Meaning of the Mount

Despite their best efforts to produce an ecumenical book, the editors of this beautiful volume on the Temple Mount could not induce their Jewish, Christian and Muslim authors to agree on a single narrative, a fact that only confirms the complex and deeply held variety of traditions associated with the site.

Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Jerusalem's Sacred Esplanade, edited by Oleg Grabar and Benjamin Z. Kedar Yad Ben-Zvi Press and the University of Texas Press, 411 pages, NIS 149 / $75

What does it mean, this sacred esplanade, one of the smallest and most contested pieces of real estate on earth? How did it come to symbolize the past, present and future and the divergent traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam? These are questions that "Where Heaven and Earth Meet," the first-ever volume to be sponsored by Israeli Jewish, Palestinian and Christian research centers in Jerusalem, attempts to answer, say its editors in their introduction.

Hebrew University historian Benjamin Z. Kedar and Islamic art historian Oleg Grabar of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, invited 21 scholars who are leaders in their fields and represent all three faiths to survey the history, architecture and religious traditions connected to what Jews and Christians call the "Temple Mount" and Muslims call "Haram al-Sharif."

The result is a lavishly illustrated volume with scholarly but readable essays that, more than putting the sacred esplanade under a microscope, succeed in presenting it in a kaleidoscope. The authors review the history of the mount, beginning with the biblical period (the 10th century to 586 BCE ) and the two Temples, and ranging through Jewish, Roman, Byzantine, Muslim, Crusader, Ottoman and British Mandatory control, as well as the current stormy conflict for sovereignty over the site. Thematic essays by such scholars as Grabar, Oxford University's Guy Stroumsa, Hebrew University's Rachel Elior and Mustafa Abu Sway of Al-Quds University add greater depth to the historical chapters by examining the meaning of the Temple Mount in Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions, and, in Grabar's case, looking at "Haram al-Sharif as a work of art."

Its beautiful dust jacket, font and photos may lull the reader into thinking this is merely a coffee-table book, which it certainly is not; the numerous endnotes attest to its scholarly bent. But those endnotes can also be a distraction, like listening to a lecturer who makes every fifth point in a whisper. Lay readers who don't like to constantly flip back and forth will miss information that should have been included in the text. In the space devoted to the endnotes and the glossary, I would have preferred an index, to keep track of the many interesting quotes and concepts.

'Who is right?'

At least twice in the past, I have personally come face to face with the question of the meaning of the Temple Mount, and each time I have been struck with the multiplicity and fluidity of possible answers.

The first time was during Sukkot week in the early 1990s. I had been posted at the Western Wall as a volunteer helping the police keep a knot of Haredim separate from a group of determined ultra-nationalist Jews who were attempting to lay a symbolic cornerstone for the Third Temple near the Mughrabi Gate. The former, who believe it's wrong to attempt to do this before the Messiah comes, were shouting their disapproval of the latter's efforts.

A new immigrant from Russia approached us and, with her grandson interpreting, inquired about the ruckus. Reverting to our tour guide personas, my patrol partner and I tried to explain the perceptions of each group regarding the Temple Mount. After listening to his grandmother, the young man turned to us again: "Pardon me, but my grandmother wants to know: ?Who is right?'"

Later, in early 2003, I was leading a group of evangelical Christians visiting the Western Wall. Just as I was explaining that they would not be able to set foot in the Temple Mount, because tour groups had not been allowed there since the beginning of the second intifada, a police officer approached and asked me whether we would like to go up to the mount. He explained that the authorities had decided that tourist visits would no longer be barred. The group applauded. And so, leaving Bibles with the Border Police at the Mughrabi Gate to be picked up later, they became the first Christian tourists to visit the Temple Mount in three years.

If ever the attitude that Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh describes in the book as the "ethos of mutual denial" were at work, it's in these two anecdotes, especially when taken together. Both my scuffling Jewish brethren and the watchful Muslim guards of the Waqf religious authority who monitored the Christian group's visit see the Temple Mount as their sacred ground alone, and neither would be able to fathom why my group of evangelical Christians was so thrilled to have the chance to circumnavigate the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine.

When and why did the Temple Mount become sacred in the first place? For Jews, it's where Abraham offered Isaac and Solomon built the First Temple (and Herod the Second) after David purchased it from Araunah the Jebusite. It's also where a rebuilt sanctuary is to rise in a future messianic age. Over the generations, the piece of bedrock now covered by the Dome of the Rock began to be revered as the "foundation stone" on which the world was made, and the source of all its water. Some scholars believe that this "high place" served for religious ritual as far back as Canaanite times.

For Christians, the Temple is a site Jesus visited and whose destruction he foretold, and for some Christians today, of eschatological significance since the Third Temple, a crucial ingredient in the coming of the messianic era, will stand there, albeit briefly.

For Islam, Haram al-Sharif is the "first direction of prayer," Islam's third holiest site after Mecca and Medina, and Mohammed's destination on his mystical Night Journey and Ascension; the magnificent Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock mark those events.

The views of Christians regarding the Temple Mount have changed over the centuries. My enthusiastic evangelical Christian group would not understand why, as Stroumsa relates, when the Crusaders came to Jerusalem in 1099, they had so thoroughly replaced the Temple ritual in their theology with the sacrifice of Jesus that the tomb of Jesus (the Church of the Holy Sepulchre ) "became" the Temple in their cry: "Up to the tomb of the Lord, hence, up to the Temple!" Christians today might find more akin to their own view of the mount the vision of the second-century Christian eschatologist Irenaeus that the Antichrist would establish his throne in Jerusalem in a rebuilt Temple on the Mount, reigning there for three-and-a-half years until being defeated by Jesus.

Sense of entitlement

Since believers of the different faiths cannot agree even on basic historical facts (if one needs to have this driven home, one need only recall the reports from Camp David in 2000, when Israeli and Palestinian negotiators discussing Jerusalem's future clashed over the question of whether a Jewish Temple ever stood on the site ), perhaps we should not be surprised that that, as the editors concede, they were not able to "induce our authors to agree on a single narrative" regarding the post-1967 period. Indeed, there was no single narrative that emerged from the more distant past, either. The editors also seem to have failed, for the most part, to generate among the contributors the empathy they say they worked to "evolve" for "sentiments we share, as well as for those we do not share at all."

Perhaps that failure is a good thing, since the presentation of the usually conflicting claims over the past, present and future of the Temple Mount is one of the most salient aspects of this book. It recalls the Arabic folktale of Joha (in a footnote to an article by Nazmi Al-Jubeh, of the Riwaq Center for Architectural Conservation in Ramallah ) who asks to hammer a nail in the wall of a house that he sold, and then insists on entering every day to visit "my nail." However, in that story, Joha just wanted to visit his nail, while proponents of a faith in whose name a monument has been built on the Temple Mount tend to feel it entitles them to ownership -- sole ownership, notwithstanding Isaiah's prophecy that "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples."

To judge by a seemingly incidental description of leading Israeli archaeologists in his article surveying the history of the Temple Mount from 1917 to the present, Al- Jubeh seems to be one of many of the authors, and many devotees of the mount of all faiths, who are "visiting my nail." Writing about the construction during the past decade of the subterranean Marwani Mosque, which was roundly criticized as having been undertaken without regard for preserving the archaeological findings in the area, Al-Jubeh notes that the Israeli government "enlisted Knesset members, ?antiquities experts' and clerics" to claim that the Waqf was destroying Second Temple remains. The reader is led to understand that Al-Jubeh is referring to the prominent archaeologists who reportedly joined the September 2007 High Court of Justice petition to stop the work on the underground mosque. The list includes Ephraim Stern, Amihai Mazar, Ehud Netzer, Israel Finkelstein, Moshe Kochavi, Gabriel Barkai and Eilat Mazar. One may disagree with these archaeologists, but their status as experts is fairly secure. Are there other scholars from whom we have not heard in this controversy? If so, Al-Jubeh would have done a great service to his readers had he directed them to reports by Palestinian archaeologists on their finds as they dug through the rubble on the Temple Mount.

Al-Quds University's Islamic scholar Mustafa Abu Sway does do his readers a service by presenting Islamic sources to which Jewish and Christian readers might not otherwise have access and illuminating for them what Israeli presence on the Mount means to Muslims.

However, any hope the reader might have that commonality of belief in the site's sanctity -- the premise with which Abu Sway opens his article -- could lead to cooperation, is rather dashed by his discussion of varying interpretations of the koranic verse stating that after the Israelites left Egypt they angered God, who punished them by putting the Holy Land "out of their reach," either for a period of 40 years (as Abu Sway understands the verse ) or permanently, as he says others believe. That, and his explanation that submission to God's will is the "absolute" criterion for inheriting the land, not necessarily "genetics," are important for readers to know as they digest Abu Sway's explanation that the religious duty of Muslims worldwide to maintain the Al-Aqsa Mosque and pray there "is impaired as long as the Aqsa Mosque remains under [Israeli] occupation!"

In this light, we can understand why the efforts by the head of the northern branch of Israel's Islamic Movement to "save Al-Aqsa" have borne fruit, as Hebrew University's Yitzhak Reiter and Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Jon Seligman discuss in their chapter on the site from 1917 to the present. They also talk about why the second intifada, which began in 2000 after Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount, is known in Arabic as the "Al-Aqsa Intifada."

'There is no Mount Moriah'

While Muslim contributors like Al-Jubeh and Abu Sway seem disinclined to recognize a Jewish claim to the Temple Mount, a Jewish scholar, and the editors themselves, despite their stated interest in empathy, take aim at what the editors call the "Israeli lunatic fringe" -- right-wing Jews seeking to build a Third Temple.

Is this epithet helpful in increasing the reader's understanding, or is it even accurate? The doctoral dissertation of Sarina Chen, a Hebrew University scholar who did not contribute to the book, points out that interest in building a Third Temple has increasingly become part of the nationalist ultra-Orthodox ideology, indicating that this is no longer a marginal trend that can so easily be dismissed. The editors also write that they attempted to avoid "oblique references to the present in chapters dealing with the past," an objective they were less than successful in reaching. But the editors never pledged to stay away from controversy, and indeed, they do not and should not, if their book is to perform a true service.

Rachel Elior, a professor of Jewish thought at Hebrew University, gives a succinct definition of the ancient notion of "sacred geography" that might apply to all faiths' view of the Mount: "the singling out of a place in mythological, cultic or literary contexts linked to divine revelation ... whose sacred importance transcends time and space." But while that seems in keeping with the editors' goal of empathy, she then sallies forth controversially into a reference to the present that is anything but oblique, making a statement that many would view as inaccurate: "Today, there is no mountain bearing the name Mount Moriah." She herself concedes the dispute over this issue, noting in a dismissive aside reminiscent of the "lunatic fringe" remark in the editors' introduction: "The only circles in which the Temple Mount is today referred to as Mount Moriah" are those seeking to build the Third Temple.

Cutting through complexity

One of the most clearly structured articles is a piece by Hebrew University scholar Miriam Frenkel on the changing meaning of the Temple Mount in Jewish thought. She surveys the development over the ages of the Jewish prohibition on being present on the mount -- from a time shortly after the Bar-Kochba Revolt (135 CE ) when Jews still conducted mourning ceremonies there, to an eighth-century Muslim prohibition against Jewish prayer at the site, to Maimonides' eventual prohibition of Jewish presence there because all Jews have been considered impure since the destruction of the Temple (a position with which other sages disagreed ).

But perhaps the article that best cuts a swath through the complexities of the esplanade's past is that of Islamic history expert Andreas Kaplony, of the University of Zurich. He demonstrates how each of the monotheistic faiths has successively and sometimes concurrently reinterpreted beliefs held by the other faiths vis-a-vis parts of the mount to accord with its own doctrine. Kaplony begins with the Umayyad period, with the Muslim association of the Haram with events involving the Temple, for example, the "Chamber of David" in the north part, where David sat in judgment, or, a Christian association, the "Chamber of Zechariah," where the latter was standing when he learned of the birth of his son, who would become John the Baptist. Later on, in the Abbasid period, a Christian tradition focused on the East Gate of the Temple Mount as the point at which Jesus entered the Temple.

As far as Jewish tradition is concerned, Kaplony cites the reference to the Temple Mount as the foundation stone of the world, identifies the Temple Mount gates as those mentioned in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and describes the Jewish practice of circumambulating the gates on Sukkot. Kaplony also informs us that while the Christianization of the Mount persisted inexorably under the Crusaders in the 12th century, they left the original koranic inscriptions inside the Dome of the Rock."For the four and a half centuries of the Early Muslim period, the Haram of Jerusalem ... was a place of mutual adaption and distinction, i.e., a place of interaction, as shared holiness is a characteristic of Jerusalem," he writes.

Hebrew University archaeologist Yoram Tsafrir's "The Temple-less Mount" also presents evidence that the various faiths, with divergent views of the Temple, crossed paths in or near the esplanade. He notes how the early-fourth-century Christian traveler known as the Bordeaux Pilgrim associates the Temple Mount with biblical traditions, a far cry from the total absence of the mount in the late sixth-century Madaba Map mosaic of Jerusalem, which reflects the lack of significance of the Temple for Byzantine Christians at that time. Meanwhile, in the second half of the fourth century, Julian the Apostate's efforts to restore paganism, Tsafrir explains, involved inviting the Jews to rebuild the Temple. This might have led a Jewish pilgrim at that time to incise the hopeful Hebrew inscription of Isaiah 66:14 on the Western Wall. The inscription, pictured in Tsafrir's chapter, can still be seen by visitors on the portion of the Western Wall in the Jerusalem Archaeological Park.

Speaking of present-day visitors, the photographs and diagrams illustrating the article on the esplanade under Mamluk rule, by Michael Hamilton Burgoyne of the Scottish government agency Historic Scotland, is a good reason to take this book up to the mount and tour the sites with it. Sections by Kedar, Donald P. Little, of McGill University, and archaeologist Denys Pringle, a Crusader expert from Cardiff University, could also be helpful for a self-guided tour. The details to which Burgoyne directs our attention, like the Crusader columns outside the Gate of the Chain or the magnificent red and white second-story facade of the Utmaniyya college, built in 1437 and housing the tomb of a woman from Anatolia, are the heart and soul of Jerusalem's complex heritage.

Abu Sway's translation of various priceless inscriptions in the Al-Aqsa Mosque is another good reason to have the book with you on a visit there, if ever non-Muslims are permitted to enter it again, as they were before the events of 2000.

Despite the multiple, interfaith/intercultural authorship, one does not feel that on an individual level most of the writers are struggling with the meaning of the mount. Rather, they seem quite comfortable in their various niches. But while the book cannot be considered "ecumenical" in terms of the individual writers' conclusions, meaning-seeking readers would not want this book without its juxtapositions of often conflicting views. Such juxtaposition may be precisely what we need to allow us to compare and contrast what the various scholars have to say, ultimately coming away from the accumulation of perspectives educated and enriched.

But though few of the individual essays embrace a pluralistic acceptance of the other, that of Menachem Magidor, former president of the Hebrew University, is a notable exception. Deeply affected by the beauty of the Temple Mount, the self-described agnostic writes that history had "superimposed the dreams and imaginations of other cultures," and said it was the site's attraction for multiple cultures, rather than his specific heritage, that gave "depth and meaning to my collective memory."

Sari Nusseibeh, in a poetic allusion to Mohammed's miraculous Night Journey to the Far Place ("al-Aqsa" ) asks whether, despite "mutual denial" of what is sacred to each others' faiths, this spot can "still celebrate that which is noblest in Man: the yearning to discover, to fly out in one's imagination to the farthest corner of the universe."

Perhaps this yearning is key to our search for meaning. Perhaps we should give ourselves over to an appreciation of the sublime aesthetic beauty of Haram al-Sharif/the Temple Mount as a work of art, as discussed by Oleg Grabar, in which hopefully all people can find some common ground. Grabar states in his portion of the epilogue, written with Benjamin Kedar, that this approach might "overcome cultural antagonisms." That would be true, of course, if we define the issues surrounding the Temple Mount as cultural rather than religious -- rather than embodying, as Kedar writes, "first and foremost the extremes of humankind's frenzy."

Miriam Feinberg Vamosh, a member of the editorial staff of Haaretz English Edition, is the author of several books and articles on faith, history, archaeology and heritage in Israel and a tour educator specializing in Christian heritage.

Haaretz Books, January 2010,