I recently viewed the Jerusalem skyline from the Mount of Olives for the first time. I think I gasped in amazement — or at least drew in my breath sharply. The city was bathed in the last yellow tint of afternoon and studded here and there with the dark of windows and doors. Boxlike apartments clustered on the sides of the hills like something out of a Cubist painting, while green Egged buses crawled along slanting highways beneath the streak of Suleiman the Magnificent’s walls.
And above the walls, the city was dotted with orbs. From my spot above the slopes of the Jewish Cemetery, I could make out not only the golden Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, but also the smaller dome of the al-Aqsa Mosque, the rounded white dome of the Hurva Synagogue, and the twin gray domes of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Each dome was contributing to the aesthetic pleasure of the skyline. And though the God worshipped in each dome was different (though some pluralists might beg to differ), the styles of the places of worship looked strikingly the same — strikingly beautiful, that is.
So I was surprised when I stumbled upon the following comments — and others like them — while scrolling through Times of Israel Facebook photos a few weeks ago: “Ugly dome,” “Ugly golden thing,” “Gold piece of crap,” “Ugly copper basin.” All were posted on images of the Jerusalem skyline, and all were disparaging that most unmistakable feature of the city: the sparkling orb of the Dome of the Rock.
In any picture of the Jerusalem cityscape, the Dome stands as the unquestionable focal point, rising above the cyprus trees and scads of white Jerusalem stone like a grand and glittering sun. A sun that, as I clicked through the pictures, the majority of Facebook commenters praised as “gorgeous” or “stunning.” Nevertheless, scattered in among the positive comments were assertions from self-proclaimed Christians and Jews that the view was only “beautiful minus the dome.” According to them, this iconic symbol of the city was ugly. Not merely religiously offensive, or symbolic of a political wrong, or a sign of injustice, but ugly.
As a Christian, the question of the Dome’s beauty intrigued me. Was the issue of the Dome’s beauty immutably yoked to non-Muslims’ emotional investment in the Temple Mount? Or could those with serious, just disagreements with what the Dome stood for isolate their feelings enough to appreciate the aesthetics of its architectural structure? It seemed that only subjective feelings about the Dome’s religious and political significance were causing commenters to deny what was an objectively beautiful piece of art.
An architecture for all
While Christians, Jews, and Muslims today argue on Facebook over whether or not a structure is beautiful, the original builders and architects of the city’s holy places themselves had no such squabbles. In 691 C.E. the Umayyad Caliph Abd Al-Malik had the Dome of the Rock constructed in the style of Byzantine basilicas — probably in an attempt to rival them and demonstrate the greater power of Allah. According to historians, its measurements were modeled after those of the original Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Such a choice — utilizing Byzantine features such as intricate mosaics and a central rotunda — demonstrate that the Muslim engineers who constructed the Dome believed there was something universal and objective about the architectural style that they could adapt in praise of Allah even while they rejected the particular claims of Christianity itself.
The Dome itself has even switched back and forth between religious authorities, further demonstrating its seemingly universal design. The crusaders transformed it into a Christian church for a time when they captured Jerusalem in 1099 C.E. — much like the Ottomans turned the structure of the Byzantine Hagia Sofia in Istanbul into a mosque in 1453 C.E.
In its turn, the Dome has inspired much other holy architecture — including the New Synagogue in Berlin. Later, Hurva Synagogue itself would be constructed in the 1700s in the Neo-Byzantine style, a reborn version of Byzantine architecture.
Therefore, though Caliph Al-Malik, Byzantine builders such as Constantine and Emperor Justinian, and the later Jewish architects of the Hurva Synagogue all disagreed with one another’s specific claims to truth, all chose to model their holy places after one another’s architecture. Can we not learn something from their example? Might the fact that Muslim, Christian, and Jewish architects all agreed upon a style of architecture point to something universally shared by them in the realm of art and beauty, some agreed-upon standard of what it means to show reverence to and recognition of Divine majesty? Might it highlight art as an arena of common ground between the three religions?
Beauty, truth, and goodness: the three transcendentals
Byzantine architecture itself was handed down and developed after the aesthetic standards and designs of the Greeks and Romans — pagans who were often pantheistic, not monotheistic. It was a pagan — the philosopher Aristotle — who first coined the phrase the three “transcendentals” (though the concept itself is even older). The three transcendentals of goodness, truth, and beauty are held to “transcend” particular creeds to apply to all human beings regardless of faith. According to this concept, we can find something in beauty — some universal, objective standard that applies to all human beings simply because they are human — that brings us together despite our differences and disagreements. Something we can cling to while politics and religion divide us.
Nowadays, we usually find the discussions of goodness and truth in the political sphere, or in rhetorical debates between groups of religious leaders — discussions that often divide us, mire us in endless debate, or cause strife and violence. These debates are necessary, but perhaps we might also renew our efforts to turn to the third transcendental — beauty — as another attempt to try to find common ground even as we maintain the integrity of our distinct traditions.
To do so is not to give up on the particular beliefs of our disparate religions or accept the beliefs and practices of one another’s faiths. But perhaps what art can do is give us a starting point and common ground in genuinely coming together and recognizing what we can learn from one another — not in a cheap pluralism, or weak embrace of a relative standard of truth, or a compromise of our particular religious beliefs — but in a simple recognition of beauty itself.
Art in its very nature brings us into the realm of the imagination as opposed to the reasoned debates of politics, doctrine, and rhetoric. Art, because it indirectly, rather than directly, attempts to define or rationalize truth and morality, may be a place where we can truly come together without undermining the particular beliefs of our distinct faiths.
Looking to the future
Perhaps it is as simple as enjoying the beauty of the colorful Ramadan decorations in the Old City. Or admiring the beauty of a Christian painting without believing Christ was the Messiah. Or acknowledging the beauty of Marc Chagall’s stained glass windows in the Hadassah hospital without necessarily accepting the Jewish faith or the political position of the State of Israel.
Perhaps we can keep within the universal, transcendental realm when appreciating art, and recognize in the religious art of those different from us the universal truths of what it means to be a human who strives to glorify the Divine. The architectural building style of Jerusalem’s domes is only one small, particular example of where art and beauty has been a point of intersection throughout history — an example of where the universality of what it means to be a human being that loves beauty has held sway despite particular religious differences.
Whereas we often seem to become hopelessly mired in the muck of rhetorical discussions, political debates, and religious violence over where we stand on goodness and truth, perhaps beauty is the avenue we ought to explore further in seeking to find common ground.
It is in the nature of human beings to disagree — but it is also in the nature of human beings to appreciate what is lovely. Art and culture may be a key to finding a way to appreciate one another.
Whereas practical means for doing this abound and ought to be worked out among particular groups, perhaps the place we can start is simply in acknowledging the Dome of the Rock as a stunningly beautiful creation the next time we comment on a Facebook picture of Jerusalem, even while we disagree with what the structure stands for — admitting that though the city skyline “without the Dome” is indeed beautiful, a skyline with the Dome is beautiful too.