Ch LXIX: And eight shall bear the Throne of thy Lord above them, on that day.
The early 10C commentator Tabari, who habitually makes exhaustive use of traditional material in interpreting the texts of the Koran, quotes a "Hadith" which describes the Throne Bearers as having their feet on the 7th, lowest heaven. Their shoulders, which bear the throne, emerge from the heavens.
A variant adds: "Their feet are at the limits; Statements in Maybudi and Zamakhshari illuminate this last remark: "Their feet are at the limits of the earth’s, and the earth’s and the heavens are at their sides."
Note: Graphic of the geometric edges of the structure explains this.
"It is transmitted from the prophet; Do not contemplate the greatness of your Lord. Rather, contemplate the angels that G-D has created. There is an angelic creature called Israfil: One of the corners of the throne is upon his shoulders; His feet are on the lowest earth; his head has passed through 7 heavens. Yet he is as tiny as a little bird in comparison to the greatness of G-D."
Maybudi identifies the throne bearer in human form (as opposed to lion, ox, eagle) with Israfil.
The Serpent: Kisa'i speaks of a gigantic serpent that encircles the throne. Its head is of pearl, its body of gold, its eyes rubies. It has 40 000 wings made of precious stones. On each feather stands an angel, praising G-D.
Maqdisi, discussing the relationship between the terms "Arsh" and "Kursi" (2 Koranic terms for "throne") cites the opinion of the "traditionalists" (ashab Al-Hadith) that the Kursi is G-Ds footstool, the "Arsh" presumably being the Throne proper.
Those who bear the throne and all who round about it, hymn the praises of their Lord and believe in Him and also forgiveness for those who believe ... (Surah 40 vs. 7)
And the angels will be on the sides thereof (of heaven) and eight will uphold the "Throne of the Lord that day, above them." (Surah 69 vs. 17)
G-D gives instructions to the throne bearers. He tells them that He created them to carry the throne, and He offers them whatever they will of strength. One asked for the strength of water, since the throne has hitherto rested on water, second asks for strength of Heavens, Third for the strength of the Earth, Forth for the strength of winds.
"The heavens and earth and all the creatures therein are contained in the "kursi". 4 Angels bear it by G-D's leave."
1st angel is human image, the most noble before G-D. He invokes G-D continuously, intercedes for human beings, praying for their sustenance.
2nd angel is the image of a bull, invokes G-D continuously for all the domestic animals.
3rd is the eagle image, lord of the birds, and 4th, the lion, intercedes for the sustenance of the wild beasts.
Excerpts from: The early Islamic Monuments of Al-Haram Al-Sharif
Copyright of Hebrew University 1989
The Temple Mount is known to be the site where Solomon's temple (the First temple) stood at the turn of the 1st millennium CE. Herod the Great expanded the site, rebuilding the "Second temple" there. Only after the Muslim conquest did the Temple Mount come to be known as "al-Haram al Sharif", the Noble Enclosure. As the former site of the two Jewish temples, it was also known in Arabic as "Bayt al- Maqdis", "the Temple".
Why was the Dome of the Rock built? Why should "Abd al-Malik have wished to build such a structure? And why was it built in this particular manner, according to this particular plan, and with these particular decorations?
All these questions must be approached while keeping in mind that it was indeed "Abd al-Malik who built this monument, and that what is to be seen today faithfully reflects what was built by him in 691/692CE. In other words, we have before us the original plan of this monument, with its basic proportions intact, as is its original scheme of decoration.
In the late 1950s, Oleg Grabar sought a solution along completely different lines. Two major aspects of the Dome of the Rock served as his basis: certain parts of the mosaic decorations and some of the inscriptions integrated into the decoration.
Grabar was fully aware of the complexity of the building and of its rich decoration, and his was one of the first attempts in modern art history to tackle the difficulties of analysing iconographic problems in the Dome of the Rock. His study is concerned primarily with the mosaic decorations of the inner face of the intermediate octagon. That one of the most striking themes in the mosaics of this structure is the stylised depiction of a collection of jewellery has been noted.
The great diversity of the jewellery (comprising bracelets, pendants, necklaces, and above all many crowns and tiaras) was indeed intriguing.
These elements do not seem merely to illustrate the continued tradition of wall mosaics as established in pre-Islamic, Byzantine art; for the golden background here is not merely for colour effect, but plays an active role in this rich, bejewelled realm.
The extraordinary "collection" of jewellery here, conveying the impression of reality, includes a profusion of crowns of 2 different types.
It was to one of these types, the crowns and tiaras, which appear as the main theme all round the intermediate octagon that Grabar referred.
Grabar's theory (that the crowns are of vanquished kings subordinated to Islam) does not provide a solution to the large variety of other jewellery.
Why should it be associated in this way with the rest of the decoration of this monument? And why such an array of glittering jewellery, studded with inlay and creating the effect of precious gems, included in the decorative scheme of the building? The answer has remained illusive.
The other type of crowns appearing in the Dome of the Rock is the group of "winged" motifs stemming from each of the splendid amphorae decorating the drum. In some of the early studies this "winged" motif was rightly traced to a Sasanian origin, where such motifs often also symbolise the Sasanian crown. The "winged" depiction in the drum might have played the role of a crown in Sasanian tradition, and thus represent a variant of the crowns depicted naturalistically within the intermediate octagon.
Each of the main mosaic areas in the Dome of the Rock has its own very specific theme, and there are 6 such distinct series of mosaics. Examinations show all six to be based on predominantly floral motifs. Despite this floral dominance, as well as the occasional motifs somewhat reminiscent of floral decoration, the planning is so elaborate that in each given area an independent cycle is generated.
First group encountered upon entering the building is series 1, covering the outer face of the intermediate octagon and facing the 4 entrances. Tree of Life mosaic.
The first series of mosaics on the inner face of the intermediate octagon entirely covers the surface; unlike the outer face of the intermediate octagon around the 8 straight arcades, the inner face presents a continuous surface.
The original external mosaics have all but entirely disappeared, restored in the Middle Ages, today largely covered with glazed ceramic tiles, the restoration work of Suleiman the Magnificent.
The only clue Muslim historians give (to the imagery of the lost external mosaics) is that they resembled those within, and that they were many "trees" and "fruits".
Notes: Tree of life imagery again. Tree with 12 fruits, harvested 12 times a year.
One non-Muslim source, however, may be of more value: in 1483 Felix Fabri visited Jerusalem and though he was not allowed to enter the Haram, he could view the Dome from afar. The description he has left us is significant, for he mentions various elements of the exterior mosaics; "... trees, palm tree, olive trees and angels". This description tallied perfectly with the extant decoration within the building; the only puzzling detail is the mention of "angels".
Note: Note the constant theme of alternating 6 and 4 winged stylised "angels" (the Isaiah/Ezekiel cherubim/seraphim) in the interior frieze.
The explanation would seem to lie in the data provided by the Muslim sources- that the decoration on the exterior was very much like that within the monument, and thus something like the floral motifs with "winged" crowns as in the drum of the interior, must also have been depicted on the exterior.
To Fabri, accustomed to Western medieval iconography and looking from afar, the "winged" motif could only have been associated with angels. It should be noted that the decoration of all these marbles are identical, in both the group on the 8 piers and that of the wall frieze. However, there is an exception in the latter group; one section of the wall frieze, along the south-western wall, (most inferior wall) bears a very different motif, based on rosettes within roundels. Except for this irregularity, which is limited to one section, a single motif similar to the stylised tree associated with the arches is used throughout.
The floral mosaic decoration on the arcades, consisting of vases above the columns, with branches spreading out on either side across the flanking arches, meeting those of the adjacent vases. Such a motif, a continuous series in an octagonal or round context, is invariably connected with the iconography of Paradise, regardless of the cultural matrix.
On each arch of the arcade is a very delicate motif of an axial tree. As on the carved marbles, each schematised tree is accompanied by various hybrid details. In the Sasanian iconography for paradise. the word paradise is derived from the ancient Persian word meaning literally "a place surrounded by a wall."
The Muslim Paradise is repeatedly described, always in very similar terms, and there are few divergences from the essential concepts. These Muslim descriptions are based on two principal components: trees and precious stones. In the Koran, one such description reads:
"They shall repose on couches, adorned with gold and precious stones ... They shall abide among lotus trees, without thorns, and trees of Mauz, loaded with fruit from top to bottom.(LVI, 15-33) Other descriptions : "I shall descend upon thee a dome of light, made by my own hands, that will shine in the sky and in the air; I shall raise upon thee a wall of gold, a wall of silver, a wall of emerald, a wall of clouds , a wall of pearls, a wall of rubies ..."
"Eight gates of gold and precious stones, wooden beams made of alternating silver and gold."
The 15th C manuscript entitled Mi'raj Nameh, deals with the heavenly journey of the prophet Muhammad. When is heaven, he encountered the Emerald tree in paradise. The tree was studded with precious stones. Going a step further in our iconographic investigation, we are told- that beneath this tree, the 4 rivers of paradise, the cosmic waters and Rivers of paradise, issuing forth from the roots of the tree- the tree of Life.
It is well established that Muslim traditions relating to paradise, and to the eschatological concepts underlying them, are of Persian and Judaeo-Christian origins.
Without going into detailed examination of such relations, we may cite one Jewish example, particularly relevant to the matter at hand, in Pirqei Mashiah, in the chapter on the messiah: "and her throne is a temple built on 4 golds: fine gold, refined gold, beaten gold and red gold, like the gold that makes fruits, founded in sapphire and fixed in alabaster.
The Christian interpretation of paradise, as seen in the conventional views of the period, can also serve in clarifying the iconography of the Dome of the Rock.
Principle conceptions of Paradise prevailing in the early Middle Ages were the allegorical, as perceived by St. Ambrose and the geographical, as perceived by St Jerome. In St Augustine we read: ... Paradise is the symbol of life, its 4 rivers are the 4 cardinal qualities ... the trees herein are the right achievements, their fruits ... the Good Deeds.
Parallel to this is an allegorical conception based on the basic symbolism of the Church: the 4 rivers as the 4 gospels, the trees as the saints etc.
An equivalent of this interpretation can be found in Jewish traditions: Scholem has shown that the plants (Hebrew neti'ot) mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud, tractate Berakhot 11,8 actually corresponds to the saints in Jewish metaphysical literature.
In the light of this spiritual reservoir in Christianity and Judaism, from which Early Islam was to draw so much, it is less difficult to interpret the numerous trees and floral motifs as depicted throughout the Dome of the Rock, particularly in the various series of mosaics.
The Apocrypha (Baruch the Greek): ... and as I said, Lord, what is that which Michael the Archangel is holding? And he said to me, This is where the merits of the righteous enter, and such good works as they do, which are escorted before the heavenly G-D.
And as I was conversing with them, behold angels came bearing baskets full of flowers, and they gave them to Michael. And I said to the Lord, who are these, and what are the things bought hither from beside them? And he said unto me, these are the angels (who) are over the righteous, and the Archangels took the baskets, and cast them into the vessel, and the angel said unto me, the flowers are the merits of the righteous. This categorisation of values is quite similar to that found in the Jewish Aggada, where "Good Deeds" are also referred to in terms of flowers.
Moreover, in the mosaics in various areas of the Dome of the Rock, we can also see depictions of both "baskets' and "vessels". Most of the baskets, which are less prominent than the other vessels, are to be seen in the intrados of the intermediate octagon. As for the vessels or vases, they are to be found throughout the monument. All around the drum of the Dome, there is a rhythmic division of the extremely elaborate floral scrolls, punctuated by tall amphorae studded with precious stones. The traditional interpretation of the amphora with out flowing scrolls associates it with the Tree of Life. In Christian Iconography it is a symbol of renewal ... This symbol, basically a vase with flowers- cannot find a more appropriate depiction than that found in variations throughout the Dome of the Rock. The flowers depicted here are the very "Good Deeds' or "merits" so eloquently depicted in Baruch the Greek.
Another element closely related with the paradisiacal cycle is the repeated association of numerous angels. Thus, in the lost "Apocalypse of Zephaniah", cited by Clement of Alexandria, angels encountered in Paradise are described as having a crown set upon their heads.
We have often noted the profusion of crowns in the mosaics of the Dome of the Rock as well as the winged motifs there. But what now becomes obvious is that the latter represents an abstraction of the angels, which played so significant a role in the eschatological scenes quoted above. The crowns and winged motifs, integral parts of the broader, complex decorative scheme, are in close association with the large vessels, the vases of floral motifs- the Good deeds.
It could be argued that the winged motif depicted in the drum of the Dome of the Rock is actually a schematised interpretation of an angelic figure proper.