My initial view of Jerusalem in the daytime was one of Those Moments that I want to engrave in my memory. We arrived at night, when light from windows and streetlights was reflected by the white Jerusalem limestone that everything seems to be made of. The following morning it was raining, the hills covered in a lush green, the Jerusalem stone buildings now an almost translucent white, and the blue tile mosaics and gold vault of the Dome of the Rock drawing our eyes like a magnet draws steel.
|View of the old city taken later in the week from the Mount of Olives|
We were lucky to be there on a blustery day in March. The benefits were close parking to the Temple Mount and short lines. In fact, our guide, who has been there many times, told us it was the fastest he had ever gotten from the bus, through security, and onto the grounds of the Temple Mount.
The very first thing we did in Jerusalem was visit its most recognizable building, the iconic Dome of the Rock. It's a good place for a Jerusalem Newbie to start.
We stood under an arched hallway across the way from the Dome and listened to the first compelling discourse of the trip delivered by the tour's lecturer, Michael Wilcox. As we gazed at the Dome and watched the people strolling by, he spoke of the roots of Islam and recounted the story of the prophet Muhammad and the unifying of the Arab world. He detailed many of the wonderful things Islam has brought into the world, using an analogy that we should be like a compass, the kind used to draw circles. We can choose a "set point" where we plant our stationary foot. For many of us this is our religious beliefs. With the other arm of the compass, we can reach out and draw a circle that captures or encloses good from other traditions. It was good advice at the beginning of a trip like this.
After the lecture we had some time to explore the Temple Mount on our own.
In years past, tourists were allowed inside the Dome of the Rock, but a few years ago that was changed, and nowadays only Muslims are given entrance. That's too bad, because based on pictures from the internet, the interior looks as stunning as the exterior.
|Picture of the eponymous rock from here|
|Picture from here|
|Picture from here|
This city and the Temple Mount, radiant even when it's raining, are critical pieces in the history of three faiths--Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. How is it possible that they have also been the site of much brutal conflict, conflict that continues to this day?
Here is what all the fuss is about:
That stone in the shrine, known as the Foundation Stone, is actually the top of Mount Moriah, not a rock broken off from the mountain and re-installed inside the shrine. According to the Talmud, near this stone God gathered dust to form the bodies of Adam and Eve, and on this stone Adam offered sacrifices to God. The more universally accepted event that is said to occur on the rock was the almost-sacrifice of Isaac (if you are Christian or Jewish) or Ishmael (if you are Muslim). Commanded by God, Abraham walked up this mountain with his son with the intent of making of him a burnt offering to God on this very rock. At the last minute an angel stayed Abraham's hand, and Isaac/Ishmael was spared. Tongue-in-cheek, Bruce Feiler calls the Dome a "notorious shrine to the tension between faith and family."
Years later, in 970 BC, Solomon built his great temple on this spot, and the rock, situated in the Holy of Holies, was the surface upon which the Ark of the Covenant was placed. Solomon's temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586. A smaller temple was built on the site between 525 and 515, and Herod enlarged it in the first century BC. This was the temple where the boy Jesus taught. The story of the widow's mite took place here, and it's the spot where Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple. In Matthew 24, Jesus prophesied of the destruction of the temple, and in 70 AD it was indeed demolished by a Roman army.
Enter Muhammad. The Qur'an gives a brief account of a night in 621 AD when Muhammad traveled on a heavenly horse brought to him by the Angel Gabriel to a distant mosque. There he met with Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets before ascending to heaven and speaking with God, who gave him instructions about prayer that he was to teach to the faithful. Additional Islamic writings called the Hadith say that Muhammad's night journey destination was the top of Mount Moriah, and it was from the Temple Mount that he ascended to heaven. Because of this event, Temple Mount is the third holiest site in the world for both Sunni and Shi'a Muslims. (Mecca and Medina are #1 and #2.) After the Muslims conquered Jerusalem in 637 AD, they built the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque on Temple Mount. The Dome of the Rock is one of the oldest surviving Muslim structures, second to the Kaabah in Mecca.
In 1099, the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem and took over the Temple Mount. They gave the Dome of the Rock to the Augustinians, who turned it into a church. The Al Aqsa Mosque first became a palace and later the headquarters for the Knights Templar.
Then Jerusalem was retaken by Muslims in 1187, which was the most recent time that the Temple Mount has changed hands. Many renovations have occurred in the 828 years since then, including covering the exterior with exquisite mosaics in the 16th century and re-gilding the Dome in 1992-1994 with an $8.2 million donation from King Hussein of Jordan.
It's no wonder that there has been such a volatile tug-of-war over this place.
|Aerial southern view of the Temple Mount. Picture from here.|
The Dome of the Rock, while a very imposing structure and a prayer site for Muslims, is not a mosque. Note that there is no minaret, but the Dome is topped with the Islamic crescent moon seen on many mosques:
Eight stairways and arched gateways surround the octagonal shrine and connect it to the terrace below:
|Our guide Ilan, in the forefront, tells us about the Dome of the Rock.|
There are quite a few other structures surrounding the Dome of the Rock. The Dome of the Chain is neither mosque nor shrine but a prayer house built in 691. When the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem, they identified this spot as the place where St. James was martyred and turned it into a chapel to honor him. When the Muslims retook Jerusalem, it was converted back to its original use. The name refers to the Islamic tradition that the final judgment will take place here, and at that time a chain will stop the sinful but let the righteous pass through:
The Dome of Ascension, which commemorates Muhammad's ascension into heaven, was built in about 1200 AD:
The Fountain of Qayt Bay was built by Egyptians in the 15th century over a natural underground reservoir:
The Dome of the Prophet is a structure built in the 16th century to honor Muhammad. Some believe it is the spot where he led prophets and angels in prayer before ascending to heaven:
Again, like Dome of the Rock, at one time tourists were allowed to enter the mosque, but no more. I had to visit via the internet:
|Photo from here|
|Photo of dome from here|
View from the Temple Mount:
John Esposito is an American professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University and the director of the Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown. He was raised Catholic and spent a decade in a monastery before pursuing a master's degree in theology and a PhD focusing on Islam. I think a book about him would be interesting!
In 2011 Esposito published this very helpful, very approachable book for a lay person who wants to understand more about Islam. What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam is divided up into seven sections: General Information; Faith; Islam and Other Religions; Customs and Culture; Violence and Terrorism; Society, Politics, and Economy; and Muslims in the West. Esposito presents and answers common questions under each heading. For example: What role does Muhammad play in Muslim life? How do Muslims view the Day of Judgment? What is the difference between Sunni and Shii Muslims? Who are these Islamic fundamentalists? What about Muslim religious intolerance? What do Muslims say about women's rights? What is jihad? Why haven't Muslims denounced terrorism? What is Islamic law? What is the role of fatwa? Why aren't Muslim countries more democratic? What are the major obstacles to Islamic reform?
Well indexed, this book is an excellent and honest reference that acknowledges both the strengths and the weaknesses of the Islamic faith and culture.