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The Temple Mount, Jerusalem, Israel

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The Temple Mount is located in the east part of the old city of Jerusalem. It is a rectangular compound towering over all its surroundings and it houses two of the holiest sites to Moslems, the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa1 mosque. It is the site of the now destroyed Jewish temple. One of the walls, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, is sacred to Jews. The Temple Mount is in the centre of current conflict between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East. This entry will attempt to give some background on the mountain's history.

The Jewish Temple

In the 11th Century BC, David was the King of the Jews, the biggest and most southern tribe of the Israelis. After seven years of civil war, he became the King of all Israelis. Subsequently he conquered the town of Jerusalem from the non-Israeli tribe of the Yevusi.

David turned Jerusalem into his capital (the former capital was Hebron). The reason for this is probably that the city was not affiliated with any Israeli tribe and the fact that it stood on the border between Judea and the rest of the tribes. It was something akin to modern-day Ottawa or Washington; a bit like a federal city.

David's son, Solomon, turned the mountain that towered above the hill of Jerusalem into his Acropolis, building a palace and his famed temple. The Bible indicates that a barn stood on the mount prior to David's Temple though some historians suspect that perhaps a Yevusi temple had stood there.

It was the first time the Israelis had a permanent temple. It was a place for sacrifice. It also hosted the holiest of relics, the Ark of the Covenant which contained the Ten Commandments on two tablets of stone. Solomon outlawed the existence of any other sacrifice centres, so any Israeli wanting to cleanse his sins by sacrifice had to go to Jerusalem (and only Jerusalem), three times a year during the holidays. Thus Solomon created a centre and a symbol for the divided tribes, and a way to consolidate his hold over the kingdom. Even after Solomon's death when the kingdom split into two, Judea and Israel, Jerusalem remained the centre for Jewish life.

In Jewish tradition, many legends became tied to the Temple Mount. One legend said that the creation of the world began from the Temple Mount and that it is the centre of the world. This was before it was common knowledge that the world is a globe and indeed, many old maps of the world show Jerusalem at the centre of the map. Another tradition said that the intended sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham, as told by the Bible, was on this mountain. In 587 BC Jerusalem was captured by Babylon, the temple was destroyed and the Jews went into exile. 70 years later, when Cyrus of Persia vanquished Babylon, the Jews were allowed to go back to Judea and the temple was rebuilt. Only a minority of the Jews returned from exile and the second temple was small and unimpressive. Judea was just a backwater province of the Persian Empire.

After Alexander the Great conquered Judea from the Persians at the end of the 4th Century BC, Judea returned to the forefront of history and with it the Temple Mount. A fight over the status of the temple was the cause of the Jewish revolt against the Selecuid Empire, at the end of which Judea became an independent state. The leaders of the revolt were priests, so now the priests of the temple also became kings and political leaders. This led to the secularisation of the priesthood, and a new spiritual order, the rabbis, came into being and emerged as a rival to the temple hierarchy.

In 63 BC the Roman General entered Jerusalem, and Judea became a subjected kingdom of the Roman Empire. The most famous of the client kings was Herod, who was a great builder and one of his biggest programmes was the renovation of the Temple Mount. Herod built four big walls around the mountain and a big surface between them, turning the mountain into a giant rectangle. On the mountain he built a much more grandiose version of the temple. The current shape of Temple Mount is the shape that Herod gave it.

The improved temple existed for less then a century. Following the revolt of the Jews against the Romans the temple was destroyed in 70 AD. The destruction of the temple threatened the existence of Jewish life, since all of Jewish ritual depended on the existence of the temple. To the rescue came the rabbis who had criticised the way the temple and the priests functioned. They changed the ritual so Jewish customs could continue regardless of the temple. However, the yearning for the rebuilding of the temple became a cornerstone of Jewish prayer, and it was regarded as a mission for the long awaited Messiah.

The Roman rulers, who later converted to Christianity, did not allow Jews to pilgrim to the Temple Mount. Later on, the rabbis themselves forbade Jews to ascend the mountain, saying that at this time and age Jews cannot be pure enough to enter the site of temple. The Jews continued to pray at the site of the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, which is actually one of the support walls Herod built for the Temple Mount compound.

The Muslim Mosques

For many years the Temple Mount remained barren. However, after the Muslims conquered Jerusalem in 638 AD, the Temple Mount gained momentum again. Even though Jerusalem is not mentioned in the Koran, the Muslim tradition ties the ascent of Mohammed to the sky on his horse to the temple. A mosque named Al-Aqsa was built to mark this event on the southern side of the Temple Mount.

The Muslim dynasty of Omayyads that ruled most of the Arab world in the second half of the 7th Century had a quarrel with the rulers of Mecca and Medina, the holiest of Islamic cities. They decided to make Jerusalem, which was nearer their capital Damascus, a counter weight to those cities. They rebuilt Al-Aqsa and also built a magnificent monument, the Dome of the Rock, on the centre of the mountain, on the presumed site of the Jewish temple, and the 'creation rock' from which the legend says the world was created. They also built palaces to the south of the mountain and their actions made Jerusalem the third holiest city of Islam.

The next dynasty, the Abbasids, moved the Arab capital from Damascus to Baghdad and so Jerusalem declined in importance. That is one of reasons the Crusaders were able to take control of Jerusalem in 1099 AD. The Christians did not destroy the Muslim sites, but they did convert them to their use, turning the Dome of the Rock to a church.

The Mamlukes drove the Crusaders out by declaring a Jihad, a holy war, to rescue Jerusalem. They added many buildings to the Temple Mount compound and its surroundings. The next conquerors of Jerusalem, the Muslim Ottomans, added a new surrounding wall to Jerusalem, but being far from their centre in Istanbul, Jerusalem became less important. The decline of the Ottoman Empire from the 18th Century onwards contributed to the continuing decline of Jerusalem.

The Temple Mount and the Arab-Israeli Conflict

The Zionists2 who came to Israel at the end of 19th Century, held Jerusalem as a symbol even though the majority of them were not religious. After the British took control of Palestine in 1918, the Temple Mount and the Western Wall became a point of tension between Jews and Arabs inside the greater conflict for national sovereignty. The Arabs claimed they traditionally held control over the arena before the Western Wall, and the Jewish attempt to put a bench next to the wall during Yom Kippur in 1928 was one of the sources for the Arab revolt of 1929. Following the revolt, the British decided that the Western Wall arena should remain in status quo ie, nothing can be taken out or into the Arena. The Jewish tradition says that on the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a special trumpet called shofar is to be blown. For various reasons, Muslims saw it as a provocation and the British decreed that the shofar was not to be used in the Western Wall. The continual attempts by some Zionist groups to enter the shofar was a constant point of friction.

In the 1948 war3, the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount and the Western Wall was occupied by the Jordanians. Even though the ceasefire agreement between Jordan and Israel said that Jews would have free access to the Wall, this part of the agreement was never implemented. Israeli culture continued to cultivate the yearning for the Western Wall. In the 1967 Six Day War, Israel conquered East Jerusalem including the Temple Mount. For many Israelis it was a dream come true. For Arabs, the defence of Al-Aqsa became a major point in the agenda of the conflict.

In reality, the day to day administration remained in the hands of the Muslim religious organisation, the Waquf, and the overall security in the hands of Israel. Mainstream Jewish thought said that the construction of the next temple on the Temple Mount is a job for the Messiah and not for ordinary people, and Jews are not allowed to climb to the Temple Mount because they are impure. This allowed the situation to remain stable. However, over time, the emergence of extreme, apocalyptic groups has brought trouble. In 1969 a young evangelist Christian set fire to the Al Aqsa mosque and damaged it. In the 1980s, two secret extreme Jewish Organisations, plotted, each on its own, to destroy the Muslim sites. Their plans thankfully came to nothing. In 1990, an attempt by a small Jewish group to ascend the Mount brought on a serious rioting by Muslim worshippers. The rioters threw stones at Jewish prayers at the Western Wall, and stormed a police point on the Temple Mount. Israeli border policemen opened fire at the demonstrators, killing a few. In Palestinian terminology it is known as the 'Al-Aqsa Massacre'. The Israelis call it 'The Temple Mount Riots'.

Even after the Oslo agreements of 1993 between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the Temple Mount remained a source for trouble. Threats to the mosques, real or imagined, were a rallying cause for Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, to bolster his popularity, and strengthen his claims in negotiations with the Israelis.

In 1996, Muslims saw the opening of a tunnel that skirts outside the Mount as a threat to the mosques and, for the first time in recent times, fighting broke out between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The fighting lasted three days, claimed lives on both sides and was known as the 'Tunnel Incidents'. Recently, the status of the Temple Mount became one of main disagreements on the negotiation for a peace settlement in the Middle East. While Jewish traditionalists and most of the Israeli public do not agree to give up control of what they regard the holiest place in Judaism, the Muslim population sees any sign of Israeli sovereignty in the compound as an affront. This is one of the issues currently blocking any advance in the peace talks.

Following rumours that current Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is willing to cede control of the mountain, right wing opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount on 27 September, 2000, trying to make a political statement. The Palestinians, who see Sharon as an extremist and even a war criminal, said this is an unforgivable provocation. The following Friday, just prior to Rosh Hashanah, similar riots to the ones of 1990 broke out. The similarity included stoning of Jews in the Western Wall, and the killing of protesters by police. This was the trigger for the current round of fighting in the Middle East.

1Al-Aqsa literally means 'The Edge'.2Zion is another name for Jerusalem.3This is known in Israel as the Independence War.

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