Mosque's gold leaf reflects politics of the Middle East

April 19, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- The new 24-karat gold leaf on the Dome of the Rock sparkled in Jerusalem's sun yesterday. But the ceremony marking the restoration of Islam's third holiest shrine reflected the conflict it has spawned for more than a millennium.

Instead of celebrating the event in this troubled holy city where the dome dominates the skyline, they held the party 45 miles away in Amman, Jordan. King Hussein of Jordan paid for the work but won't come here to see it because he's officially at war with Israel.

So the logistics of the celebration became the latest metaphor for the Middle East, where religion and politics are the parents of confusion.

Even the simplest questions have complicated answers.

For example: What is the Dome of the Rock?

It is a Muslim mosque -- although once it was a Crusader Christian church, built on an area that used to be Jewish temple.

Is it a Muslim site now?

Unclear. Jews believe it is the Holy of Holies, the area of successive temples built by Kings David and Solomon before Islam existed. Muslims believe it is the rock from which Mohammed ascended to heaven. Christians believe it is the rock on which Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac before God intervened.

But is it in Israel?

Unclear. The site is in Jerusalem's Old City, which was controlled by Jordan until Israel's army swept through in the 1967 Six-Day War. Unlike the rest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Old City was "annexed" by Israel. The United States and most other countries do not recognize the annexation.

So Jordan still claims it?

Sort of. King Hussein gave up on the West Bank in 1988, leaving it up to the Palestinians to get the best deal they could from the Israelis. But he still retains the title of guardian of the holy site of the Dome of the Rock. Islamic officials who run the Dome of the Rock report to him. They are paid by a Jordanian ministry, in Jordanian currency.

So King Hussein paid for the restorations instead of Israel?

No, instead of Saudi Arabia.

How's that?

Saudi Arabia offered to pay for the restorations, trying to slip the money through a United Nations organization. The Saudi royals are regarded as the guardians of Islam's first and second most holy cities -- Mecca and Medina. They wrested control of those sites from King Hussein's Hashemite family decades ago. King Hussein saw their offer to refurbish the Dome of the Rock as a bid to encroach on his authority there. So he held a fire sale of one of his villas in London and anted up the $6.5 million to coat the Dome in gold.

Who did the restorations of the beautiful Islamic artwork on the Dome.

Mostly Irishmen.

Has the Dome always been gold?

No. It was fake, gold-colored aluminum from the last restoration in 1964. The first Dome, built in 691, was real. The building was ordered up by Caliph Abd el Malik ibn Marwan, and the workers finished the project in just over four years, ahead of schedule and under budget. The caliph took the 100,000 gold coins left unspent and melted them down to gild the Dome. That original sheath disappeared over the years.

So the Muslims had a ceremony yesterday to mark the end of the work?

Not here. In Jerusalem, tourists wandered around the Dome of the Rock as they do most days. Bogus tour guides sidled up to them offering cheap history at cheap prices. The ceremony was in Amman.

Why didn't the officials in Amman go to Jerusalem?

Because Jordan and Israel still are officially at war. King Hussein has not officially set foot west of the Jordan River since Israel captured it in the Six-Day War. He only recently acknowledged that Israeli prime ministers have been sneaking across the border for decades to meet with him, but a procession to Jerusalem still is out of the question.

Did they get to glimpse the work the King paid for?

For 15 minutes, a Palestinian television crew beamed pictures of the Dome of the Rock to a satellite. They were transmitted to Atlanta and then sent by satellite to Amman.

Isn't there a shorter route to send the pictures 45 miles?

The two countries are still at war, remember, so a direct television link would be politically incorrect. Even phone calls are not permitted between Israel and Jordan. Of course, the picture was then broadcast on Jordan TV, which is watched avidly by their neighbors the Israelis.

Is there any lesson of peace and tranquillity in the history of this holy site?

Let's see. Palestinians sometimes throw rocks from the Dome of the Rock area onto Jews at the Western Wall below. In 1990, Israeli police responded by shooting to death 22 Muslims. In 1984, Jewish extremists were foiled in a plot to blow up the Dome. In 1982, an American opened fire in the Dome of the Rock, killing two guards. In 1976, an Australian set the Al-Aqsa mosque on fire.

And we won't go back to 1099, when Crusaders stormed through the Golden Gate beside the Dome and killed thousands of Muslims. Or 1029 years before, when the Romans killed at least as many Jews when they destroyed the city.

But it's a beautiful building, right?

It's a beautiful building.

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