I had last visited the Temple Mount in 1982, on a synagogue-sponsored trip from New Jersey. My memories of that visit are hazy, but Michal and I got another chance just before Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. We joined a Tel Aviv University-sponsored trip, guided by archeologist/historian Dr. Stephen Rosenberg, whose fascinating articles have been published in the Jeruslalem Post.
Most people believe that the Western Wall is Judaism’s most sacred site. However, the structure, once known as the Wailing Wall, is “only” the remnant of the retaining wall built by Herod the Great (73 BCE-4 BCE) when he totally renovated the Second Temple on Jerusalem’s Mt. Moria.
The Ark of the Covenant, location now unknown, was located in the inner sanctum of the Temple atop Mt. Moriah (the Foundation Stone), Judaism’s most holy site. Today, the closest one can get to this most holy of places is via the Tunnel Tour which starts from the Western Wall Plaza. This fascinating walk, under ground and next to the extension of the Western Wall, enables one to realize how cities are built layer upon layer, century after century. The tour allows one to walk on the very street that the Jews traversed during Roman times!
Muslims call the Temple Mount the “Noble Sanctuary” and some designate it to be the third holiest site in Islam. Politically speaking, the entire Temple Mount area is problematic. While Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jews since the time of King David, during the period of the British Mandate, the British authorities favored Arab control of the area. The British cracked down on Jewish prayer at the Western Wall after the 1929 Arab uprisings: “Jews were forbidden to blow the shofar at the Kotel (the Western Wall), pray loudly there, or bring Torah scrolls, so as not to offend the Arab population.” [Maurice Ostroff]
Fear of “offending” Arab “sensibilities” has continued to be practiced by the Israeli government. During the Six Day War (1967), Jerusalem’s 19-year division was ended after Jordan’s defeat. Israelis and Jews throughout the world rejoiced as freedom of religion was restored on the Temple Mount and at the Kotel. “We have returned to all that is holy in our land. We have returned never to be parted from it again,” said Defense Minister Moshe Dayan upon reaching the Kotel. Yet, “Dayan immediately ceded internal administrative control of the Temple Mount compound to the Jordanian Waqf (Islamic trust) while overall security control of the area was maintained by Israel. Dayan announced that Jews would be allowed to visit the Temple Mount, but not to hold religious services there.” [sixdaywar.org]
In addition to enforcing the ban on Jewish worship, the Waqf regularly violates the sanctity of this archeological treasure in an effort to destroy any Jewish connection to the site of Foundation Stone, the “navel” of the world, where Jews believe Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac, among other Jewish epiphanies.
The situation has not improved lately. As our group entered the Temple Mount via the problematic Muhgrabi Ramp, we were immediately accosted by obnoxious Waqf employees, intent on making our visit as unpleasant as possible. The huge plaza of 37 acres (equal to 28 football fields) is available almost non-stop to Muslims, but the activity of non-Muslims is strictly regulated. We were cautioned not to even give the appearance of praying, which would bring the wrath of the Waqf guards upon us. Result: Jews and Christians are clearly interlopers to the Arabs.
Despite this, the compound is extraordinary. Closest to the ramp is the Al Aqsa Mosque, claimed to be the “farthest mosque,” the only possible mention of Jerusalem in the Koran. It is from the vicinity of this mosque, built by Caliph Abd al-Malik and finished by his son al-Walid in 705 CE, that Mohammed supposedly ascended to heaven on his steed, Buraq. (This story is contested, as the “farthest mosque” at that time was nowhere near the City of Jerusalem.) Al Aqsa mosque was built on top of previous places of worship, including the basilica of the Holy Temple, a Roman Temple to Jupiter, a Byzantine church, and the Mosque of Umar (638 CE). Back in 1982 it was possible for non-Muslims to enter, which I did, but today, “fuhgeddaboudit.”
We walked into the center of the plaza, where we encountered the small but lovely Dome of the Chain, an open, 10-sided structure. The name comes from a chain inside, of which it was said, “If two men approached it to solve a point of litigation, only the honest and upright man could take hold of it; the unjust man saw it move out of his reach.” Supposedly, the Dome of the Chain prayer house measured the fitness of those who desired entry to nearby Dome of the Rock.
One of the most beautiful Muslim edifices, thought to be placed exactly over the Foundation Stone, the Dome of the Rock was built by Caliph Abd al-Malik between 687 and 691 CE. Although it is not a mosque, it is the oldest extant Islamic monument, built with an octagonal plan and dome of Byzantine design. The gorgeous Persian tiles on the exterior and the marble slabs that decorate the interior were added by Suleiman I in 1561.
Before leaving the plaza, we examined a few lesser known sites: the Dome of the Ascension, built with recycled Crusader building materials and the Fountain of Caique Bey, with its very unusual carved dome. We exited the Temple Mount via the Chain Gate, of Roman construction and made from sarcophagi found nearby. It displayed unique stone work, unknown today, which looks like wood inlay.
We visited a few additional sites in the Old City, including the Holy Sepulcher Church, which is supposedly built on the site of the crucifixion of Jesus. Legend has it that a starving Jew pointed out the site to Helena, the devoutly Christian mother of the first Byzantine Emperor, Constantine, who converted to Christianity on his deathbed in 337 CE. At the site, Helena found three pieces of wood, one of which revived a dead man: proof enough that these were pieces of the “true cross.” A number of Christian sects continually fight over this site, which is divided into sectors allotted to each sect.
Dr. Rosenberg led our group from the Old City through the Damascus Gate into the “eastern” part of Jerusalem, whose population is predominantly Arab. The Damascus Gate, which is probably the most beautiful of the Old City’s eight gates, is constructed with a chicane, a sharp double bend created to form an obstacle against invaders.
We then walked to the nearby Rockefeller Museum, built in the 1930s by the British with funds provided by the American philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to house a collection of wonderful archaeological finds dating from prehistoric times to the end of the Ottoman period (1917). The museum is a standout example of the fusion of Western and Oriental (Arabic) architectural traditions, with modern innovations and one of the most idyllic courtyards in Jerusalem.
During the period Jordan occupied “east” Jerusalem (1948-1967), King Hussein nationalized the Rockefeller Museum, which had heretofore been run by an international board of trustees. Israel gained control of it and all of Jerusalem during the Six Day War of 1967 and affiliated the Rockefeller Museum with the burgeoning Israel Museum. Since then, new archeological finds have gone to the Israel Museum, a much larger facility.
The last stop of this fascinating tour was a walk in the Kidron Valley, just outside the Old City walls. There we saw Jehoshaphat’s Cave with its ancient burial niches and Absalom’s Tomb, neither site accurately named, according to Dr. Rosenberg. He told us that the origins of these sites were unknown, but that they were about 2,000 years old. They were thought to be David’s son’s tomb when it was first discovered, completely covered by sand.
Last, the Tomb of the Sons of Hezir is a burial cave on the Kidron Valley cliff, complete with burial rooms that were carved into the mountain. “‘This is the grave and monument of Elazar Hania Uazar Yehuda Shimon Yohannan sons of Yosef son of Obad Yosef and Elazar sons of Hania Priests of the Hezir family.’ According to this inscription it would seem that in this cave were buried the descendants of the priestly family of ‘Hezir’ which was known from the time of King David.” (mountofolives.co.il)
Unfortunately for Israel, our government has failed to exercise sovereignty throughout Jerusalem, making a mockery of its claim as an “undivided city.” Nevertheless, Jerusalem is an incredible city to visit, for its ancient sites and its modern charm. And compared to comparable cities around the world, it is a very safe city to visit.
Fortunately for our group, the bus arrived just as we climbed out of the Kidron Valley, ending a fascinating tour of Jerusalem’s conflicted Temple Mount area.