Temple Mount/Al Haram Ash Sharif
There are few patches of ground as holy or disputed as this one. Known to Muslims as Al Haram Ash Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary) and to Jews as Har HaBayit (Temple Mount), this elevated cypress-planted plaza in the southeastern corner of the Old City is home to two of Islam’s most sacred buildings – the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque – and is revered by Jews as the location of the First and Second Temples. Queue early and dress appropriately.
For visitors uninvolved in the site’s politics, Temple Mount/Al Haram Ash Sharif is a place for silent awe – after the initial queues and thorough security checks. The flat, paved area spreads across 140 acres, fringed with attractive Mamluk buildings, and the Dome of the Rock is roughly positioned in its center. Walking around this storied site is a proper contrast to the noise and congestion of the alleyways. Today, the compound is the most significant public space in East Jerusalem, so along with praying, children play football, and adults come to relax.
The Talmud states that it was here, on a large slab of rock protruding from the ridge of Mt Moriah, that God gathered the earth used to form Adam and that biblical figures such as Adam, Cain, Abel, and Noah all performed ritual sacrifices. The most well-known account appears in Genesis (22:1–19): as a test of faith, Abraham was instructed by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, but at the 11th hour, an angel appeared, and a ram was sacrificed instead. The Bible states that David later erected an altar here (Samuel 24:18–25).
Although no archaeological traces have been found in situ (and it is unlikely that any will ever be found; excavations are out of the question because of religious sensitivities), Solomon is said to have erected the First Temple on the site of David’s altar. The Talmud says that Solomon’s Temple took 7½ years to complete, but for reasons unknown, it stood unused for 13 years. When it was finally consecrated, Solomon placed the Ark of the Covenant inside and celebrated with a seven-day feast.
After weathering several raids, the Temple was destroyed in 587 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon. Initially rebuilt by order of Zorobabel, who Cyrus II had made governor of Judea after the Persian defeat of the Babylonians, it was then replaced by an essentially new and much-extended Second Temple, built by order of Herod the Great (r 39–4 BCE). Herod upgraded the site by making a wall around the mount and filling it with rubble, leveling off the enormous plaza that can be seen today. The giant stones holding up Temple Mount (e.g., in the Western Wall) weigh more than 500 tonnes.
Jews coming to Temple Mount approached from the south. Pilgrims were required to enter a mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) for purification purposes before ascending the steep steps; one has been preserved in the nearby Jerusalem Archaeological Park. Inscriptions on stones warned that any gentile entering the mount would do so on pain of death. Only the high priest could enter the Temple’s inner sanctum; he did so once a year on Yom Kippur.
Any civic improvements made by Herod were for naught, however, as the Second Temple was almost destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.
Despite the destruction they had wrought, the Romans, too, felt a spiritual affinity for Temple Mount and erected a temple to Zeus that was later turned into a Christian church.
Fast forward to the mid-7th century in Mecca, in what is now Saudi Arabia, where the Prophet Muhammad is believed to have announced to his fellow Meccans that in a single night he had travelled to the ‘farthest mosque’ and led other prophets in prayers. Although Muhammad did not mention Jerusalem by name, the farthest mosque was interpreted to be at Al Haram Ash Sharif, thus making Jerusalem a holy place for Muslims (in fact, Islam’s third-holiest place after Mecca and Medina). The site was left desolate under the Byzantines, for whom its religious significance was waning. But when Caliph Omar accepted the surrender of the city in 638 CE, his interest in Temple Mount/Al Haram Ash Sharif was immediately obvious, and he set about erecting a simple mosque. This was later replaced by the Dome of the Rock (c 691 CE) and Al Aqsa Mosque (c 705–15 CE).