By Shelley Neese
In June, we saw a brand new government take the reins in Israel, breaking a twelve year prime ministership for Bibi Netanyahu. That surprise political changeup is even more surprising considering that it followed a two week long war with Gaza in May. And before that, in April there were regular outbreaks of violence in Jerusalem. It is perfectly normal if you feel a little whiplash from the rapidity of the breaking news coming out of Israel. But now that we have a little distance from the moments of full-on outbreak atop the Temple Mount, I think it is important to reflect on the domino effect that just happened. Part of that reflection proves that as much that has changed in Jerusalem since 1967, nothing has changed. Jerusalem has been in the spotlight many times before, front and center, for major clashes of civilization. And the Temple Mount, in particular, is at the center of the center.
For those of you who have been to Israel before, you expect the Temple Mount to always be the hot button issue. You have felt the heavier gravity at the place, just wondering around the perimeter of the Mount, hearing the Muslim call to prayer while Jews pray at the Western Wall just below. As a lover of history, I always want to frame things for Jerusalem Connection friends with a historical lens. In this case, I want to give a Reader’s Digest condensed version of the history of the Temple Mount for the last four thousand years.
A good starting point is around 1800 BCE, Abraham brought Isaac to Mount Moriah. In that moment of near sacrifice and the pinnacle of obedience, God intervened, providing a ram to be sacrificed instead. Since that time, this very spot has been significant in the Jewish memory.
In 967 BCE, Solomon oversaw the construction of the First Temple on the Temple Mount. It had been the dream of King David but the task was appointed to King Solomon. Solomon’s Temple was a wonder to behold. The Bible describes its exquisite beauty and renowned wealth. Sacrificial worship continued on the Temple Mount until 586 BCE when the Babylonian army overran Jerusalem and sacked the Temple. The Babylonians looted all they could from the Temple treasury and carted off the gold and silver to Babylon. The elite among the Jews were also brought to Babylon. Their seventy-year period of exile had been prophesied by Jeremiah.
In 516 BCE, waves of Jews returned to Jerusalem. The Persian empire had given them permission to rebuild their city walls and construct a Second Temple. Jerusalemites that had survived the long exile and then returned wept when they saw Zerubbabel’s temple. It had only a fraction of the glory of Solomon’s Temple. But at least the Jewish people were finally independent.
The temple of Zerubbabel was expanded upon by the Hasmoneans. Later, under Roman occupation, Herod the Great doubled the size of the Temple Mount. He reconstructed an entirely new temple and courtyard which is extensively described by the historian Josephus. It was the crown jewel in Herod’s many architectural achievements.
In 66 CE, the Jews revolted. They were experiencing a civil war on top of an uprising against the Romans. Christians had been forewarned by Jesus that the end of the age was upon them and no stone would be left unturned.
In 70 CE, Titus and his Roman garrison topped Jerusalem’s gates. Over a million Jews were killed. The destruction was total. Titus had first ordered that the Temple not be destroyed but in all the mayhem, it was looted and set on fire.
In 135 CE, with Jerusalem still in ruins, the Romans built a Temple to Jupiter (Zeus) on the Temple Mount. This was an abomination that could not stand among the Jewish people still left in the land. The Bar Kokhba revolt was the Jews last stand against the oppression of the Roman empire; it ended with another half million Jews dead.
In 321 CE, Helena, the mother of Constantine, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to walk the steps of Jesus. She located the sites venerated by Christians and built churches at key spots that marked major events in the life of Jesus, like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. She was horrified to see a pagan temple atop the Temple Mount and she promptly ordered its destruction. In its place, Helena built a church dedicated to St. James, the brother of Jesus who was martyred just off the pinnacle of the Temple Mount. Evidence of this early church has been found through the Temple Mount Sifting Project.
In 636 CE, the Battle of the Yarmuk River ended Christian/Byzantine rule of the Holy Land. Islamic armies took over the whole of the Levant. Though Mecca and Medina were the holiest places for Muslims, they venerated Jerusalem as well. In the next few decades, they constructed the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock atop the Temple Mount. The Dome of the Rock was constructed by Byzantine slaves. That is why it is octagonal in shape, like a church. The whole of the Temple Mount became known as the Noble Sanctuary under Muslim Domain.
In 1099 CE, Crusaders recaptured the Temple Mount from the Muslims. They had rallied under the banner of ending persecution of Christian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land and a call to take back the Holy places. The did not destroy the Dome of the Rock. Afterall, it looked like a church to them so they converted it into a church. The crusaders also launched Temple Mount renovations, like what is today called Solomon’s Stables.
In 1187 CE, Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt, gathered together a Muslim army and defeated the crusaders and took back Jerusalem. He permitted the surviving crusaders safe passage back to the seas, likely because they had not destroyed the dome.
To this day, the Temple Mount is the most contested piece of real estate in the world. Since 1967, it is under Israeli sovereignty but Islamic administration and policed by Israeli Druze officer. The situation remains as complicated as it gets which we all stood witness too when the erection of a few barriers for crowd control on the Temple Mount tipped the scales and suddenly blood was being shed and Hamas started lobbing thousands of rockets in defense of Jerusalem. Knowing the four thousand years of history on the Temple Mount helps put the events of May 2021 in a bit more perspective.