The latest round of violence between the State of Israel and Hamas has been primarily attributed to the issue of control of the Temple Mount. Despite Israel’s efforts to accommodate Muslim worship on the Temple Mount and despite preferential treatment of Muslim worship there, Hamas alleges that Israel is seizing the Al-Aqsa Mosque from worshipers.
The “Temple denial ideology,” which has permeated all Palestinian social strata, maintains that no Jewish Temple ever existed in Jerusalem, hence, Jewish claims to the Temple Mount have no validity. However, data – both biblical and archaeological – contradict this assertion.
The following is a brief outline of the events that link Jewish presence to the Temple Mount, which is called in the Bible, Mount Moriah. Mount Moriah represents to a Jew the physical location of God’s Divine Presence and is considered the holiest site for Jews, as well as the ideal place for worship.
The Bible (II Samuel 24 and repeated in I Chronicles 21), chronicles Jewish ownership of the Temple Mount starting from the 10th century B.C.E. when King David purchased it from Araunah the Jebusite. According to Chronicles (2 Chr. 3), the sanctity of Mount Moriah preceded this acquisition, as Mount Moriah was believed to have been the site where Abraham intended to sacrifice his son. Traditionally, even earlier, Cain, Abel, and Noah offered sacrifices here. Following David’s death, his son Solomon constructed the Temple at this location (I Kings 5-9 and I Chronicles 6-8).
The Temple was central to Jewish life throughout the First and Second Commonwealths. During the reign of King Asa (c. 908-868 B.C.), the Temple treasures were augmented with silver and gold (1 Kgs. 15). Asa’s son Jehoshaphat (2 Chr. 17, ruled c. 868 to 847 B.C.), added a new courtyard to the existing Temple courtyard, which had become too small to accommodate the many pilgrims coming to Jerusalem. As king, Hezekiah’s (c. 725-697) first act was to renovate the Temple, enlarging the courtyard and building storage chambers on the enlarged Temple Mount (2 Chr. 31). In 586 B.C., Zedekiah rebelled against the Babylonians, which triggered the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem (2 Chr. 36). These events are verified by the City of David excavations over the last century.
The Jews returned to Jerusalem soon thereafter (c. 536 B.C.) and by the edict of Cyrus II (c. 559-529 B.C.) rebuilt the altar. Construction began on the foundation of the new Temple in 535 B.C. However, due to Samaritan opposition, construction was later suspended by Cyrus’s successor, Cambyses II (529-522 B.C.). One year later, the original edict was reaffirmed by King Darius (522-486 B.C.), and construction, led by the prophets Haggai and Zachariah, resumed. The opening of the Second Temple era commenced with the completion of the Temple in 515 B.C. (Ezra 1). In 457 B.C., King Artaxerxes dispatched the prophet Ezra to renovate the Temple, and thirteen years later (444 B.C) Artaxerxes granted a new royal commission for the construction of the Temple to the prophet Nehemiah (Nehemiah 2). Once again, the Temple became the hub of Jewish religious and political life.
The Temple remained in Jewish sovereignty until 175 B.C., when Antiochus IV Epiphanes succeeded the Seleucid Kingdom (which included Judea). Antiochus plundered the Temple treasury (1 Maccabees 21) and rededicated the Jewish Temple as a Temple to Zeus. This audacious act led to the outbreak of a holy war between the Hasmoneans and the Syrian Greeks. In 164 B.C., after three years of bloody fighting, the Hasmoneans captured the Temple Mount (1 Macc. 4) and reinstated the daily service in the Temple (1 Macc. 52). Their victory and subsequent rededication of the Temple is still celebrated on the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. The fighting finally ended in 141 B.C. with the capture of the Akra Fortress by Simon Maccabee. Simon razed this fortress and incorporated it into the Temple Mount platform.
In 40 B.C., the Romans ousted the ruling Hasmonean dynasty and the Roman Senate proclaimed Herod the Great as Ruler of Judea. Approximately 20 years into his reign, Herod began his grandiose project of renewing the Temple (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 4a). Although the original platform of the Temple Mount was left intact, by extending the platform to the North, South, and West, the Temple Mount was now twice its previous size. These distinctly recognizable stones are still visible today on the Temple Mount’s Western wall, and parts of the other three walls. The magnificence of Herod’s reconstruction of the Temple is reflected in the Talmud: “He who has not seen the Herodian Temple has never seen a beautiful building in his life” (BT, Bava Batra 4a). Josephus described the renovated Temple as “a structure more noteworthy than any under the sun” (Antiquities 15). However, this magnificent edifice stood for less than a hundred years.
In the First Jewish Revolt (66 C.E.), Jerusalem’s Jewish population rebelled against the Roman Empire. Four years later, in 70 C.E., Roman legions led by Titus destroyed the Second Temple and much of Jerusalem. Josephus described the catastrophe when hundreds of thousands of Jews perished in the siege of Jerusalem and elsewhere in the country. Many thousands more were sold into slavery (War 6). Thus ended the Second Temple period.
Despite the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jews maintained an uninterrupted connection to the Temple Mount, including several futile attempts to rebuild the Temple site. Throughout the centuries, Jews have prayed for their return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple. To this day, when Jews pray, they stand facing the Temple Mount, directing their prayers there.
The Talmud (BT Makkot 24b) recounts a visit to the Temple ruins by Rabbi Akiba (c. 50-135 C.E.) and other leading rabbis. Visitation was not limited to rabbis; the masses also visited the Temple Mount as recorded in the Talmud (BT, Berakhot 58a), “Ben Zoma (c. 2nd century) once saw a large crowd on one of the steps of the Temple Mount.”
In 130 C.E., Emperor Hadrian visited Jerusalem and committed to rebuild the Temple. When Hadrian’s intentions of building a Temple to Jupiter were revealed, the Jews’ intense anger set off the Second Jewish Revolt in 132 C.E. Led by Simeon bar Kokhba, Jewish guerrilla forces overwhelmed the Roman garrisons and banished them from the area. The Jews then established an independent state governing most of Judea. However, two years later, the revolt was quelled. Hadrian, in an act of revenge, renamed Judea as Syria Palaestina and barred Jews from entering Jerusalem.
After Hadrian’s death, the decree to bar Jews was periodically suspended and they were permitted to ascend and pray on the Temple Mount. The Pilgrim of Bordeaux, who visited Jerusalem in 333 C.E. reported that every year Jews would come to the Temple Mount on the 9th of Av (the anniversary of the Temple’s destruction) and lament the destruction on the site of the former of the Holy of Holies. “There is a perforated stone, to which the Jews come every year and anoint it, bewail themselves with groans, rend their garments, and so depart.”
In 361 C.E., the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate lifted the ban on Jewish entry to Jerusalem and may have even allowed the Jews to rebuild the Temple. Jews flocked in droves to participate in the construction. Unfortunately, the project was canceled in 361 C.E. after Julian was succeeded by Jovian. Once again, in 438 C.E., the Empress Eudocia granted permission to Jews to pray at the Temple Mount for the Sukkot holiday. However, due to pressure from local Christians, the permission was revoked. Nonetheless, there are indications that despite the imperial ban, Jews continued to pray on the Temple Mount through the fourth and sixth centuries.
The Umayyad Caliph Umar, reportedly with the help of Jewish troops, conquered Jerusalem from the Byzantines in 638 C.E. In appreciation for their support, Jews were granted the right to reside in Jerusalem and a synagogue may have been built then on the Temple Mount. Many documents uncovered in the Cairo Geniza relate to the Jewish freedoms enjoyed on the Temple Mount at that time. Hebrew writings found on the internal walls of the Golden Gate are believed to have been written by Jewish pilgrims in that era.
In 692 C.E., Caliph Umar completed the construction of the Dome of the Rock over the “Rock of the Foundation,” once the floor of the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple. According to Moslem tradition, the location of the Temple was transmitted by the local Jewish elders. In an attempt to connect Jerusalem to Islam, the Umayyads also built the Al-Aqsa Mosque at the south of the Temple Mount in 715 C.E., invoking a vision of Mohammed recorded in the Quran, which ended in his ascent to heaven from the “distant mosque” which was now associated with this site.
The Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099 C.E. and barred Muslim and Jewish worshipers from the Temple Mount, which they had appropriated as a Church and fortress. Yet despite the danger, Jews continued to ascend the mount even during the Crusader period. Maimonides visited the Temple Mount in 1165 and prayed there, and Benjamin of Tudela who visited Jerusalem sometime between 1159 and 1172 reported that “Jews prayed in front of one of the remaining walls of what was formerly the Holy of Holies.”
In 1187, Saladin captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders and permitted Jews to worship on the Temple Mount. Thereafter and in the following years of the Mamluk rule of Jerusalem, there are many records of Jews visiting and praying in the Temple Mount.
In 1516, with the Ottoman conquest of Jerusalem, Sultan Suleiman I prohibited all non-Muslims from entering any part of the Temple Mount. A site for Jewish prayer was set up in an alley at the foot of the Western wall of the Temple Mount, known today as the Western Wall, the “Kotel.” Yet, Moslem court records show that there were still some Jews that somehow managed to ascend the Temple Mount. The Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem in that period, Rabbi David ben Zimra (1479-1573), even issued a responsum delineating which Temple precincts would be permissible for Jewish entry.
After the Crimean War (1856), the Temple Mount was once again open to Jews. Prominent Jewish visitors, including Sir Moses Montefiore and Baron Edmond de Rothschild, were able to visit the Temple Mount. This freedom of entry extended under British rule (1917-1948), until Jordan captured the Old City of Jerusalem in Israel’s War of Independence (1948), and expelled the Jews.
On the morning of June 7, 1967, the 55th Parachute and Jerusalem Brigades of the IDF entered the Old City of Jerusalem through the Lion’s gate and liberated the Temple Mount. Col. Mordechai (“Motta”) Gur proudly proclaimed, “Har HaBayit BeYadenu! The Temple Mount is in our hands!” The focus of centuries of Jewish longing was now under Israeli control for the first time since the Second Commonwealth.
After the Six-Day War, while Israel retained security control, the administration of the Temple Mount was entrusted to the Jordanian Waqf as a gesture of goodwill. As a result, the non-Muslim public is now allowed to visit the Temple, but with restrictions in place aiming to preserve the site’s status quo. In recent years, the number of Jews ascending the Temple Mount has increased exponentially, despite the official Moslem control of the site.
For centuries, Muslims took great pride that their mosques on the Temple Mount were built on the location of the Temple of Solomon (who is considered a prophet in Islam). This pride is reflected in official publications issued by the Waqf. Following the Israeli conquest of the Temple Mount in 1967, this approach changed dramatically, leading ultimately to the total denial referenced in the start of this article.
The importance of the Temple Mount to the Jewish people cannot be overestimated; it represents the hopes and dreams that have sustained them in spite of virtually insurmountable odds throughout the thousands of years of their history.
When Jews go to the land of Israel, they say they are making “aliyah,” meaning to spiritually ascend, as the Holy Land represents the most holy area on earth. And within that land is Jerusalem, the holiest city; and within Jerusalem is the Temple Mount, the holiest spot on earth.
As the Jewish people gave the world the concept of one God; as they gave the world the idea that one day the world will be rectified with all men as brothers, as they looked to the land of Israel to one day shine its beacon of truth to illuminate God’s eternal presence, the Temple Mount represents the font from which all these will pour forth, and thus must be acknowledged as the beating heart of Judaism and the Jewish people.
Rabbi Yehuda Levi is a Biblical scholar and researcher based in Jerusalem, Israel, who specializes in Jewish historical sites.