The Real - and Mythical - History of the Temple Mount

What makes this holy site so important to Jews and Muslims anyway?

David Green
David B. Green
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Israeli paratroopers entering the Temple Mount compound during the Six Day War, 1967.
Israeli paratroopers entering the Temple Mount compound during the Six Day War, 1967. Credit: Amos Zucker / Defense Ministry
David Green
David B. Green

In an essay he wrote for the scholarly anthology “Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Jerusalem’s Sacred Esplanade,” the Muslim Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh makes the point that it couldn’t have been the Prophet Mohammed's night journey to al-Haram al-Sharif – what the Jews call the Temple Mount – that bestowed holiness on that spot: “rather, Muhammad’s visit must have been made because of the spot’s already-existing sanctity.”

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One needn’t be a nonbeliever to acknowledge that Jerusalem in general, and the Sacred Esplanade – to use the neutral terminology employed by the ecumenical team of editors and writers of “Where Heaven and Earth Meet” (principal editors Oleg Grabar and Benjamin Z. Kedar) – in particular, is of central symbolic significance to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And it’s hardly a coincidence, considering that first Christianity and then Islam built upon the traditions of their predecessors and claimed to supersede them. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the stories all three of these monotheistic faiths tell about the Mount.

Israeli police accompany Jewish visitors past the Dome of the Rock during a visit to the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, April 25, 2016.Credit: Ahmad Gharabli, AFP

It is only because of the never-ending conflict between Israelis and Palestinians – a political struggle that is taking on an increasingly religious character – that either side feels compelled to insist that its claim to the Mount is an exclusive one, and insists on denying its rivals’ connection to it.

No one can say what the significance of the hill known as Zion and as Moriah was to the Canaanites who inhabited Jerusalem before the Israelites conquered it in roughly 1000 B.C.E. We’re told in 2 Samuel 24 that the conqueror, King David, insisted on paying for the threshing floor he received from the Jebusite king Araunah. It was there that God instructed him to establish an altar and make an offering, thus bringing to an end a calamitous plague that had killed 70,000 of his people.

Later, it was David’s son Solomon who built the Temple on the site of that same altar. These Biblical accounts are not contemporary records of events. Rather, the narrative of Solomon that appears in 1 Kings 6, like the books of Joshua, Judges and Samuel, was probably written hundreds of years later, at about the turn of the 7th century B.C.E. It may well be that the reports of David’s altar and his city and of Solomon’s Temple being built on the location of the Jebusite town were written that way in order to clearly establish how the Israelites’ monotheism superseded the pagan religion of the Canaanite Jebusites.

Jews visit the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, July 18, 2017.Credit: Emil Salman

The later a Hebrew text was written, it seems, the further back the Israelitic claim to Jerusalem seems to go. Genesis 22, for example, places the Binding of Isaac in the Land of Moriah, but it is only in 2 Chronicles that the connection is made between “Moriah” and Jerusalem. There we read how, “Solomon began to build the House of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where [the Lord] appeared unto David his father; for which provision had been made in the Place of David, in the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite” (2 Chronicles 3:1). That text, say Bible scholars, was likely written several hundred years later still.

Finally, the Talmud, compiled even later, claims that “the world was created from Zion” (Yoma 54b), and in it and later midrashic texts we find references to Adam, Cain and Noah having made sacrifices to God in Jerusalem. (It is actually a Christian tradition that places “Mount Zion” in the spot just outside the southwest corner of the Old City, presumably because of the belief that this is the location of David’s tomb, and David is the progenitor of Jesus. Locating Mount Zion there also reflected “the [Christian] wish to annul the Temple Mount’s sanctity,” according to scholar Rachel Elior.)

Christianity is meant to be a universal faith based on spiritual beliefs, not acts of sacrifice. Nonetheless, its seminal texts establish Jesus’ bona fides, so to speak, by having some of the major events of his life take place in Jerusalem, beginning with the tradition, in the Gospel of Luke, that Jesus’ parents brought him to the Temple to "redeem" him after his birth (his pidyon haben), and that he returned at age 12, and ended up staying to talk theology with the teachers in "my Father's house," as he later told his worried parents. Later, all of the gospels describe Jesus coming to the Temple and turning out in disgust the animal traders and money-changers from its courtyard. In John 4, Jesus tells a Samaritan woman whom he meets at Mount Gerizim that “the time is coming when it will no longer matter whether you worship the Father on this mountain or in Jerusalem.” The sacrifices and the Temple where they are offered become unnecessary after Jesus himself is sacrificed in Jerusalem by way of his crucifixion.

A Palestinian man reads the Koran in al-Aqsa Mosque, on the compound known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as Temple Mount, Jerusalem's Old City during the Ramadan, May 2, 2017.Credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

The Koran, Islam’s primary scripture, does not mention Jerusalem by name. It is only in the hadiths, the supplementary texts that report on the words and acts of the Prophet Mohammed, that the connection is made between al-Masjid al-Aqsa, the “Farthest Mosque,” mentioned in sura 17 of the Koran, and Jerusalem.

According to the Koran, Mohammed made “a journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the Farthest Mosque whose precincts We did bless, in order that We might show him some of Our Signs.” According to Muslim scholar Mustafa Abu Sway, “the hadith scholars, Qur’an commentators, and all of Islamic tradition take this particular verse seriously and consider the Sacred Mosque to be in Mecca and the Farthest Mosque to be in Jerusalem. No Muslim scholar challenged this position throughout Islamic intellectual history” (from his essay “The Holy Land, Jerusalem, and the Aqsa Mosque in the Islamic Sources” in “Where Heaven and Earth Meet”). These later texts also make the connection between Aqsa (Farthest) Mosque and “Bayt al-Maqdis” – House of the Holy, or “Beit Hamikdash,” the Hebrew term for the Temple.

As noted, for details of Mohammed’s night journey, in which his horse Buraq carried him from Mecca to Jerusalem (a trip called the “Isra”), where he prayed and then ascended to Heaven (the “Mi’raj”) to converse with God before returning to earth – all of this in the course of a single night – one has to turn to the hadith texts.

What the account does do, however, is establish the Muslim link to Jerusalem. In fact, Jerusalem quickly became universally considered the third-holiest site for Muslims, after Mecca and Medina. Mohammed died in 632 C.E. and was succeeded as caliph first by Abu Bakr and then by Umar (although this succession was disputed by the group that became the Shi’a). It is the latter who conquered Jerusalem in 635-638 and established the Dome of the Rock (sometimes mistaken called the Mosque of Umar) and the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the site of the ruins of the Herodian Second Temple.

The reign of Umar in Jerusalem was known for its relative tolerance. The next millennium and a half, of course, was characterized by successive conquests of the city, with the fortunes of the different faiths in it rising and sinking depending on who was sovereign there.

The turn of the Jews came only in 1967, with the Six-Day War and the unification of the divided city under Israeli rule. In general, Israel’s policy has been one of religious tolerance and openness. When Israeli authorities closed the Temple Mount to Muslim worshippers for two days after the July 14 killing of two Border Policemen there, it was the first time they had done so since 1969. But the question of who’s in charge has been a sensitive one – an extreme understatement – since the day in June 1967 that an Israel Defense Forces soldier raised an Israeli flag over Al-Aqsa Mosque, only to have Defense Minister Moshe Dayan order it removed minutes later. In such a situation, it is not surprising that there is little room for magnanimity, with each side on constant alert for any change in the status quo and any sign that the other side is gradually encroaching on its position. Any backing down is interpreted by both publics as a sign of weakness. Infinitesimally small actions can set off a conflict whose stakes will be unthinkably high.

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