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Dome of the Rock, April 2017. Picture by Laurien Vastenhout
By Laurien Vastenhout
During last month’s Pesach, tensions raised in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel. Religious Jews had sacrificed a lamb close to the Temple Mount, an area administered by a Muslim religious trust. A few weeks before, the Israeli High Court had upheld the police decision to block a Passover reenactment on the archeological site close to the Temple Mount. Instead, the group was allowed to have the ceremony at the heart of the Jewish Quarter, outside the Hurva Synagogue, only a few hundred meters way from the Temple Mount. Despite some setbacks– the electricity went out for more than two hours, no famous rabbis attended, and the priests ‘ran out’ of blood from the lamb even before they reached the specially prepared vessels – the activists still rejoiced. This was the first time the reenactment had taken place so close to the Temple Mount. At the end of the same month during Yom HaShoah. Jewish Temple Mount activists hung a protest placard at the entrance to the Temple Mount, protesting against its closure to Jews on Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day. This article examines why the Temple Mount continues to be a recurring source for controversy and struggle, both to Jews and Muslims.
Wandering around the area of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, one can find Jews who are collecting money for ‘the reconstruction of the Temple’. After they have donated money, tourists receive a small red bracelet in return. However, it seems as if many of these tourists do now know that a reconstruction of the Temple unequivocally means that the Dome of the Rock, the Islamic shrine with its characteristic golden cupola, has to be removed first. The Dome of the Rock dates from the 7th century when Caliph Abd al-Malik erected the glorious octagonal building (by then not yet capped by the golden dome). The building is said to house the rock on which Abraham bound Isaac for sacrifice. Also, this was the place where the prophet Mohammed rose from the earth on a winged steed to meet Abraham, Moses and Jesus in heaven. The rock, as the story goes, wanted to follow, but as Mohammed pushed it back to earth, he left a footprint on it which is still to be seen today.
The construction of the Islamic shrine followed centuries of power struggles within the city between, amongst others, Christians, Romans, Jews and Ottoman Muslims. On the exact same place, Herod’s Temple had been standing centuries before, which in turn had replaced the First Temple, Salomon’s Temple. Salomon’s Temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. In 70 C.E. Herod’s ‘second’ Temple*, by then the largest and most awe-inspiring religious monument in the world – glittering with gold and shining white stone –, was destroyed by Titus, the Roman Supreme Military Commander. After two destructions, the Temple would never be resurrected again. To Jews, similar to Muslims, the site is a Holy place. Inside the first Temple, in Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant was located, constructed during the Israelites’ wandering in the Sinaï desert and an important symbol of the Jewish faith. The Ark symbolises the only physical manifestation of God on earth as its construction had been commanded by God to Moses. Although the contents of the Ark have been debated, there is a general consensus that it contained the tablets with the Ten Commandments. To Jews, the Temple is therefore much more than just a building. As a result, the last destruction in 70 C.E. has incited an unprecedented sense of longing and feeling of religious loss.
The destruction of the last Temple has become a symbol of human search for a lost ideal. The rituals that have taken place at this site are recorded in an extraordinary level of detail and show the religious importance and centrality of the site. No wonder that the capture of Jerusalem during the Six-Day-War in 1967 and the subsequent capture of the Temple Mount by the Israelis aroused feelings of excitement. Up until then, the site had been ‘lost’ to the Jews. At the end of this war, Israeli Minister of Defence Moshe Dayan proclaimed that the Israeli government wanted to preserve religious freedom for all faiths in Jerusalem, handing over administrative control of the Temple Mount compound to the Jordanian Waqf – a Jordanian appointed Islamic body – while the overall security of the area was maintained by Israel. Jews could visit the Temple Mount, but were not allowed to have religious services at the site as this is now considered a prayer site for Muslims. This is still the reality today. It should be noted here that Orthodox Jews are not allowed enter the site until the Messias comes **. This is why the Rabbi has forbidden them to enter the site, as a sign at the entrance to the Mount indicates. This clearly illustrates the different ways in which the Temple Mount is approached by various Jewish groups in Israeli society.
Throughout history, the site has incited actions that experts refer to as ‘the Jerusalem Syndrom’ – a religious madness which comes to a head in the shadow of the Temple Mount. In 1969, a non-Jewish Australian tourist set fire to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, situated on the Temple Mount, claiming he was ‘the Lord’s Missionary’. In 1982, an Israeli soldier went on a shooting rampage in the Al-Aqsa mosque because he hoped to become King of the Jews by liberating the spot. The recent actions can be seen in this light as well – extremist groups try to enlarge their authority on the site and feel it is their right to use the site as a place of religious enactment and remembrance. Despite, or because of, their perseverance, rules at the Temple Mount are strict and seem to have become even stricter over the past years – one is not allowed to bring any religious objects to the site, nor to pray on the Temple Mount.
The longing for the lost Temple has resulted in the establishment of Talmud Schools, where scholars are being trained in the rituals of priesthood in case a new Temple is built. Some Rabbis also claim they know the whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant which was located in the First Temple until its destruction. Although organisations such as the “Jerusalem Temple Foundation” or “the Temple Institute” have been in a constant battle with the state of Israel, the recent acquittal of the youngsters who protested at the closure of the site during Yom Hashoah, might indicate that government policies are shifting.
Without doubt, the Temple mount is a symbol that goes to the heart of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Over the past years, the Israeli government has at times closed the entrance to the Temple Mount, claiming that the atmosphere was too tense. In doing so, they withheld Arabs to pray at the site which, in turn, led to serious political tensions and protests. Far more than a physical site, the Temple Mount, on which the Temple itself is ironically absent, has become a spiritual and political site, loaded with meaning. It is a monument of the imagination for the Jews and a the oldest existing religious Islamic monument which is, after Mecca and Medina, the third important religious site to Muslims.
* Depending on whether your count Zerubbabel’s Temple a building in its own right. In 538 BC, Zerubbabel, the leader of the tribe of Judah, was part of the first wave of Jewish captives to return to Jerusalem. He immediately began with the rebuilding of the lost Temple of Solomon. However, he had much fewer resources. There was a group of Jews in Jerusalem who were rather disappointed with the Temple. To their minds, it did not even begin to compare with the splendor of Solomon’s temple.
** Religious Jews do not consider Jesus as the Messias and are still waiting for the coming of the Messias.