Islam: The Arrival in JerusalemLong held by the Byzantine empire as a Christian city, Jerusalem was conquered by a Muslim army in 638 A.D. Viewed as the third-holiest city to Islam, Jerusalem became the site of prominent Muslim sites such as the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount. It was the start of a reign that would endure in the Holy City for centuries.
Seventh century Jerusalem was a Christian city, home to vast churches and ruled by the Byzantine Patriarch Sophronius. Legend tells that when a Muslim army led by Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab besieged Jerusalem, Sophronius would surrender only to Umar himself. The Caliph was exceptionally pious Muslim who lived by ascetic values and did not array himself in finery, not even to celebrate his victory. His conquest of Jerusalem was relatively bloodless—once Sophronius surrendered, no one else was killed.
Umar bade Sophronius show him the site of the Jews’ Holy Temple, which the Muslims held in reverence. Mohammed, the founder of Islam, had viewed Judaism and Christianity as religions that stemmed from true revelations: thus Muslims respected the Bible and regarded Jesus as a true prophet. Muslims further believed that they themselves were the children of Ishmael, Abraham’s eldest son, and that Islam emulated the faith practiced by Abraham himself.
Caliph Umar and the Temple Mount
When Umar saw the devastation of the Temple site, and the garbage that had been dumped there by the Byzantines, he was horrified. He made it his mission to clear away the debris and establish the area as a revered site. Umar built a simple mosque on the southern end of the platform that Herod had built, where Muslims could pray facing Mecca, Islam’s holiest city.
Later successors of Umar built the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque, which tower above the city from their high vantage point of the Temple Mount. Over time, Muslims came to believe that the Temple Mount was the focal point of Mohammed’s Night Journey, which is recounted in the Koran. The present belief is that the angel Gabriel carried Mohammed on a winged horse from Arabia to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where Mohammed was greeted by prophets. From there, the tale is that Mohammed ascended the seven levels of heaven and met the Biblical denizens who reside there.
Muslim rule in Jerusalem held strong until the Crusades, when Christian armies descended upon Jerusalem to lay claim to the Holy City once again.
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