Twilight Zone / Sentimental Journey

And that is how we are standing now, like all Muslims in every mosque, barefoot in the holy mosque. But that was not enough to sanctify Jerusalem, it was necessary to link Mohammed to the city in order to truly sanctify it, and thus was born the story about the prophet's ascent to heaven from the Temple Mount. In this story there is no mention of addresses, explains Ben Dov, it only says: the "furthest mosque." The "furthest mosque" (al-aqsa, in Arabic) was apparently in the country that is today Saudi Arabia, definitely not here, but legends have no addresses and no borders, and the then-ruined mount was restored and sanctified for Muslims. In 670 or 680, it's not clear exactly when, a French tourist came here and reported seeing a large wooden shrine, with room for 3,000 worshipers. That is the first extant evidence of the structure. In 711, the place was turned by the Umayyads into a mosque that was three times larger than the original building.

The interior space is huge even today, in the mosque that was rebuilt after the original one was destroyed in an earthquake in 750. The ceiling is breathtaking, as are the red carpets; everything is well kept and preserved. During the Crusader period, the building served as a church, until Saladdin's arrival. Downstairs in the basement there is a preacher's stand dating back to the time of Saladdin; the political time has not yet come to take it out of mothballs. A feather lies on the carpet, its whiteness stands out on the red background. There are pigeons in the recesses of this mosque.

The dome was built by the same method that we have used, but with date-palm fibers. The stained-glass windows are breathtaking; they were recently restored with great artistry. Ben-Dov emphasizes again: "The best preservation work in the country is done here." And there is also a clearly unholy window next to one of the columns of the mosque, featuring a heap of the remains of sooty ordnance that the Israeli soldiers and policemen fired during the Temple Mount riots. Bullet casings, bullets, weapons of destruction. "Enough, you have to leave," scolds the Waqf man, just when we are standing next to this tiny commemorative shrine. A row of clocks points to prayer times, like clocks of the world at the reception desk of a luxury hotel.

The building opposite, the Dome of the Rock, is not a mosque. But, says Ben-Dov, "in the eyes of any believer from Indonesia, the entire compound is considered Al-Aqsa." A group of policemen in civilian dress crosses the square on a study tour, while a group of Polish pilgrims listens silently to the explanations of a guide, who is holding up an umbrella, like all tour guides. One group is talking about security, the other about faith. "Should I send you a summary of the latest dig at Sussita? Are you interested?" one archaeologist asks another. We are already at the focus of the uproar, Solomon's Stables.

"Faster, Mr. Meir," urges our Muslim friend, just when Ben-Meir is trying to prove that no damage was caused to Solomon's Stables during the work of renovation and expansion done there: "What didn't they shout? That the Western Wall was going to fall, and that its stones were swelling. A respected professor determined that the swelling in the wall was a result of the work being done by the Waqf in Solomon's Stables. But what is the connection between the Western Wall and Solomon's Stables?"

Palestinian laborers are still working on renovating the huge columns in this vast subterranean space, which has now been restored as a mosque. "Al-Aqsa al-Qadima" - ancient Al-Aqsa - is what the place was called already in the seventh century, and now the Muslims wanted to restore the structure to its former glory, and to open a mosque here once again. After completing the renovations, they wanted to open new entrances in the three arches in the wall, for security reasons, to provide a convenient exit for the masses. These earthworks upset the signers of the petition. The Israeli government finally approved the opening of two of the three arches, which have new stone steps leading down to them, and stylized street lamps illuminating them at night.

Ben-Dov: "They took earth out of here with tractors, and there was a huge outcry. Never mind that when I work with tractors, they complain that I'm destroying the antiquities of our land, but here no damage was caused. A tool is a tool, the question is how it is operated. Didn't [archaeologist Nahman] Avigad work with tractors? But here it's forbidden. It caused an uproar. Now they are sifting through the earth, and what discoveries have they found? Mameluke findings? There's nothing there. Everything that Saladdin threw around, here and there, and some Israeli ceramics as well. So what? At digs you sometimes throw things out, you have to compromise. How can anyone say that they are destroying Jewish remains here, when they are not destroying Jewish remains? Soon we'll see who is destroying and who isn't," he says.

Upset, Ben-Meir removes from his bag a photograph of an ancient stone column with beautiful ornamentation, an archaeological artifact in Jerusalem that was vandalized by settlers several years ago. "A group of settlers came in, sons of bitches, and damaged it with chisels. It's annoying." And here is a stone from Second Temple times, which is embedded at the bottom of one of the walls of Solomon's Stables. "And this they preserved."

The view of the golden-capped Dome of the Rock from inside is one of the most breathtaking on earth. The Jews say that the gray rock inside is the foundation stone of the Holy of Holies, the Muslims say that it is the exact site of Mohammed's ascent to heaven - and meanwhile, amazingly beautiful, the large rock rests here, indifferent to the debate, surrounded by its stylized building.

"Go outside," signals an elderly Muslim with his hand, although it's not clear where he meant that we should go.

The Dome of the Rock was built in 691. Ben-Dov explains that it is impossible that the Holy of Holies was here - where are we and where is the Temple? The Temple was 20 cubits wide, which is about 10 meters, and the rock before us is 17 meters long. It wouldn't fit. The location doesn't work out either. While he deciphers the issue of the red heifer - whose ashes are needed in order to rebuild the Temple - a young Muslim women shoves her hand into a recess in the fence that surrounds the rock. There is a belief that hairs from the beard of the prophet Mohammed lie there, and pushing in one's hand brings a cure and other blessings.

Water that penetrated the Dome of the Rock through the rivets connecting the metal covering of the building has created black spots of fungus in the ceiling. Now they are working to repair this, too. The late King Hussein donated 8 million pounds sterling for renovating the dome. The carpets are a gift of Morocco's King Hassan, but other carpets donated by the king of Morocco are gathering dust in the storage rooms: They are decorated by five-pointed stars that may somehow resemble Stars of David.

There is a pile of earth at the edge of the compound: This is the sacred earth that was excavated from Solomon's Stables below, and has been lying here for three years, by order of the High Court of Justice. Maybe some important remains are concealed in it. Meanwhile, a greenish bottle of Sprite, the wrapping of a Nesher cement bag and pieces of an old newspaper are scattered on the holy earth that cannot be cleared away. A group of Palestinian men crosses the compound, walking quickly. On a decorated wooden stretcher they are carrying a corpse to a funeral. An old woman rises from her wheelchair, supported by her son, trying with the last of her strength to ascend to the holy mount. At Mercy Gate, which can be seen below, there is a police outpost, just in case there is an incident - which will definitely take place, eventually.