Jerusalem is often portrayed in the media as a place of conflict and hostility, a city where competing belief systems jostle and confront one another. And while this is often true, it can also be a place of welcoming, sharing and learning, as I discovered.
I had been invited to give a talk on Latin translations of the Qur’an at the Khalidi Library, the first Arabic public library established in the city by private initiative and a setting where members of different faiths meet. While the details of my visit were being worked out, I was made a remarkable offer: would I also like to visit the Temple Mount (Haram esh-Sharif) to see the religious, architectural and cultural treasures held there?
Thanks to the Spalding Trust, the Kenyon Institute and the distinguished Muslim scholar Dr. Khader Salameh, the visit was arranged, and on a beautiful winter afternoon, Dr. Salameh and I passed through an Israeli security checkpoint to ascend the steps to the Temple Mount.
The iconic Dome of the Rock, part of the Temple Mount complex, will be familiar to television viewers, as it is usually part of the backdrop to news reports from Jerusalem. The Dome sits on the site of the Holy of Holies, in the Second Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70. The gold-covered Dome tops a mosque, completed over 12 centuries ago, that covers a site with deep connections to three faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Its exterior is covered with blue tiles and its interior is illuminated by stained glass, some of which is in a distinctive violet shade.
In the centre of the mosque is the Foundation Stone, which is the holiest site in Judaism, and in that tradition is regarded as the spiritual junction of Heaven and Earth. Christians recall the location as the site of a chapel erected to the Virgin Mary by Crusaders and as the possible site of the annunciation of John the Baptist, while Muslims know the stone as the altar where Abraham was about to sacrifice his son Isaac when an angel intervened. Muslims regard the location as the third most holy site to their faith.
Directly underneath the Stone is the Cave of Souls, a low-ceilinged, carpeted space where we encountered Muslim women and girls reading and praying. Legends tell of a passageway beneath the cave that extends to the centre of the Earth, and many Muslims believe that the souls of the dead are waiting there for the Last Judgment.
It’s a peaceful and even cozy place, despite some of the stories you hear about it. I felt honoured to be allowed to see it.
The nearby Al-Aqsa mosque dates from almost 1,000 years ago. Devout Muslims believe that the Prophet ascended to the moon on a winged horse from this spot. Like the Dome of the Rock, the interior of Al-Aqsa is lined with carpets and bathed in purple light from its stained-glass windows.
The most unforgettable part of this visit, however was an encounter with priceless Qur’anic manuscripts in the Islamic Museum, also on Temple Mount, some of which are more than a thousand years old. Despite the rarity of these early examples of the Qur’an, they are not well known to many Western scholars. One gigantic Qur’an, dating from the 14th century, is 90 centimeters by 100 centimeters in size, and produced on paper, which miraculously has survived in good condition. I was granted permission to photograph some of the most valuable Qur’ans, and I will use these images in future talks on the Qur’an.
The different scripts convey distinct moods. Kufic, one of the oldest scripts, is bold and has an almost modern quality, while Maghrebi script, from the Western Sahara and Spain, seems more playful with its broad circular strokes and flashes of colour. An encounter with one of these Qur’ans as its verses are chanted is a multi-sensory event.
I have taken away from this visit an enduring sense of the hospitality of my Muslim hosts, who express great pride in their spiritual and cultural heritage while acknowledging the interplay of Muslim and Christian artistic traditions in this holy place. The connections between Christian and Muslim holy books and the challenges of rendering the texts of these books into languages other than the ones in which they were first written are also points to ponder.
While Islam represents a tradition that has often been in competition and conflict with Christianity, both faiths share an appreciation of the holy and of the written word. A study of the Scriptures sacred to each faith can increase mutual understanding and lead to better relations between two of the Abrahamic faiths. The preservation and study of these Islamic manuscripts by faithful Muslims is an inspiration for me to return to the original documents of my own faith tradition and study them further in their original languages.
Paul Shore is a deacon serving in St. Matthew’s Cathedral in the diocese of Brandon.