What happens when the site holiest to Jews is the third holiest site to Muslims and also important to Christians? You get a very volatile spot. It is, however, also a very beautiful one. A tour of the open (and safe) areas of the Temple Mount allows one to be impressed by the history, culture and religion of Islam as well as the always spectacular Jerusalem view.
The topic of our tour is the holiness of Jerusalem to Islam. There are no Jewish ruins on the face of the mountain and we will not be getting into the politics regarding the area.
We begin at the entrance to the Temple Mount at Mugrabi Gate, next to the Western Wall plaza, one of nine open gates of the Temple Mount.
The Temple Mount in its present form was built by Herod during the second temple period and its size today, as it was then is 144 dunams (35.5 acres). More than 100 Islamic buildings were originally built on the site by the Muslims, and building continued by the Crusaders in the seventh century.
It is important to understand the atmosphere in the seventh century in order to understand how Jerusalem became holy to Islam. Umayyad rulers based in Damascus had captured the city from the Christian Byzantines, but it was also a time of struggle between the Umayyad dynasty and their Abbas rivals, based in Mecca and Medina.
In order to use the city as leverage against Christianity and Judaism, and against the Abbas dynasty, the Umayyads set about islamicizing the city. Today, one can see the ruins of the Umayyad palace near the southern wall and adjacent to the Dung Gate (Western Wall excavations).
Mohammad’s final prayer
According to Islamic tradition, Mohammad arrived on the back of a winged horse named “el-Buraq” or “The Lightning.” After tying the horse to the Western Wall (still known in Arabic as “el-Buraq”), Mohammad prayed at al-Aqsa and then ascended to heaven.
The Mosque was initially built as a temporary wooden mosque by the Caliph Omar. In the year 705 it was rebuilt by the Caliph el-Walid of the Umayyad dynasty on Herodian ruins from the second temple period.
Earthquakes forced the rulers in Jerusalem to repair it more than once, and the mosque, one might say, has a lot of patches.
The mosque’s current facade is from the 13th century, from the time of the el-Ayyubid ruler el-Muathim. The facade features characteristic European crosses, due to the Salah al-Din, who conquered the city from the crusaders and was influenced by their building methods. Unfortunately, Jews cannot enter the mosque today.
Every mosque in the world faces Mecca, which is located in Saudi Arabia, therefore this mosque face south. In the center of the prayer wall, known as a “qibla” is a prayer niche, known as a “mihrab.” One can see from the entire expanse of the mount and even adjacent to us, that the elevated “mihrab” are facing south.
In the past, next to the mihrab, a wooden prayer stand was placed that Salah al-Din brought by himself from Damascus. It stood for over 700 years until 1969 when a deranged Australian Christian name Rohan set it on fire.
And it was here that Jordan's King Abdullah was murdered in 1951 was murdered. One of the bullets is still affixed to the marble pillars (The pillars, by the way, are Italian and were donated Benito Mussolini in 1938).
Adjacent to the mosque, to the east in the direction of the southern wall, are the arches that Herod built in order to support the southern area of the plaza which is actually suspended in midair.
This hall of arches was named Solomon’s Stables by the crusaders, because the Templar knights that inhabited the area in the 11th century used it as a stable (and the mosques as churches). Since 1996 there has been a mosque located in the stables called al-Marawani, in memory of the Caliph whose sons built the dome of the rock and whose grandson built the al-Aqsa mosque.
We turn to the north, in the direction of the Dome of the Rock and stop near the adjacent fountain used for drinking and purification before prayers. It was built in the Mamluke period in the 14th century.
We continue up the stairs to the upper section of the complex, through a set of arches called “ma’avzin,” or scales. According to Islamic tradition, people's deeds will be weighed here when they die.
In the center of the arches is an impressive sundial, built at the beginning of the 20th century. The Muslims asked Rabbi Moshe Shapira, a Jewish clock builder, to build a clock for the arch, but as a religious Jew, Shapira would not go up to the Temple Mount (Jewish law precludes entry to the Temple Mount in a state of ritual impurity).
When the offers turned into threats, Shapira moved to Petah Tikva and never returned to Jerusalem. The clock was built by someone else.
We continue up the stairs to the Dome of the Rock, called Qubbat as-Sakhrahin in Arabic, in all its glory. To the east is a small domed building called the Dome of the Chain, Qubbat as-Salsalah in Arabic.
Others say this building was used to collect funds for the upkeep of the Temple Mount.
According to Islamic tradition, King David sat here, next to the Temple, to judge his nation with the help of a “miracle chain” that hung off the roof of the building. During crusader times, the building was used as a church in memory of Jacob, Jesus’ brother, who, according to the Armenians, is buried in the Armenian Quarter.
According to one Jewish tradition, this is the place both where Jacob had his famous dream about the ladder (Gen. 28:10) and where the tablets of the Ten Commandments are hidden.
The Dome of the Rock was built in the year 691 by the Caliph, Abdul al-Malik, who also built the first Arab city, Ramle, the capital city at the time. It is one of the oldest complete buildings in the Middle East.
True it is “only” 1300 years old, but eight supporting walls and its being built on the “noble rock”, have kept it in excellent condition.
Many books have mistakenly referred to the site as the Mosque of Omar. It just isn’t true. When the Caliph Omar conquered the city from the Christian Byzantines in the year 638, he asked the Patriarch Sophronius to take him to the holiest place in Jerusalem.
Sophronius tried to trick him and take him to the Church of the Holy Sepulture, but not to be fooled, Omar explained that if he prayed there it would become a mosque and both religions would always fight over it.
The Caliph's answer was simple: he left the church, laid a prayer mat on the floor and prayed, and today there is a mosque with a nice turret next to the church with “Omar’s Mosque" written on its gates.
From there the Caliph continued to the Temple Mount and cleaned the holy rock inside the building with his cape. Thus, the Mosque of Omar mistake.
But the Dome of the Rock was actually built to protect from the rock, which Muslims believe is the foundation stone of the entire world and is also where the bible says Abraham nearly slaughtered his son, Isaac.
The ceramic blue pattern that adorns the outside walls dates to the 16th century, and the golden dome itself was redone in 1994, with 80 kilograms of gold, donated by Jordan and Saudi Arabia at a cost of USD 15 million. Special gold alloy was used to cover the dome so it wouldn't be too shiny and cause temporary blindness.
Inside the building, off limits to Jews, is the "noble rock." The face of the mount has changed over the years, but there is little doubt that the Dome of the Rock stands on the site of the Temple.
In one of the upper corners of the rock, is a wood box in the shape of a tower, which holds, according to tradition, the footprint of Mohammad. According to Islamic tradition, King Solomon is buried next to this gate.
Below the noble rock, is a cave where Mohammed is said to have prayed. The ‘mihrab’ adjacent to the steps on the right (going down) was dedicated to King Solomon and believed to be one of the first prayer niches in the Muslim world. On the floor of the cave is a marble plaque and below it, according to the locals, is where many treasures from the temple are hidden.
The Temple Mount is open to visitors (without reservations and for free) on Sunday - Thursday between the hours of 7:30 and 10:00 a.m.