The Temple Mount

Aerial shot of the modern day Temple Mount with the golden Dome of the Rock at its center

The Temple Mount is a holy site in the eastern section of the old city of Jerusalem. Its religious importance stems back to the construction of Solomon’s Temple in the Old Testament and spans Christian and Islamic tradition as well. The Crusader occupation greatly changed the importance of Temple Mount in the Christian tradition.

Map of the Temple Mount, with all significant religious sites marked

Significance in Judaism

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is considered to be Mount Moriah of Jewish tradition. This is the place where Abraham, the first prophet of Judaism, attempted to sacrifice his son Isaac, thereby sanctifying the location. In the 10th century BCE, King David united the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and conquered Jerusalem. According to the I Chronicles, David attempted to build a temple on Mount Moriah to house the Ark of the Covenant, a vessel built to carry the ten commandments and thought to house the spirit of God. However, God told David not to build a Temple as David had shed blood as a conqueror, and that David’s son, Solomon, should build the Temple instead. Once Solomon became King, he built the Jewish First Temple, or Solomon’s Temple, on Mount Moriah.

The Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar, and the Jews were exiled. Later, in the latter part of the 500s BCE the Persian ruler Cyrus issued an edict granting the Jews the right to rebuild the Temple, and so the Second Temple was built. In the Second Temple was a room called the Holy of Holies which was said to house the spirit of God. The Jewish high priest would enter the room once a year on Yom Kippur to pray and repent for the Jewish people. In the mid second century BCE, the Seleucids raised a pagan altar in the temple and killed 40,000 Jews: a set of events dubbed the “abomination of desolation” in Daniel 11:31. The Maccabean revolt later restored the temple.

The second temple was destroyed in the first century CE by the Roman general and future emperor Vespasian Flavius and his son Titus in response to the first Jewish rebellion. The quelling of the revolt resulted in a mass enslavement and diaspora of the Jewish people. The second Jewish revolt in the 2nd century CE under the emperor Hadrian resulted in the destruction of the Jewish state completely (it became part of the new Roman province Syria Palaestina), and a temple to Jupiter was erected upon the Temple Mount in place of the first Temple. Judaism attests that the building of the third Temple will signal the coming of the Messiah.

The Destruction of the Second Temple, as prophesied by Jesus, was seen by the Byzantine Christians as the victory of their new religion over Judaism

Byzantine Christianity 

After Emperor Constantine I declared Christianity to be the Empire’s official religion in 313 CE, Hadrian’s temple to Jupiter was demolished following the Council of Nicea in 325 CE. Beginning with Constantine’s reign, the focus of Christian tradition in Jerusalem shifted from the Temple Mount to the Holy Sepulchre, which was the location of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. By this time, the buildings on the Mount were in ruins due to the thwarted Jewish attempts at rebuilding the Temple during Roman rule. The destruction of the Temple, prophesied by Jesus’s “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands” (Mark 14:58), in addition to the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem, was seen by the Byzantine Christians as proof of Christianity’s victory over Judaism. In the centuries preceding the conquest of Jerusalem first by the Sassanids, then by the Rashidun, the Temple Mount had been completely overlooked in the Christian religious topography of Jerusalem in favor of the Holy Sepulchre.

Significance in Islam

When Jerusalem passed into Muslim hands in the 7th century, so did the area of the Temple Mount, which the Muslims called Haram al-Sharif. At its center was the es-Sakhra, ”The Foundation Stone”—a rock outcropping where, according to early Muslim tradition, King David prayed to God and King Solomon had built the Temple. Later Muslim tradition identified es-Sakhra as the place from which the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven after his Night Journey from Mecca in chapter 17 of the Qur’an. During the Night Journey, Prophet Muhammad travels to Al-Aqsa Mosque, or the Farthest Mosque, to make this ascension to Heaven, where he spoke with earlier prophets such as Abraham, Moses, John the Baptist, Jesus, and ultimately God.

In early Islamic tradition, Al-Aqsa Mosque referred to the entirety of the Temple Mount. The entire Temple Mount has since come to be referred to as Haram al-Sharif, or “the Noble Sanctuary,” and Al-Aqsa Mosque now refers to the small prayer house built by the Rashidun Caliph Umar, which was rebuilt and expanded by the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik and his son al-Walid in 705 CE.

It is out of this ambiguity of defining “al-Masjid al-Aqsa” that interpretative differences arise where on the Temple Mount the Prophet Muhammad ascended on the Night Journey. A mosque (masjid) means a place of prostration, and as open mosques demonstrate, do not necessarily mean a building. The current Al-Aqsa Mosque is built upon the spot the Rashidun and Umayyads believed Muhammad ascended, whereas other scholars believe Muhammad ascended upon the Foundation Stone, now housed inside the Dome of the Rock. Regardless, the importance of the Night Journey in Islamic tradition and its setting within the Temple Mount compound has made Jerusalem the third holiest city in Islam, following Mecca and Medina.

Depiction of the Night Journey of the Prophet Muhammad in which he journeyed to Jerusalem on a mythical steed named Buraq, to meet with the other prophets, visit heaven and finally see God.

The Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik built the octagonal Dome of the Rock over the es-Sakhra between 687 and 691 CE. It was built employing Byzantine architects, and thus contained many Byzantine design elements, such as the octagonal plan, the dome of wood, and the mosaics decorating the structure. It is disputed whether the Dome of the Rock was ever a mosque or if it is a ciborium, or vessel, erected over the holy site.

Also within the Temple Mount compound is the Dome of the Chain. An Islamic prayer house built by the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik, it is the location of Judgement Day in Islamic tradition. It is here that the Final Judgement will take place and that a chain will stop the sinful while letting the just pass through.

Map of the Old City of Jerusalem

During the Crusader Occupation

When Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders on July 15, 1099, gone was the rubble that had dominated the Temple Mount during Byzantine rule, and instead three Muslim buildings now stood upon it—the Dome of the Rock, the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Chain, surrounded by gates leading into the area.

Dome of the Rock with the smaller Dome of the Chain in front of it. The gilded dome and the Turkish tiles on the outside of the Dome of the Rock were added by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman I in the 16th century.

In early Crusader tradition, the Dome of the Rock housed the place in which the Ark of the Covenant was sealed, and it was referred to as “Templum Domini”, or Temple of the Lord. However, in later years of Crusader rule, the Templum Domini shifted away from the association with relics and instead became associated with the divine presence itself, the Holy of Holies.

The Dome of the Chain also took on new religious significance for the Crusaders.  During the occupation, the kiosk-like structure east of the Dome of the Rock was consecrated as a chapel of St James the Less (also known as James the Just), the eldest of Jesus’ four brothers. The Crusaders believed the structure to be the tomb of St James and associated it with his martyrdom. The Franks carved an inscription in the chapel marking it as the Saint’s tomb.

The Crusaders attributed several significant biblical events to the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock. For example, they came to believe that the great rock within Templum Domini was also the stone pillow on which Jacob rested when he dreamed of the ladder climbed by God’s angels. This contributed to the divine presence that the Crusaders associated with the Dome of the Rock as when Jacob awoke he said, “truly the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it,” (Genesis 28:16) words that the Crusaders added in a mosaic inscription within the Temple. Also in the Dome of the Rock is a small stone cave the Crusaders called the “sanctuary of the Lord.”  It was thought to be the place where the conception of Saint John the Baptist was announced to his father by the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:5-20).  The Crusaders also believed this cave to be the place where Jesus absolved the adulteress (John 8:1-11), and it became a  destination of pilgrimage during Crusader occupation, at which devotees would confess their sins.

The cave within the Dome of the Rock, considered to be “the Sanctuary of the Lord”

After a few decades, in which the Crusader kings of Jerusalem became more established and financially secure, the Dome of the Rock was lavishly endowed to make up for all the treasures the Crusaders had plundered in 1099. In 1115 the restoration of the Templum Domini began. The rock, considered the Holy of Holies, was covered in a marble casing and turned into an altar with a cross. An octagonal iron screen was erected so that it would be impossible to touch and even see anything but the northern part of the rock. This was done in order to prevent people from breaking off pieces of the rock to sell as relics. The outside was covered in mosaics depicting Latin Christian verses, while the inside was also plastered over and decorated with images of the history of the Temple and other inscriptions. Perhaps the most dramatic addition was the golden cross that was hoisted to the top of the Dome, which so greatly offended Muslims that Saladin’s first action upon taking Jerusalem in October of 1187 was ordering its removal.

Al-Aqsa Mosque, believed to be built on top of Solomon’s Temple, served as the royal palace in the first few decades of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Later it was given as a headquarters to the Knights Templar

Likewise, the Al-Aqsa Mosque was also integrated into Latin Christian religious topography. Al-Aqsa Mosque was thought to be built above the ruins of the first Temple of Solomon.  As a result, the Crusaders referred to the building as “Templum Salomonis”, or Solomon’s Temple. The first ruler of the new Kingdom of Jerusalem, Godfrey of Bouillon, took up residence in the building and renovated its interior to make it more similar to a palace, removing all traces of Muslim worship in the process. The lower portion of the building was used to house horses and referred to as “Solomon’s Stables.”  Thus, in the first decades after the First Crusade, the Temple Mount became the administrative center, not just of Jerusalem, but of the entire Crusader Kingdom.

In 1118 King Baldwin II granted the use of part of the building to the newly founded Knights Templar who were sworn to protect pilgrims coming to Jerusalem and provided a stable military presence in the Crusader Kingdoms. The military order derived their name from their use of Solomon’s Temple as a headquarters, calling themselves “The Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon” or the Knights Templar. Joint use of the building lasted until Pope Honorius II officially recognized the Templar as a military order in 1128 and the knights became the primary residents of Al-Aqsa while the Tower of David was converted into the new royal palace. Thus, much of the military authority of the Crusader Kingdom became centered on the Temple Mount.  The vast resources of the Templar allowed the order to make several architectural changes and expansions to Al-Aqsa Mosque throughout this period.  Included in these expansions were a church, a new palace, and several cellars and refectories.  When the city was retaken by Saladin in 1187, many of these additions were destroyed as Al-Aqsa Mosque was returned to its original function.

(Al Jazeera has some amazing 360 tours of Al-Aqsa Mosque.)

The Temple Mount and Crusader Ideology

When the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099, they immediately took over the buildings on the Temple Mount. The symbolic significance of the location in Christian tradition, which had been abandoned during Byzantine rule in favor of the Holy Sepulchre, was reinstated. The decision to concentrate royal and military authority in the Temple Mount was largely influenced by the small number and impoverished nature of the Crusaders. After trekking across Europe and the Levant for several years, constantly engaged in battles or sieges, the Crusaders lacked the money and the manpower to fully garrison the city or to build new structures for administrative purposes. Many Crusaders had died in battle, while others completed their pilgrimage by praying at the Holy Sepulchre and then went home. Therefore, necessity demanded that the King of Jerusalem take up residence in Al Aqsa, and then share his palace with the Knights Templar, who were a constant military presence in the Crusader Kingdoms and sworn to protect pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. The religious center of the Kingdom, located at the Holy Sepulchre, was thus extended to the Temple Mount, residence of the King and the new military order.

The Byzantine Christians paid more attention to the fulfillment of God’s curse on the Temple Mount and the victory of Christianity over Judaism that was symbolized by the destruction of the Temple. Therefore the destruction of the Temple was seen as a form of spiritual legitimacy for a relatively new religion that had just gained official recognition throughout the Roman Empire. The Crusaders, however, were less concerned with the triumph of the new religion over the old than they were about the continuation of tradition from the old to the new as the means of legitimizing themselves and their presence in the Levant. The First Temple of Solomon was known to contain the Ark of the Covenant and Holy of Holies. It was on the site of the Second Temple of Solomon that the presentation of Christ occurred; Mary and Joseph present Jesus in the Jerusalem temple, Simeon, a devout man of the Old order, recognizes Jesus as the Messiah and proclaim him to be “A light for revelation to the Gentiles / and for glory to your people Israel”(Luke 2:22–38). The Crusaders would have no doubt seen this episode as the switch from the Old to the New Covenant, a continuity of tradition and manifestation of God’s will and blessing on the new Chosen people. In fact this rhetoric was not unfamiliar to the Crusaders, who saw the success of the First Crusade as a miracle against all odds and a sign that they were God’s new chosen people, fighting to redeem Jerusalem like the Maccabees of old. In fact, early in the Crusade at the Siege of Antioch, the contemporary chronicler of the First Crusade Raymond d’Aguilers was already comparing the Crusaders to the Maccabees:

“I would dare … to place this battle ahead of the fights of the Maccabees, since if Maccabaeus with three thousand felled forty-eight thousand of the enemy, more than sixty thousand of the enemy were here turned in flight by a force of forty knights. I do not, indeed, belittle the valor of the Maccabees… but I say that God, then marvelous in Maccabaeus, was now more marvelous in our troops.” Raymond d’Aguilers

When the fledgling Crusader Kingdom, impoverished and undermanned, was fighting for its very survival, the spiritual symbolism of the Temple Mount, combined with more practical concerns, provided a source of stabilizing ideological legitimacy.

Further Reading:

On the general history of Jewish Jerusalem: Bible Archaeology

On the fall of Jewish Jerusalem and the causes of the resulting diaspora:            Gambash, G. (n.d.). Rome and provincial resistance.

For more information about the early Islamic religious topography of the Temple Mount: Rosen-Ayalon, M. (1989). The early Islamic monuments of al-Ḥaram al-Sharīf: An iconographic study. Jerusalem, Israel: Institute of Archaeology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

For more information regarding the Dome of the Rock:                                               Grabar, O. (2006). The Dome of the Rock. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

For more information of about the Dome of the Chain: Archnet

For more information regarding the dispute of how Prophet Muhammad travelled to Al-Aqsa Mosque prior to the Umayyads constructing the current building: Islamic Awareness

For more information about the changing nature of the Temple Mount before, during and after the Crusader occupation:                                                                                     Schein, S.. (1984). Between Mount Moriah and the Holy Sepulchre: The Changing Traditions of the Temple Mount in the Central Middle Ages. Traditio, 40, 175–195. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27831152

For further information on the Temple Mount during Crusader occupation: Bas Library

For more information on Al-Aqsa Mosque: Lost Islamic History