Home » The Story Around Temple Mount (Al Aqsa) in Jerusalem

The Story Around Temple Mount (Al Aqsa) in Jerusalem

by backpackisrael
Published: Updated: 24 minutes read
Dome of the Stone

There’s always something going on around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, or as the Muslims call it – Al Aqsa. The Temple Mount is in the Old City of Jerusalem, right above the Western Wall and next to the Kidron Valley. And while it is one of the holiest places in the world, it is also an integral part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this post, I’ll try to tell the story of Temple Mount – its history and the conflict around it, and provide some tips on visiting it. The first time I visited was during my tour guide course, and I was amazed to see that the site I’ve always heard about in the news looks quite calm and peaceful.

If you’re interested in the conflict, I also recommend reading my review on the Dual Narrative Tour in Jerusalem.

Also recommended >> My full guide to visiting Jerusalem.

Why is the Temple Mount important to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity? 

The three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – see the Temple Mount as an important and holy site. 

The Jews believe the world started from the Foundation Stone (in Hebrew, “Heven Ah-Shtiah”). Today, the Dome of the Rock stands above it. According to belief, this is also where Abraham bound Yitzhak and was about to sacrifice him before the angel came and stopped him. But, even more importantly, this place is believed to be where the two Holy Temples stood. That is why it’s called “Temple Mount” today. In Biblical days, it was known as Mount Moriah. The fact that it was the site of the Holy of Holies makes it the most sacred place to Jews – along with the Western Wall, one of the retaining walls that supported the Temple Mount platform in the time of the Second Temple. 

The Muslims believe that Prophet Muhammad arrived to this point during his Night Journey and ascended to the sky from the Foundation Stone. Up in the heavens, he negotiated with Allah (God) over the number of prayers the Muslims need to pray each day. Eventually, he came back with the five Islamic prayers. Another interesting fact is that in the beginning of Islam, Prophet Muhammad prayed in the direction of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and only later, for some reason, changes the prayer direction to Mecca. Today, the Muslims call the entire platform of Temple Mount “Al Aqsa” and see it as their third holiest site in the world after Mecca and Medinah. 

The Christians believe Jesus visited the Jewish Temple several times throughout his life. Like the Jews, they believe the temple stood on Temple Mount. In his prophecy, Jesus foresaw the destruction of the temple. So, the fact that there’s no temple anymore proves to the Christians that Jesus was right. 

The view of Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives

A brief history of Temple Mount

The history of Temple Mount begins in the days of the Bible. According to the Bible, King David bought Araunah’s threshing floor and built an altar for GOD there. It is believed that the threshing floor was located on Mount Moriah, north of the City of David, the area known today as Temple Mount. Some scholars think there were some sacred tombs of the Canaanites on Mount Moriah, which is why David chose this location as a holy site.

Later, it is believed that the Temple Mount became the site of the First Temple (Solomon’s Temple) and the Second Temple. After the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, Temple Mount lay in ruins. But Jews still came occasionally to pray there, amongst the rubble. 

Temple Mount stayed neglected until the Muslims arrived in 638 CE. The Muslim caliph, Omar ibn al-Khattab, conquered Jerusalem and asked the Christian patriarch where was the temple of David. The patriarch tried to fool him into thinking that the temple stood where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre stands, but Omar knew it couldn’t be the location. After a while, the patriarch took him to the right place – Temple Mount. Omar ordered to dig through the rubble and revealed the Foundation Stone. He built a mosque nearby, to the south of the stone. Later, near the end of the 7th century, the Umayyad Muslims built the two main structures that stand on Temple Mount until today – the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque. The Dome of the Rock is built on top of the Foundation Stone.

The Stone of Foundation
The Stone of Foundation - Image from the Matson (G. Eric and Edith) Photograph collection at the Library of Congress

At first, the Jews were allowed to work on Temple Mount to clean and maintain the compound. But around 720 CE, they were no longer allowed to work there. They could still come and pray once in a while throughout the Early Muslim and Crusader periods. 

Since the 13th century, Jews were no longer allowed to visit Temple Mount. Christians were also not allowed to enter the site. During the Ottoman period, there were ups and downs. Only in the mid-19th century, the Ottoman sultan allow a few VIP Jews and Christians to visit Temple Mount. Later, following the Young Turks’ Revolution, Jews and Christians were allowed to visit freely. 

When the British were here, the Temple Mount was managed by the Muslim Waqf and was under the responsibility of the Supreme Muslim Council. Sometimes, the Muslims allowed non-Muslims to enter; sometimes, they didn’t. And, of course, they asked for payment. 

The Jewish Zionists understood that Temple Mount was a major point of conflict and, therefore, emphasized that they were not interested in controlling the place. Nevertheless, there were conflicts around the Western Wall area. The Jews claimed that they had the right to pray near the Western Wall however they wanted, while the Muslims claimed that it was a part of Al Aqsa and therefore the Jews had to pray there only under the Muslim terms. 

In November 1947, the Division Plan suggested turning Jerusalem – and Temple Mount – into a place under international control. But the War of Independence changed everything. During the war of 1948, the Jordanians took control of East Jerusalem – including Temple Mount. Jews were prohibited from visiting the Old City, including the Western Wall and Temple Mount, between 1948 and 1967. Only in 1967, during the Six-Day War, the Israelis gained control of the Old City. They initiated the Status Quo agreement connected to the Temple Mount, which I’ll discuss below.

Why is the Temple Mount a source of argument?

Today, the Temple Mount is one of the most significant sources of argument between the Jewish people and the Muslims living in Israel and abroad. And a lot of it is connected to power and control. As already mentioned, both religions see the Temple Mount as a holy site. Therefore, both want complete control over Temple Mount – or Al Aqsa – but they have to compromise, because it’s not possible. That’s why there’s the Status Quo – to keep things organized. 

The Status Quo on Temple Mount

The Temple Mount was under Jordanian control and run by the Muslim Waqf between 1948 and 1967. On June 7, 1967, at 10 AM, the Israeli paratroopers broke into the Old City of Jerusalem and hung an Israeli flag on the Dome of the Rock. But 4 hours later, Moshe Dayan, the Israeli Minister of Defense, came and ordered to take down the Israeli flag. “If there is one thing that we do not need in Jerusalem,” he later wrote, “it is to hang Israeli flags on the Mosque of Omar and the Tomb of Jesus.” He returned the Temple Mount to the Waqf and had Muslim guards stationed there. 

10 days later, Moshe Dayan and the Muslim leaders sat down to create an agreement regarding Temple Mount – the Status Quo. Dayan wanted to lower tension around Temple Mount, so he agreed to leave the compound under the Waqf’s responsibility. But, he demanded that the Jews have the right to visit the place just like tourists, without restrictions, because it is their holy place, too. 

The initial Status Quo included the following points:

  • The Israeli government will be responsible for general security but will not interfere in the internal supervision regarding whatever is done in the compound. The Israeli border police officers will be stationed outside Temple Mount’s courtyard. 
  • The Jordanian Waqf will manage the site. The keys to the Temple Mount gates were passed to the Waqf.
  • Jews will not be allowed to pray on the mountain but will be allowed to visit it without limitations every day of the week. Jews could only enter through the Mugrabim Gate.
  • Jews who want to visit the mosques on Temple Mount must take off their shoes. 
The meeting between Dayan (with the eyepatch) and the Waqf representatives

This worked for only a few weeks, but then Rabbi Goren, the head of the Israeli Military Rabbinate, decided to establish a Beit Midrash, a Torah study hall, on Temple Mount, near the Mugrabim Gate. On Tisha Be’Av, the day commemorating the destruction of the Jewish Temples, he prayed on Temple Mount and blew the shofar. That was unacceptable by the Israeli government and also by the Muslims. In response, the Waqf locked the doors of the Mugrabim Gate, and only after Moshe Dayan banned Rabbi Goren from the compound in August 1967, they agreed to reopen the gates. 

But this affected the Status Quo. Now, the Jews had to pay an entrance fee if they wanted to visit the inside of the mosques. Years later, in 2000, Ariel Sharon, who was at that time the leader of the Israeli opposition, visited Temple Mount, an event that that was percieved by the Palestinians as a violation of the Status Quo and again led to a change. The Muslims closed the compound for non-Muslims for 3 years! When they reopened it, non-Muslims could no longer enter the mosques and structures on Temple Mount. So, I’ve never seen the Al Aqsa Mosque or the Dome of the Rock from the inside. My father, on the other hand, was able to visit in the 1990s before they banned non-Muslims. 

Until today, the prohibition of Jewish prayer on Temple Mount is not an official law, but it is an official policy of the State of Israel. In 1993, the Israeli Supreme Court of Justice stated that every Jew has the right to enter Temple Mount and pray there because it is part of the Freedom of Religion and the Freedom of Expression. But on the other hand, the court emphasized that public peace and order is more important. Therefore, the Israeli police officers are responsible for determining whether certain prayers or ritual activities on Temple Mount jeopardize public peace and order.

In recent years, the Muslims have been most concerned by the large number of Jews who visit the complex. They say, “The Jewish settlers are storming Al Aqsa.” When they say that, they refer to the Israeli visitors who enter the Temple Mount complex, because they refer to the while compound as “Al Aqsa.” Jews, on the other hand, refer only to the grey-domed mosque at the southern edge of Temple Mount as “Al Aqsa.” Therefore, when they enter the compound, they do not see themselves as “storming Al Aqsa” and do not understand what the Palestinians are talking about. The fact that more and more Jews are visiting Temple Mount makes the Muslim-Palestinians afraid that their control will be taken from them and that one day, soon, the Temple Mount will be split between the Jews and the Muslims. 

What do the Muslim-Palestinians think about the Status Quo?

From talking with Muslim Palestinians, hearing lectures, and watching Muslim documentaries, I can tell you that the Muslim-Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli points of view regarding Temple Mount/ Al Aqsa are completely opposite.

The Muslims believe that the fact that Israel controls East Jerusalem, including the Old City, is not legal. Therefore, they claim that the Old City, including Al Aqsa, is “occupied” by the Israeli forces. So, whilst they did come to an understanding with Moshe Dayan in 1967, they don’t truly see themselves obliged to it and believe they are the true and only owners of Al Aqsa. 

The Muslim-Palestinians claim that the Jews have no connection to the Temple Mount and, therefore, have no right to pray there. I’ve watched this documentary by Al-Jazeera, and they emphasize that only “some” Jews believe that the Temple Mount was the site of the Jewish Temples. I can tell you, as a Jewish Israeli, that the fact that there were two Jewish temples on Temple Mount is quite a consensus. I have never heard a Jew that says that the Holy Temple was not there. So, to say that only “some” believe this is absolutely wrong. It’s upsetting to see that reputable news channels and reporters cannot create a balanced documentary. 

Some other interesting facts about Temple Mount in Jerusalem

  • Muslims can enter through all gates. Non-Muslims can only enter through the Mugrabim Gate, the wooden bridge next to the Western Wall. There are ten gates that lead into the Temple Mount complex in Jerusalem. Israeli border police officers stand at the entrance to the gates to prevent Jewish troublemakers from entering and protect against terror attacks. Only Muslims can enter from all gates. If you don’t look like a Muslim, you’ll be asked to recite the Islamic oath to prove you are. 
  • Not all Jews visit Temple Mount. Jewish people believe that The Temple Mount is a holy place, but not all believe they can go up there and visit it. The Jewish religious law deals with many questions regarding the Temple Mount. Amongst those questions – is the place still holy now when no temple exists? Nowadays, the Jewish religious law states that all people are impure in the impurity of the dead. When the temple existed, people had to purify themselves with the ashes of a red cow before entering the temple. But today, there’s no red cow (although some people are working on it). So, can people enter Temple Mount, even though they are “impure”? Some Rabbis permit entering the compound, while others don’t. 
  • Jewish and Christian religious symbols, books, and prayers are prohibited on Temple Mount. Before you enter Temple Mount, you need to go through security, which not only checks if you are carrying weapons but also if you are carrying anything connected to Judaism or Christianity. One time, I had tourists who had a piece of paper with a Jewish prayer in their bag, and the guards at the security post banned it from them. If Jews want to visit Temple Mount wearing their religious items, they must be accompanied by a police officer.
  • Until the end of the 20th century, no Muslim doubted that the Jewish Temple of Solomon was built on Temple Mount. They even mentioned it in visitor brochures. Only after the Israeli-Palestinian conflict grew stronger the Muslim leaders started claiming that there was no Jewish Temple. Instead, they claimed that King Solomon built a mosque on the mountain, since they believe he was a Muslim, too. In the image below, you can see the guide to Temple Mount issued by the Supreme Muslim Council in 1924, stating “Its identity with the site of Solomon’s Temple is beyond dispute.” I’ve drawn a red line under the sentence. You can read the full guide here.
Two pages from "A Brief Guide to Al-Haram Al-Sharif," showing the Muslims believed there was a temple there
  • The Muslims ruined archeological evidence on Temple Mount that might have helped prove the existence of the Jewish Temple. The Muslims do not allow Israelis to do excavations on Temple Mount. In 2000, the Waqf dug in the southern area of Temple Mount and revealed an ancient building called Solomon’s Stables, which was used by the Crusaders but might have been built on top of remnants from the Second Temple period. We will never know, because the Muslims dug there illegally and threw everything they found into dumps around Jerusalem. Jewish scholars started digging in the dumps and found hundreds of archeological findings. But since we don’t know from which layer they came, it is hard to date them correctly. You can learn more about the findings and participate in the sifting efforts by joining the Temple Mount Sifting Project.
Solomon's Stables on Temple Mount - two gates leading into the structure
This was the area dug by the Waqf

Visiting Temple Mount

Today, non-Muslims can visit the outer courtyard of Temple Mount compound. They cannot enter the mosques and structures. Still, you can come up close to the Dome of the Rock and get some nice pictures. Here are some important points regarding your visit:

  • Temple Mount is open for non-Muslim visitors from Sunday to Thursday. In the winter, between 7 to 10:30 AM and 12:30 to 1:30 PM. In the summer, between 7:30 to 11:00 AM and 1:30 to 2:30 PM. If there is any security issue, Temple Mount will be closed. Also, during the month of Ramadan (which changes each year), the Temple Mount is closed to visitors. 
  • If you are non-Muslim, you can only enter through Mugrabim Gate. It is located to the south of the Western Wall. The entrance is to the right of the security station. You can exit from all gates. 
  • You must pass through security. They check not only for weapons but also for religious symbols that are not Muslim. For example, you are not allowed to enter with a Hebrew Bible, a necklace with a Christian cross, a Jewish kipah, or anything else connected to religion. Therefore, please make sure to leave such items in your hotel on the day you plan to visit Temple Mount. You cannot keep such items in your bag, and they will be taken from you. 
  • You will need to cover yourself – especially if you’re a woman. The Muslim guards at the entrance to Temple Mount are there to check if you are modest enough. If not, they will give you clothes to cover up. If you want to avoid this uncomfortable situation, come with your legs, shoulders, and neckbone completely covered.  Read more about the dress code in Jerusalem.
  • To avoid long lines at the entrance, try arriving as early as possible, even half an hour before the official opening hour. 

Main sites to see on Temple Mount

Dome of the Rock

The most dominant structure on Temple Mount is the Dome of the Rock, with its golden dome. It was built around 690 CE on top of the Foundation Stone. Some scholars believe it is located precisely where the Second Temple stood, but no one knows for sure. The Muslims believe that the Foundation Stone is where Prophet Muhammad ascended the Heavens to receive the number of daily prayers. After negotiations, he returned with “only” 5 prayers a day.

Originally, the dome was most likely golden, like today. But for many years, it was black. Only in the 1990s, Hussein, the King of Jordan, renovated the building and covered the dome in gold.

The Dome of the Rock is a monument and not an official mosque, although sometimes it is used for prayer when the entire compound is full of worshippers.

The stairs leading to the Dome of the Rock
The Dome of the Rock beyond the staircase

Al Aqsa Mosque

Right after you enter Temple Mount from the Mugrabim Gate, you’ll see the Al Aqsa Mosque in front of you, to the right. This is the main mosque for prayer on Temple Mount. It was built in 705 CE on top of underground vaults. The fact that it is standing on vaults makes it much less stable than the Dome of the Rock, so it was ruined several times by local earthquakes. The last time it collapsed was in 1927, so what you see is not the original building. 

Al Aqsa Mosque on Temple Mount
The Al Aqsa Mosque from the side

The Dome of the Chain

Another structure you will definitely see on Temple Mount is the Dome of the Chain, located right next to the Dome of the Rock. It’s a small structure that looks like a miniature of the Dome of the Rock, with a few differences. 

According to tradition, there was a structure here in the time of King Solomon, and a chain was attached to this structure. Whoever needed to swear an oath held the chain. If they lied during the oath, the chain would fall out of their hand, and everyone knew that they were liars. 

It is unclear why this dome was built, but the most reasonable explanation is that it marks the center of the world according to Jewish and Muslim belief. 

Dome of the Chain to the right of the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem
See the small structure? That's the Dome of the Chain

Conclusion

The Temple Mount is one of the most fascinating and magnificent sites in Jerusalem. Since the 1990s, non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the structures on Temple Mount, but you can still go up there and get up close to the buildings. It’s your chance to experience one of the most controversial sites on the planet!

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Yours,

Lior

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2 comments

Top Free Things to do in Jerusalem – Backpack Israel .com May 3, 2018 - 5:19 am

[…] to pass through tight security checks). For more info about Temple Mount, visit my post – The Story Around Temple Mount. There are many other interesting buldings within the Old City Walls, so take your time to explore […]

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Self Guided Tour: Jerusalem Old City Highlights – Israel Walking Tours June 19, 2019 - 2:20 pm

[…] Local Tip #2: If you arrive at the Western Wall between 7:00-10:30AM or 12:30-1:30PM in the winter, 7:30-11:00AM or 1:30-2:30PM in the summer, you might have an opportunity to enter the Temple Mount complex. Today the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque stand there, but if you are non-Muslim, you cannot enter those buildings and can only see them from the outside. The entrance to Temple Mount for non-Muslims is at the Mugrabim Gate, where the wooden bridge is. If you would like to visit Temple Mount, please read the guidelines in Backpack Israel’s post – The Story Around Temple Mount. […]

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