started as a false flag attack by the Palestinian nationalist group Fatah (formerly the Palestinian National Liberation Movement).

There are others that claimed that the fire was deliberately set as part of a plot to destroy the mosque and rebuild the Jewish Temple on its site.

The fire caused significant damage to the southern wing of the mosque and destroyed part of the wooden roof, as well as centuries-old carpets and prayer books.

The fire sparked outrage and protests across the Muslim world, with some countries threatening to sever diplomatic ties with Israel, which occupied East Jerusalem at the time. There were some that suggested that the 1969 fire was deliberately set as part of a plot to destroy the mosque and rebuild the Jewish Temple on its site.

Israeli authorities quickly launched an investigation and pledged to restore the damaged sections of the mosque. The restoration work took several years and was overseen by an international team of experts, including architects and conservationists from various countries. The wooden roof was replaced with a new concrete one, which was covered with anodized aluminum. However, in 1983, the aluminum outer covering made way for a lead covering in order to stay true with the original design by al-Zahir.

Denis Michael Rohan was an Australian citizen who gained notoriety for his attempted arson of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in 1969.

Also, the damaged carpets and prayer books were replaced with new ones. The restoration work also uncovered some previously hidden features, such as ancient mosaic floors, which had been covered up over the centuries.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque fire of 1969 remains a significant event in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the ongoing debate over the status of Jerusalem’s holy sites. Contrary to the false reports that Rohan was a Jew, he was in fact a Christian.

In the aftermath of the attempted arson at Al Aqsa, a group of 25 Muslim nations submitted a formal complaint to the United Nations Security Council on August 28, 1969. A resolution was passed by the United Nations Security Council on September 15, 1969, with 11 member states voting to condemn Israel, while four abstained. The resolution, known as Resolution 271, reaffirmed earlier resolutions on the status of Jerusalem, international law on military occupation, and the Geneva Conventions.

As for Rohan, Israeli authorities took him into custody for setting fire to the mosque. Following a trial, he was deemed mentally unstable and was placed under institutional care. On May 14, 1974, he was deported from Israel due to humanitarian considerations, allowing him to receive psychiatric treatment near his family. He was subsequently moved to Callan Park Hospital in Australia. There are conflicting reports about his ultimate fate, with some sources indicating that he passed away in 1995.

Denis Michael Rohan and Al-Aqsa Mosque

The bomb plot of the 1980s

In the 1980s, members of the Gush Emunim Underground, Ben Shoshan and Yehuda Etzion, planned to bomb the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Their goal was to create a spiritual awakening in Israel. The anarchists also hoped that the destruction of the mosque would allow for the Third Temple of Jerusalem to be built on the site of the mosque.

Etzion was eventually arrested, tried and sentenced to prison for his involvement in the plot. He has since been released and remains active in the Israeli settler movement.

Attacks against the Al-Aqsa mosque

In the 1980s, Yehuda Etzion was involved in a plot to bomb the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock (i.e. the Omar Mosque) in Jerusalem, with the goal of creating a spiritual awakening in Israel and building the Third Temple of Jerusalem on the site of the mosque.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque has been subject to a number of attacks in modern times, often leading to unrest and violence in the region. Some other examples include:

  • In 1982, a group of Israeli soldiers entered the mosque and opened fire on worshippers, killing two and injuring many others.
  • In 1996, an underground tunnel was opened near the mosque by Israeli authorities, leading to widespread protests and violence.
  • In 2000, a visit by the Israeli opposition leader to the mosque sparked protests that turned violent, leading to the deaths of over 50 people.
  • In 2017, Israel installed metal detectors at the entrance to the mosque, leading to protests and clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinians.
  • In 2019, a fire broke out in the mosque’s compound, causing damage to a building adjacent to the mosque. The cause of the fire was not immediately clear, but some suspected that it was the result of an arson attack.

The above incidents have fueled tensions between Israelis and Palestinians and have further complicated efforts towards peace and stability in the region. In turn, these tensions have made the maintenance of holy sites on the Temple Mount very cumbersome. As a result, those structures and buildings have begun to deteriorate at a very fast rate.

Did you know?

On July 20, 1951, Jordanian king Abdullah I (reign: 1921-1951) was assassinated by a Palestinian gunman. The Jordanian monarch was fatally shot as he made his way into the mosque. The gunman also took aim at Abdullah’s grandson, Prince Hussein (later King Hussein bin Talal), who was saved by the medal he was wearing on his chest.

Assassination of King Abdullah I of Jordan

Abdullah I of Jordan was assassinated in Jerusalem while attending Friday prayers at the entrance of the Al-Aqsa Mosque by a Palestinian in 1951. He was succeeded by his eldest son Talal.

Dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque

The dome itself is an architectural masterpiece, with a diameter of 20 meters and a height of 35 meters. It has undergone several renovations and restorations throughout its history; however, nothing remains of the original dome built by Abd al-Malik.

The current dome of the mosque was built in 1969 following the fire of that year. The new dome, which is made of concrete, is covered with a lead sheeting. Prior to that, the dome was made of wood.

After the 1969 fire that rocked the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the dome of the mosque was covered in aluminum. Previously, it was grey lead.

The Minbar of the Al-Aqsa Mosque

Known as the Minbar of Saladin, the original minbar of the mosque was commissioned by Nur al-Din in 1168 and then completed by Saladin, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty. The minbar was made of ivory and beautifully designed wood carvings with Arabic calligraphy adorning the structure.

After the 1969 fire attack, the destroyed minbar was replaced with a very simple one. In the 2010s, a replica of the original minbar, i.e. the Minbar of Saladin, was installed in the mosque.

The original minbar of the Al-Aqsa Mosque

The original minbar of the Al-Aqsa Mosque was installed by Saladin

Custodianship of the Al-Aqsa Mosque

Ever since the Muslims’ recapture of Jerusalem in the later part of the 12th century, administration of the Mosque has rested in the hands of Muslims, even in cases where the Old City of Jerusalem has been under one form of military or political occupation of non-Muslims. For example, during the British colonial era, the mosque was placed under the Supreme Muslim Council of British Palestine (SMC). And in 1924, following the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate, the SMC appointed Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, as the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

After the dissolution of the SMC in January 1951, Jordanian Hashemites (i.e. the royal family of Jordan since 1921) became the custodians of the mosque, with administration of the mosque firmly in the hands of the King of Jordan, who then delegates duties to the Jordanian Ministry of Awqaf Islamic Affairs and Holy Places.

Who administers the Al-Aqsa Mosque?

In the late 1960s, after the Six-Day War (i.e. the Third Arab-Israeli War), the SMC was reconstituted under Israeli rule. The war had seen Israel wrest control of East Jerusalem, including the Old City, from Jordan. Custodianship of the mosque continued to be held by the Jordanian king. However, when it came to the administration of the mosque, that responsibility was placed in the hands of the Jerusalem Waqf, which is an organ of the Jordan Ministry of Awqaf Islamic Affairs and Holy Places.

The Jerusalem Waqf, whose members are all appointed by Jordan, has the mandate to manage all Islamic edifices on the Temple Mount. In addition to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the organization also manages the Dome of the Rock. The Jerusalem Waqf is headed by a director, who is appointed by the Jordanian government.

In 2005, Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib was appointed head of the organization that administers the Al-Aqsa Mosque. However, when it comes to religious authority on the site, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem takes charge. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem is appointed by the government of the State of Palestine.

In 2013, the State of Palestine and the government of Jordan put signed a formal agreement to uphold the decades-long status quo of the mosque, in terms of custodianship and administration. Prior to that formal agreement, it was simply a verbal agreement.

The Jerusalem Islamic Waqf

The Al-Aqsa Mosque and all Islamic edifices stayed under the control of the Hashemite Jordanian king even after Israel militarily annexed the Old City of Jerusalem from Jordan during the Six-Day War in June 1967.

Did you know?

Having been expanded from an 11-member committee to an 18-member committee, the Jerusalem Waqf had its first Palestinian officials in 2017. Before that, the committee was entirely made up of officials affiliated to the Jordanian government and royal family.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque is particularly busy during the month of Ramadan as many worshippers troop into mosque to pray. Image: Muslim worshipers offer prayers during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, 1996

Impact of the Arab-Israeli conflict on the Al-Aqsa Mosque

As stated above, the mosque is part of a larger complex known as Al-Haram Al-Sharif, which includes the Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall, and other important religious sites. The area is also known as the Temple Mount, as it was the site of the first and second Jewish Temples. These competing claims to the site has fueled a lot of tensions between Jews and Arabs in the region.

Over the decades, the Al-Aqsa Mosque has become a significant symbol of Palestinian nationalism and is at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ownership and control of the site is a matter of great dispute between Israel and Palestine.

Arab-Israeli conflict and the Al-Aqsa Mosque

Israeli paratroopers entering the Temple Mount through the Lions Gate in 1967

Formerly in the hands of Jordan, East Jerusalem, including the Old City, was captured by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967. In spite of the annexation, custodianship of the mosque remained in the hands of Jordan, i.e. the Hashemite dynasty.

Among other things, tensions have skyrocketed because access to the mosque lies in the hands of Israel. And over the years, Israel has been accused of imposing restriction on Palestinian Muslims’ access to the mosque and the compound. Furthermore, evictions of Palestinian residents in nearby areas haven’t helped matters.

The 2023 storming of the Al-Aqsa Mosque by Israeli forces

In April 2023, forces from the Israeli police stormed into the mosque to bring under control a group of youth that were hurling firecrackers at them. The violence took place in the holy month of Ramadan. Israel claimed that it had no other option than to enter the mosque in order to deal with “law-breaking youths, with most of them wearing masks”.

Israel also claimed that the irate youth, who were armed with sticks and stones and fireworks, had barricaded themselves into the mosque and were shouting violent slogans. Israeli police entered the compound to deal with the situation after talks failed. And in the ensuing confrontations, Israel fired a number of stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd outside the mosque.

The Palestinian leadership in the occupied West Bank criticized the attack on the worshippers. Also, the actions of the Israeli police drew immediate response from Gaza militants, who shot a barrage of rockets into southern Israel. The rocket barrage came from not only from Palestinian militants in Gaza, but also from Lebanon into southern and northern Israel. The Israel Defense Force (IDF) stated that it intercepted all five rockets shot into the region. The IDF then responded with a number of surgical airstrikes in Gaza.

The April 2023 violence was attributed to the tense situation that emerged because of the overlap of the Jewish and Muslim holidays, with the latter and former celebrating the Passover and the Ramadan, respectively.

Religious and ultranationalist hard-liners on both sides fought to assert their dominance over the Temple Mount. For example, there some ultra-right-wing Jewish people that defy state prohibitions and try to carry out the practice of ritual slaughter on the site. Such acts have enraged Muslims in the area, with many seeing them as Israel’s attempt to take control of the site.

It is often the case that clashes in and around the Al-Aqsa mosque has served as a precursor to an even bloodier confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians. For example, in 2021, an 11-day war broke out between Israel and Hamas. The latter is a group of Palestinian militants. The spat of violence has gone on for decades, and there seems to be no sign of it abating.

Questions and Answers

Al-Aqsa Mosque – history and construction

Who originally built the al-Aqsa Mosque?

It is widely accepted that a wooden mosque was built on the Temple Mount around the early Umayyad Caliphate. According to the Frankish bishop Arculf, the mosque at the time could accommodate about 3,000 worshipers. It is likely that the mosque occupied the site which now hosts the Dome of Rock.

However, it remains unclear which caliph of the early Umayyad Caliphate built it. Some scholars state that the mosque was built by Mu’awiya I (reign: 661-680), the founder and first caliph of the Umayyad Caliphate.

The two generally accepted names credited with building the mosque are Abd al-Malik (reign: 685-705) and al-Walid I (reign 705-715). The widely accepted view is that al-Malik began the construction and the completion of the mosque was done by his son and successor al-Walid I. it is also possible that al-Malik also commissioned the construction of the Dome of Rock, which was meant to serve as some sort of commemorative structure. There are a number of Middle Ages historian that credit al-Walid as the builder of the mosque.

Although without real evidence, there are some scholars that state that Umar (reign: 634-644), the second Rashidun caliph, is believed to have ordered for the construction of a mosque on the Temple Mount.

What was the Al-Aqsa mosque like in the Umayyad period?

During the Umayyad Caliphate, the mosque was estimated to have a size that ranged from 112 by 39 meters (367 ft x 128 ft) to 114.6 by 69.2 meters (376 ft x 227 ft). Rectangular in shape, the Umayyad-era mosque was beautifully designed with mosaics and artworks adorning the interior.

Al-Aqsa Mosque - history and construction

Al-Aqsa Mosque – history and construction

What was the Al-Aqsa Mosque like during the Abbasid period?

Compared to the Umayyad caliphs, the Abbasid caliphs did not pay too much attention to the maintenance of the mosque. Therefore, the renovation and maintenance were usually done local Muslim community in Jerusalem. Abbasid caliphs al-Mansur (reign: 754-775) and al-Mahdi (reign: 775-785) were the only Abbasid leaders that prioritized the reconstruction of the mosque following the earthquakes that struck the region. Those two Abbasid caliphs also visited Jerusalem.

What is the difference between the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock?

Like the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock is located on the Mount Temple in the Old City of Jerusalem which is in East Jerusalem.

The Dome of the Rock was constructed in 692, the Al-Aqsa Mosque in 705. What that means is that the Al-Aqsa Mosque is seen as one of the oldest mosques in the world.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are two distinct structures located in the same compound, known as the Haram al-Sharif or Temple Mount, in Jerusalem.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque is one of the holiest sites in Islam and is considered the third holiest site after Mecca and Medina. It is the larger of the two structures and is located towards the southern end of the compound. It was originally built in the early 8th century and has been renovated and expanded over time.

The Dome of the Rock, on the other hand, is a shrine that houses the Foundation Stone, which is considered a holy site in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. It is located towards the center of the compound and is recognized by its iconic golden dome. It was built in the late 7th century and is considered a masterpiece of Islamic architecture. It is believed that the Dome of the Rock was built over the Foundation Stone, which was the site of the Second Jewish Temple. Jews believe that the Foundation Stone (also known as the Pierced Stone) was where creation of the world began.

While both structures are important to Muslims and are located within the same compound, they serve different purposes and have distinct architectural features.

For starters the mosque primarily uses early Islamic architecture, while the Dome of the Rock mainly deploys classical Byzantine architecture.

What is the size of the Al-Aqsa Mosque?

The Al-Aqsa Mosque has a rectangular shape and covers about 12 acres in area. The precincts and the mosque make up about 36 acres (14.4 hectares).

It measures 83 meters (272 ft.) in length and 56 meters (184 ft.) wide.

The hypostyle prayer hall in the Al-Aqsa Mosque

The hypostyle prayer hall in the Al-Aqsa Mosque

When were the facade and porch of the Al-Aqsa Mosque built?

The facade and the central bays of the porch of the mosque were built in the 11th century by the Fatimid caliph al-Mustansir Billah and the Knights Templar, respectively. The facade was damaged by the Crusaders only for it to be restored by the Ayyubids.

The facade, which has fourteen stone arches, is adorned with intricate geometric designs and inscriptions in Arabic calligraphy, while the porch features a series of horseshoe-shaped arches supported by marble columns. The porch also houses a number of prayer niches (known as mihrabs) that are oriented towards Mecca. The facade and porch of the Al-Aqsa Mosque are significant not only for their architectural and artistic beauty, but also for their religious and historical importance as a symbol of Islamic faith and heritage.

Facade of the Al-Aqsa Mosque

The porch of the mosque lies on top of the facade.

Why are there restrictions when it comes to accessing the Al-Aqsa Mosque?

Although the mosque is administered by the Jordanian government with assistance from Palestinians, Israel often puts up a number of restrictions when it comes to who can access the mosque. For example, single men below the age of 50 have sometimes been denied access to the mosque. Israel raises security reasons for those restrictions.

In 2000, a decision was made by Israel to prevent non-Muslim visitors from entering the mosque. This ban came in the aftermath of the Second Intifada, i.e. a major Palestinian uprising against Israel in response to lack of headway in the 2000 Camp David Summit.

However, non-Muslims can visit the certain areas of the Temple Mount complex at certain times of the year.

What is the significance of the Al-Aqsa Mosque?

The spot where the Al-Aqsa Mosque is located is believed to be where Prophet Muhammad was miraculously conveyed to so he could lead prophets like Abraham (Ibrahim in Islam), Moses (Musa in Islam), Jesus (Isa in Islam) and others in a prayer (i.e. ṣalāt). Muslims believe that few hours later the Islamic prophet was lifted up to heaven for an encounter with Allah.

Al-Aqsa Mosque and its importance

The Al-Aqsa Mosque is considered one of the holiest sites in Islam, and is believed to be the place where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven during his Night Journey. Image: A depiction of Muhammad’s ascent to heaven by Sultan Mohammed

When was the first time Israeli forces entered the al-Aqsa Mosque?

According to Sheikh Azzam Al-Khatib, Israeli police entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque for the first time since taking control of Jerusalem in 1967 on November 5, 2014. It should be noted that previous reports of “storming Al-Aqsa” actually referred to the wider Haram al-Sharif compound, not the mosque itself.

Custodians of the Al-Aqsa in East Jerusalem

The century-old status-quo that seeks to keep things civil on the Temple Mount

When it comes to the Al-Aqsa mosque complex, there’s been a century-old status quo arrangement that has kept things reasonably stable, preventing the region from descending into a lengthy bloodshed similar to what happened in the 20th century.

As the mountain top is revered by Jews too, in recent years, Jewish extremists have demanded to have the rights to perform prayers on the mountain top. Such moves will no doubt upend the status quo.

There have been cases where taunts have been made at the site by small far-right Jewish groups, calling for third temple to be built on the sacred grounds.

Israeli officials have maintained that they are committed to safeguarding the status quo. However, voices by those few extremist Jews are increasingly becoming louder and stronger, pushing the site and the region in general into a precarious situation where an all-out war could explode at any moment.

There is no doubt that the al-Aqsa mosque and its complex are seen as political symbols as well as a religious one by the Islamic world.

However, the location of the mosque, i.e. the Temple Mount in East Jerusalem, is seen by Israel as part of its united capital, along with West Jerusalem. The Islamic world, especially the Palestinians, beg to differ, seeing East Jerusalem as being under occupation by Israel. Also, to the Palestinians, East Jerusalem is designated as the capital of their future state.

Other geopolitical issues surrounding the al-Aqsa mosque

As stated earlier, Jordan is the custodian of the grounds. Some say that custodianship is becoming symbolic. This is because it is Israel that controls the access and security checks and entry points. Moreover, increasing visits of Jewish extremists to the sites to pray has been interpreted by Muslim worshippers as provocative and to say the least, an attack on the site Muslims consider holy, according to the Director General of the mosque.

It’s also often the case that, Muslims go to great lengths to worship in the mosque, going through several security check points installed by Israel, which the Arab world considers an occupying force, though Israel rejects this characterization. This is particular common with visitors from the Israeli-occupied West Bank, with many required to jump through hoops just to obtain travel documents, at which point, they have to go through multiple security checks.

Such cumbersome system will undoubtedly nudge the already tense situation into an out-of-control situation.

The long-standing status quo is that Muslims are the sole worshippers at the al-Aqsa mosque. However, recent happenings on the site and in the region have made Muslims feel uneasy about the future, feeling that their rights will be taken away from them.

At some point, Jordan became very worried that the custodianship right would be yanked away from her and given to Saudi Arabia as Riyadh begins the process of normalizing ties with Israel. The Saudis responded by categorically stating that they fully supported Jordan’s custodianship of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

To bring down the tensions, Israeli officials often try to restrict access to non-Muslims on the sacred grounds for some days of the holy month of Ramadan.


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