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Jerusalem Architectural History: Buildings & Palaces of the Umayyad Period

(660 - 750)

The conquest of Jerusalem by the Arab army in 638 was the beginning of an important era in the city’s long history. The new rulers, of the Umayyad Dynasty (660-750), aimed at changing the character of the city – from a Byzantine-Christian city of many churches, to a Muslim religious center and the administrative seat for a subdivision of their empire. They restored the breached walls of the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif) and built two impressive sanctuaries on it: the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque.

The two Hulda Gates of the Second Temple period in the southern wall of the Temple Mount were restored in order to provide the faithful with easy access to the Haram’s esplanade. The facade of the western of the two gates, the "Double Gate," is preserved and the carved stone archway dating to this period is still visible.

In excavations carried out in the 1970s south and southwest of the Temple Mount, the remains of six massive buildings were uncovered. Not known previously, they were obviously an administrative center of the Umayyad government.

The area south of the Temple Mount, which had sloped southwards, was leveled by earth fills and massive building foundations which entirely covered the Byzantine structures below. The result was a flat surface upon which the buildings were constructed, intersected by paved streets. Clay pipes were inserted into the stones of the Temple Mount wall, to provide running water from the main aqueduct along the restored Wilson’s Arch on the Western Wall. Rainwater was channeled into large cisterns beneath the buildings, and an extensive drainage system was installed.

The Islamic administrative center included palaces and other buildings, which have been only partly uncovered. The palaces were similar in plan: a central courtyard surrounded by many rooms. Other structures, known as "pillared buildings," had large stone-paved courtyards with rows of square pilasters supporting the roofs.

The largest and most impressive palace, near the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount, was excavated completely. It was obviously the seat of the Umayyad caliph whenever he visited Jerusalem. This palace measures 96 x 84 m. and is surrounded by a three meter-thick protective wall, constructed of large, trimmed stones, many in secondary use from the collapsed Herodian walls of the Temple Mount. Two main gates, one facing east and one facing west, gave access to the palace. A broad, stone-paved courtyard in the center of the building was surrounded by rows of columns supporting the roofing of the porticoes. Many of the columns came from Byzantine churches, as evidenced by traces of engraved crosses on them. The rooms around the central courtyard were paved with small stone slabs and mosaic. Plaster, decorated with geometric designs and floral motifs, covered the exceptionally thick walls.

A bridge was built from the roof of this palace to the Haram, providing direct access to the al-Aqsa mosque.

The palace was apparently constructed during the reign of the Umayyad caliph El-Walid I (705-715) and is similar to other fortified Umayyad palaces on the fringe of the desert in Transjordan and Syria. But unlike those, the palace in Jerusalem – a fortified city – was not protected by towers.

This magnificent complex of Islamic buildings was destroyed by the earthquake of 749; evidence of this are the fallen columns and collapsed walls.

Some of the buildings, and particularly the main palace, have recently been restored and are now open to visitors. They are an impressive addition to the many discoveries of earlier times – those of the Second Temple, the Roman and the Byzantine periods – which have been exposed and preserved in this location.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry