Al-Aqsa Mosque (The Distant Mosque or Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa) is one of the most prominent buildings on Temple Mount (Haram esh-Sharif) in Jerusalem's Old City. Al-Aqsa is considered the world's third holiest Muslim site after Medina and Mecca. Today, Al-Aqsa Mosque is a functioning house of worship, and although not an attention-grabber like its neighbor, the Dome of the Rock, Al-Aqsa's religious significance and its position on perhaps the holiest ground in the world makes it a remarkable landmark. Together with the other structures on Temple Mount, Al-Aqsa is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also the world's second-oldest mosque after the Kaaba in Mecca.
Al-Aqsa is not mentioned in the Koran by name but is believed to be referred to in the holy book as the Farthest Mosque. The Koran tells how in approximately 621AD Muhammad was transported from Mecca to the "Furthest Mosque" during his spiritual and physical "Night Journey." For a time, prayers were made facing Al-Aqsa until Muhammad was directed by Allah to face the Kaaba in Mecca during prayers. In Jewish tradition Temple Mount was the site of the Holy Temple and Al-Aqsa was built on sacred Jewish ground. Some Christians believe that it was here that Jesus cleared the Temple of moneychangers (Matthew 21:31). So Al-Aqsa is at the heart of a site held sacred by all three of the Abrahamic religions.
Muslim tradition can trace Al-Aqsa back to Isaac and Jacob who established Al-Aqsa as the "furthest place of worship" west of Mecca. Al-Aqsa or al-Masjid was originally built by Omar (c.584AD-c.644D) a powerful Muslim Caliph and close companion of Muhammad. Under Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik the mosque was expanded. Work was completed by Abd al-Malik's son, Al Walid in 705AD. In 746 it was destroyed by an earthquake but was reconstructed. Following another earthquake in 1033, Fatimid Caliph Ali az-Zahir had the mosque rebuilt. Over the years the structure was repeatedly renovated, improved, and expanded by the ruling Caliphate. In 1099 Crusaders took Jerusalem and converted the mosque into a palace. In 1131 the Crusaders were replaced by a militant branch of the Christian church. They became known as Templars after their new base on Temple Mount. Saladin reclaimed the city in 1187 and made further renovations.
In more recent history King Abdullah of Jordan was assassinated at the mosque in 1951. During the 1967 Arab-Israelis War, Israel took control of East Jerusalem, including Al-Aqsa on Temple Mount. The mosque was heavily damaged in 1969 after an arson attack by an Australian Christian hoping to hasten the Second Coming of Jesus by making way for the reconstruction of the Jewish Temple. The site has remained a hot spot with tension between Palestinians and Israelis over ownership and use of the site.
Al-Aqsa is a low, expansive rectangular structure that is spread over 35,000m² and can accommodate up to 5,000 worshippers. Its most striking features are the four minarets and the silver dome that crowns the structure. The interior of the dome is adorned with dazzling 14th-century decorations. The mosque is predominantly built in the early Islamic architectural style. Elegant 11th-century Romanesque arches cover the tiled façade. The ablution fountain stands outside the main structure, between the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The refectory on the southern wall is an addition made by the Knights Templars in the 12th century. The decoratively carved mihrab (prayer niche) was added by Saladin in the late 1100s. Inside the mosque, there are seven aisles divided by tall columns and arches. Stained glass windows let in colorful light that reflects off of the decorative mosaic walls and dramatic white arches.
Since 1967 the Jordan/Palestinian Islamic Trust (Waqf) controls all matters on the Temple Mount while Israel controls external security. Non-Muslim visitors are not permitted to enter Al-Aqsa Mosque but they can admire it from the outside by visiting Temple Mount. The best and safest way to see Al-Aqsa Mosque is with a guided tour of Jerusalem's Old City.