On the stone pavement of the Temple Mount I once heard a man saying on the phone to his partner, "I am driving now and do not want to cause an accident”.
There are those who feel that the Temple Mount demands lying, there are those who feel that it demands war and there are those that feel that it demands kneeling down in prayer. In any event, one cannot remain indifferent to it. Millions of Parisians pass by every day in the square opposite to the Notre-Dame, too busy to take in its drama. They do not deem it necessary to lie on the phone and say that they are somewhere else. Jerusalem's religious center is more exciting than the religious centers of cities that are larger and almost as historic as it. It is charged, and not only with holiness.
So what is this hill actually? In ancient times, before the first millennium BCE, the city was built on the slope of the hill where the village of Silwan is situated today. The top of the hill, today’s Temple Mount, was the highest spot in the city, or in Greek: Acropolis. In the cities of ancient times the highest spot of every place was dedicated to worship and on the Temple Mount were probably housed the temples of the Jerusalemite idol worshippers such as the Jebusites.
When the monotheist Hebrews arrived to the place and replaced the Jebusites, they crowned the hill with their own temple. Only a few remains were found from the Temple of King Solomon and they are considered controversial, but from the Second Jewish Temple, which was built in the first century BCE, there are huge remains.
All of the Roman attempts at destroying this monumental structure built by King Herod could not destroy the Western Wall and Southern Wall: two of the immense walls with which King Herod surrounded the hill, giving it a square shape. This same shape remains today. In ruin or not, the temple won, and the people who remained loyal to it still come from all over the world to lament here.
Playing Football among the Tiles
They do not come here in multitudes. The Temple Mount, which today is run by the Muslim Waqf, seems to most of us a forbidden place. It is actually forbidden in Jewish prayer and the meticulously religious observant do not enter it at all because of their fear that they will stand in the Holy of Holies, which only the High Priest was allowed to enter on Yom Kippur and which the Divine Spirit never left. For those who do not have these concerns, it is very much recommended to visit the Temple Mount, which is filled with miracles and wonders.
Accessibility to the Temple Mount changes based on the political situation, but in general it is open to the public during the hours mention below. The entrance to the Temple Mount is from the Moroccans' Gate (Sha’ar HaMugrabim), which is near the Western Wall and even if today one cannot visit inside the structures of the Temple Mount (in the calm years of the 1990s it was possible), the wait is certainly worth while. Even a look at the decorated tiles, the stone designs on the old pulpits, the back of the little familiar Golden Gate (Sha'ar HaRahamim), and the children that play football amidst all of this, is an experience.
The main miracle on the Temple Mount is the magnificent Dome of the Rock, or in Arabic ”Qubbat As-Sakhrah”, which is not a mosque but a monument. Below the great dome which was built in the 7th century, only a few years after the death of Muhammad, is the "Foundation Stone”. According to Jewish belief it was from this spot that the creation of the world began and it is also the top of Mount Moriah where the binding of Isaac took place.
The Muslims, on the other hand, believe that it was from here that the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. There he met the prophets that came before him and they taught him how to pray. Next to the rock is a small tower at the top of which is a box with a lock of hair. The Muslims believe that these are hairs from the beard of Mohammed. The Muslims also believe that it was here that Abraham brought Ishmael to be scarified (the Quran tells the story differently than the Bible) and that under the Dome of the Rock all of the souls of the dead pass on their way to heaven.
One can attribute to the Dome of the Rock all kinds of holiness, one can even claim that it is like the highway (the spotlights that illuminate the interior of the dome are nailed to the holy rock itself in a surprising secular utilitarian fashion), but one thing is not debated: this is the culmination of the Temple Mount, the top of the acropolis. The Muslims followed the Jews who followed the Jebusites and so forth. They crowned the Temple Mount with one of the most impressive structures in the Middle East, the most ancient magnificent Muslim structure to have survived. The Dome of the Rock is much more impressive than the Al-Aqsa Mosque which is situated to its south, the once upon a time "silver domed mosque” which is not even silver plated these days. This is surprising as it is this fairly standard mosque, and not the golden giant, that is considered to be the third most sacred site to the Muslims, after the immense mosques of Mecca and Medina which are in Saudi Arabia.
Shared Guard Duty
So what is there inside this huge square shape complex? Archeological excavations here are very rare and are accompanied by tension. The Muslims fear Israeli excavations as they believe that Israel wants to blow the Dome of the Rock from within. The Israelis are anxious when the Muslims dig at the Temple Mount, as evidence of the Jewish Temple might be ruined. We know that the south-eastern corner of the Temple Mount contains great empty spaces, such as King Solomon’s Stables, which are believed to have been built at the time of the Second Jewish Temple, thus not being connected to King Solomon at all. Beyond this, everything is a mystery.
And an even greater mystery is the pleasant atmosphere on top of the Temple Mount, which is felt despite it being the focus of all of the tensions in the Middle East. Perhaps it is a result of its sanctity, but credit must also be given to the people that come here everyday. Two of them can be found at its entrance from the cotton market which is in the Muslim Quarter. At first sight they look like opposites but in fact they cooperate with each other.
At the end of the market a huge gate opens to the Temple Mount, from where the Dome of the Rock is seen in all of its glory. On the stairs that climb up to it stands an armed Israeli border guard policeman. Behind the policeman sits an older man with a mustache of the Muslim Waqf. He is always an older man and always wears a moustache. The job of the policeman is to prevent anyone who is not a Muslim to enter the Temple Mount from this gate. The job of the man of the Waqf is to examine those who claim to be Muslim and see if they can recite the first sura of the Quran. At the time of prayer, when the Temple Mount is flooded with worshipers, the two men are very busy, but during the sleepy afternoon hours, the policeman offers tourists to take close up pictures with their cameras of the tiles beyond the forbidden gate. The tourists accept happily, the policeman leaves his post for a moment and the Muslim Waqf man smiles slowly. Life continues even in a place which has known great upheaval and bloodshed, even in a place that is the center of the world.
Written by: Yuval Ben Ami
- Opening hours of the Temple Mount:
During the summer:
Sunday – Thursday: 8:30 am – 11:30 am, 1:30 pm – 2:30 pm.
During the winter:
Sunday – Thursday: 7:30 am – 10:30 am, 12:30 pm – 1:30 pm.
- The Temple Mount is closed to visitors on Fridays and Saturdays.
- Sometimes the police forbid entrance to the site without prearrangement. It is recommended to call the police station at the Old City of Jerusalem in advance and check that there are no changes. Phone: 972-2-6226250.
- Modest dress code.