The Temple Mount is a 35 acre area considered a holy site to three religions. It is the holiest site in Judaism, the third holiest site in Islam (behind Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia), and a site held in reverence by Christianity.
The Jewish and Christian ties date back the farthest- though no follower of Islam would concede that. The first mention of this area in the Bible is in Genesis 22 when God tests Abraham by telling him to offer Isaac as a burnt offering on a mountain in Moriah that He would specify. The Temple Mount is the very place that Abraham passed this test by showing that he wouldn’t even withhold his only son from God.
The Temple Mount is also the place where King Solomon built the first temple of the Jews in 1000 BC. In 1,400 BC this temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar (the Babylonian king) and many Jews were exiled. After the Jews returned from their banishment they rebuilt the temple and in the first century BC, Herod expanded it. Pictured below is an artist’s rendering of Solomon’s Temple.
The Temple Mount is the very place where Jesus ran the money changers out of the temple with whips for turning the holy place into a common market as recorded in the Gospel of John. Ultimately, it is the site of Christ’s crucifixion. You won’t find a much holier piece of real estate than the Temple Mount.
The Temple was sacked and burned in AD 70 by the Roman general Titus.
Where do the Muslims come in? In the 7th century, the Muslims conquered Jerusalem. A Muslim custom is to build a mosque on the spot that their defeated foe held sacred. So, they built the Al- Aqsa mosque in 705 AD over the site of the first and second Jewish temples and the Dome of the Rock over the site where Muhammad allegedly ascended to heaven- both of which still stand today. To Muslims, the Temple Mount is called Haram al-Sharif or The Noble Sanctuary. (See photo above for labeled picture)
Muslims believe that it is here that their prophet Muhammad ascended to the “Divine Presence” on a winged horse, which is referred to as “The Miraculous Night Journey.” According to the Quran, Muhammad traveled from Mecca to Jerusalem in AD 621, led worship at a mosque, ascended to heaven, then came back to earth to spread his teachings.
The Temple Mount has been controlled by Muslims ever since, barring a brief period in 1099 when Christians took control during the Crusades. Muslims deny that Jews have any claim to the Temple Mount at all or that it was the site of the two Jewish temples.
Who controls it now? Well… In 1948, when Israel regained its statehood, neighboring Arab states declared war and Jordan ended up capturing the old city of Jerusalem which includes the Temple Mount. They destroyed most of the synagogues and banned the Jews from visiting the Temple Mount.
Israel recaptured old Jerusalem during the Six Day War in 1967 and regained control of the Temple Mount. Instead of banning Muslims from the site, however, Israel agreed to allow an Islamic Trust called the Waqf to continue to run the site and the Islamic structures it now contained. The Waqf still runs the site as of today, but Israel does control the entrances to the site.
Obviously this makes for an awkward situation. Muslims claim that the very presence of the Israelis contaminate their holy places. Groups of Muslims routinely shout, taunt, and throw things at Jewish visitors. Some Islamic organizations even pay Palestinians to harass Jewish visitors. Palestinians routinely hold dangerously violent protests that have resulted in casualties. Muslims are allowed to pray freely at the Temple Mount, but during times of heightened risk, the Israelis put an age restriction on Muslims allowed to enter. (Over the age of 35, or sometimes even 50) Ironically, Muslim’s hardly display reverence toward “their” holy site. Al-Aqsa mosque is regularly used as a launching point for rocks, Molotov cocktails, and low tech explosive weapons they call “firecrackers” aimed at Israeli police. Muslims also use it as a raucous site for soccer games and political rallies. This video is from September of 2015 and was obtained from the Israeli police:
In contrast, Israelis are allowed to visit, but their own government officials ban them from praying visibly, making audible blessings, worshiping as a group, or allowing a prayer book to be seen in order to keep the peace and avoid Muslim protests. Who is the religion of peace again?
So there you have it…the cliff’s notes on the Temple Mount. The historical context makes it a little easier to understand the constant religious/political fighting over this holy place.
Of course historically, the US and other countries have stepped in to try to “solve” the dilemma by periodically slapping on band-aids. The UN usually sides with the Palestinians. Many countries seem to have a “just give the Palestinians what they want so they’ll shut up” mentality. Although the US has historically been Israel’s ally, in 2011, former President Obama declared that Israel’s borders should return to the pre- 1967 Six Day War boundaries. A blatant support of Palestinian control and an alleged attempt at decreasing violence. You can read about that in this 2011 article from CNN titled Obama Calls for Israel’s Return to Pre-1967 Borders.
What stands out about Obama’s stance was his assurance that Israel has the right and the support of the US to defend themselves. Yet, relinquishing control of the area acquired in the 6 Day War leaves them at an overwhelming disadvantage since it leaves a border of a mere 10 feet in width and leaves Israel’s biggest cities within range of rockets and other attacks. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu calls the pre-1967 borders “indefensible”. A picture is worth a thousand words:
That tiny red line is the Pre-1967 border and narrows to a width of 9 feet at its smallest point. As you can see, the area in green provides a much needed buffer and renders the largest Israeli cities out of weapons range.
Historically, Palestinian control doesn’t yield the desired peaceful results anyway. For example, under the 1993 Oslo Accords, the historical site of Joseph’s tomb was supposed to be controlled by the Israelis. But, 7 years later in 2000, the Israeli army had to evacuate due to the danger associated with the intifada (the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli “occupation” of the West Bank and Gaza). Palestinians also routinely attack Jewish visitors to Rachel’s tomb which is located in the area of Bethlehem. The Islamic State also has a policy of destroying sites considered holy to any religion other than Sunni Islam. Not exactly shocking when you are actually aware of the history surrounding the Temple Mount. Leaves you to wonder what would motivate someone to continue to push failed policy…But hey, I’m no president.