Thursday, July 16, 2015

A Tale of Interfaith Cooperation and Historic Preservation from Old Jerusalem

The seventh-century Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is arguably the archetypical emblem of the city. And because it stands on the Temple Mount, it has since medieval times served as a representation of the Temple of Solomon in Christian art.

Scottish artist David Roberts depicts its dominant place on the skyline in "Jerusalem From the Mount of Olives" (color lithograph; London: Day & Son, 1855).

(late 19th-century engraving)

Because the month of Ramadan is traditionally a time of introspection and charity, it seems appropriate to relate an interesting tale of interfaith cooperation on the Temple Mount in the service of what we would nowadays call historic preservation or restoration.

Some years ago, Yehuda Litani recounted a fascinating discovery made in 1992-93, when a team of artisans from Northern Ireland was refurbishing the dome in a project funded by King Hussein of Jordan:

On a visit to the site during those renovations I discovered a story that wasn’t known until then, regarding the Jewish-Ottoman-Palestinian connection to the mosques on Temple Mount.

Story of the iron panel

The Dome of the Rock was surrounded with scaffolding, and before ascending one of them a friend of mine drew my attention to an iron panel that lay on the floor and was inscribed in French. The foreman of the Irish construction company said the panel had been found between the two halves of the crescents at on top of the mosque, and was temporarily dismantled so that the dome could be coated in gold.

The words in French revealed that the Mosque had been renovated in 1899 during Turkish rule, and that the works had been assisted by the Jewish community in Jerusalem led by a public figure called Avraham (Albert) Entebbe, who among his numerous other activities was also the principal of the city's "Kol Israel Haverim" school.

Entebbe, who was the undersigned on the French inscription, was known for his courageous ties with the heads of the Ottoman rule, and the inscription noted that for the purpose of renovating the mosques on the Temple Mount five acclaimed Jewish artists had been invited to Jerusalem. The Jewish stone carvers, wood carvers and iron mongers from various cities in the Mediterranean basin, shared their skills with their Muslim brothers during months of work.

Zenith of Jewish-Muslim cooperation

The inscription also noted that all the students at Entebbe's school were given a three-month leave in order to assist their Muslim brothers in the renovations works on Temple Mount. In the last lines of the inscription, Entebbe described the ideal cooperation and understanding that prevailed between Jews and Muslims in the Holy City, which reached its zenith when the Jews undertook renovations of the Temple Mount mosques in 1899.

Of course, not every story has a perfect happy ending.  When Litani returned to make a photograph, as he had requested, the foreman explained that the Waqf (Islamic trust that administers the holy sites) had taken the panel. When he went to the officials of the Waqf, they denied knowing anything about it.

As for the experience of visiting the site today: physician, scholar, and Muslim feminist activist Qanta Ahmed has written a moving four-part account of her pilgrimage:

The Dome of the Rock: A Muslim’s requiem
Part 2: Reaching the Dome
Part 3: Inside the Dome
Part 4: The farthest Muslims

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