The first mosque to be built on the Temple Mount, Jerusalem – forerunner of today’s al-Aqṣā Mosque –, was constructed sometime around 637. We know this thanks to a little-known Georgian source whose information ultimately dates to around 670. Below is an English translation of the story in which the mosque appears; but first, let’s talk about the source and why it matters.
The source is a manuscript which was found at Iviron Monastery, Mount Athos: a copy produced in 977 at the Lavre of Oški in Tao. It’s a Georgian translation of John Moschus’ Spiritual Meadow, from the early seventh century; but included is an appendix of 30 edifying stories. The latter 19 share certain narrative features, and were probably composed together.
Where the setting of these stories can be dated, they all take place between the pontificate of Gregory I and the reign of Constans II, which is to say, roughly 590–668; so we can surmise that these 19 stories were composed together around 670. Gérard Garitte argues that these stories – like the edition of the Spiritual Meadow to which they are attached – were first written in Greek, then translated into Arabic, and only then into Georgian. (I haven’t read Garitte yet, so I don’t know what to make of that.)
The story we’re interested in, the one that mentions the mosque, is set during the reign of Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem 634–638. Sophronius was a real person: towards the end of his reign the Arab conquerors besieged and captured Jerusalem; we have some of his writings, in which he complains about them. So, to summarise, this is a story from around 670 that describes events around 637.
The word for ‘mosque’ in this source is mizdgitha, which is certainly a Georgian rendering of the Arabic word masjid. This may be the earliest known reference to the Arabic word masjid for a house of prayer. (Please message me if you know of others.)
I’m aware of three other seventh-century sources that apparently refer to the same mosque on the Temple Mount. One is pseudo-Sebēos, whose Armenian chronicle runs to 661, at which time it was probably composed. Thanks to Sihong Lin (Oxford) for bringing this to my attention.
“…the rebellious Jews, …after gaining help from the Hagarenes for a brief while, decided to rebuild the temple of Solomon. Finding the spot called Holy of Holies, they rebuilt it with base and construction as a place for their prayers. But the Ismaelites, being envious of them, expelled them from that place and called the same house of prayer their own. Then the former built in another spot, right at the base of the temple, another place for their prayer.”
—Robert Thomson, Armenian History Attributed to Sebeos (2000), ch. 43, pp. 102–3.
Another is the account of Arculf, a Frankish bishop who visited Jerusalem 679–688. It was transcribed in Latin by a monk, Adomnán, toward the end of the century.
“Near the wall in the east, in that famous place where once there stood the magnificent Temple, the Saracens have now built an oblong house of prayer, which they pieced together with upright planks and large beams over some ruins”.
—John Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims Before the Crusades (2002), p. 95.
The location is consistent between Sebēos and Arculf: “that famous place where once there stood the magnificent Temple” is of course the Temple Mount, and the “Holy of Holies” was once in the Temple.
A third account differs in one important respect. This is a story in Greek, attributed to Anastasius of Sinai, probably written in the years leading up to 700. Its setting in time is unclear, but, as Flusin argues, it most likely refers to the original foundation of the mosque rather than a much later rebuilding.
“… ᾤκησα ἐν τῇ αγίᾳ πόλει εἰς τὸ ὄρος τῶν ἐλαιῶν ὅτε τὸ Καπιτόλιν ὑπὸ τοῦ πλήθους τῶν Αἰγυπτίων ἐξεκοΐζετο.”
“… I was living in the Holy City, at the Mount of Olives, when the crowd of Egyptians cleared the Capitol.”
—My translation from Flusin, “L’esplanade”, pp. 25–26.
Curiously, this story puts the mosque not on the Temple Mount, but on the “Capitol”. As we shall see, the Georgian source does the same. The Capitol was the old Roman temple in Jerusalem; it was in the vicinity, but not on the Temple Mount.
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor explains this discrepancy. He says there’s reason to think the actual Capitol had been destroyed and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre built in its place. The existence of a Capitol was, however, implied by Jerusalem’s famous Latin name, Aelia Capitolina. Furthermore, on the Temple Mount were imperial statues, mistaken for pagan gods. So apparently the name Capitol was reassigned to the Temple Mount at some point.
One last thought before getting to the story itself. It’s interesting that the villain of the story, “after having been excommunicated” by the patriarch Sophronius, “re-entered his church by force with the help of the Saracens.” Regardless of the truth of specific details of this story, the author apparently finds it plausible that the Arab conquerors interfered in the affairs of local religious authorities when that was to their mutual advantage.
N.b. I do not read Georgian (…yet). The following is translated from Bernard Flusin’s French translation of the Georgian edition by Ilia Abuladzé.
The same person [Theodore] also told us this story:
The godless Saracens entered the Holy City of Christ our God, Jerusalem, with God’s permission, as punishment for our negligence, which is countless. Straightaway, hurriedly, they arrived at the place called Capitol. They took with them men, some by force, others voluntarily, in order to clean this place and build that accursed thing, reserved for their prayer, that they call a mosque (mizdgitha). Among these men was John, archdeacon of St Theodore the Martyr, because he was a marble mason by trade. He let himself be seduced by them for dishonest gain and he voluntarily went to work there. He was very good with his hands.
When the very blessed St Sophronius, whom you know, heard about this, he sent messengers to him one Friday, made him come, and asked him – as a father and as the pastor of that rational flock which had been entrusted to him by God – not to profane his hands, but to shy away from such an abominable enterprise. He made him this assurance:
“The Holy Resurrection will give you as much work as you could want, and twice the wages. Just don’t disobey my will. Don’t harm yourself: don’t get too involved in their downfall by working voluntarily on the construction of the place that Christ has cursed. Look: you’re opposing His order, when no-one is able to oppose Him. If you refuse to obey me, you may not work over there and simultaneously remain under the yoke where you have been placed: in fact, not even a layman who bears the name of Christian may go and work there.”
And his companions the deacons asked the same of him. So, at that moment, he promised – with an oath guaranteed by the force of the venerable Cross – to no longer work out there from that moment on. But two days later he was found out there, working in secret.
When the good pastor had been informed of this, his spirit was troubled by this man’s spiritual death; and, seized by the rage of Phineas, he promptly sent for him. As if with a keen-edged sword, he ran him through with the word of God and excommunicated him from the Holy Church of Christ our God. However, after having been excommunicated by the saint of God, he re-entered his church by force with the help of the Saracens.
A few days later, he was working in a monastery, called the Monastery of the Recluses, on the Holy Mountain. He was up a ladder, a man’s height from the floor. He stumbled and plummeted to the ground. He dislocated his leg; [subsequently] his skin and flesh wasted away, and he was ill for a long time—the doctors’ art being no help to him. So he confessed his negligence, saying: “Truly, this accident only befell me because I disobeyed the pontiff. Behold this merciless wrath that has come upon me.”
Concerning this, he asked one of his friends – a man who feared God; the one who told us this story – what he should do. So this [man] answered that he should go down to the saint’s tomb and light a lamp, from which he should anoint the wound and drink the rest. This he did, and he found some relief. He was able to walk with a stick. But once again he acted audaciously and forgot the favour he had received from God. He went up to the holy altar and placed a hand on the table, because he couldn’t stand up. Not long afterwards, his wound started to feel bad, and his leg was consumed up to the hip. He was beyond all help and perished, the wretch, in great distress.
See therefore, brother, that you mustn’t disobey the word of a priest, which is a blessing, whichever rank he be, and especially when it’s such a great pontiff; for it’s not him who binds, but the word that Jesus Christ has spoken: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven [Matthew 16:19].” This is why, with all our vigilance and all our strength, we must rush to observe the priests’ word and order, so a heavy sentence may not befall us. Not for nothing do the venerable canons condemn men like him, for it’s not [other] men they despise, but the Holy Spirit.
Manuscript: MS. Mt. Athos, Iviron Monastery, Ibericus 9 / Georgian 9 (977).
Edition: Ilia Abuladzé (ed.), იოანე მოსხი: ლიმონარი [Ioane Moshi: Limonari] (1960), pp. 100–102.
Georgian reproduced with French translation and commentary: Bernard Flusin, “L’esplanade du temple”, in Julian Raby and Jeremy Johns (eds.), Bayt al-Maqdis, vol. 1 (1991), pp. 17–31.
Arguing that the text was written in Greek, translated into Arabic and thence into Georgian: Gérard Garitte, “La version géorgienne du Pré Spirituel”, in Mélanges Eugène Tisserant (1964), vol. 2 (I haven’t read this, so I don’t know the pp.).
Further commentary: Robert Hoyland, Seeing Islam As Others Saw It (1997), pp. 61–67.
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “The Location of the Capitol in Aelia Capitolina”, Revue Biblique 101 (1994), pp. 407–417.