Islamic Art and Architecture: Unit 2 Muslim places of worship and devotion

2.4 The Holy sanctuaries of Islam: Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem

In this section we’ll briefly discuss the three holy sites in Islam – Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. These three sites are considered holy for all Muslims. Other sites, such as the cities of Najaf and Karabala (also Kerbela) in Iraq, are considered places of pilgrimage for Shi’i Muslims (also Shia, Shi’ite) but not necessarily for Sunni Muslims. Hattstein and Delius discuss these three sanctuaries (pp. 40–2) and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (pp. 64–7).

Mecca (Arabic Makka)

The Haram (Arabic) or Sanctuary in the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia surrounds the Ka‘ba. It was considered a sacred pace and a place of pilgrimage before Islam. The Qur’an (sūra three, verses 96–7) mentions the Ka‘ba as the oldest house built for the worship of God, and (sūra two, verse 127) gives Abraham and his son Ismā‘īl the role of building the Ka‘ba and establishing pilgrimage to it.

The Ka‘ba, which is now only seen draped in a fine black silk embroidered with gold and silver thread (known as kiswa (Arabic)), is a building in the form of a cube. A meteorite stone, known as the Black Stone, is built into the eastern corner of the building and revered by Muslims as it is believed to be part of the original foundations of the Ka‘ba built by Abraham. We have only historical accounts of the physical structure of the Ka‘ba during the life of the Prophet. It was built of alternating courses of stone and wood and had two rows of columns supporting a flat roof.

Medina (Arabic al-Madina)

The sanctity of the mosque in Medina is predicated upon the migration of Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in the year 622 (the beginning of the Muslim calendar), and the establishment of his first mosque there. Medina, however, is not a place where Muslims go on obligatory pilgrimage. The original mosque established during the life of the Prophet was enlarged several times soon after his death to satisfy the spatial needs of the growing community. The core of the mosque that currently stands in Medina dates to a reconstruction phase from the early eighth century. Based on historical reconstruction (link below), the architectural composition of the building comprises a covered area in the direction of the qibla and a courtyard that is surrounded by arcades.

Creswell’s reconstruction plan of the Prophet’s mosque in Medina can be viewed at the Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford


Like Mecca, Jerusalem had a pre-Islamic history of ‘sanctity’ that Muslims assimilated and developed. For Muslims, the Haram or Sanctuary in Jerusalem is associated with the Prophet’s nocturnal journey to Heaven or mi‘rāj (Arabic) and his prayers amongst God’s messengers and Prophets (Qur’an 17:1). The Dome of the Rock is the earliest standing monument in Islam and it is dated by inscription to 691. The building is octagonal in shape and is surmounted by a high dome covered with gold-plated copper sheets. The interior comprises two ambulatories surrounding the Rock. The facades are clad with marble panels below and a profusion of ceramic tiles above. This blue-and-gold look, however, was given to the Dome of the Rock only towards the middle of the sixteenth century. For more than 700 years before that, the Dome of the Rock was covered with glass mosaics, predominantly in gold, decorated with unfolding green foliage.

Personal activity: The Dome of the Rock

Read the discussion of the Dome of the Rock on pp. 64–7 of Hattstein and Delius and answer the following questions. Post your answers in the relevant thread of the Worship and devotion forum, and reply to at least one posting by another student.

  • What does the shape of the building tell us about its function?
  • What are the architectural precedents for the form of the Dome of the Rock?
  • What are the main patterns in the interior mosaic decoration?
  • What type of information is included in the mosaic inscription?

Optional activity: The historical setting of early Islam

For a map of the three sanctuaries and a brief introduction to the historical setting of early Islam go to the page ‘The Birth of Islam’ on the Timeline of Art History of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.