Twilight Zone / Sentimental Journey

A rare look inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock and Solomon's Stables.

The Taj Mahal is here! You don't have to go as far as India to enjoy a spectacular architectural structure, you don't have to fly to the East to taste the flavor of holiness - it's enough to travel to East Jerusalem. Although entry to Israelis is still forbidden, the Waqf (the Muslim trust that is custodian of the Temple Mount) is now considering reopening the sacred compound on the Temple Mount, including the mosques, to Israeli tourists as well, perhaps after our holidays, perhaps after the holy month of Ramadan. When the gates are opened, Israelis will also be able to see the marvels there, after a relatively short trip from home.

Five years ago, the country was in an uproar. A petition with many signatories protested the destruction of antiquities on the Temple Mount, as a result of the construction of a new mosque in Solomon's Stables. "On the Temple Mount a serious act of vandalism and irreversible archaeological destruction is taking place," it said. "A huge pit has been dug by tractors, and thousands of tons of earth containing a large quantity of findings have been spilled into the municipal dump." That was the only document ever signed jointly by Ariel Sharon and Amos Oz, Yehuda Amichai and Silvan Shalom, Amos Kenan and Benny Elon, A.B. Yehoshua and Meir Dagan, S. Yizhar and Moshe Arens.

The dozens of signatories described the act as "an archaeological crime." Some of them had never protested any other crime, and the vast majority had not visited the area in question in recent years and had not seen with their own eyes what was arousing such fury. A few months after the publication of the petition a visitor did nevertheless arrive at the mount - a man by the name of Ariel Sharon. His visit incited a major conflagration, which even today threatens to ignite not only the Temple Mount, but the entire region. But no petition was published against that act of incitement and destruction.

One archaeologist stood up against all of the protesters back then, trying to plug the dyke with his finger. Meir Ben-Dov wrote at the time in Haaretz: "The outcry and the protest are over no thing ... It's strange, but the ease of signing is a cheap commodity at present ... In the excavations of the Ministry of Religious Affairs near the Western Wall, worse things are being done, in archaeological terms ... The Waqf has archaeologists at its disposal, and moreover, an archaeological preservationist, Issam Awad, one of the best in Jerusalem, whose work has been highly praised by professionals in Israel and the world over ... The outcry against the activities of the Waqf in the Temple Mount compound has no leg to stand on, and in the end, even those who are fighting against the project will praise it."

Last week, we joined Ben-Dov and a group of Israeli scholars, archaeologists and historians from several local universities who received special permission from the Waqf to visit the compound, almost without restrictions. We can breathe easy: The sacred compound is beautifully preserved. There are not many sites in Israel whose preservation is so careful and so beautiful.

Two armed bodyguards are accompanying two religious Jewish children on their way to school, one in front and one in back, one with a black eagle drawn on his back. Early morning in the alleys of the Old City. We have to hurry to reach the Temple Mount, because the Muslim prayer service begins at 11 A.M., and then the mosques are closed to visitors. Nevertheless, Ben-Dov does not miss a single stone along the way, and doesn't skip a single story about it. A khan, he says, is not what you thought: The source of the word is not related to hanaya in Hebrew (literally, parking), but "ruling" - it's khan as in Genghis Khan, a wayside inn owned by the ruling authority.

"It is forbidden to throw garbage after 6:30, offenders will be punished," proclaims a municipal sign, and the Old City is filthy. The cameras that peer from every corner ensure security, but not cleanliness.

Our entry to the Temple Mount via the Chain Gate, which is meant for Muslims only, is delayed. "Twenty-two A from Two: There's a group of Jews here," chirps the police intercom. Autumn sunlight floods the Temple Mount, bathing it in beauty. Only the many fire hydrants scattered around the compound, and the police forces, remind anyone who has forgotten that this is a highly flammable area. We descend the steps via the Double Gate, the western Hulda's Gate, to carpet-upholstered tunnels that touch the southern wall. Ben-Dov is subversive here as well: It is impossible for Hulda the Prophetess, after whom the gate may be named, he explains, to have prophesied here, because the gate dates back to the Second Temple period, and she lived during the First Temple period. It is also impossible that her grave is here: Ben-Dov has excavated, and he didn't find it. Therefore, he prefers the zoological explanation for the name hulda (rat), because of the need to descend into a tunnel there. There are written references supporting that from some early century.

The Waqf escort, a big-bellied Palestinian, hovers around us nervously. At 10 he has a visit sponsored by the World Bank, and his time is short. All during the visit he rushed us, whether because of the World Bank orbecause we were the only Israelis in Al-Aqsa. After 1967, Ben-Dov came here and discovered a dark heap of junk. Now he and his researchers arediscussing weighty questions about the original nature of the columns and the material from which they are constructed. He discovered years ago that they are made of stone rather than stucco, which is plaster. We, the laymen, admire the elongated, beautiful spaces.

Making our way down beneath the Al-Aqsa Mosque, that sacred and charged place, the floor of the mosque now becomes our ceiling. "There's someone who has published that these are Muslim ornamentations. They aren't," Ben-Dov declares. "Only two columns and their capitals are a Muslim addition." The belly of the Waqf man quivers, his face becomes covered with beads of sweat. "Explain everything to them outside," he says. "Folks, you have to leave now." All in vain. Ben-Dov: "The great debate is whether these domes are original, or a Muslim addition. And then the question is why isn't the dome decorated. The debate continues."

Christian pilgrims from the Far East fill the square above. The Temple Mount compound was opened to tourists only a few months ago, after it had been closed since that successful visit by Sharon and everything that followed in its wake. We go all the way inside the mosque, the third-holiest place for one billion Muslims, after Mecca and Medina, and the holiest place for millions of Palestinians in Israel and abroad. There is no Palestinian home without a picture of this building, there is no Palestinian prisoner who hasn't built a model of it from cardboard and wood.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque is empty at this early hour. Our feet sink quietly into the thick carpets, and Ben-Dov explains the activities aimed at renovating and preserving the mosque, which have greatly intensified in recent years. "Their (the Waqf's) preservationists are among the best we have in Israel, money is no object, and the work is well done." Here the conqueror Caliph Omar visited in the year 638 C.E., as a tourist who had come to see the scenes of his conquest, and the sanctity of the city to Muslims came only at a later date. "Finish quickly, as quickly as possible," the Waqf escort says again angrily. Omar's adviser, Ka'ab al-Akhbar - a Jewish convert to Islam - removed his shoes here, and Omar asked him: "What happened to you? You're no longer a Jew, so why are you removing your shoes in a holy place?"