Al-Aqsa Mosque (“al-Masjid al-Aqsa”, "the Farthest Mosque,") also known as al-Aqsa or Bayt al-Muqaddas is the most important mosque in Jerusalem. It is located on the Haram esh-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) or Temple Mount.
Al-Aqsa Mosque is the third holiest site in Islam. Sahih Bukhari quotes Abu al-Dardaa as saying: "the Prophet of Allah Muhammad (s.a.a.s.) said a prayer in the Sacred Mosque (in Mecca) is worth 100,000 prayers; a prayer in my mosque (in Medina) is worth 10,000 prayers; and a prayer in al-Masjid al-Aqsa is worth 1,000 prayers", more than in any other mosque.
Masjid al-Aqsa translates from Arabic into English as "the farthest mosque."
The name refers to a chapter of the Qur'an called "The Night Journey"(al-isra). According to the Qur’an, during the Night Journey Muhammad (s.a.a.s.) was transported from the Sacred Mosque in Mecca to al-Aqsa on a heavenly creature called al-Buraq al-Sharif. After he finished his prayers, the angel Jibril (Gabriel) took Muhammad to Heaven, where he met several other prophets and led them in prayer.
Jerusalem is recognized as a sacred site in Islam. Islamic tradition holds that the Prophet (s.a.a.s.) led prayers towards this site until the seventeenth month after the emigration, when Allah directed him to turn towards the Kaaba.
The al-Aqsa Mosque was originally a small prayer house built by the Rashidun caliph Umar, but was rebuilt and expanded by the Ummayad caliph Abd al-Malik and finished by his son al-Walid in 705 CE.
In 746, the al-Aqsa Mosque was damaged in an earthquake, four years before as-Saffah overthrew the Ummayads and established the Abbasid Caliphate. The second Abbasid caliph Abu Ja'far al-Mansur declared his intent to repair the mosque in 753, and he had the gold and silver plaques that covered the gates of the mosque removed and turned into dinars and dirhams to finance the reconstruction which ended in 771.
A second earthquake damaged most of al-Mansur's repairs. In 780, the successor caliph Muhammad al-Mahdi had it rebuilt, but curtailed its length and increased its breadth. Al-Mahdi's renovation is the first known to have written records describing it. In 985, Jerusalem-born Arab geographer al-Muqaddasi recorded that the renovated mosque had "fifteen naves and fifteen gates".
Another earthquake destroyed most of al-Aqsa in 1033, but two years later the Fatimid caliph Ali az-Zahir built another mosque which has stood to the present-day.
During the periodic renovations undertaken, the various ruling dynasties of the Islamic Caliphate constructed additions to the mosque and its precincts, such as its dome, facade, its minbar, minarets and the interior structure.
When the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099, they used the mosque as a palace and church, but its function as a mosque was restored after its recapture by Saladin in 1187.
In the mid-14th century the Mamelukes carried out a major restoration of Al-Aqsa, during which they added an extra two bays on either side of the porch. Of the remainder of their work, only the west side of the mosque survives.
The 20th century was a time of significant turmoil and change at Al-Aqsa. After two earthquakes, the nave and east side of the mosque were torn down and rebuilt in 1938-42. In 1951, King Abdullah of Jordan was assassinated in the south end of the mosque; bullet holes can still be seen in a pillar. The future King Hussein only survived the attack thanks to the medals he wore over his chest. A small memorial consisting of bullets and tear gas canisters near the west wall commemorates the attack and riots that followed.
Another tragedy occurred on August 21, 1969, when a crazed Australian Christian tourist started a fire in the mosque in order to clear the way for the Second Coming. The beautiful wooden pulpit given by Saladin in the 12th century was destroyed in the fire. The crime itself was bad enough, but it led to riots and ongoing accusations that the Jews were trying to destroy the mosque.
The rectangular al-Aqsa Mosque and its precincts are 144,000 square metres (1,550,000 sq ft), although the mosque itself is about 35,000 square metres (380,000 sq ft) and could hold up to 5,000 worshippers. It is 272 feet (83 m) long, 184 feet (56 m) wide.