Smoke billows above Al-Aqsa Mosque after an arson attack, 1969. Reuven Milon

The Temple Mount, Through the Lens of Time

Photo exhibition at Jerusalem’s David Citadel Museum traces holy site’s history since first pictures were taken there in 1839



A photograph of the Temple Mount taken during a 1969 fire shows the mosque dome almost totally immersed in smoke. It appears to melt into the Jerusalem landscape behind it.

This image is part of a new exhibition of photographs of the Temple Mount that opened in the David Citadel Museum in Jerusalem last week. It is titled “A Photographic Journey to the Temple Mount – 1839 to Our Time.”

Photographer Reuven Milon was at home in Jerusalem when he heard on the radio that a fire had broken out on the Temple Mount. “I took my camera and drove my Isetta [an Italian car] to the Mount of Olives and started taking pictures,” he told Haaretz last week.

Milon photographed firemen and Waqf officials fighting the flames after Dennis Rohan, an Australian tourist, had set fire to the pulpit of the Al Aqsa Mosque. The photographs, which have recently been scanned and placed in the Harvard University Archives in the Harvard Library, document the firefighters setting ladders, people climbing to the roof of the structure and the heavy smoke enveloping the site.

The Temple Mount is apparently the most photographed site in Israel. The first picture of it is dated 1839, months after the first camera was patented in Paris. It was taken by the French photographer Frederic Goupil-Fesquet and is probably one of the first three photographs ever to be printed in pre-1948 Palestine.

The exhibition shows a print made on the basis of that photograph. Fesquet had photographed the mountain from the same angle Milon did, only 130 years earlier. The picture is in black and white, but the mountain and its environment seem greener and the city behind it smaller. By 1898, when the German Kaiser visited the Temple Mount, more than 300 photographers had taken pictures of the site.

“At that time, the photographs reflected the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the site’s opening to visits by Westerners. The photographers were mainly European and American,” says Shimon Lev, who co-curated the exhibition with Yael Brandt.

Lev sees the Temple Mount as a sort of microcosm of the events that took place in the city and the country in the past 180 years. Until 1920 many of the photos are of visiting dignitaries, including Jews. The exhibition also has a moving film of Egyptian soldiers from the British Transport Corps, taking off their boots and entering the Dome of the Rock to pray. Afterward they are seen reporting this to the first military governor of Jerusalem, Sir Ronald Storrs.

From 1920 on, the photographs begin to reflect the growing struggle over the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. One picture shows British soldiers closing the site’s gates during the Arab Revolt of the late 1930s. The revolt leader, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who had fled from the compound in disguise by climbing over the wall with a rope, had been photographed there earlier that year by an American Colony photographer. That picture would become the portrait most identified with al-Husseini.

Amos Zucker

In 1918 the Temple Mount was photographed by German Air Force pilots and in 1931 the German Zeppelin hovered over the city, providing one of the closest and most beautiful aerial photos of the dome. Other photos depict the War of Independence and the Jewish Quarter’s fall. At the end of the fighting, Jordan’s King Abdullah was photographed on the Temple Mount. Two years later he was murdered there. Pictures from the era of Jordanian rule show children playing in the abandoned Western Wall plaza and in 1964 National Geographic published a picture of King Abdullah’s grandson, King Hussein, flying a helicopter over the Temple Mount.

Everyone knows the late David Rubinger’s photos from the Western Wall and the Temple Mount on June 7, 1967, and after Israel’s capture of the Old City. But the earliest pictures of soldiers on the Mount were taken by a forgotten photographer, Amos Zucker. Zucker, an intelligence officer who worked as a volunteer photographer for the IDF periodical “Bamahane,” was in the command car directly behind the armored personnel carrier with which Mordechai Gur, the Paratroops Brigade commander, penetrated the Old City. For at least half an hour, Zucker was the only one documenting the events on the Temple Mount and Western Wall.

In the years to come the Temple Mount was photographed by countless Israelis who toured the place. In those years the Waqf didn’t seem to uphold the current so-called “modesty” regulations. Many men and women are seen strolling on the site in shorts, some holding souvenirs or bags after shopping in the Old City.

Mula Eshet

In the ‘70s the site was used by photographer Mula Eshet as a set for fashion photos for Gottex. In the display, a model wearing a blue dress is photographed on the background of the blue decorations of the Dome of the Rock – a scene hard to envision today.

As the years passed, the site became increasingly harder to access while turning into a bleeding arena of the conflict. From 1990 it stood in the center of several violent eruptions. In 1990, 17 Palestinian demonstrators were killed there. In 1996, more than 100 Palestinians and 17 Israeli soldiers were killed there in riots that broke out throughout the West Bank following the opening of the Western Wall tunnel.

ANTONIN THUILLIER/AFP

In 2000, MK Ariel Sharon came to the site with hundreds of police and ignited the second intifada. Since then the photography on the Temple Mount is mainly of blood, fire and smoke, but also mass Muslim prayers, the renewed gold plating by the Jordanian government and state visits.

The Temple Mount has become part of the public debate and a photo of Culture Minister Miri Regev, in a dress depicting the Temple Mount displayed in the exhibition, is a case in point.

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