I suspect it is hard for most of us to believe. There is a site in Jerusalem which purports to have high religious significance to both Muslims and Jews. It is variously called Al Aqsa by the Muslim population and The Temple Mount by the Jews. Whatever it is called it has recently been the place of another religiously inspired example of appalling violence. This abomination is a result of competing access to this so-called holy space.
The tragedy is exacerbated by the fact that both Islam and Judaism are actually supposed to worship the same god. Judaism is a precursor to Islam and Muslims acknowledge the god of the Old Testament and the various prophets and patriarchs on which its dubious story is based.
The Judaic tradition promotes the Temple Mount as the site of King Solomon’s Temple which was supposedly constructed there in the tenth century BCE. Most archaeologists dispute this claim. But the myth has continued to be propagated by those who continue to believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible.
If Solomon’s Temple actually existed, it was probably destroyed when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem in 587 BCE. According to the Bible at that time the Jews were taken into exile in Babylon. Some forty years later, Cyrus the Great of Persia liberated the Jewish exiles and allowed them to return to Jerusalem. On their return they purportedly rebuilt the temple and it was dedicated in 515 BCE.
However, the Book of Ezra in the Old Testament recounts that the people were dissatisfied with the reconstructed temple because it could not match the grandeur of Solomon’s Temple. Some four centuries later the temple was again rebuilt by that sometime villain of the New Testament, King Herod. Again according to the New Testament, it was into this temple circa 30 CE that a young Nazarene, that we have come to call Jesus, purportedly came and overturned the tables of the money changers and the chattels of those who were selling birds for live sacrifice.
In 70 CE, in response to a Jewish rebellion, the Emperor Titus again destroyed Jerusalem and set the temple ablaze.
There was a further rebellion against Rome in 132 CE. This was again crushed by the Emperor Hadrian. Hadrian’s subsequent punishment of the Jews included a ban on visiting Jerusalem. Jerusalem was subsequently rebuilt as a pagan city and renamed Aelia Capitolina. The Temple Mount appears to have become a site for the pagan worship of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.
Constantine became the first Christian Emperor of Rome in 306 CE. With his ascension Christians were again permitted to return to Jerusalem. The Temple however was not rebuilt. The main Christian shrine was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This was built on the site of a pagan temple under the orders of Constantine. The site was reputedly Golgotha (“place of the skull” in Aramaic) where legend has it that Jesus was crucified, just outside the walls of Jerusalem. (Some historians believe however that Golgotha was actually located diametrically opposite to the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.)
In 361 CE the Emperor Julian came to power in Rome. As a staunch pagan, Julian was keen to dilute Christian influence. Consequently he agreed that the Jews should be given approval to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. However after an enthusiastic commencement the Jews’ hopes were thwarted when Julian was killed in battle and his protection lost.
One commentator wrote:
“Over the centuries, the pagan shrines on the Temple Mount crumbled. The deserted compound became overgrown, serving as a constant reminder – according to Christian theology – that God’s old covenant with the Jews was void and that a new covenant symbolised by the new Christian Jerusalem had taken its place.”
Before long, however, the advent of Islam again marked out Jerusalem and the Temple as a place of religious significance.
Likely because it was an antecedent religion of Judaism and Christianity, Islam too had a special reverence for Jerusalem. In the early days of Islam, Muhammad had decreed that when Muslims prayed the direction of prayer (the Qibla) should be towards Jerusalem, in fact, the Temple Mount. But following his own religious struggles that resulted in his flight to Medina and then subsequently to retake Mecca, this edict was changed so that the Qibla would henceforth be Mecca.
But Jerusalem became important to the Muslims after Muhammad’s apocryphal “night flight”.
Let me quote from religious historian, Karen Armstrong.
“Eventually Muhammad decided to sleep in the hijr, an enclosed area to the north-west of the shrine (Ka’aba) . Then it seemed to him that he was awakened by Gabriel, lifted on to a heavenly steed called Buruq, and flown miraculously through the night to Jerusalem, which the Qu’ran calls al-majid al-aqsa : the Further Mosque. After this Night Flight (‘isra), Muhammad and Gabriel alighted on the Temple Mount and were greeted by Abraham, Moses, Jesus and a crowd of other prophets. They prayed together and brought Muhammad three goblets containing water, milk and wine. Muhammad chose to drink the milk, as a symbol of the middle course that Islam has tried to steer between extreme ascetism on the one hand and hedonism on the other. Then a ladder (miraj) was brought and Muhammad and Gabriel climbed to the first of the seven heavens and began the ascent to the throne of God.”
In this fanciful myth various other revelations are made to Muhammad. But importantly, for our purposes, it cemented Jerusalem and the Temple as an important element of Islamic theology. At this stage neither Jerusalem nor the Temple Mount were under Islamic control. However traditions written by hadiths (those who knew Muhammad) identify this “Further Mosque” as the Bait Maqdis a Jewish colloquial name for the Temple Mount.
But in 637 CE, just a few years after Muhammad’s death, Muslim armies took Jerusalem. The Caliph Umar, head of Islam then ordered that a wooden mosque be erected at the Temple Mount. In 691, Caliph Abd al-Malik had a shrine built over a rock in the middle of Temple Mount. The magnificent silver-domed Al Aqsa mosque which replaced the previous wooden structure was completed under the direction of Caliph Al-Walid I, in the beginning of the eighth century.
This situation prevailed until 1099 CE when the crusaders wrested the Holy Land from the Muslims and established Jerusalem as the capital of a new Kingdom of Jerusalem. A cross was erected by the Christians atop the dome of the mosque which was then converted to a Christian church. Soon after, it began to serve as the focal point for a newly minted monastic order of knights that became known as the Knights Templar.
But in line with the previous sullied history of this place, within a hundred years Jerusalem was again over-run by Muslims. In 1187 CE, under the legendary Saladin, Islamic forces vanquished the Christians and set about restoring the mosque by obliterating the Christian edifices. However with the passing of Saladin the Muslims appear to have lost interest in the Temple Dome. The sacred site began to fall into disrepair.
In 1516 CE the Ottomans conquered Jerusalem and things changed again. Jerusalem’s outer walls were rebuilt and the Temple Mount was again restored to something like its former glory. The Ottoman Turks maintained their hold over the sacred site until the twentieth century.
There have been a number of archaeological investigations of the site commencing from the1860’s. These investigations confirm that there have been Muslim and Roman activities on the site and indications of the intervention of King Herod. There has been no indication that the site was that of Solomon’s Temple.
Towards the end of World War I the British conquered Jerusalem. The site of the Temple Mount and the Al Aqsa Mosque was again restored. These repairs were compromised by an earthquake in 1927. After the British left in 1948 the Temple Mount came under Jordanian rule.
Finally in June 1967, during the Six Day War, Israeli paratroopers conquered the Temple Mount which has remained under Israeli control ever since. It has been a continuing source of tension between the Israeli and Arab populations.
There would be few places on earth with such a colourful history as the Temple Mount. It is a place revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews. But now it is the source of continuing conflict between the Arabs and Jews in the Middle East.
From the point of view of an outsider (and admittedly a sceptic) this seems to me to be an utterly irrational situation.
To begin with, the holiness of the site from the perspective of both religions is founded on the most dubious of bases.
The Temple Mount is important to the Jews because it is purportedly built on the site of Solomon’s Temple. There is no archaeological evidence whatsoever to support this contention.
The site is a significant one for Muslims because it was purportedly the destination of the Prophet for his improbable “Night Flight”. This must be the most fanciful passage from the Qu’ran and should strain the credibility of even the most ardent Muslim who would seek to believe it as literal truth.
As I mentioned earlier, the height of this religious absurdity is that both the Muslims and the Jews worship the same god – Allah, Yahweh, Jehovah or whatever you choose to call this deity that underpins the religious beliefs of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. One would have thought that in this knowledge they should be praying together in peace on the Temple Mount.
Or alternatively, given their god is reputedly omnipresent, it shouldn’t matter where they pray at all!
It is a tragedy that such fundamentalist religious beliefs are again behind violence and hatred. It makes us shake our heads and wonder how such trivial, superficial, irrational aspects of religious belief systems can assume such importance in the minds of believers!