The Temple Mount
The Temple Mount, especially seen from the Mount of Olives, is Jerusalem’s most iconic landscape.
The Temple Mount occupies roughly 1/6th of the land area of Jerusalem Old City, but it doesn’t actually fit into any of the four quarters. The Temple Mount, as it has stood for the past 2,000 years, isn’t even a mountain, but rather a man-made platform. The ‘platform’, the largest in the classical world, was built by Herod, who erected a network of vaults and arches to create an expansive plaza around the Temple. The Western Wall is one of the retaining walls of this platform.
The site is holy to both Jews and Moslems. According to some Jewish traditions, the Foundation Stone, the rock under the Dome of the Rock, was where Abraham brought Isaac to be sacrificed, while Moslems claim he brought his older son Ishmael instead. There are both Jewish and Islamic traditions that revere the Rock as the foundation or, alternately, navel of the world.
The Temple Mount was the site of Judaism’s two Temples, the first one built by Solomon and the second one built by Ezra and later remodeled by Herod. In the 1st century B.C.E. Herod extended the natural hill by building a network of vaults and arches. By doing, he transformed the “Mount” into the largest man-made platform in the classical world.
For most of the past 1,300 years the Temple Mount has been a Moslem holy place called Haram Esh-Sharif or the Noble Sanctuary. Its two main shrines, the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, dedicated to the Night Journey of Mohammed, made Jerusalem Islam’s third holiest city. The Crusaders converted these shrines into churches, but with the restoration of Moslem rule in 1187 they went back to being Islamic holy places.
Visiting the Temple Mount/Haram Esh-Sharif
Non-Muslim visitors must enter the Temple Mount through the Mugrabi Gate, at the top of the ramp between the Western Wall and Dung Gate after first passing through a security check. Visiting hours are from 07:30-10:00 and from 12:30-13:30, but it is worth double checking since they change periodically and do not always correspond to summer/winter times in the rest of Israel. Modest dress is required. It is forbidden to bring weapons or religious articles onto the Temple Mount. Religious Jews should note that access to most of Temple Mount is limited due to religious restrictions pertaining to the holiness of Temple Mount.
The ramp leads to the Mughrabi or North African Gate.
Al Aqsa Mosque & the Dome of the Rock
Entering and walking east, two buildings dominate the landscape, the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque. Currently, non-Moslem visitors are not allowed to enter either Al Aqsa or the Dome of the Rock. It is likely that this will change sometime soon, since non-Moslems were permitted into these shrines as recently as 11 years ago. The exteriors of the buildings are quite remarkable themselves and worth examining.
Al Aqsa was first built as a stone mosque, replacing an earlier wooden structure, in 705 C.E. by the Omayyad Caliph El Walid. Destroyed twice by earthquakes, the current building was erected by the Fatimid ruler Ez-Zahir in the 11th century. Its façade was later embellished with arches, columns and other decorative elements by the Crusaders and Mamlukes. Al Aqsa is usually considered as the third holiest Islam site after Mecca and Medina.
The Dome of the Rock was built in 691 by the Omayyad Caliph Abdel Malik. While its dome has been replaced on several occasions, the building itself is a perfect Octagon that hasn’t moved or distorted since it was first built at the end of the 7th century – quite extraordinary given that the nearby Al Aqsa Mosque has been destroyed twice by earthquakes. Originally covered by a wall mosaic, its exterior was resurfaced with colorful ceramic tiles in the 16th century by the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.
Other sites on the Temple Mount
Besides its two most famous edifices, the Temple Mount abounds with numerous other sites. Here are a few worth seeing:
El Kas – It is a large stone goblet-shaped ritual washing fountain that was built in 1320 by a Mamluke governor of Damascus named Emir Tankiz. It is located in the plaza between Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock.
The El Marwani Mosque and Solomon’s Stables – Located near the southeast corner of the Temple Mount is a large pit excavated in recent years as an entry into the El Marwani Mosque. This most recent mosque was built by in part of a subterranean chamber known by way of a misnomer as Solomon’s Stables. Solomon’s Stables is actually the network of vaults and arches first built by Herod to support the Temple Mount plaza/platform. The pit, whose construction destroyed numerous antiquities, affords a view of the arches of Solomon’s Stables.
El Qanatir (“The Arches”) – Located around the edges of the platform around the Dome of the Rock, El Qanatir is a series of free standing arcades built by the 14th century Mamluke ruler El Nasser Mohammed Ibn Qalaun. There is a sundial on the southern arcade that was once used for setting prayer times.
The Dome of the Chain – It is an 11-sided cupola located just east of the Dome of the Rock. Local Moslem legend claims that King David used to sit in Judgment next to this dome in which a chain dangled from its ceiling. Persons telling the truth could reach out and touch the chain while those who were lying could not.