Jerusalem, Israel: the Complications Part III (Islamic Edition)
Stepping onto the Temple Mount/Haram Ash-Sharif (hereafter Mount Moriah to make things easier) is a complicated proposition for a non-Muslim. Held by an Islamic waqf or charitable foundation since Jerusalem fell to Saladin in 1187, today it is the only Islamic-controlled territory in Jerusalem, a provision made for it in 1967 when Israel captured and annexed East Jerusalem during the Six-Day War. The Muslim authority is thus allowed to set its own terms for non-Muslim visitors: there are set times each day except Friday, and these set times are very strictly enforced.
Walking to Mount Moriah (walkway to gate on left). It almost looks as if there’s been excavation in this no-man’s land patrolled by the IDF.
Entrance is through the Bab al-Maghariba gate, after one has passed through Israeli security. The numbers of visitors here are substantially reduced by Israeli rabbinical ruling on the matter, which states that Jews cannot enter lest they tread on the Holy of Holies, the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant (the layout of the Second Temple is lost to history). Seeing as the instructions on this sit beside the ruling from the same guys that exempts metal detectors from fundamentalist interpretations of Shabbat – thus allowing Orthodox Jews to actually enter the Western Wall plaza – we may safely consider both a ruling of convenience (the Israeli Chief Rabbis answer to the government). A number of rulings exist on the holiness of the Temple Mount. It’s not illegal by any means for an Israeli citizen to enter, but this probably keeps the numbers down and stops the confrontations between extremists of both sides.
Jerusalem Syndrome hasn’t helped. Since a fanatical Australian Christian tried to burn down the al-Aqsa Mosque in 1969, seriously damaging the building and destroying the mihrab left there by Saladin, there’s been an understandable tetchiness with non-believers coming up to take photographs and stare and go ‘ooooh’ and walk away. You’re not actually allowed in the al-Aqsa or the Dome of the Rock. Not that this stopped me looking.
Originally built in 691 CE by Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik, following a Byzantine style of hexagonal building, used the dimensions of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was supposed to rival and overshadow the Christian building, as evidenced by later bans on Christian construction at higher altitudes.
When the Crusaders showed up many of them, including the Knights Templar, believed it to be the construction of King Solomon (whilst any Frankish knight who learned Arabic could figure out the truth, the continual influx of newcomers overwhelmed them). Calling it the Templum Domini, it’s where the Templars drew their name from, as well as their base in Jerusalem. Later, Suleman the Magnificent – and bear in mind that’s what his enemies called him – added the Iznik-style tiling to the top half, the same style as was ubiquitous through the Ottoman Empire and still made today. They also added the small Dome of the Prophet on the right. The gold on the roof was added in the 1950s by King Abdullah of Jordan, as the original gold was stripped by an early caliph looking to pay off debts.
It’s a palimpsest of construction styles and periods, with both Christian and Muslim influence on it, and is also possibly the most beautiful building I have ever goddamn seen. Combined with the fact that blood has been spilled both over this site and physically on it for the last thousand years on a depressingly regular basis, you find yourself looking around it with more bleakness than the architecture calls for.
You can see why they banned further Christian construction. Mount Moriah actually isn’t that high. If anything, it seems lower than much of Jerusalem, and so looking back into the Old City you get the sense that you’re at the bottom of a pit, a black hole of religion: at any moment all these gods might just collapse into here and form a mathematical point of deities, an event horizon of faith.
I don’t get any longer to contemplate this though, as time is up and the guards at the site begin politely hurrying visitors out, stepping behind people every time they meander in the right direction, making it gently clear that it’s not my time any more. Others are less diplomatic. “Get out,” a child shouts at my back. I’m out, man, I’m out.