The Temple Mount is by far the holiest site to Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem’s Old City. Indeed, it is the holiest site for both these faiths in the entire city of Jerusalem, some will say – the entire Holy Land, and some will say – the entire Middle East, perhaps even the entire world.
Since when is this mount so important? Who deemed it so holy, when and why? We’re not sure. But it happened before Islam was born, even before Jews arrived in the city. It probably began with local tribes who inhabited the mountainous area we now call “Jerusalem” over 3000 years ago, even more. Temple Mount back then did not have the artificial, rectangular and leveled shape it now has. It was a proper mount, not too tall and not too wide, surrounded by more imposing hills all around. On its peak was a large slab of natural, limestone bedrock, closing over a small subterranean cave.
We now think that some local king or priest was buried in that cave – as was the custom (we know it from other places) – which is what sanctified it in the first place. The Bible tells us that Arauna the Jebusite, the local king who ruled the area when King David, the second king over the ancient Israelites, captured Jerusalem some around 1000 BCE, used the flat stone over the cave as a threshing floor.
As much as we could gather, it was under King David that the stone itself became holy to the ancient Israelites (who later were to gradually evolve into what we can now call “Jews”). It was probably during that time that, in order to give Jerusalem the desired sacredness and legitimacy for political considerations, an ancient tradition was attached to the very stone. According to that oral tradition, it was on that very stone that our common Abraham was commanded by the Lord to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. This meant that the stone – and the mount it was on, Mount Moriah – were sacred. David’s son and heir, King Solomon, built a Jewish temple on the small mount, the sacredness of which was upheld to varying degrees by subsequent Israelite monarchs. The Holy of Holies – the Temple’s innermost sanctuary – was the holy stone, on which King Solomon placed the Ark of the Covenant.
New traditions were born, or at least came to be associated with the stone: it was the center of the world and the starting point of its creation, it was where Adam was created and later buried, and so on.
Over time the Jewish temple was destroyed by invading armies, rebuilt and destroyed again to make way for an “upgraded” temple. Some 2000 years ago, just before the time of Christ, Temple Mount itself was “redesigned” in such a way as to double its surface area, allowing for that bigger and more imposing Temple. But this Temple was short-lived: In the year 70 AD it was destroyed as Jews rebelled against the occupying Roman army. It was never rebuilt, and the date of its destruction constitutes one of the saddest days in the Jewish calendar, a day of mourning and fasting.
We are not entirely sure what happened next. We have good reason to believe that a Roman pagan shrine was built on the site of the Temple as a way to profess Roman victory over the Jews. But when the Roman Empire embraced the Christian faith, around the year 325 AD, and the pagan shrine was destroyed, was it replaced by a Christian shrine? After all, there are important traditions linking Jesus to Temple Mount. But to date no such shrine has been attested for.
In 638 AD the Muslims invaded the Holy Land. Islam was born from Judaism and Christianity and adopted many of their core traditions. On temple Mount the Muslims built the Dome of the Rock to protect and celebrate the stone connected with Abraham (who Muslims regard as the first monotheist), and to the south of it – the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
The Dome, completed in 691 AD, is Islam’s oldest standing shrine; the Al-Aqsa – one of its oldest and most venerated mosques. Both, it is commonly believed, were built not only for religious but rather also for political and practical reasons. Attempting to bestow a sense of Islamic sacredness on Jerusalem – not mentioned once by name in the Holy Qur’an – early Muslim rulers made a pro-Islamic and anti-Christian statement aimed at the city’s Christian community, while at the same time consolidating their legitimacy in the face of an internal strife within the Muslim world.
It was only later that an oral tradition came about, loosely based on an obscure Qur’anic verse, according to which Prophet Muhammad had a dream or a vision in which he was led by Allah to Jerusalem. There he ascended to the skies from the holy stone, met with Allah and was taught the way in which Muslims should pray.
Temple Mount has been a scared Islamic precinct (“Haram al-Sharif” – the Noble Sanctuary) consecutively since the mid-seventh century AD. It is open to visitors, with limitations, and is a highlight in every visit to Jerusalem.