The History of the Temple Mount: Where Gods Collide

How a little hill in Jerusalem, venerated over millennia, became a powder keg that threatens to engulf the whole world in war.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
The Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem's Old City, October 19, 2014.
The Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem's Old City, October 19, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

For a spot sacred to countless billions throughout history, Temple Mount in Jerusalem has been the site of a lot of bloodshed.

When the site was first awarded sanctity cannot be known. Prehistoric peoples may have venerated pagan gods on the hilltop and the tradition continued, in changing forms. Or perhaps, it was made holy when the Jerusalem Temple was built by King Solomon, as the Bible says. We cannot even investigate when the site was first settled: Excavation is impossible both because of the holy sites now on the Mount, and the unrelenting political tensions.

With material evidence scarce at best, two main camps have developed in biblical archaeology. One takes the bible literally and believes King Solomon constructed the First Temple there in the 10th century BCE. But based on what archaeological evidence there is, the second camp suspects that Jerusalem in Solomon's time was a small hilltop village, and that the site that would come to be known as Temple Mount wasn't even inside it.

The evidence suggests that Jerusalem did not expand beyond a tiny settlement centered on the Gihon spring until the 8th century BCE. Bible literalists however are confident that if the Temple Mount could be properly excavated, a great temple dating from the days of Solomon would be found.

That may never happen as, as some archaeologists say that any remains of the First Temple would have probably been reused in subsequent construction over the ages.

What archaeological evidence there is shows that about 2,800 years ago, in the 8th century BCE, Jerusalem mushroomed from a village by a spring into a city that did encompass Temple Mount. The First Temple was likely built on the Temple Mount at this time, though no archaeological evidence for its existence, let alone its location, has been discovered, and no extra-biblical records of it have survived.

If the First Temple existed, it was destroyed when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem in 587 BCE, reducing the city to rubble.

Building the Second Temple, twice

Nearly 40 years later, in the year 538 BCE, Cyrus the Great of Persia let the Jewish exiles in Babylonia go home. Almost immediately, says the Bible, the returnees began to rebuild a temple. It was dedicated in 515 BCE.

But the Book of Ezra recounts that old people who had seen the splendor of the First Temple wept, because (says the accepted view) of the second's relative shabbiness. Another personality evidently appalled by its look was King Herod, who – some four centuries later - set about rebuilding it in a whole new dimension, vastly bigger and grander.

Historians tend to refer to both the simple temple built after the Babylonian exile and the huge edifice Herod built as "the Second Temple." For the sake of clarity, this article shall refer to the bigger one as Herod's Temple.

In fact there is no archaeological evidence of the modest Second Temple either, though there is evidence that Temple Mount was inhabited during this period. But unlike the First Temple, the existence of this second one is corroborated by Jewish, Greek and Roman extra-biblical sources.

There is rich archaeological evidence for the grand temple King Herod built in its stead, starting in 20 BCE, though its construction only ended 80 years later, well after his death. The evidence includes the enormous lower stones of the Western Wall, which were part of Herod’s temple compound. (The medium-sized stones in the middle of the Western Wall were laid down during the Umayyad regime; the smallest ones at the top were laid down during the Ottoman and British rule over Israel).

It was the Herodic temple that a young Nazarene named Yehoshua visited in roughly 33 CE and, according to the Christian Bible, overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of the pigeon dealers.

Hadrian rebuilds Jerusalem – as a pagan capitol

Not long after came the First Jewish War, an ill-fated rebellion against the Roman regime (66–73 CE). Emperor Titus quashed the revolt with a heavy hand. In 70 CE, Jerusalem was destroyed and the Temple was set ablaze.

Perhaps belief that God’s plan included the Temple arising anew encouraged the Jews led by Bar Kochba sixty years later to rebel against Rome again, in 132 CE. But within three years they too were crushed.

Emperor Hadrian's collective punishments for the Jews included a ban on visiting Jerusalem, let alone Temple Mount; folding the province of "Iudaea" into a new political entity, Syria Palaestina; and rebuilding Jerusalem - as pagan city, named Aelia Capitolina.

Jerusalem's rebranding included installing cultic statues abhorred by Judaism on the Temple Mount, and possibly building a pagan temple there for the Capitoline Triad of supreme deities - Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. Some authorities however say this temple was located elsewhere in the city.

Constantine I became the first Christian emperor of Rome in 306 CE and Christianity gained traction in Jerusalem. Temple Mount was not rebuilt, though. The main Christian shrine in the city became the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built at Constantine's order on Golgotha, the site of a pagan temple – and of Jesus' crucifixion.

Pilgrims at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Photo by: AP

Religion in Rome was to be thrown back in time with the rise of Emperor Julian in the year 361 CE. The following year, Julian – who was devoutly pagan and wished to reinstate worship of the Roman pantheon – dropped by Jerusalem on his way to invade Persia. As part of his (ultimately fruitless) efforts to undo the Christianization of the empire, he decreed that the Jews could rebuild their temple.

The Jews apparently took to the task with much enthusiasm, only to have their hopes crushed less than a year later when Julian was killed in battle. With his death, his protection disappeared.

Over the centuries, the pagan shrines on the Temple Mount crumbled. The deserted compound became overgrown, serving as a constant reminder - according to Christian theology- that God’s old covenant with the Jews was void, and that a new covenant symbolized by the new Christian Jerusalem had taken its place.

Jerusalem goes Muslim

That would change. In the desert of Arabia, a new religion was taking form, led by a merchant named Mohammed.

Many Islamic doctrines were based on Judaism and Christianity and in fact, the original direction of prayer (the Qibla) was towards the Temple Mount. Then, 13 years after Mohammed decreed that the Qibla would be the Temple Mount in 624 CE, he changed his mind, and decreed that henceforth it would Mecca.

During Mohammed’s, neither Jerusalem nor the Temple Mount were under Muslim control. Nor are the city or the site mentioned explicitly in the Quran. The Quran tells (in Sura 17 Al-Isra) of the night Muhammad flew on a mythical beast called the Buraq to the “farthest mosque,” or in Arabic, “al-masjid al-aqsa.” At this mosque, he led a group of prophets in prayer and then, ascended to heaven.

Traditions written by hadiths (those who knew the prophet) identify this “farthest mosque” as the Bait Maqdis, a form of Beit Hamikdash, the Hebrew name of the Temple in Jerusalem.

In 637 CE, five years after Muhammad died and after Jerusalem had fallen to Muslim armies together with much of the Middle East, the Caliph Umar, the head of Islam, visited the city and the Temple Mount. He ordered a wooden mosque to be built over a Byzantine structure at the Temple Mount’s southern end.

Several caliphs later, in 691, Caliph Abd al-Malik had a shrine built over a rock in the middle of the Temple Mount.

In Jewish tradition, that rock, called the Foundation Stone, is the meeting point of heaven and Earth, the site where Creation began.

It is also believed to be the rock on which Abraham bound Isaac; the spot where Jacob rested for the night (and dreamed of wrestling with the angel) while escaping Esau; it is believed to be the center stone of the Temple, and the place where Muhammad led the prayer during his night journey.

Al-Malik's shrine, the Dome of the Rock, that shelters the rock, was built on the site of the Second Temple and its dome - once gray, now golden - dominates the Temple Mount to this very day.

It was apparently Abd al-Malik himself who began the work of replacing the nearby wooden structure built by Umar with the magnificent silver-domed stone mosque Al Aqsa. Its construction was to be completed by his son, Caliph Al-Walid I, in the beginning of the 8th century.

A Christian interlude

In 1099, the Crusaders wrested the Holy Land from the Muslims and established Jerusalem as the capital of a new Kingdom of Jerusalem. A cross was placed atop the Dome of the Rock and it was converted into an abbey church known as The Lord’s Temple. The Al Aqsa Mosque became the palace of the kingdom’s kings, until 1020, when it began to serve as the headquarters of a newly formed monastic order of knights incorporated to protect Christian pilgrims en route to Jerusalem: the Knights Templar.

But Jerusalem was to change hands again in 1187, when a Muslim army headed by Saladin captured it from the Christians. Saladin lost no time in “cleansing” the Noble Sanctuary, destroying Christian buildings built there during the 88 years of Christian rule, removing the cross atop the Dome of the Rock and replacing it with a crescent, and removing Christian iconography from Al Aqsa Mosque.

Saladin also founded the Jerusalem Waqf, an endowment or a non-profit organization Islamic law dedicated to the upkeep of Jerusalem’s holy sites, which controls and manages the Temple Mount to this very day.

But Saladin's flurry of renovation ended with him. His successors, the Ayyubids, ignored the site. The only edifice of importance built during their 73-year rule of Jerusalem was the Dome of Moses, a small cupola, built in 1249, which still stands on the Temple Mount.

The successors to the Ayyubids, the Mamluks, controlled the Temple Mount for 256 years and did no better. The Mamluk sultans did fund periodic maintenance and repair of the structures, but the Noble Sanctuary and Jerusalem as a whole lost much of their status and fell into disrepair.

The Ottomans take charge

This was to change when the Ottomans conquered Jerusalem in 1516. They rebuilt Jerusalem’s outer walls and contributed to a number of public works in the city, which during their rule saw a rise in population. The Ottoman sultans also funded the Jerusalem Waqf, and the Temple Mount gained much of its former prestige and beauty - especially during the years just following the Ottoman conquest, and into the 19th century.

It was then that the two most significant excavations of the Temple Mount took place, headed by the British archaeologists Charles Wilson and then by Charles Warren. Neither however found the Temple of Solomon, finding instead artifacts from the Muslim, Roman and Herodian periods.

In 1917, toward the end of World War I, the British conquered Jerusalem in a drive from Egypt through the Middle East, to drive out the Ottomans. With the city they took control of the Temple Mount, but left the Waqf in charge of the site.

Repairs that took place during this period were undermined by an earthquake that damaged the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque in 1927. When in the British left in 1948, after war ensued between the newly founded State of Israel and its neighboring Arab countries, the Temple Mount fell under Jordanian rule.

Jordan meanwhile was experiencing upheavals of its own. In 1951, Jordan’s first king, Abdullah I, was murdered at the Temple Mount by a Palestinian fanatic and was briefly succeeded by his son, King Talal. In 1952 the Jordanian parliament ousted him on the grounds of mental illness – some say schizophrenia – and replaced him by his son in turn, Hussein.

It was the young King Hussein who, in 1955, ordered a large-scale renovation of the Temple Mount, which was in quite dilapidated condition. This project included the covering of the Dome of the Rock with gold-colored aluminum paneling to replace the gray colored lead paneling that existed before. This project was only be completed in 1965.

Israel takes the Temple Mount

Two years later, on June 7, 1967, in the heat of the Six-Day War, Israeli paratroopers conquered the Temple Mount. An Israeli flag was placed atop the Dome of the Rock, but was quickly removed.

For some months the Temple Mount was administered by the Israel Defense Forces Military Rabbinate, but in the end Israel decided to return the control of the site to the Waqf.

Since then, the Temple Mount it has been a source of Jewish-Arab strife. In the early 1980s, Israeli authorities uncovered an underground cell of extremist Jews who were plotting to blow up the Muslim sites on the Temple Mount. In 1982, an American Jew serving in the IDF entered the Temple Mount compound and opened fire at bystanders. One Waqf guard was killed. In September 1996, rioting erupted after the Western Wall Tunnel was opened.

The violence would continue. In 1990, during a riot at the Temple Mount, Israeli police killed 17 Palestinians. The Second Intifada broke out to a certain extent in response to Ariel Sharon’s visit at the site in 2000.

Palestinians repeatedly claim that Israel has been undermining the foundation of the Temple Mount in order to destroy their holy sites, or that Israel is planning to take control of it. While this is certainly not official Israeli policy, some extremist Jewish organizations actively preparing for the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple - which would require the destruction of the Muslim shrines.

The fate of the Temple Mount has been and will probably continue to be a chief point of contention in all Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. With both sides so emotionally invested in this one hill, an agreement is hard to envision. Temple Mount is and will likely continue to be a powder keg, threatening to engulf the region in holy war. May that never happen.

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Already signed up? LOG IN


הקלטות מעוז

Jewish Law Above All: Recordings Reveal Far-right MK's Plan to Turn Israel Into Theocracy

איתמר בן גביר

Why I’m Turning My Back on My Jewish Identity

Travelers looking at the Departures board at Ben Gurion Airport. The number of olim who later become yordim is unknown.

Down and Out: Why These New Immigrants Ended Up Leaving Israel

Beatrice Grannò and Simona Tabasco as Mia and Lucia in "The White Lotus."

The Reality Behind ‘The White Lotus’ Sex Work Fantasy

The Mossad hit team in Dubai. Exposed by dozens of security cameras

This ‘Dystopian’ Cyber Firm Could Have Saved Mossad Assassins From Exposure

מליאת הכנסת 28.12.22

Comeback Kid: How Netanyahu Took Back Power After 18 Months in Exile