Many assume that Jerusalem’s Western Wall is the holiest place for Jews. This is not the case. The Western Wall, a small remnant of the western retaining wall of Herod the Great’s version of the Second Temple compound is the holiest accessible place on earth for the Jewish People. Judaism’s holiest site, however, is found on the Temple Mount itself.
The massive Temple Mount we can see today was built as an artificial platform by Herod the Great in the First Century BCE during a significant expansion of the Second Jewish Temple. It sits atop the biblical Mount Moriah and is supported by four massive retaining walls and a system of arches upon arches below the platform and down to the bedrock.
But, as is the case with so many issues in Jerusalem, there is more than one narrative relating to this holy site.
For the Muslim world, the Temple Mount platform is known as Haram al-Sharif (Arabic: ‘The Noble Sanctuary'). After Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, this is the third holiest place on earth for Muslims. It was here in the 7th century CE that the early Muslims built the Dome of the Rock and, shortly thereafter, the al-Aqsa Mosque. According to Muslim tradition, the prophet Muhammad made a night journey from the ‘near mosque’ (Mecca) to the ‘distant mosque’ (al-Aqsa) and from the rock that sits inside the Dome of the Rock he ascended to Heaven.
Here’s where it gets a bit more complicated.
According to Jewish tradition, that very same rock that sits inside the Dome of the Rock is the ‘Foundation Stone’ on Mount Moriah. Jewish tradition places the binding of Isaac on this spot. Tradition continues to point to this very spot as the place where King David brought the Ark of the Covenant and where his son, Solomon, built the first Israelite Temple. The second Jewish Temple is believed to have stood in the very same location with the Holy of Holies precisely on the ‘Foundation Stone’ found in today’s Dome of the Rock. Traditional Jews believe the Divine Presence still hovers over the Temple Mount today. Because the rabbis are not completely certain of the exact location of the Holy of Holies of the First and Second Temples, the majority of Orthodox Jews refrain from ascending to the Temple Mount at all – the closest they dare get to the Divine Presence is in front of the stones of the Western Wall.
Between 1948 and 1967, Jordan controlled access to the Temple Mount. But during the course of the 1967 Six Day War, the Israel Defense Forces conquered east Jerusalem, the Old City and the Temple Mount. Despite conquering Judaism’s holiest site during the Six Day War, shortly after the conclusion of the 1967 war, the Israeli Government returned the administration of the day-to-day affairs on the Temple Mount to the hands of the Islamic waqf which had administered the holy site during the Jordanian occupation. A status quo agreement was reached in 1967 between Israel and Jordan regarding access to the Temple Mount and the permitted protocol of behavior in that holy site. The status quo agreement holds to this day.
Visiting the Temple Mount today
Due to restrictions imposed by the Islamic waqf and the terms of the status quo agreement of 1967, visits today to the Temple Mount are possible, but sometimes challenging. Under normal circumstances, non-Muslims are permitted entry to the Temple Mount only through a gate found just inside the Old City of Jerusalem’s Dung Gate. Entrance is possible, during limited hours, on Sundays through Thursdays. It’s best to arrive on site very early in the morning, typically no later than 7:30am. Strict modest dress requirements apply – especially for women – and no outward symbols of any religion other than Islam are permitted through the security process.
What do we see on the Temple Mount platform today?
The most dominant feature is the Dome of Rock, considered by many one of the most beautiful buildings of the world. But we also find the more modest al-Aqsa mosque, which, technically speaking, is the third holiest site on earth for Islam.
It’s fascinating to visit the Temple Mount on so many levels – the geo-political reality, Herod the Great’s engineering marvel, the holiness of the site to the three great monotheistic religions, and the dramatic views found throughout all make a visit to the Temple Mount a memorable experience, indeed.