I never thought I’d get there: the Temple Mount, the massive area above the Kotel (Wester/Wailing Wall) where the Muslim authority called the Waqf (translates as “a charitable endowment”) has made it harder for Jews to have access over the past decades. In 2000, when Israel and the Palestinians were so close to peace, Ariel Sharon’s visit—accompanied by all the Arab members of the Israeli Knesset and the press—was taken as a great provocation, erupting into the violent Al Aqsa Intifada which lasted for almost five years. Since that time, Jewish access has become increasingly restricted—despite official agreements that all people would have access to all holy sites in Jerusalem.
A slatted wooden ramp rises over a section of the Kotel—Sue and I had seen it often, wondering where it led. Now we know; it’s access to the Temple Mount. Dr. Randall Price made it possible for our tour to enter this site, one that he knows very well. He begins the tour by reading from a 1930s era booklet produced by the Muslim Authority about the Temple Mount. It states emphatically that the location is directly related to the original site of Solomon’s Temple—a statement that is, today, completely denied by the Palestinian Authority. Re-writing history—or as Dr. Price calls it, “Temple Mount Denial,” has influenced even the prestigious body of UNESCO under pressures that have made member nations, including France and Denmark, concede to the religious views of the oil-rich Gulf states.
After thorough checks of our bags, we were walking in the shadow of these beautiful, highly decorative buildings—including the Dome of the Rock, one of the most photographed buildings in the world, with its aluminum dome (yes, aluminum) covered with 9 microns of gold. Dr. Price is confident that this place, which is a shrine, not a mosque (though women do pray there), is covering the original rock on which the ark was placed in Solomon’s Temple and where the Holy of Holies was located in the Second Temple.
The broad courts, paved with white stone, seem peaceful and untroubled. It’s hard to believe that within my lifetime this has been the setting of war, protests, and screaming mass riots.
Famously, when Caliph Umar received the surrender of the city in 637 CE, he was determined to locate the Holy of Holies from the site of the Second Temple. The Byzantine patriarch hesitated and tried to show him the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but finally had to admit with some embarrassment that under Christian Byzantine rule, the Temple Mount had become a dump—the city’s fetid garbage covering Israel’s holiest places.
After the construction of the Dome and Al Aqsa Mosque, Caliph Umar’s successor was disappointed that few pilgrims were coming to the new Muslim places of worship. In response, he promoted a sacred text that described the founder of Islam riding by night to “the furthest mosque”—which his Imams then interpreted as Al Aqsa in Jerusalem. From there, according to the ancient account, he ascended on a visit to the “Seventh Heaven” and this event made Jerusalem much more worthy of pilgrimage. (Of course, these events would have to have taken place long before there was a mosque in Jerusalem; although according to current Islamic teaching, the Temple Mount was always a mosque.)
In 1967 after the Six Day War, Jewish authorities led by Moshe Dayan promoted this simple principle about this holy site: the Jewish people would worship below at the Kotel and the Islamic peoples above on the Temple Mount. Since then, one of the added points made by Islamic authorities is that the area of the Kotel is where Muhammad tied up his horse, so they claim the whole location, above and below.
We walk as a group through wide-open courts fringed with trees and in some places, even small groves of young trees. As Dr. Price leads us, explaining the significance of each type of Islamic building and even the pavements—some include the exposed remains of Herodian and Solomonic era walls—we are passed by a solemn procession of Orthodox Jews. While they are not allowed to pray, they do get special permission to walk here—accompanied by armed guards and police filming their slow pace, carefully planned not to accidentally step on an area connected with the Holy of Holies. We are not supposed to pray here either, and Dr. Price has been warned not to speak of the Temples of Israel here.
Some sections have been remodelled recently—including a terrace where bulldozers were put to work and archaeologists longed to sift the dust. The remnants of the massive remodelling were removed before they could officially reveal any of their provenance in relation to the Jewish past. (Some of it continues to be sifted, revealing precious artefacts, including valuable items from the 2nd Temple Period.) And all this was done so that the Palestinian Authority could declare that no proof has ever been shown to connect the Temple Mount with the Jewish people.
A few hours later, as we walk the remarkable Rabbis’ Tunnels beneath the Temple Mount, we see how the Jewish excavations have revealed the true nature of the place. Above us, passing empires have asserted their power. Here, the ancient mysteries of Israel are still fully in evidence.
We touch the ancient, cool Herodian walls—each stone marked by Herod’s distinctive chiselled frame; we see ancient passageways used by the priests, and walk on a promenade that goes back to the time of Yeshua. At one point, we come to the end of the promenade where an unfinished stone shows that even until the time of the Great Revolt beginning in 66 CE, work of building the Temple precincts was going on.
During his explanations, Dr. Price discusses the issue of the Ark of the Covenant. He presents the most convincing case I’ve yet heard that the ark might still be intact, hidden away beneath the Temple. He points out that the Babylonians, had they removed it, wouldn’t have destroyed the ark but placed it into their own great temple, along with the “gold and silver vessels” (see Ezra 5:14; 7:19) taken from the Temple in 586 BCE when Jerusalem was captured and the first Temple destroyed, that were displayed as signs of conquest over inferior gods. These “vessels” returned to Jerusalem with Ezra by the decrees of Darius and Artaxerxes, but the ark wasn’t among them.
Numerous Jewish traditions, including Talmudic records, suggest that the Ark was hidden in passageways under the Temple but these were always considered impossible, until the tunnels were publically revealed only a few decades ago in the 1980s. Every year, these are more elaborately upgraded. They are not only well-lit and laid out with attractive descriptive posts and electric signage, but have regular stations where Orthodox Jews literally pray “at the wall”—on the inside.
Each time I return, it seems more possible that the Ark might be hidden in some unknown alcove. Dr. Price tells us about a conversation that he had with the famous Rabbi Shlomo Goren who insisted that the ark was present during the Second Temple period underneath the Holy of Holies. Is it possible? For years, I admit, I was a sceptic. But after spending a morning walking the Temple Mount, I dare not remain stuck in old opinions. It seems the ancient land still has much to teach us about the faithfulness of God and our own humility.
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