Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem
Al-Masjid El-Aqsa is an Arabic name which means the Farthest Mosque. To understand its name, and its importance, it must be remembered that the roots of Islam began in the Arabian Peninsula (Saudi Arabia today).
Ten years after the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) received his first revelation, he made a miraculous night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and to the Seven Heavens on a white flying horse called Al-Buraq El-Sharif. During his interval in Jerusalem, the Prophet stopped to pray at the rock (now covered by the golden Dome), and was given the commandment to pray five times a day.
Today, Muslims throughout the World use Mecca as the direction of prayers (Qibla). However, for 16½ months following the Prophet Mohammad's miraculous journey, Jerusalem was the Qibla.
During Prophet Mohammad's life (pbuh), he instructed Muslims to visit not only the mosque where they lived in Mecca, but also the 'Farthest mosque' from them which lay 2000 kilometers north, in Jerusalem. Hence the name Al-Masjid El-Aqsa, or Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Al-Aqsa Mosque is the second oldest mosque in Islam after the Ka'ba in Mecca, and is third in holiness and importance after the mosques in Mecca and Medina.
The rectangular Al-Aqsa Mosque is 144,000 square meters, 35 acres, or 1/6 of the entire area within the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem as it stands today. It is also called Al-Haram El-Sharif (the Nobel Sanctuary). The Dome of the Chain marks the exact central point of this Mosque.
Al-Aqsa Mosque holds up to 400,000 worshippers at one time, bearing in mind that the space required for each person is roughly 0.8m x 0.5m to enable the submissive kneeling in prayer. On Fridays at noon, during the fasting month of Ramadan, and particularly the 27th of Ramadan (Lailat El-Qadr), the area is filled to virtual capacity.
There are 11 gates to Al-Aqsa Mosque: 7 of which are open. Of the 4 closed gates, one is the Golden Gate.
Indications of any Muslim mosque the World over is the thin spiral minaret which always immediately adjoins the Mosque wall. Minarets are used to call Muslims to prayer five times a day, seven days a week throughout the year. At Al-Aqsa Mosque, there are four minarets: 3 square and 1 cylindrical from the Mamluk period.
There are no minarets on the Eastern side of Al-Aqsa Mosque because there were no inhabitants and thus no-one to call to prayer. After all, it was not till the late nineteenth century that Jerusalem began to expand outside the city walls.
Al-Aqsa is made up of 3 parts, narrow arcades run along one end, a huge atrium and a covered area at the south.
Running alongside the arcades are several family burial sites (maqamat). These persons contributed to the schools and charities in the vicinity of the Mosque run by the Supreme Muslim Council.
The atrium of Al-Aqsa Mosque is an oasis of peace and tranquillity inside a walled city of hustle and bustle. It has trees, lawns, fountains, the beautiful Shrine of the Dome of the Rock, small domed rooms and structures which are rooms for scholars, sheikhs and religious court offices, and a museum.
Before Muslims pray, they are required to go through a ritual ablution. There are manuablution areas, but the Cup is one of the oldest and most photographed fountains on the Mosque grounds.
In the center of the southern end of the atrium is the covered area of Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Mihrab (niche showing direction of prayer) of the Mosque is located here. Al-Aqsa building (recognizable by its lead dome), was originally built nearly 1300 years ago by Muslim Caliph Al-Walid the son of AbdulMalek bin Marwan in 709 AD.
Throughout its history, Al-Aqsa was subject to successive restoration work due to damages caused by earthquakes, etc. The building now has the central nave and 6 aisles (the original covered area had 14 aisles).
The covered area of Al-Aqsa Mosque is a very simple, but large and imposing, rectangular structure. It has an area of 3500 square meters, and holds up to 5000 Muslims at prayer at one time. The Qibla facing south towards Mecca and the Rock within the Dome of the Rock are on the same central line.
There are 7 large gates to enter the Mosque's covered area, as well as 1 single door on both the eastern and western sides. There are over 100 clear and colored glass windows, 14 Arches, 27 Italian Marble columns on the eastern side, and the equivalent number of stone piers on the western side.
The outer dome was covered with Lead in 1985 replacing the Aluminum dome of 1964 in order to restore it to its original cover.
The inner dome, decorated with stucco work, dates back to the 13th century.
In accordance with Muslim tradition, men and women are permitted to pray within the covered area but in different sections, 3 times a day. The remaining two daily prayers as well as Friday noon prayers, Al-Aqsa is for men only. The covered part of Al-Aqsa Mosque was converted to a Knight's Hostel in part, and Chapel in part during the Crusader period. Restoration of Islamic atmosphere was done by Salahuddin Al-Ayyoubi.
In 1969, after 2 years of Israeli occupation, a fanatic person set fire to the covered area for the first time in its history. Repairing the damage from the fire still continues. Among the numerous sad losses was the beautiful handmade pulpit from Aleppo. It was a gift from Salahuddin Al-Ayyoubi and stood near the Mihrab (niche) in Al-Aqsa Mosque. This Pulpit, considered one of the most beautiful in the World, was made of over 10,000 interlocking pieces of Cedar and other wood, Ivory and mother of pearl affixed without a drop of glue or a single nail. A remaining section of this Pulpit is among the various artifacts on display at the Islamic Museum, in the southern corner of the Noble Sanctuary.
The restoration of the subterranean Marwani Musallah (praying place) was completed in 1996. It is 4000 square meters, and was tiled in a brief 2 months entirely by volunteers. The Marwani Musallah is mistakenly believed by some to be the site of King Solomon's stables, however its construction is actually entirely 8th century Umayyad.
In the middle of the 19th century Al-Aqsa Mosque was opened for Non-Muslim visitors. For Non-Muslims, the Mosque is open during fixed times on weekday mornings and afternoons on payment of an entrance fees. The Mosque is closed to Non-Muslims on Fridays throughout the year and all Muslim holidays.
Although in the past, everyone entered Al-Aqsa Mosque without shoes, now Muslims and tourists alike are permitted to enter Al-Aqsa with shoes. Shoes however, have to be removed to enter the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa's enclosed area as a sign of cleanliness and respect. Cameras likewise, are permitted in Al-Aqsa Mosque, but not inside any building. Visitors should ensure they are modestly dressed with arms and legs covered. Ladies should have a scarf to cover their hair. While on holy ground, intimate or personal contact must be avoided.