The Rock: A Tale of Seventh-Century Jerusalemby Kanan Makiya
Whose rock is enshrined inside the golden Dome of Jerusalem? The rock of Moses or of Muhammad? Kanan Makiya gathers together the stories, legends, and beliefs that define the Rock—the place where Adam landed in his fall from Paradise and where Abraham attempted to sacrifice his first-born; where Solomon’s Temple stood and where Jesus preached; the rock… See more details below
Whose rock is enshrined inside the golden Dome of Jerusalem? The rock of Moses or of Muhammad? Kanan Makiya gathers together the stories, legends, and beliefs that define the Rock—the place where Adam landed in his fall from Paradise and where Abraham attempted to sacrifice his first-born; where Solomon’s Temple stood and where Jesus preached; the rock from which Muhammad ascended to heaven—and transforms them into a narrative of novelistic depth and drama. This brilliantly imagined, historically based account of the building of the Dome of the Rock reconstructs the paths of the actual individuals whose spiritual journeys revolved around the seventh-century lore of the Rock.
The chief protagonist is Ka’b al-Ahbar, a learned Jew who accepted the prophecy of Muhammad and who accompanied the caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab during his conquest of the Holy City. The story is narrated by Ka’b’s son, Ishaq, who years later is commissioned to design the first monument of Islam, the Dome of the Rock.
As he imagines the construction of the Dome—and the complex reasons behind its creation—Makiya gives us a meditation on the common terrain of the world’s three great monotheistic religions and a remarkable investigation into what the Rock symbolizes—beyond its various stories and names, beyond even the three faiths at whose heart it sits.
From the Hardcover edition.
“Powerful. . . . Full of wonders. . . . Dares to examine exactly when, why and how the outcrop of stone that was believed to be the site of the ancient temple of Solomon–already sacred to both Judaism and Christianity–was first claimed as a holy place by Islam . . . thus establishing Jerusalem as ground zero in the bloody and enduring conflict among the three great monotheistic faiths. . . . Could not be more timely.” –Los Angeles Times
“Important and imaginative. . . . Solid, interesting, accessible, and highly illuminating.” –The Washington Post Book World
Read an Excerpt
In the Name of God the Merciful the Compassionate
Praise be to Him, before Whom bow all who are in the heavens and the earth, willingly or unwillingly, as do their shadows in the mornings and the evenings. There is no God but He whose subtle proofs triumph in disputes created by anxious minds, whose work, which is creation in all its splendor, reduces to nothing the justifications put forward by the tongues of Unbelievers.
In the Book whose every word bears witness to Him, the story is told of the creation of the waters and the mountains, the heavens and the earth, truth and falsehood. Things sensible and insensible were created out of nothing to look and sound the way they do for no other reason than to serve as proof of Him. Their every shade of color was painted with a single hair. The nymphs and satyrs of the desert were created from smokeless fire; man, from a single drop of sperm. Every separate thing, heartless or otherwise, found its place in the scheme of God.
Surely in that are signs for a people who consider.
The Rock was the first sign. From its surface, God issued the first ray of light. The ray pierced the darkness to fill His chosen land. Then the light spread, to cover the rest of the world without discrimination.
On the third hour of the sixth day of creation, the Lord of Creation gathered dry black clay with which to make the body of the first man. He gathered it from the Rock for the head, from the site of the Ka'ba for the breast and back, and from the land of the Yemen for the limbs. He worked and kneaded the clay with water until it became sticky and slimy.
By the fourth hour of the sixth day of creation, a body had been formed. It was hairy, as tall as a palm tree, and was given the name Adam, because, like Allah, the Arabic name for God, it begins with the first letter of the alphabet.
In the seventh hour, the angel Iblis was ordered to enter Adam's mouth and emerge from his anus, following which he was obliged to retrace his steps and emerge from his mouth. Then God blew a spirit into the body of His Prince. It entered Adam's brain through his mouth, from which it went to his eyes and nose and further through the whole body, whereafter the body turned into flesh, blood, bone, veins, and sinews. And the first man was clothed in a fiery Garment of Light.
The dimensions and splendor of our angel ancestor awed and frightened the other angels.
"Bow yourselves to Adam," God said to the angels.
And they fell down, bowing all together, save Iblis. He was not among the bowing, which angered God.
"Go forth! Thou art henceforth the Accursed One," God said to Iblis.
While Adam was in the Garden, the life of the Creator pulsated within him. God and His Creation were as One.
Adam's Fall changed everything.
He enjoyed the splendors of the Garden for less than two hours before being tempted to eat of the forbidden fruit.
And so in the twelfth hour of the sixth day of creation, he was stripped of his Garment of Light and clothed instead in a layer of skin. He was cast out of the Garden, and set down upon the Rock of Foundation, thenceforth known also as the Rock of Atonement.
"Thou shalt be the prototype of thy children" were the last words of God before placing His foot on the Rock to ascend back to Heaven.
Banished from the Garden, the father of mankind descended on a stone, the first station of a new world, an exile's world-bleak and brooding, with harsh sunlight and deep shadows, desolate rocky peaks and steep ravines, dry burning heat and cold luminous nights. Adam, whom God had appointed His deputy on Earth, had landed in the elemental landscape of his Creator's imagination.
On a mountain that happened to be the closest to Heaven of all the mountains of the Earth, he landed-so close that, when Adam's feet were planted on its summit, his head poked into the Garden out of which he had been cast.
The sight terrified the angels. They had not wanted Adam in their presence in the first place. "Wilt Thou place upon the Earth one who will corrupt it and shed blood, while we proclaim Thy praise and call Thee Holy?" they asked the Lord. Unable to stand the sight of the fallen man any longer, they begged God to do something about him. And so it came to pass that Adam was cut down to sixty cubits.
The first man whined and complained at his fate.
"My Lord! I was Your protégé in Your house, having no Lord but You and no one to watch over me except You. There, I had much to eat and could dwell wherever I wanted. I used to hear the voices of the angels and see them crowd around Your Throne, and I enjoyed the sweet smell of Paradise. But then you cast me out and cut me down."
Like Iblis, the rest of God's creatures now refused to pay him their respect.
The Eagle was the first to see Adam on the mountain. He flew down to the sea and said to the Fish: "I have seen a creature walking on its hind feet. It has two hands to attack with, and on each hand are five fingers."
"I think," the Fish replied, "that you describe a creature that will neither leave you alone in the height of the air nor leave me alone in the depth of the sea."
And Adam ruled the Earth and all its creatures, which he named according to what God had taught him in the Garden. While he slept, God rubbed his back, making all Adam's future offspring appear before him. When Adam learned that David would live only a short time, he gave him fifty of the thousand years that were alloted to himself. And the number of Adam's offspring was forty thousand as his nine-hundred-and-fiftieth year approached, and Iblis and the angels gathered round him for the last time.
"Why did you not bow down before me, Iblis, when God commanded it?" asked Adam.
"Because I believe that only One is to be adored. And of all the dwellers in the Garden, there was no stricter champion of His Unity than I."
"You disregard God's Command?" asked Adam.
"That was trial," said Iblis, "not Command."
"Do you still remember what He looked like?"
"O Adam," Iblis said, "pure thought needs no memory, and thought is His memorial with me. I serve Him now with a purer purpose, in a present emptiness of self-purpose. In the Garden I served Him for my own well-being, but now I serve for the sake of His."
When she who had been made from Adam's shortest and most crooked rib heard the words of Iblis, she feared the worst, and tried to go in to see her husband alone. He had become an irritable and angry old man, and said to her, "Go away from me and these messengers of my Lord. I would not have encountered what I did except for you, and what happened to me would not have happened except for you."
And Adam died, and the angels washed his body with the leaves of the lote soaked in water. They wrapped the corpse in a single garment, dug a grave, and buried it. Then they said, "This is the precedent for all Adam's children after him." And the first man was buried under the Rock of Zion, the same Rock from which he was made, that hulk of craggy limestone that stood for a hardness of resolve and clarity of purpose that our angel ancestor always lacked.
I, Ishaq son of Ka'b, a bookbinder by training, shall record in this seventy-second year of the Prophet's Exodus from Mecca, in the City of the Temple, all that is worthy of being known about the summit of the mountain known to the Jews as Zion, or Moriah. My account is based on stories passed down to me by my father, Ka'b al-Ahbar, and on my own experience as an advisor to Abd al-Malik, the ninth Caliph of Islam.
Ka'b was born Jacob of the ancient tribe of Judah. Prompted by Jeremiah's prophecy of doom, his distant ancestors left the Holy City forty-two years before the destruction of Solomon's Temple and crossed the Jordan River in the hope of reaching the land where their father Abraham was born. They lost their way in the desert. After years of wandering, seventy thousand men, women, and children, priests and slaves, settled in the Yemen. In the course of time, they became both the most Jewish and the most Arab of all Jews.
My father, the grandson of a widely respected rabbi, advisor to the last Jewish king of the Yemen, was trained in the Law and Hebrew scripture. Ka'b al-Ahbar is the name he adopted after his migration to Medina and his acknowledgment of Muhammad as the Messenger of God.
I was born at the moment of that acknowledgment in Medina. But I grew up in Jerusalem, in a house located on the eastern offshoot of the main street known to the Christians as the Cardo. The Christians favor the western offshoot because it is wider and colonnaded on both sides. Both streets run due south from the Gate of the Column, Jerusalem's main entrance from the north. Thus is Mount Golgotha to the west separated from Mount Zion to the east. The eastern branch of the Cardo follows the low road into the valley separating the Christian and Jewish holy mountains until it reaches the large esplanade built by the Jews in ancient times.
In the first weeks after the Muslim conquest of the city, Ka'b found the time to buy a house. "I was the first!" he would say to anyone who cared to listen, meaning that he had been the first follower of Muhammad to buy property on a Jewish mountain near the site of the old Temple where the prophet David fell down, bowing, and sought forgiveness of his Lord. It mattered little to him that the house and its immediate surrounds were filthy when we moved in. My Arab stepmother soon cleaned them up, turning the place into a home. I was brought up a Muslim in this house by this good woman, to whom I became deeply attached and because of whom I have no memory of any Jewishness in my upbringing.
Our two-story abode sat between a tiny paved courtyard bordering the street and the huge flat expanse of the platform built by Solomon, which rests like a giant tabletop on Mount Zion. Emerging from that tabletop, eighty-six paces from the boundary wall between it and our house, rose the gently suppurating mass of the mountain's summit.
Ka'b's stories knitted around that extension of stone were like pieces of unused furniture in our house. I lived constantly with them, rarely noticing they were there. From the day that Jerusalem entered the Muslim fold, they held together the scattered remembrances of my father's life. The most interesting had changed ownership more than once, like the holy mountain that shaped their content.
Those who live on such a mountain are unable to see it, even as they are unable to form a single thought of which it is not a part. Its shape and colors, the sounds of children scrambling over it, sparrows in the springtime, the howling wind-these are the mountain, a place that bears down on its residents, gradually appropriating their memories. Thus did the mountain's hold upon me grow tighter and tighter with the passage of time. And yet fifty-five years passed before I picked up the pen to tell all that I know about it, which is all that my father knew, which is more than any other man has ever known about the most sacred spot in the cosmos.
Only the tip of the original Rock that I grew up with remains visible today. By far the greater bulk lies dormant and unseen, tucked away beneath new flagstones. This is all that is left of a mountain whose slopes have been hacked, tunnelled, and terraced since
the beginning of time, a landscape beaten into its present shape through endless cycles of construction and destruction-a dozen in all, beginning with Solomon's great Temple. And this is to say nothing of ruinous sieges, intervals of total desolation, bloody transitions from one religion to another.
The last bit of the Rock that can be seen today, having weathered all these storms, exudes the aura of an ancient face. A face that does not talk about what it has seen, a face that does not even know it has seen anything.
Nothing competed with that face's impassive presence after all the rubble and refuse that had accumulated upon the sanctuary was cleared away. As children, we used to scramble and play on it. That stopped after a little girl fell down from its highest point and cracked open her skull.
Surface and texture gave no sign that the Rock had been levelled to create a usable surface, or cut into and chipped away at by builders, pilgrims, men who wished it ill. The natural slopes and furrows, I recall, were well preserved. Traces of yellow earth could be found tucked away inside cracks and crevices; they must have sat there undisturbed for centuries, resistant even to the regular washing down to which the Rock has been subjected from the time of the conquest. The ring of stone hidden beneath the polished marble floor is naturally flat, until the point at which the outer walls supporting the new building begin. Here, the stone's profile takes a sharp dip, sloping downward. The mountain, key to the Rock's secrets, has begun its descent.
Before the Christians and the Romans, before even King Solomon and his miracle of engineering, when the Earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, the Rock and the mountain were one. Or so my father used to say. Zion would then have looked no different from the other mountains upon which this city is built; it was not distinguished from its neighbors by size or height. In fact, Zion is not a mountain at all; it is more of a hill, a bump in the landscape. Neighboring Golgotha is higher.
Today, the mountain and its summit look separate, and people say that the Rock is suspended by an invisible force between Heaven and Earth. But that is an illusion created by the fact that the Rock is attached to the mountain in only one place. Below the Rock, underneath its highest point, is a low-ceilinged cave. The cave is small, less than five paces square, and barely a man's height. Eleven crudely carved steps lead to the cave from the summit. Why eleven? I remember asking my father. Because, he said, eleven is the first act of transgression over ten, the number of God's Commandments.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Kanan Makiya was born in Baghdad. He is the author of several works of nonfiction, including Republic of Fear and The Monument (both originally published under a pseudonym) and the award-winning Cruelty and Silence. He currently directs the Iraq Research and Documentation Project at Harvard University and teaches at Brandeis University. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
From the Hardcover edition.
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