First sight of the Dome of Rock. [All photos by author unless stated otherwise]
I joined the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in June 2013 as the veterinarian mandated to provide humanitarian vet assistance to the local population of south Lebanon. Since reaching this beautiful country, I always prayed to Almighty Allah to give me an opportunity to visit Al Bait Al Maqdis and by His immense grace my dream turned into a reality when I landed at Jerusalem on 13 June, 2014.
The Indian Hospice was the place where I decided to stay while being in Jerusalem. This place was built by the Indian government in 1924 and Sheikh Munir Ansari (seen in picture with the author: bottom right), who is originally from Saharanpur, UP, India, is the present administrator of this hospice. It is a beautiful and comfortable place to stay in Jerusalem, approximately 10-minute walk from Al Aqsa, located within the walled old city just inside the Herod’s gate. I reached the Indian Hospice at midnight on 13/14 June and was received by Br. Nazeer Ansari who was still awake at 1:30 am, waiting for me to arrive.
First Day: Friday prayer at Al-Aqsa
On Friday, 14 June, I prepared myself for visit to Al Aqsa and after asking directions from Br. Nazeer, proceeded towards the Al-Aqsa sanctuary, walking through the lanes of the old walled city of Jerusalem. The magnificent golden dome of As-Sakhra (Dome of Rock) was prominently visible from a distance and served as a guide for me to reach the destination correctly. I entered the Al Aqsa compound from King Faisal gate. Just outside the entrance two Israeli soldiers intercepted me, sensing that I was an outsider and asked for my name. Then they asked me to recite Surah Al-Fateha and as I was reciting the Surah, they stopped me just before the last verse and allowed me to enter inside. The outer gate is followed by a 15-meter long alley leading to the courtyard of Al Aqsa. I was stopped again, this time by a Palestinian guard inside the gate and he also asked me to recite Surah Fateha. Unlike the Israeli soldier, this gentleman allowed me to complete the Surah, said Aameen on its completion and told me to proceed inside.
First View of As-Sakhra (Dome of the Rock)
As you step inside the sanctuary of Al Aqsa from any of its 10 gates, the first object which catches your sight is the magnificent golden Dome of Rock (As-Sakhra). I was awestruck when I saw the Dome of Rock for the first time. After regaining my composure, I walked towards As-Sakhra, climbed the stairs to reach the raised platform, which on that day, being a Friday was full of Muslim men and women. During Friday prayer, men are not allowed inside the Dome of the Rock, so I crossed the building to reach its southern side, overlooking Al Masjid al Qibli which is commonly referred as Al Aqsa mosque. It is interesting to note here (and I was not aware about before visiting it) that the complete walled area of Al Aqsa is called the sanctuary of Al Aqsa or Al Haram Ash-Shareef and there are following main mosques located inside.
(a) As-Sakhra (Dome of the Rock)
(b) Al Masjid al Qibli (Al Aqsa mosque)
(c) Al Masjid al Qadimi (Old Al Aqsa mosque in the basement of Al Masjid al Qibli)
(d) Al Masjid al Marwani (Wrongly referred as Solomon’s stables)
(e) Al Masjid al Buraq.
However, there is single imam and prayer is performed behind him throughout the sanctuary of Al-Aqsa. I reached Al Aqsa mosque, performed ablution at Al-Kas, situated between Masjid al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock and then went inside the mosque, performed Nawafil, read Surah Kahf and sat for the Friday sermon.
After the Friday prayer was over, I started clicking photographs of the Masjid from various angles. Suddenly, I heard a loud noise, like that of a bomb blast, and as I turned towards the main gate of Al Aqsa, I saw a group of Palestinian youth, with their faces covered with scarves, (reason of their covering the faces later), throwing chairs towards Israeli soldiers who in turn were firing stun grenades towards Palestinians. Some of the stun grenades reached inside the mosque, causing the carpet to catch fire. This commotion continued for about 15 minutes with the Palestinians successfully defending the mosque against the entry of Israeli soldiers inside. I took some photographs of this entire episode and later on learnt that the Israeli soldiers carry out such unprovoked assaults against Muslims almost every Friday with the sole objective of dissuading them from praying in Al Aqsa.
A Word about Al Aqsa
When I first saw Al Masjid Al Qibli (Al Aqsa), tears started flowing from my eyes because of the overwhelming feeling of joy at finally being able to reach the third most sacred place for Muslims and also because of the pain I felt on seeing the physical condition in which the of structure of Al Aqsa is today.
If you are fortunate enough to visit the holy cities of Makkah Mukarramah and Medina Munawwarah, and then if you go to Al Aqsa, you will find a marked difference in the physical condition of building of these three sacred most places in Islam. I was pained to see the dilapidated condition of all the structures of the sanctuary of Al Aqsa in general and that of Al Masjid Al Qibli in particular and was later told by one friend that the Israelis do not allow any renovation or repair work to be carried out inside the sanctuary.
When I was clicking pictures of commotion taking place between Muslims and Israeli soldiers, I sensed some burning feeling in eyes & respiration. At that time, one old man, who was calmly reading the Qur’an, gestured me to come towards him. He made me sit with him and gave me tissue paper and told me to cover my nose with it. After around 15 Min, when calm returned to the mosque, he asked my name & nationality. Then he introduced himself as Yasser, a pharmacist born & brought up in Jerusalem, worked in Spain & now owning a pharmacy in the outskirts of Jerusalem.
He volunteered to show me the entire sanctuary of Al-Aqsa and after finishing his recitation of the Qur’an took me to all the places inside the Al-Aqsa compound and briefed me in detail about each one of them. As we were walking in the courtyard he showed me the fired shells of stun grenades spread at various places. He also informed me that the Israeli police carry out videography of all such incidents and arrest the Palestinian youth who resist their entry inside the compound. Such arrests are always followed by the harassment of their families and a long period of confinement in the jail. This is the reason why the young men cover their faces with scarves during such commotions to avoid getting detected in the videos.
Yasser also showed me the different mosques inside the sanctuary of Al-Aqsa, all the gates including the magnificent Golden Gate. We entered the Dome of Rock (As Sakhra) and appreciated the beautiful architecture of Dome, inside walls and roof.
Exactly beneath the central rock from where Prophet Ibrahim offered to sacrifice his son Ismail a few steps lead to a small area which is called as the Bir Al Arwah, (Well of Souls) place where souls are said to reside. We prayed Nawafil there also. This was followed by Salat–ul-Asr and return to Indian Hospice. Yasser accompanied me back to my room, explaining in detail about the markets where we passed by and the damage Zionist regime has caused to the economy of Palestinians.
I had prepared a booklet about Al Aqsa before my visit and had searched extensively about its history and various changes which took place in Jerusalem from Pre-Roman period to the Muslim rule followed by Crusaders conquest and subsequent reclaiming by Muslims under the leadership of Salah Uddin Ayyubi. During my first visit to the noble sanctuary being overwhelmed with the feeling of being there, I could not recollect all that I had read about the structure. It was all up to old and fragile Yasser who walked with me for more than an hour showing me around all the places. Back in the room, I recollected and revised my notes and prepared myself for the next visit to the sanctuary.
I was stopped by an Israeli soldier again on the Gate (Bab-al Faisal) who asked me to show him the Passport and Visa. Upon learning that I am an Indian he started cracking jokes about Indian film actors and then allowed me to proceed inside. This time I was carrying the booklet containing the details of all the prominent landmarks of the sanctuary and started visiting them one by one starting from the Dome of Chain. I took photographs of all the structures and proceeded to Masjid al Qibli to perform Nawafil prayer.
Inside the Masjid al Qibli, I was fortunate to find the place from where Imam leads the prayer empty and offered prayer at that spot. As I came out of Masjid, two boys aged approx 10-12 years approached me. The elder one introduced himself as Ishaq and his brother as Saifuddin (seen in picture with the author) and in fluent English asked me if I want their help in visiting the sanctuary. I asked them to show me the Masjid Al Buraq which I missed the previous day because of the presence of Jewish soldiers on its gate. They took me inside the Masjid and showed me the hook where Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) tied his Buraq and offered prayer.
Ishaq also helped me in buying six copies of Al Qur’an, five to be kept in five different mosques of the sanctuary and one for Masjid-e-Ibraheemi which I had planned to visit subsequently. He also took me to the office of Al Aqsa where one can deposit his/her Zakat for which they give official receipt.
I then offered prayer at Prophet Muhammad’s (ﷺ) musalla where he (ﷺ) led the prayer with all the previous Prophets in attendance.
Now was the time to rush back to Indian Hospice where my non Muslim friends, who left for Tel Aviv on first day and came back to join me for our onward journey to Hebron, were waiting. It took us one hour to cover approx 30 km distance from Jerusalem to Hebron which is a congested Palestinian town of West Bank and where Masjid-e-Ibraheemi on Al Khalil Mosque is located. This mosque has now been divided into two parts between Muslims and Jews after the 1967 war.
Inside the mosque are the tombs of Prophet Ibrahim, his wife Sara, Son Ishaq and his wife and also of Prophet Yaqub and Yusuf. The Jewish presence and control over the site is tremendous with every entrant being thoroughly checked. This is the model on which the Zionists are contemplating dividing the Al Aqsa compound between Muslims and Jews and the majority of Muslim ummah either watching it happening silently or is shamelessly ignorant about it. After offering prayers and making lot of supplications about the welfare of Muslims in general and Palestinian Muslims in particular I left the place with a heavy heart.
Beit Lehem (Bethlehem)
Beit Lehem is a town of West Bank approx 15 kms from Jerusalem. We stopped by this beautiful town while on our way back. Church of Nativity is located in Beit Lehem and is supposed to be the place where Prophet Isa [عليه السلام] was born. The church is divided into 3 main parts between Catholics, Protestants and Armenians. Just in front of the church of Nativity is a big open area called Manger Square where the Pope Francis had addressed the gathering couple of weeks ago. On the other side of manger square is Masjid Omar named after Hazrat Omar (Umar) ibn al-Khattab, the second Rashidun Muslim Caliph. After having conquered Jerusalem, Omar had travelled to Beit Lehem in 637 CE to issue a law that would guarantee respect for the shrine and safety for Christians and clergy.
Omar reportedly prayed at the location of the mosque. The mosque was built in 1860 but did not experience renovation until 1955, during Jordanian control of the city. The land used for its construction was donated by the Greek Orthodox Church. In the past, before the advent of light bulbs, it was common for Muslims and Christians in Bethlehem to offer olive oil to light up the surroundings of the mosque, evidence of religious coexistence in the city.
While returning to Jerusalem we stopped at the Dung gate, which is one of the gate of walled old city of Jerusalem and close to the western wall of Al Aqsa sanctuary. We walked towards the western wall where being a Saturday, there was very heavy rush of Jewish worshippers who pray facing the western wall. We entered the crowd and roamed around freely reaching the western wall and surrounding areas, watching the Jewish rabbis praying with their characteristic black dress and typical body movements as they read the Torah. It was not allowed for us to take photographs on that day being Sabbath.
While walking back towards the Indian Hospice we learnt that the Church of Holy Sepulchre is also nearby, so we took a diversion and after asking for the directions finally managed to reach the famous church. This is the place where as per Christian belief, the last stations of Via Dolorosa are located and where (as per Christian belief) Prophet Isa [عليه السلام] was finally rested and cross taken off him. We were late in reaching the place and so decided to visit it again the next morning.
Myself and Roshan, one of my non-Muslim friend decided to visit the Church of Holy Sepulchre early in the morning covering the entire Via Dolorosa and accordingly left the Indian Hospice at 6:30 in the morning. Though it was early but the shops along the narrow lanes were open with people buying daily use items from them. We started from the first station and followed the trail to cover all the stations to finally reach the Church of Holy Sepulchre where stations from X to XIV are located. It was the time of morning mass and there was a huge rush of Christian pilgrims inside and outside of the Church. After clicking a few photographs we returned to the Indian Hospice.
Farewell Visit Al Aqsa via Western Wall
Non Muslims are allowed entry inside the Al Aqsa sanctuary only from the Moroccan gate on the western wall though they can leave from any of the other gates. The Israelis have constructed a wooden bridge from the main road till the Moroccan gate for the Non Muslims to enter the sanctuary of Al Aqsa with a proper traffic control office just at the beginning of the bridge. This bridge in fact is a sour point for Palestinians who strongly oppose it and consider it (and rightly so) as one of the attempt by the Zionist regime to Judaise the entire Jerusalem. The timing of entry for Non Muslims is kept between Fajr and Duhr prayers when the presence of Muslims inside is relatively low.
As we were walking towards the western wall trough the Jewish Quarter we came across the entry point of tunnels where the Jewish have dug beneath the Al Aqsa in their search for the Solomon’s Arc of Covenant. There is a proper system of buying tickets and entering the tunnels where Jewish guides brief the tourists about their point of view on the subject. A Palestinian guard informed me that they have dug up approx 48 tunnels and the obvious aim is to weaken the foundations of Al Aqsa.
To facilitate the entry of my Non Muslim friends we entered the Al Aqsa compound from the western wall side after getting our Passports checked at the entrance. As we enter though the Moroccan gate, the left side is Masjid al Buraq. Also on the western side is located the grave of famous Indian freedom fighter and Khilafat movement leader Mawlana Muhammad Ali Jauhar. I briefed my friends about all what I had learnt about the noble sanctuary in my last two visits. They were obviously not allowed inside any of the mosques so were shown all the places from outside. However, the librarian of Islamic library very kindly allowed them entry inside, but they were denied the same on the Islamic museum which I explored alone subsequently.
The Islamic museum contains a number of Islamic artefacts and is a storehouse of treasure for anyone interested in Islamic History. It contains numerous handwritten copies of Al Qur’an, legal documents in handwritten Arabic, various weapons used in wars through the ages, the burnt remains of great Minbar of Al Aqsa made in 1168 by Nur-Uddin and installed in 1187 by Salah Uddin Ayyubi, made of Cedar wood, Ivory and mother of Pearl. It was burned by a Christian fanatic in 1967.
The friends left for the Indian Hospice from King Faisal gate and I returned to the Dome of Rock to offer prayers at Bir al Arwah. I also prayed at Masjid al Qibli, offered supplications for all the Muslims, for the family and for self (May Allah accept my prayers, Aameen). With heavy heart and with a pledge of returning again In-Sha-Allah I left the Holy Sanctuary of Al Aqsa and returned to my room. In the afternoon we all left for Dead Sea and further back to Jordan and Lebanon.