A closer look at al-Mawasin

I recently published a photo project presenting the arches leading into the Dome of the Rock platform. It is an often overlooked part of the place and because of this, it stirred my interest.

We don’t know a lot about these entrances, such as when they initially were built, nor what their significance is, but when we consider them, even for a moment, we should become curious as to why they are there at all. Or, on the other hand, when we consider their context maybe it really isn’t that odd.

The organization of al-Mawasin

There are eight stairways, or “mawazin”, unevenly organized around the plateau, with one on the eastern length, two on the southern length, three on the western length, and two on the northern length. Of these eight stairways, four of them are placed more or less in the center of each side, forming a north-south and east-west axis, or at least as much as possible, considering the uneven dimensions of the platform (the northern and eastern lengths being uneven). This isn’t a random organization of these four stairways, since they are placed in connection to the four entrances of the Dome of the Rock, leading a person directly from the stairways to the respective entrances to the Dome of the Rock itself, should one go straight from the stairway to the Dome of the Rock.

According to Myriam Rosen-Ayalon these four entrances might be the oldest ones of the eight entrances, and could even have been built during the Umayyad rule (Islamic Art and Archaeology in Palestine, p.37, Myriam Rosen-Ayalon). I think that’s plausible, the Dome of the Rock, after all, was built on the platform and some form of entrance would have been built to allow access to the platform. These four stairways, with their connection to the four entrances to the Dome of the Rock, seem to fit an original construction of the platform.

When the demand grew for more access points to the Dome of the Rock, with the growing Muslim population, the remaining four stairways would have been added, each where it would make more sense in consideration of where the worshipers would enter the Haram al-Sharif from. Hence we see one additional entrance point on the northern end, two on the western side, and one in the south. But none on the eastern side. Unfortunately, we don’t have many details about the construction of the stairways or the platform itself, so we are not able to say anything conclusive (The Early Islamic Monuments of al-Haram al-Sharif: An Iconographic Study, p. 30, by Myriam Rosen-Ayalon, found in Qedem Vol. 28).

What can we say about al-Mawasin?

This means that we can’t say anything definitive about why the “Scales” were built, or what the initial thoughts were behind their construction. Rosen-Ayalon mentions that the platform itself might have been constructed already during the time of Herod, though it obviously would have been going through changes, both during Roman and later Byzantine rule, as well as during Muslim (Umayyad I suppose) rule. However, I do believe that it would be plausible to expect the form of the platform as we see it today, to be the same as it was when the Dome of the Rock was built, that is, around 690-692 CE.

We are therefore not able to say what the purpose of the stairways and their arches was when they were built originally. That purpose is most likely connected with the purpose of the Dome of the Rock itself, a subject still being debated, even though most seem to settle on the proposition made by Oleg Grabar in his “The Umayyad Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem” (Ars Orientalis Vol. 3 (1959), pp. 33-62), where he argues that it was erected as a monument to celebrate Islam’s position as the dominant and true religion, with clear messages against the Christian claim of Jesus being (a) God, and not merely one of Allah’s prophets. I recommend you read the article, in order to get an in-depth understanding of the discussion. Other claims which have been proposed are that the Dome of the Rock was built by the Caliph Abd al-Malik in order to create a new spiritual center for Islam, or that it was built as a commemoration of Muhammad’s night journey, or more specifically the point where he went up to heaven to be handed instructions directly by Allah. Grabar argues why neither can be correct in his article mentioned above.

If he is correct, then it might be worth considering the platform and the stairways in this context. The platform is an elevation in the Haram al-Sharif, raising the structures built upon it above those structures in the Haram, which are not built on it. While there is no wall, the stairways act as a signifier of the separation between what is on the platform and that which is outside it. It is not just that those constructions are elevated, they are also separated.

This makes sense when we consider the historical and religious significance of the place. This is – at least according to tradition – the place where the Jewish Temple stood before the Romans destroyed it. This is also the place where the Romans should have built a temple for Jupiter, and the Christians later should have built a church (if one was ever built, there are reasons to believe so, but no conclusive evidence has to my knowledge been offered to support this suggestion).

Let us consider this for a moment. The Christians moved the spiritual center of Jerusalem from the then Temple Mount to the place where Jesus, according to tradition, was crucified, buried, and then raised from the dead, i.e., the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. But for the Jews, the Temple Mount was still the place of the Temple. Building the Dome of the Rock, where it was built, would have been a statement both to the Jews and the Christians. To the Jews that this is the “third temple” and it’s part of Islam. To the Christians that the claims you make about Jesus are wrong, he is only a prophet, and the greater and final prophet, Muhammad, rose to heaven here, making this the spiritual center. Also, the Dome of the Rock – as a structure – clearly challenges the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, using the same design elements, but also becoming the visual center and icon of the holy city.

Some concluding thoughts on al-Mawasin

But what makes me wonder a little here, is al-Aqsa Mosque, and how it is built outside the platform as if the Dome of the Rock is a more significant building than the mosque. The Aqsa Mosque is built at the southern end of the Haram al-Sharif, where Muhammad is said to have been leading the other prophets in prayer after he returned from heaven. Add to this that this is said to be the third most holy place in Islam, mentioned in the Quran (though there have been debates about this, today this is considered to be the case by all Muslims, laymen and scholars alike), where it states that “Exalted is He who took His Servant by night from al-Masjid al-haram (Mecca) to al-Masjid al-Aqsa (al-Aqsa Mosque/Jerusalem), whose surroundings We have blessed, to show him of Our signs. Indeed, He is the Hearing, the Seeing” (Quran 17:1. Bold text added by me for clarification). If it is indeed the case that the mosque is the third most holy place, then it seems odd that another building would be elevated and emphasized over the mosque itself.

Unless, of course, the verse doesn’t talk about the Aqsa Mosque we know today, but the whole area around the “mosque” mentioned in the Quranic verse. After all, the Aqsa Mosque we know today wasn’t built at the time. Therefore it doesn’t make sense that this would be the focus of the verse. Rather, what the verse would be talking about would be the Temple and its surroundings, which would become the Haram al-Sharif. If that is the case, if that is how the builders of the platform and the Dome of the Rock considered the verse, then the platform and the stairways make even more sense. This would indeed be the spiritual center of “al Masjid al-Aqsa and its surroundings”, that is, the Haram al-Sharif.

The name of the stairways and the arches make sense then: al-Mawazin. The Scales. This is where the Muslim followers are ascending to the spiritual center of Al-Aqsa, being weighed on the scales to measure their sincerity, reflecting a number of Quranic verses talking about the Muslim being weighed by Allah on the Day of Resurrection (See for examples: Quran 7:8 and 21:47).

At least, this is how I have come to understand the stairways and their arches. As balances weighing the believer when he/she is ascending to the platform, the spiritual center of Haram al-Sharif. The weighing is happening on the stairways, the conclusion is done when entering the arches.