The Hashemites and Jerusalem

Restorations of Jerusalem

The Hashemite Royal Family’s leadership in conserving the holy places of Islam is deeply rooted in its origins and its role in Arab and Islamic history. The Hashemites ruled over parts of the Hijaz region of Arabia from 967 to 1925 AD. King Abdullah II ibn Al Hussein’s branch of the Hashemite Family ruled the holy city of Mecca from 1201 until 1925 AD. Today, King Abdullah II heads a family which represents over a thousand years of rule in the region, with a long history as guardians of the Islamic faith.

In the centre of the Old City of Jerusalem sits a sprawling compound known as Al Haram Al Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary). The compound contains two mosques, many shrines and public fountains, as well as the tombs of Muslim saints, is both holy and dear to Muslims worldwide. Al Haram Al Sharif is described as the first qibla (direction to which Muslims turn in prayer) and is Islam’s third holiest shrine, after Mecca and Medina.

At the centre of the area lies the golden Dome of the Rock which was completed in 691 AD by Caliph Abdul Malik Bin Marwan. The Dome of the Rock was built to commemorate the famous night journey (Isra Waal Miraj) of the Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) in the year 620 AD, when he was transported from Mecca to Jerusalem in a mystical flight. From the rock around which the shrine was later built, he ascended to heaven. Muslims celebrate this event on the 27th day of the hijiri month of Rajab every year.

The second mosque in Al Haram Al Sharif, at the end of a walkway connecting it to the Dome of the Rock, is Al Aqsa Mosque (the farthest mosque). It is so named in reference to the Quranic verse citing Jerusalem as “the farthest place of worship.” Al Aqsa Mosque was completed in 715 AD and is distinguished by its silver dome, rising slightly higher than the Dome of the Rock.

First Restoration

Zionist claims to Jerusalem at the beginning of the 20th century proved a threat to the city, which is sacred to all members of the three great monotheistic religions. Al Haram Al Sharif, the primary symbol of the Arab presence in and right to Jerusalem, became a rallying point of Arab unity. In 1922, a nongovernmental organization, the Islamic Higher Council (IHC), was established to preserve Islamic ideals and sanctuaries, alike. The IHC took responsibility for raising funds to restore the Dome of the Rock. A delegation visited Sharif Hussein in Mecca in 1924, and explained to him the mosque’s condition. Sharif Hussein contributed fifty thousand golden lire. This generous sum went towards the restoration of buildings in the Haram Al Sharif compound and a number of other mosques in Palestine. When Sharif Hussein died on 4 June 1931, the elite Jerusalemites insisted on his burial in Jerusalem. His tomb is located in the southern corridors of Al Aqsa Mosque.

Sharif Hussein's son Abdullah, the first ruler and king of Transjordan,took up the responsibilities of his father. During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Al Haram Al Sharif suffered considerable damage. King Abdullah I sounded the call for the restoration of Zakaria's mihrab, as well as the reconstruction of surrounding buildings which had suffered structural damage.

In 1949, King Abdullah I personally helped to extinguish a fire which almost destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, located next to Al Haram Al Sharif. He held the role of guardian of the holy sites in Jerusalem throughout his reign, maintaining and repairing them from the 1920s until his assassination at Al Aqsa Mosque during Friday prayers on 20 June 1951.

 Second Restoration

On 8 May 1952, six days after the coronation of the young King Hussein, the Jordanian government took action to continue restoration of the Dome of the Rock. The 1920s restoration, which replaced the outer wooden dome with an aluminium gold-plated one, had not prevented water from leaking into the interior. The dome was also losing its golden lustre. The newly sworn-in Hashemite King made the maintenance of this symbol of Islamic pride one of his primary duties.

In 1959, the second restoration commenced, funded by Jordan (JD60,000), with some support from other Islamic countries amounting to JD86,000. The second restoration was completed on 6 August 1964, when His Majesty the late King Hussein hosted a celebration in the Al Aqsa Mosque courtyard.

Third Restoration

By the late 1980s, the dome was again beginning to dull and damage resulting from regional violence could be seen on both the interior and exterior. The late King Hussein again initiated preservation of the holy sites. Under his instruction, Jordan's Ministry of Awqaf commissioned the Irish construction firm, Mivan, to undertake the unprecedented job of gilding the dome with five thousand new glittering gold plates, as well as rebuilding the roof supports, repairing the basic structure of the building and fireproofing the compound. Special attention was also paid to the restoration of the Minbar of Salaheddin and to the selection of the materials, which most closely resembled those originally used.

The late King Hussein spent more than US$8 million of his own resources, selling a house in London to finance the project, which was widely acclaimed as one of the most ambitious religious restoration jobs in history.

Emergency Restorations

The Minbar of Salaheddin in Al Aqsa Mosque suffered great damage when it was set on fire on 21 August 1969, by Jewish fundamentalist Dennis Rohan. The restoration of this minbar--a stepped platform or pulpit for preaching—was brought from Aleppo to Jerusalem by the legendary Muslim leader Salaheddin, who liberated the city from the Crusaders in 1187 AD. Its restoration cost the Jordanian treasury JD6 million (US$9 million).

The restoration team was able to salvage the original minbar and eradicate 95 per cent of the damage. Restoration work was completed at the Applied Balqa University in Salt, supervised by Arab and Muslim specialists and technicians. The work was followed up and sponsored by His Majesty King Abdullah II, who personally laid part of the minbar, thus marking the collection of its various parts, during the holy month of Ramadan 2002. The minbar was installed in its proper historic place in Al Aqsa Mosque on 2 February 2007.

King Abdullah II and Jerusalem

The Christian and Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem remain of great interest to His Majesty King Abdullah II, as a continuation of the royal commitment to care for these holy sites. The Hashemite Fund for the Reconstruction of the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock was established under a law issued in 2007 (after amending the Law of the Reconstruction of the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock No. 32 of 1954). This fund is supervised by a board of trustees chaired by His Royal Highness Prince Ghazi Bin Mohammad.

A previous committee, formed under the 1954 law, had given great attention to the Al Aqsa Mosque, including all mosques, domes, maharib and other cultural sites. The committee worked continuously on the maintenance and restoration of these sites, removed the effects of the fire, which had damaged more than one third of the mosque, and undertook reconstruction of the first Dome of the Rock Mosque, dating from 691 AD.

Other Jerusalem restorations

Projects for the care and reconstruction of holy sites in Jerusalem in the era of King Abdullah include: the rebuilding of the Minbar of Salaheddin and its installation in Al Aqsa Mosque; the restoration of the southern and eastern walls of Al Aqsa Mosque; and another 11 restoration and maintenance projects on the various facilities and sections of Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.

Studies were completed for six other projects, related to the installation of sophisticated systems for lighting, sound, mechanical and sanitary works and for the fifth minaret of Al Aqsa Mosque on the eastern wall.

Saving the Minbar of Salaheddin…and more

For centuries, the Hashemites have been the recipients of a special trust, as custodians of Islam's sacred places in the city of Jerusalem. When His Majesty King Abdullah II inherited this responsibility from his father, it came with a challenge that had baffled scholars for more than thirty years: how to reconstruct the great Minbar of Salaheddin, at Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

The minbar, a decorated pulpit from which the imam delivered sermons, was considered a great artwork from the height of the Islamic empire. During the 12th century, when Jerusalem was still under Crusader occupation, the Muslim leader of Aleppo, Nureddin Zengi, called upon the finest craftsmen in the state to construct a spectacular minbar for the Al Aqsa Mosque. It symbolised the grandeur of the Islamic civilization, its devotion to God, and its hope of regaining sovereignty in its third holiest city.

In 1187, Nureddin's successor, the great Salaheddin Al Ayyubi, reconquered Jerusalem. He installed Nureddin's minbar in Al Aqsa Mosque where it remained for nearly 800 years.

In 1969, a firebomb was planted in Al Aqsa by a radical Zionist. The fire nearly destroyed the building and it reduced to ashes one of the Muslim world's great treasures. His Majesty the late King Hussein Bin Talal of Jordan pledged to rebuild the minbar – a task that would prove much more challenging than anticipated.

Little remained of the original, and no detailed records had been made of its construction, dimensions, materials or interior structure. Fragments of charred wood, antique paintings and black-and-white photographs were the only guides available to the committee established to oversee the task. Even the knowledge of how to design and build the minbar's intricate panels seemed lost, a relic of the distant past.

Rebuilding the minbar became more than just a test of skill – it became part of a major effort to safeguard the rapidly vanishing cultural heritage of the Islamic world.

When King Abdullah II ascended to the throne of Jordan, he and his religious affairs adviser, His Royal Highness Prince Ghazi Bin Mohammad, renewed their efforts to find someone who could replicate what was known of the minbar's design.

They found Minwer Meheid, a young man from a bedouin family in Saudi Arabia, with degrees in engineering and architecture. Although he had no formal artistic training, Islamic geometry had been a personal interest, part of Meheid’s own quest to understand the history of Islam. Using the traditional geometric principles he had learned from books, Meheid resolved the question of how to reproduce the complex inlaid patterns of the minbar's surface with absolute precision. Based on these initial sketches, Meheid was appointed to lead the reconstruction project.

More months of study followed, as Meheid travelled the Islamic world, searching for other ancient minbars from which he could learn how the Islamic master craftsmen actually constructed their works. The oldest minbars, he learned, were built on a lattice of tightly fitted wooden pieces, held together by precisely carved mortise and tenon joints – without a single nail or drop of glue.

By the time he finished his plans, Meheid had produced close to 1,400 architectural drawings for the minbar, detailing the exact dimensions of more than 60,000 wooden pieces.

With the backing of the Hashemites, a workshop was created in the city of Salt, and some of the finest woodworkers from the Islamic world were brought to complete the new minbar, an exact copy of the one that had been destroyed. Even with a team of a dozen people, it took nearly four full years to construct it. When it was finally finished and moved to Jerusalem on 2 February 2007, it fit in the spot of the original minbar to the centimetre.

Today, the Salt workshop is the nucleus of the new Institute of Traditional Islamic Art and Architecture, headed by Meheid, whose designs for the minbar led him to be awarded a doctorate from the most prestigious academy of traditional art in the world, the Prince's School for Traditional Arts in London.

The task of understanding and preserving the arts of the Islamic civilisation, many of which have been neglected for years, remains huge. The restoration of the Minbar of Salaheddin is one of several significant restoration and preservation efforts that Jordan's monarchs have championed over the last several decades, and that have put Jordan at the forefront of Islamic scholarship and cultural preservation today.

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