A location in Jerusalem revered by several religions regularly appears in the news in connection with the constant clashes happening there.
What is the Temple Mount? Why is it so called and how did it become a point of constant tension?
What is the Temple Mount?
It is an elevated rectangular site in Jerusalem dominating the rest of the Old City. There are two buildings on it, the Dome of the Rock (a building with a large gilded dome) and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. On the western slope of the mountain the so-called Wailing Wall (one of the main Jewish shrines) is located.
Is the “Temple” part of the name related to the mosque?
No, the name comes from the now lost Jerusalem Temple – the main Jewish sanctuary of the Old Testament. During an epidemic that once struck Jerusalem, King David (10th century BC) bought from a local resident a plot of land with Mount Moriah in its center, and built a sacrificial altar on it. After the king made sacrifices there, the epidemic stopped. Then under the reign of David’s son Solomon (970-930 BC) a temple was built on the mountain, which became the sacred center of the ancient Jewish faith.
Was the Temple something similar to a modern cathedral?
No, it was a grandiose complex, kind of a “city within a city” occupying a significant area with its many functional spaces and adjacent premises. Several times the temple was rebuilt and literally risen from the ruins. It was completely destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. and rebuilt anew during the Persian rule in 516 BC. Its last large-scale reconstruction was undertaken by King Herod in 22 BC.
How did the Temple end up disappearing from the mountain?
During the first Jewish war, in 70 AD, after the capture of Jerusalem by the Romans, the temple was completely destroyed and burned. Only a few of its buildings remained, including the Western Wall, known today as the Wailing Wall, which remains the main Jewish shrine to this day.
How did the mosques get here?
After the capture of Jerusalem by the Arabs in 638, the sacred status of the Temple Mount was revived. In Islamic religious topography, the Temple Mount is associated both with the Jerusalem temple and the place where Ibrahim (aka Abraham in the biblical tradition) was going to sacrifice his eldest son Ishmael, born of an Egyptian concubine (in the Bible, Abraham was supposed to sacrifice Isaac, born by his lawful wife Sarah). The construction of the Qubbat aṣ-Ṣakhra (Arabic: Dome of the Rock) on the mountain in 687-691 served as a symbolic restoration of the Jerusalem Temple. The building forms a single architectural complex with the Al-Aqsa mosque.
Al-Aqsa often appears in the news related to the clashes. Why?
Despite being much simpler than Qubbat as-Ṣakhra, Al-Aqsa surpasses it in its sacred status. Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad was transferred to this place from Mecca in 620 and from there ascended to heaven. Since then, the Al-Aqsa Mosque (and with it the entire Temple Mount) has become the third most important shrine of the Muslim world (after Mecca and Medina) directly related to the preaching of the Prophet Muhammad.
What is the significance of the Temple Mount in Christianity?
Christianity did not inherit from the Old Testament the view of the Temple Mount as a unique place. In a conversation with the Samaritan woman, Jesus Christ unequivocally rejects the need to tie the worship of God to a specific place. When asked whether the Lord should be worshipped on Mount Gerizim, as the Samaritans did, or in the Jerusalem temple, He answers: “believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. <… > the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth…” (John 4: 21-23). For this reason, during the Byzantine period in the history of the Middle East, the Temple Mount was desolate and did not play an important role in Christian culture and tradition.
Isn’t the mountain still directly related to the events of the Gospel?
Yes, it is closely connected with events from the life of Jesus Christ, who with His disciples repeatedly visited the Jerusalem temple; the Mother of God, who in childhood, according to legend, entered here into the Holy of Holies (a sacred place where the high priest could enter only once a year); and also with the beginning of the history of the early Christian community (the first Christians with the Jewish background continued to gather here, in the “porch of Solomon”). In this sense, the mountain has a significance for Christians as a place that keeps memories of the earthly life of the Savior, the Mother of God, the apostles and the first steps of the New Testament Church.
What happened to the Temple Mount in the 20th century?
Until the beginning of the 20th century, the territories of modern Israel and Palestine were part of the Ottoman Empire. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East during the First World War, Jerusalem came under the control of the British occupation authorities. Until 1948, the Temple Mount was under the supervision of the British Islamic Religious Committee, which had the Waqf (inalienable charitable endowment under Islamic law) right to this land.
How did the Arab-Israeli wars affect the Temple Mount?
After the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948-1949, Jerusalem was divided into Western and Eastern parts. East Jerusalem and the entire Old City came under Jordanian control. As a result of the 1967 Six Day War, Israel united both parts of Jerusalem under its rule. At the same time, the Waqf right of the Islamic Religious Committee to the Temple Mount was confirmed. The Kingdom of Jordan was the guarantor of this status.
Who can pray on the Temple Mount, and who cannot?
In 1994, under the terms of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, Jordan received the status of a defender of the Islamic shrines in Jerusalem. In 1993-1995 the Palestinian-Israeli agreements were signed in Oslo, according to which the Palestinians received the right to control the Temple Mount, and Israel was responsible for maintaining order and security on it and in the adjacent areas. According to the achieved status quo, only Muslims have the right to pray and perform religious rites on the Temple Mount. Representatives of other religions are allowed to visit the mountain at certain hours, but are prohibited from displaying any religious symbols and objects of worship.
If everyone agreed among themselves, why does the Temple Mount remain a point of conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians?
Despite the agreement on the status of the Temple Mount, the conflict itself remains. Historical memory, saturated with the dramatic history of entire nations, continues to fuel national, religious and political tensions in the Middle East. Although the actual center of confrontation is usually focused in the Gaza Strip, the Temple Mount often becomes its symbolic center, since it contains the sacred meanings of the world religions represented by the many generations of people inhabiting these lands. It is a kind of a valve reaction occurring when the conflict temperature reaches the boiling point.
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