The History of the Temple Mount (Part One)

Part 1: The Temple Mount and the Jewish Temple

The Temple Mount is an important holy site for both Judaism and Islam and, for this reason, has served as a continuing source of conflict between the two religions. To truly understand what this conflict is about and why the Temple Mount is so important to these religions, one must examine the location’s rich and lengthy history. What is so sacred about this place that has led Jerusalemites to endure stone throwing, stabbings, and the premeditated vehicular manslaughter of innocents?

Anyone who has followed the news from Israel, and out of Jerusalem in particular, is aware that the past few weeks has seen great unrest in the city, with hostilities threatening to boil over. If one were to put aside all of the other reasons for the fighting (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a whole as well as socio-economic triggers), part of the battle specifically being waged in Jerusalem is the battle over the Temple Mount. Although the Waqf, the Islamic Trust, controls the Temple Mount and has so for hundreds of years, the Israeli police force decides who can ascend to the Mount. During times of unrest, the police can forbid Muslim men of certain ages from entering the Mount for prayers. This precaution is often taken to prevent riots on the Temple Mount and to stop young rioters from throwing stones down onto Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall. The Wafq also exerts its power over the Mount and has forbidden all non-Muslims from praying on the Mount. Do not attempt to enter the Temple Mount carrying the Old or New Testament. And, for the past ten years, the Waqf has also prevented non-Muslims from entering the Dome of the Rock and the Al Asqa Mosque, places non-Muslim tourists were once allowed to visit.

Unfortunately, the greatest tragedy in this fight for control, and one that has infuriated not only Israelis but the worldwide archeological community as well, is the blatant attempt by the Waqf to erase traces of Jewish history on the Temple Mount. More on this accusation further along in the article. In all, the Temple Mount stands as an explosive factor within the greater frustrations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and it often serves as a trigger for the eruption of hostilities between Israel’s Jewish and Muslim populations. Making the situation even more volatile, such eruptions have the potential to cause a larger conflict between these religious groups and lead to a dispute well beyond the ‘simplicities’ of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And now, a bit of history.

The Jewish religion refers to the Temple Mount as Har HaBayit, the Mountain of the House, i.e. the Temple, and Har Moriah, Moriah Mountain. Muslims refer to the location as Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary.

For Jews, the Temple Mount is the most sacred place on earth because it is (for believers) the location of the foundation stone from which God created the earth. It is also believed to be where the story of the binding of Isaac unfolded. For these reasons, it was on this place that both the First and Second Temples were constructed. Over the foundation stone stood the “Holy of Holies,” the room within the Temple where the spirit of God resided.

The bible tells us that King David purchased the land where the Temple Mount now stands to build an altar to God, replacing the Tabernacle. David’s son, Solomon then replaced this structure with a grander building that we refer to as the First Temple of Jerusalem. This Temple was destroyed during the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BCE and the Jewish inhabitants of the city were exiled to Babylonia. Upon the exiles return from their Diaspora, they rebuilt the Temple, which was completed in 516 BCE. This was the Second Temple, but it is not the Temple whose remains we see today in the archeological park around the Temple Mount.

In 19 CE King Herod undertook a massive renovation and expansion of the Second Temple, doubling the size of the area around the Temple, an area referred to as the Temple Mount. To create this mount, he flattened out the northern end of Mount Moriah, where he built the Antonia Fortress. On the southern end of Mount Moriah, where there was a valley, he built a series of buttress walls and vaults and filled them in with earth and rubble from the northern end of the mountain. In all, he leveled out the area to create one flat surface, which today we know as the Temple Mount. The massive retaining walls around the Mount, including the famous Western Wall, help to hold the Mount together. Jews have claimed the western retaining wall as a place for prayer post-Temple because it is believed to be the place closest to the location of the Holy of Holies within the Temple, without actually ascending to the Temple Mount.

During the Second Temple period, the southern section of the Mount was the commercial center of the area and was where pilgrims came to exchange goods and money and to cleanse themselves in a mikvah before ascending to the Temple Mount. The story of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers would have unfolded in this area.

Jewish control over the Temple Mount ended in 70 CE when the Romans, in response to the Jewish revolt against their rule, destroyed the Temple, its surroundings and the entire city of Jerusalem. Many of the remains of this destruction can still be viewed in the city today.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this article: Roman, Crusader and Muslim Jerusalem.

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