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Al-Aqsa between History and Mythology: What Dumb Luck can teach you about Defending the Past!

By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD


In my infinite absentmindedness, I missed a migration and refugee studies lecture last Monday. This was unforgiveable for someone like me, as a Palestinian, but it had its advantages. The brief lull in my schedule gave me the opportunity to read a book I’d bought recently at the Cairo International Book Fair, dealing with Islamic architecture in the early days.

I bought that book deliberately, you see, since it dealt with Al-Masjid al-Aqsa as an example of early Muslim architecture at the time of the second Calipha Omar bin al-Khattab. Certain silly people, without naming names, argue that the Masjid was built by the Umayyed dynasty in a religious ploy during the civil war that brought them to power. In typical fashion such near-sighted intellectuals can’t tell the difference between the Masjid Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock. You can tell ‘when’ the Dome of the Rock was built just by looking at it. The architecture is completely different, and incorporates Roman and Byzantine (and Sassanid) art and architecture, but with a new and distinctively Islamic mix, following the building of the great Umayyed mosque of Damascus, originally a Byzantine Cathedral which in turn had been converted from an old Roman temple. (Walk around Cairo and you can clearly distinguish between mosques that are Fatimid and Mamluk and Ottoman, just from the building style).


Prayers for Peace

Anyway, the book was pretty explicit about how Omar bin Al-Khattab ‘built up’ the area, since imarat al-masjid in Islam and Arabic means taking an existing plot of land where people pray and putting more permanent architectural features in it for the convenience of the worshippers. (Not necessarily a roof or even minarets, but a wall along with a mihrab and minbar, so the worshippers know what direction to pray in and the sheikh has somewhere to make his sermon more effectively).

A masjid, ultimately, is from mawdi al-sujud, the ‘place where you prostrate’ yourself and where your forehead meets the ground in the act of prayer. (It’s even been said that the prayer mat or even your forehead counts as a masjid!) Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa was always there, from time immemorial, and was where the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) prayed with all the other Prophets during the Israa and Miraj (Night Journey to Jerusalem from Mecca and Ascension to the Heavens, and back again). And there are no shortage of modernist detractors when it comes to that miracle in Muslim history, and all in the service of the Israelis of course. But, more to the point, why am I dredging up all these issues today? Another book I’d bought at the Cairo book fair was an Al-Azhar publication dealing with the Arabic identity of Al-Quds (Jerusalem), in protest over Trump’s careless and downright ahistorical recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Guess what I found in it? A quote, in Arabic, from the second Book of Samuel where it says that King’ David tried and failed to conquer Jerusalem from a Yabusians (Jebusians in English. (The Jews don’t recognise him as a Prophet or Messenger, despite his Pslams, the Zabour). The English translation is not nearly as clear but it does contain a key item of data, namely that David was nevertheless was able to capture “... the fortress of Zion--which is the City of David.” (2 Samuel, chapter 5, New International Version; see also 1 Chronicles 11:5, New Living Translation). Supposedly Yabous is conquered ‘afterwards’, with a detailed description in other books in the Torah, not so much the book of Samuel specifically. And that’s odd, to say the least, since the books of Samuel are supposed to have been written at the time of the Prophet Dawoud (PBUH) himself. At least that’s what happened in the movie, King David (1985), starring Richard Gere as you-know-who.

But what of the City of David atop Mount Zion? This became the capital of Israel, not Jerusalem, and ‘remained’ that way. This is also where the King built his palace of (Lebanese) cedars and more important still, where the Temple was built. (It says that in the movie and the Bible). Wait a minute… the Temple was on Mount Zion, a location outside of the city of Jerusalem or Yabuos. So how can the supposed Temple be under the complex that is Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa?!!

It can’t, that’s the whole point. (It’s like saying Gabal Al-Muqatam in Egypt is in downtown Cairo!) Not to forget that the Temple itself was a violation of God’s will, since the Prophet Nathan condemned the mere idea of a ‘house of God’ at the time, after having a direct conversation with the Almighty. (2 Samuel 7, New Century Version; they play this down in the movie, although David himself destroys the scale model of the Temple in the end sequence of the film such worldly pursuits are not fitting of him and caused all his many, many sins). Supposedly it was okay for David’s (future) son to build the Temple, according to Nathan, forgetting that ‘King’ Solomon himself is castigated elsewhere. And he was even more sinful than his father (if you believe the Israeli version of events) and forced the Israelites into ‘bondage’ (working one day a week) to build the Temple. (This is Sukriya or serfdom in Arabic).


The Art of Dislocation

There are more surprises in store here but a fiendishly devilish idea plopped into my head while I was reading the Biblical narrative. The supposed conquest of Jerusalem by the City of David. But Jerusalem wasn’t called Jerusalem at the time, remember. It was called Yabous, and as far back as the time Abraham (PBUH) in fact, according to the Bible (see below).

Could it be that a confusion happened between the City of David, which was still the capital, and Jerusalem? Mount Zion is a stone’s throw away from Jerusalem and peoples in the past had a tendency to lump locations together in their travel narratives. Just look at Baghdad. That’s not the name of the capital built by Abu Jaafar Al-Mansur, the second Abbasid Calipha – it was called Madinat Al-Salam (City of Peace). Baghdad was a village, and a Persian one at that, that the new capital was built next to. (Baghdad means ‘given by God’; Bagh is god and dad is given). With time the area became known as Baghdad, after the village, and with that travellers came to refer to the new city as Baghdad, using the older name they were familiar with. And the same holds true of Byzantium.

The city the emperor Constantine built was called Constantinople, after his glorious self, but it was built (again) right next to an older Greek town called Byzantium. (A common practice in the ancient world, building a city next to a village to get access to vegetables and fruits on time). You can see why the two were lumped together by Western travellers since the denizens of the Byzantine Empire never called themselves Byzantines, but Romans. Arabs, likewise, called them Ruum (Romans), but Westerners knew of the old Greek town and so superimposed the name onto the empire and culture of the new city. Could this have happened with the Jews and Mount Zion? Note that Iraq is named after a formidable hilltop the Arabs crossed on their way to their Central Asian trade routes, and Iraq is a generic term for stone mountain in Arabic. (Several ‘iraqs’, rocky hills, exist in Egypt; and Kuwait was originally called Kuwt, with a similarly named town in Iraq).

Now for some supporting evidence, and from that book on early Islamic architecture. Yes, I’m serious. The author, Dr. Abd Allah Kamel Musa Abduh, did something really remarkable and completely unnecessary given the subject of his book. He listed the many names of Jerusalem. ‘Arabic’ names from before Islam. Turns out there are 17 different names. These include: Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa, Masjid Ilyaa, Bayt Al-Maqdis, Al-Bayt Al-Muqadas, Bayt Al-Quds and Salem. (These names come from Al-Zarkashi). According to another chronicler, Ibn Bari, Salem was pronounced Shalem, with a whole bunch of other names: Uur-Shalem, Kur Ilia, Urr Shaleem, Bayt Iyl, Suhyoun (Zion), Masruth (sounds like ‘Musrara’, a 19th century neighbourhood of Al-Quds), Babush, Kurshila (Persian names, as I suspected), Shaleem, Aziel and Salmoun.

According to Walid Al-Khalidi, Suhyoun is originally a Canaanite name, which makes sense because King David is supposed to have conquered it from the Yabousians, who were the overlords after the Canaanites – or were Canaanites themselves (or a related people, the Amorites). He also explains that Bayt Iyl was the Assyrian name for the city, meaning House of God. (Babylon means Bab El, gate of the gods; bab means gate in Arabic!)

Mount Zion was probably part of the defensive perimeter of Yabous (and much like the citadel of Saladin on Gabal Al-Muqatam), and later becoming ‘known’ as the City of David. (The King may not even have called it a city, just some armed camp with tribal warriors and their families, a nominal administrative centre for the war effort and de facto capital). Also note that the name of the Masjid is being lumped into the name of the city as a whole. The truth could very well be that the city is the one being identified with the holy place that ‘preceded’ it. Remember that Mecca as a city grew up around the Masjid Al-Haram, after the Prophet Abraham (PBUH) raised the foundations of the Masjid (built by Adam himself, the first prophet) and built the Kaaba, along with digging Bir Zamzam (the only source of water in the whole desolate area, a ‘valley without vegetation’). Al-Quds probably grew up the same way, a religious site for worship and pilgrimage sprouting settlements, but at a faster pace, given the presence of water and crops and trade routes and population flows – the meeting place of Asia, Africa and Europe. (Adam, PBUH, built it 40 years after Al-Masjid Al-Haram).

In the ancient Near East in general cities were built by royal decree and with religious legitimisation, from the Sumerians onwards. Cities were all ‘holy’ cities, something needed to convince farmers to uproot from the villages and head over there.


West of Eden

The example of Byzantium is doubly significant here because it seems that Western Christians were also the ones to misidentify Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa with the Temple of Solomon. Remember the ‘Templar’ knights, during the crusades? Well, in point of fact they only acquired that name after the First Crusade was already over. Their knightly order was set up to protect the European pilgrims from Arab bandits. In the process the pilgrims, when they saw the knights camped at the Aqsa mosque – they’d turned it into a stable for their horses – they gave them the name Templers, thinking (it seems) that the Aqsa was the Temple of Solomon itself. Not built on the site of the Temple of Solomon, but the ‘actual’ Temple itself, left unchanged after thousands and thousands of years!

It is decorated in gold and glazed blue tiles, after all. (The word crusader itself was also invented retrospectively, by European peasants witnessing all those knights with crosses instead of heraldry on their chests). Such time-zone misidentifications were all too common in the Middle Ages. If you read Ghassan Kanafani’s seminal On Zionist Literature (1966), you discover that the tale of the ‘Wandering Jew’ was a crusader concoction, with the Patriarch of Armenia claiming he’d met the Jew in question and even invited him to dinner! (The man’s feet hurt from all those centuries of wondering, apparently). And the self-same Patriarch claimed he’d seen Noah’s Ark beached at the top of a mountain in Armenia, still there again after all those thousands of years (pp. 72-73).

The point is, this misidentification is a ‘European’ one, and not Jewish at all. Zionism is built on myths, true enough, but as if that wasn’t bad enough those myths aren’t even Jewish to begin with. The whole idea of ‘rebuilding’ the Temple is an Evangelical and Christian Zionist idea, since the Book of Revelations – in the New Testament – says this event will usher in the Second Coming of the Messiah and with that the end of the world; Armageddon and the anti-Christ and eventual conversion, or extermination, of the Jews. According to Dr. Stephen Sizer, also a priest, the prophesized Temple is in fact the pagan Temple of bad old Herod, not the historical monotheistic Temple of Solomon. (“Christian Zionism: Justifying Apartheid in the Name of God”, 14-16 November 2001). Yet another Western misidentification.

According to Christian scholarship of the Old Testament there is actually a debate over the exact location of Mount Zion, whether it was in fact in the vicinity of Jerusalem or – just as likely – Accra in the North! Don’t be so surprised. Remember the battle of Ain Jalut between the Mamluks and Mongols? It happened in northern Palestine, and the place is called that by the Palestinian Arabs because it’s where David slew Goliath; Juliaat is Arabic for Goliath.

Accra is the main harbour in Palestinian history, so it would make sense that the Philistines-Sea Peoples would dock there and use it as a centre of operations against the Israelites, and the Philistines weren’t just in Gaza, but raided as far north as Lebanon. (There's a peculiar scene in King David where the prophet Nathan, again, warns David against leaving the promised land, saying that they’d be at the mercy of pagans gods that way. Leaving aside the twisted theology, he seems to be referring to a tiny area of Palestine that happens to belong to them since David, to my knowledge, never went outside of Palestine when Saul was after him). And while we’re on the topic of King David, how come you never ‘see’ Richard Gere actually conquering the holy city?


North by North West

There’s no shortage of gory battle sequences, certainly, so what gives? Could there be something there they don’t want you to know, I wonder? I’d suspect as much. According to Christian, and Talmudic, commentary King David had to pay ‘compensation’ money (levying taxes from his people) to the Yabousians because they had a covenant with Abraham (PBUH) over the sanctity and independence of Yabous. (This is in the Rabbinical literature). In exchange for a burial plot for himself and his children, he promised them that none of his descendants would ever occupy Yabous, till the end of time. They could have the whole of Palestine, but not that particular city. The Yabousians even taunted David, telling him they had a bronze plaque or figurine at the centre of the city with the very words of the covenant scrawled all over it (see the Jewish Encyclopaedia). The King, disobeying the very father of all the Prophets, went ahead anyway and had the plaque stolen or destroyed, then had to cough up the cash for his blasphemy!

Sounds like another one of those sins that the Prophet David (PBUH) is always accused of, which would mean the conquest of Yabous was just as ‘sacrilegious’ as the building of the Temple on Mount Zion – wherever that ultimately is. (Do you know they say the Arthurian myth never happened in Southwestern England but way up North in Scotland?!)

Don’t know about you but I’m beginning to feel dizzy. Let’s finish this article where it began, with that lecture I missed. I probably wouldn’t have been able to go anyway, even if I remembered. Through a trick of fate it rained especially heavily that day. (Clouds for over a week but only raining that particular day). Oh, and did I mention that I found that architecture book on the last day of the Cairo book fair. It was like it was ‘meant’ to be, that I’d stumble across and then read a book that helped you fill in the gaps in holy scripture, and the plug the holes in the heads of mean-minded Arab intellectuals!!!


Special thanks to Ahmed and Mohsen for help with this paper.

Written by Emad Aysha