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The Dome of the Rock's Octagonal Base and Eight Gates: Vestiges of a Roman Temple?

Updated: Apr 23, 2022

No one disputes the fact that Moslems captured Jerusalem in 638 CE and that Caliph Abd Al-Malik completed the first domed shrine over the exposed rock there in 692 CE. The gold was added in the 20th century. Tradition has it that it was built at the location of the original Temple of Solomon and place where Abraham offered Isaac on Mount Mariah. But what was present at this site when the Moslems entered Jerusalem in 638? To understand that we must go back to the destruction of the Herod’s Temple in 70 CE and follow the history forward. Our historical detective Thomas Lewin (see last two blogs) documented that in his paper “The Mosque of Omar” that he published in Archaeologia in 1867 (placed in full now on our website).

The 19th century name “Mosque of Omar” given to the Moslem shrine is confusing today, because another mosque in the Old City now bears that name, and the Golden Dome is not technically a mosque but a shrine. It does not host group weekly prayer services and sermons like mosques do. The Al-Aqsa Mosque at the southern end of the Mount fulfills that role.

The entire Temple Mount sat in utter ruins without for sixty years after its destruction. Then in the year 131 Roman Emperor Hadrian stopped in Jerusalem on his way from Syria to Egypt. He decided that the city should be rebuilt as a Greek settlement called Aelia Capitolina, and he commanded a Temple to Jupiter be built on the Mount to replace the Jewish one. The idea that a pagan statue be erected at the temple site was too much for the Jews, and it triggered Simon bar Kokhba to launch the Second Jewish Revolt. The Jews succeeded once again to drive out the Romans, but it failed three years later. Hadrian eventually erected his temple to Jupiter—but where exactly? The Romans always required such a temple be built on the highest ground in the area, and so the obvious site chosen would have been around the Sakhra—the rock outcrop near the center.

Lewin explains that a well-known church document (the Chronicon Paschale) from the 6th century (before the Moslem conquest) stated that on the Mount in Jerusalem were twelve open gates built over steps ascending a raised platform. Today we see eight of these remaining (originally there were three per side). If we look far afield for other examples of Roman temples to Jupiter from that era, we can find one still existing in the town Spalatro in Croatia. It has numerous similarities to today’s Golden Shrine. It has an octagonal base. Both have enciorcling columns in the Corinthian style. They both have a dome above and a vaulted chamber beneath them (the Well of Souls in Jerusalem). The Spalatro temple was approached from the east through a gate called the Golden Gate. In Jerusalem, the Golden Gate to the east of the Shrine has been dated (based on the capitals on the columns inside) close to the reign of Emperor Constantine in 333 CE. That was the period of Christian persecution by Emperors Diocletian and Maximin Daza where all Temples in the empire were restored or rebuilt, including the one to Jupiter in Jerusalem. A large statue of Jupiter would have stood upon the Sakhra. The Christian emperors after Constantine were known to have tolerated the earlier pagan beliefs, with the latter temples often falling into decay. Indeed, the Moslems reported the site in much decay when they arrived in 638, but the central buildings apparently still stood and were adopted to create the shrine we see today.

The tradition that Hadrian’s temple to Jupiter was built on the site of the Jewish temple was handed off to the Moslem’s and has continued to this day. But Lewin put forth very convincing evidence from Josephus (see last week’s blog) that the true site of Herod’s Temple had been over 100 yards (meters) to the SSW of today's Golden Dome.

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