Telling the Unknown Stories of the Temple Mount

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A general view shows Palestinians praying near the Dome of the Rock, in Jerusalem's Old City July 3, 2015.Credit: Reuters

Every few weeks a story appears in the news about friction between Jews who want to visit the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, where the Temple stood 2,000 years ago and today stands the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, the police and the Islamic Waqf that controls the Mount.

There are regulars who are sometimes banned from visiting the Temple Mount out of fears their presence will lead to violent responses from the Muslims, and in particularly tense times non-Muslims are completely banned from visiting the Mount.

The Palestinian and Muslim story of the Temple Mount, known as Haram al-Sharif (“The Noble Sanctuary”) in Arabic, and the Al-Aqsa complex is rarely heard in the Israeli press.

The “Under the Mountain” festival, being held this week as part of the Jerusalem Season of Culture, opened for the fourth time on Tuesday in an attempt to provide as close access as possible to these unheard stories through tours and lectures given by Palestinian academics and cultural figures in the area of the Old City and the conflicted Holy Basin.

Omer Krieger, the festival’s artistic director, explains that the decision this year to deal with the Temple Mount stemmed from the trauma of last summer’s fighting in Gaza, which caused the 2014 edition of the festival to be canceled.

“We wanted to take with artistic and critical hands the main site of the Jewish and Palestinian thought and performance, and to focus on the Temple Mount/ Noble Sanctuary as a geographic and ideological center in Jerusalem. A specific place that is surrounded by mountains of mythology, thought and emotions; a ritual center that also serves as a continual arena of conflict. So we do not avoid politics or touching the conflict, but march into the holy fire out of an aspiration to increase the understanding between the sides and massage the place from its stiff muscles,” he said.

Dr. Anwar Ben Badis, a linguist and teacher of Arabic and Palestinian culture who lives in Jerusalem, is one of the lecturers who will go up to the Mount itself with a group of participants. The tour, “The Walk of the Heart on Haram al-Sharif: A Conversation about the Names of the Holy Places on the Mount;” will be conducted in Hebrew, but through the different names given to the holy sites on the Mount he will try to expose a different narrative than what most Jews are used to.

“Al-Aqsa is not just the mosque but a complex in which there are a lot of holy sites for Muslims. The story does not begin with Islam, but goes back to the beginning, to the Canaanites and the Jebusites. I pass through each historical period according to the names and the terminology, and I will try to tell who was here and everything about the place. This place belonged to the Canaanites and I will tell the story of Melchizedek, who gave land to the Jews and became the first collaborator in Palestinian history,” he said.

Dr. Ali Qleibo's tour was entitled: “Beauty and the Sublime in the Noble Sanctuary.”Credit: Lior Mizrachi

The Under the Mountain festival will take place in “ever-widening circles around the hub of the Temple Mount,” write the organizers. “It will examine the relationships etched in a blood-soaked history, as well as the daily fabric of life on the Mount. The festival will offer a conversation that incorporates the sanctity, the history, the conflict and the mythology, together with the occupation, the beauty, the hatred, the splendor, the nationalism and the pain buried in this mountain; and it will seek to piece them all together into new combinations and understandings about this place and this time, about the potential and imaginary future.”

Ben Badis talks, for example, about the word “Quds,” which means holy. In Canaanite the meaning of the word “qad” is a rock from which water flows. “That is where the word ‘qad’ [pitcher] in Hebrew comes from, the place where water gathers,” he explains. “Everywhere where they found water became a holy place. This is how the holiness of Jerusalem is based on the rarity of water and the importance of guarding it. We will talk about how the Palestinians themselves see this city, the Old City and Al-Aqsa. Why does everything that happens in Al-Aqsa move the Palestinians and why do they react to everything that happens there.”

What may sound so simple and academic makes Ben Badis lose sleep – and until the very last moment, it is still not clear whether all the tours will take place on the Temple Mount itself, or whether the participants will only be able to view it from a distance. He has already conducted quite a number of tours there, but never for Israelis.

“For me, as a Muslim, it is dangerous to bring Israelis there, to tour and speak Hebrew in this place,” he says. But, he says, he thought it was right to hold the tours of the area in order to tell its story and how he views the place.

Khaled Khatib, director of the Palestinian Heritage Museum. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

“My interest in the history of the city started in a search after the personal story of my family and its belongings,” says Ben Badis. “At home I spoke Arabic and Berber, my father’s language. In school I learned Hebrew, Arabic and French. Naturally I came to work in linguistics, translation and the entire world of language. I understood that it is important to examine how people use language, especially during times of conflict and when the languages themselves are in conflict.”

Anthropologist, artist and photographer Dr. Ali Qleibo, who lives in Jerusalem’s Shoafat neighborhood and teaches classical cultures at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, spent a long time thinking about it before agreeing to cooperate with the festival organizers. The tour on Wednesday was entitled: “Beauty and the Sublime in the Noble Sanctuary,” a series of photographs following spiritual experience in the holy site.

In his case, Qleibo preferred to speak about Al-Aqsa in the protected space of the Palestinian Heritage Museum near the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem. Qleibo, who studies the Sufi form of Islam, shows pictures in his lecture of various structures in Al-Aqsa and the growth there. He tells of the foundation stone as an important site for Muslims since there, as opposed to other places, Mohammed communicated directly with God. Qleibo says that since the seventh century, anyone of historical importance who wanted to commemorate themselves added a monument to the complex. This is how the area became filled with structures, wells, prayer halls, schools and memorial plaques.

“It took hundreds of years to build the complex until it reached its present form,” he says. “Every building has something unique from an architectural standpoint. But people who come there see only the golden dome and the ceramics. The tourists at first glance do not see the other buildings.”

Dr. Anwar Ben Badis, linguist and teacher of Arabic and Palestinian culture who lives in Jerusalem.Credit: Emil Salman

Qleibo is a member of the Nusseibeh family, which has lived in the city since the 13th century. His grandfather is buried inside the Dome of the Rock. All the houses and stores in the area of the Damascus Gate belonged to members of his family, he says.

“This is my city. Not only spiritually, but also historically and in terms of real estate,” says Qleibo, adding that it was because of this status that he preferred not to hold his tour on top of the Mount.

The director of the Palestinian Heritage Museum, Khaled Khatib, will also lead a tour of his own as part of the festival: “Palestinian Culture, History and Life in the Old City” on Thursday. The tour follows his childhood memories in the Old City. Khatib also comes from an old and well-known Jerusalem family – his uncle, Ruhi Al-Khatib, was the mayor of East Jerusalem until 1967, and after the Six-Day War was deported to Jordan. The tour will start at the Damascus Gate and end at his grandfather’s house near Al-Aqsa.

Khatib was born in 1960 in East Jerusalem. He tells how every day he would go to the Old City to his father’s clinic and knew all the residents of the area very well. When he was 16 he went to Britain to study engineering, and returned in 1982 because of the first Lebanon war. Khatib started working as an engineer for the Waqf and worked on projects preserving and renovating old houses in the Old City. A few years ago, he started running the Palestinian Heritage Museum and at the same time still works as an independent engineer on various construction projects.

“When we pass by the Austrian Hospice on the tour, I will talk about the house Ariel Sharon bought in the area. I will show the spot where my father and I were injured by soldiers who fired rubber bullets at us, and where we used to play when we were children. The roof of my family’s home looks out over the golden dome,” he says.

In an interview that took place two weeks before the festival, it seemed that Khatib still did not feel comfortable with his decision to take part in the festival. “It was a thin line between saying yes and saying no. On the other hand, I think we do not need to be afraid and tell our side. I want to contribute something so the Israelis will see us as we really are, people with culture, with history, with a connection. And I cannot do this unless I speak directly to people. It is important to try to change the mentality of the Israeli public and try to get rid of the extremist, anti-Palestinian thought and arrogance.”

The Jerusalem Season of Culture was initiated by the Schusterman Foundation-Israel in cooperation with the Jerusalem municipality, the Jerusalem Foundation. 

Other sessions and tours are being hosted by journalist Sliman Al-Shafi; poet and scholar Prof. Haviva Pedaya; artists Itamar Fallujah, Lior Peleg and Rei Dishon; botanist Dr. Ori Fragman-Sapir; spiritual mentor Yiscah Smith; architect Michael Jacobson; community activists Idit Elhasid and Samah Masrawa; theorist Dr. Noam Yuran and archaeologist Prof. Rafi Greenberg. 

The festival’s “actions and assemblies will impart narratives related to the Mount and offer performances of sanctity, ritual and mystery, together with atheistic, humanistic and universal stories and gestures. They will present structures of holiness and desires for secularization through which we can ask how – out of this cultural wealth that we share as human beings, and recognizing the differences and various identities – can we dream of a common future of justice and peace, how can we learn and unlearn the Mount and examine ways to escape the political and spiritual impasse in which it has been caught up,” state the organizers.

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