Islam’s Holy Al Aqsa Mosque, Ravaged by Fire in 1969, Is Finally Being Restored
After 19 years of painstaking effort, workers are only now making headway in repairing the damage caused when an Australian sheep shearer set fire to Al Aqsa mosque, one of Islam’s holiest monuments.
Precarious wooden scaffolding towers into the dome. Laborers are still cleaning fire-blackened stone behind the pulpit while skilled craftsmen are carefully reconstructing mosaic panels with inscriptions from the Koran, Islam’s holy book.
Isam Awad, the Palestinian engineer in charge of the project, blames lost skills and modern politics for the slowness of the work.
“The fire damaged some of the oldest parts of the mosque. Suddenly, we had to work with gypsum, mosaics, stucco and lead. All these were lost skills, and we had to find people who knew and relearn them,” said Awad, who supervises a team of 40 workers.
Al Aqsa, which marks the place where the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven to receive the word of God, was built in the 7th Century after the Caliph Omar conquered Jerusalem. It is considered Islam’s third holiest site after Mecca and Medina.
The 36-acre site known in Arabic as the Haram Al Sharif (Noble Enclosure), was originally the site of the Jewish Temple, built by King Herod and destroyed by the Roman Tenth Legion in AD 70.
Awad said the renovations for the mosque and the nearby Dome of the Rock have been slowed by the Arab-Israeli conflict. “We have to be careful because of politics.”
Awad added that the recent decision of Jordan’s King Hussein to sever ties with the West Bank put question marks on whether money would still be available for the restoration. He said more than $1.5 million had been spent so far on fixing damage from the fire.
Perhaps the greatest loss in the fire, which took hours to put out, was a carved wooden mindab , or pulpit, presented to the mosque by Saladin, the Muslim warrior who defeated the Christian Crusaders in the 11th Century.
Replacing the pulpit requires special woodworking skills unavailable locally. A number of countries are vying for the honor of carrying out the work, but choosing one country over the other is proving to be a delicate political exercise.
Officials of the Waqf, the Jordanian-funded Muslim trust that oversees the Al Aqsa complex, said Turkey or Egypt would probably be awarded the job of reconstructing the pulpit.
On April 21, 1969, Muslim guards spotted flames coming from Al Aqsa. The fire burned out of control for hours with flames reaching the windows just below the dome.
Israeli authorities arrested Michael Denis William Rohen, a tall blond sheepshearer from Sydney, Australia, who belonged to the Protestant Church of God sect. He was judged insane and deported.
Hassan Tahboub, a member of the Muslim Supreme Council in Jerusalem, questions whether the act was the work of a deranged individual.
He said Muslim investigators believed a group may have been involved because Rohen called London the night before the attack and may have received instructions. But Tahboub added, “We refused to give evidence to the Israelis because we considered the court to be illegal.”
Much of the fire damage has now been repaired, including about 75 feet of Fatamid-style mosaics, 750 square feet of gypsum moldings, 30 new stained-glass windows and new marble columns.
The most painstaking work is being done by Adel Jabari, 38, who said it took two months to place the 20,000 pieces of glass and stone in each square meter (10.76 square feet) of mosaic.
Some of his work represents new designs inspired by Jabari’s stay in Italy, where he was sent to study restoration methods and became enthused with the Sistine Chapel.
“I was inspired by the spirit of Michelangelo,” said Jabari.
Cleaning fire-blackened stone and mosaic panels behind the pulpit, restoring some decorations in the Al Aqsa dome’s interior and building a new pulpit remain to be done.
Awad declines to predict when work will be complete, noting the mission has expanded to include other repairs needed because of age and neglect.
“It is a lifetime job,” he said.