Golden Dome of the Rock unveiled as Arab leaders jostle for influence over holy site

JERUSALEM - The Dome of Rock, built in 688 and the first main Islamic sanctuary, is once again shimmering over Jerusalem. Today its restoration is officially complete, writes Sarah Helm.

A 1,200-square-metre expanse of aluminium has been replaced with gold leaf, making this the largest golden dome in the world. It stands on the Haram al-Sharif, the third holiest site in Islam, that sits on top of the Temple Mount, site of the Jewish temple.

But there are to be no festivites in Jerusalem. Instead, today's celebrations are taking place in Amman, hosted by King Hussein.

One reason for holding the party in Amman is to avoid offence to the Muslims mourning the Hebron massacre deaths. Another reason lies in the political manoeuvring over control of Jerusalem's Islamic holy sites.

King Hussein regards the Hashemites as custodians by right of Jerusalem's holy sites. In view of the family's claim to be direct descendants of the Prophet Mohammed, the King has never given up control of the Ministry of Religious Endowments, the Awkaf, that sits in Amman. With Palestinian independence now a possibility, however, other Arab leaders are jostling for influence over the Haram al-Sharif.

There is King Fahd, of Saudi Arabia, who sought to pay for the restoration before King Hussein pre-empted him by selling his London mansion to put up the money. Now Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, is casting an acquisitive eye over the holy sites. If the Palestinians are to win the fight to have east Jerusalem as their capital, control over the Haram would give Mr Arafat a foot in the door.

By holding the celebration in Amman King Hussein can reassert the Hashemites' supreme role. It is unlikely King Fahd or Mr Arafat have been invited, but enjoying the celebrations will be members of the Irish company, Mivan, that did the work.

(Photograph omitted)