Exploring the Haram el-Sharif in Jerusalem’s Old City

When visiting Jerusalem’s Old City and exploring the Armenian, Christian, Muslim and Jewish quarters take the opportunity to go up onto the rectangular platform that was built by King Herod 2000 years ago that straddles the hill above the Tyropean valley. To Muslims this is the Haram el-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary; to Jews and Christians it is the Temple Mount, the site of the Jewish temple for more than 1000 years. For non-Muslims access is through a security checkpoint to the right of the entrance to the Western Wall plaza from Dung gate – note you can’t take sharp objects or religious articles with you. In the winter access is restricted to 7:30am-10am Sunday to Thursday and an hour in the afternoon (from 12:30pm).

When you walk up the ramp and through the Mugrabi gate the first building you come to is the al-Aqsa mosque with a grey, lead covered dome, the third holiest site to Islam after Mecca and Medina.

Photo © Shmuel Browns

To your left, across the courtyard and up some steps is the gold-domed shrine, the Dome of the Rock, an icon of the Old City.

Photo © Shmuel Browns

Beside it there is a smaller, enigmatic structure known as the Dome of the Chain. It is one of the most ancient buildings on the Haram but it is neither a mosque nor a shrine.

Dome of Chain 1

It was probably built in 691 during the Umayyad period by Abd al-Malik who also built the Dome of the Rock. Some think the structure, because of its position in the precise center of the Haram, existed prior to Islamic rule in Jerusalem and refers back to the days of the Jewish temple or at least to the traditions that surrounded it. There is a tradition that the Dome of the Chain is the site where King David hung a chain that could not be grasped or touched by anyone deceitful, unjust or wicked and where his son King Solomon administered justice.

The structure is unusual in that it combines an interior hexagon defined by marble columns with open arches supporting the dome surrounded by an eleven-sided polygon of columns with eleven open arches. Note that each of the column capitals is different. One of the southern arches has been closed as a mihrab.

With the Crusader conquest it became a Christian chapel to St. James. It was restored as an Islamic prayer house by the Ayyubids. It seems it was the Mamluk sultan Baibars who refaced the mihrab with marble and reduced the number of outer columns. The ceramic tiles were added in the time of the Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. It was recently renovated by the Palestinian-based waqf.

Dome of Chain interior


Dome interior Hanging lantern

About Shmuel Browns

Shmuel Browns is a photographer, writer and licensed tour guide who specializes in leading tours to archaeological and nature sites throughout Israel. He is passionate about Israel and his knowledge and insights will enable you to uniquely experience this amazing country. Shmuel shares his expertise and photographs at: http://israeltours.wordpress.com.