The rock within is the foundation of three religions guiding over half the world’s believers.
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The Noble Sanctuary
There was already a short line doubling back after the metal detectors by the Dung Gate exit. The que had heeded the advice to arrive in time to avoid long lines. The window of opportunity was about two and a half hour. So there we stood a quarter of an hour before opening waiting for the metal detector and passport check. Above a sign read:
Announcement and Warning
According to Torah Law, entering the Temple Mount area is strictly forbidden due to the holiness of the site
– The Chief Rabbinate of Israel
Feeling like a heathen I handed over my passport for inspection and dropped my camera backpack on the scanner conveyer. As it passed through I was (as usual) asked to open it. Upon inspection the Security Officer in charge asked if I was a journalist, to which I conceded. “Sorry you can’t get in without prior approval by the Waqf” religious authority responsible for the site. Resigned I packed up my things and was ready to walk out when he came back with “if you leave all but one camera you can go as a tourist” and handed me a key to a locker outside. A bit apprehensive I squeezed the loaded backpack into the school type locker and went through the detector. I had to do the most with what I had. Relieved I headed up the wooden ramp to the third holiest place in Sunni Islam the “al-Haram ash-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) as I overlooked the Jewish holy place at the Western Wall below.
At the gate a few guards was hanging around and barely looked as us tourists entered. However there were others who with a keen eye scanned every entrant. Within a few steps a multitude of offers of “private guided tours” was hurled at us. I politely decline the “free tours” and other arrivals were accosted. However one particular guide persisted giving me flashbacks to Cairo and Baghdad. So I decided to sit down to take in the scene without commitment. Yoan as his name was sat down next to me and started to explain that he is an authorized guide but cannot afford to pay the 25000 Shekels to become an official guide. Being a Palestinian his willingness to pay tax to the Jewish authorities was probably also a contributing factor. He rattled off a slew of facts about the area, most which of which would have been found with a quick Google search. I let him go on for a few minutes before replying with a question about the significance of the eight pointed star (two squares layered on top of each other) a common Muslim symbol. Why eight? His answer “it was eight angels which carried the temple of God” somewhat perplexed me but I swallowed it for effect. He soon seemed to run out of facts and instead shared his daily struggles in Jerusalem with me. Everything was very expensive, finding a permanent job was just about impossible which left him to a constant worry about how to feed his children. It was a story I had heard more times than I could remember and handed him 20 Shekels and was on my way. It wouldn’t take many minutes I thought before the broken record played for another visitor.
Ahead groups of women sat in clusters before a beige lime stone façade with a dark grey dome at the far right. The building came to be after 621 AD when Muhammed experienced the “Isra and Mi’raj”, (Night Journey) a miraculous journey (some early Arab chroniclers call it spiritual others a physical journey) on a Buraq a winged animal sized between a donkey and a mule. During the first part of his journey he travelled to the “farthest mosque” or in Arabic the Al-Aqsa”. It was originally not much more than a small prayer house but during the reign of Caliph Umar (Omar) it grew.
On the stairs beyond a fountain a large group of Chinese tourists were taking a group photo. As I clipped the steps the glistening golden Dome of the Rock came into view. When it was finished in 691 AD it looked nothing like this, the richly decorated tile façade was added somewhere around thousand years later during the Ottoman rule and King Hussein of Jordan footed the bill for the leaf gold on top in 1994.
Before the mosque two Jewish temples had been raised and razed on the same spot. It was here the Arc of the Covenant stood in the “Holy of Holies”. However as the exact location is unknown the Rabbis of Israel discourage visits to the entire hollow ground. After the two Jewish came a Roman temple hailing the God Jupiter which after being levelled was replaced by the current Dome. Around three hundred years after completion the Crusaders used it as a church for a short while.
Adjacent stand the smaller open sided “Dome of the Chain” by some called a model (at a 1/3 scale) whilst other attribute it to the “end of days”. Beyond the Dome lay the “Golden Gate” permanently sealed by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1541. It is through this Gate Jews expect Messiah to arrive and Christians believe that Jesus arrived on Palm Sunday.
A level down on the opposite side a group of heavily armed police encircles a group of Jewish visitors. Even if discouraged by the entrance it is not legally prohibited and to express their protest Muslims around the Al Aqsa call out the familiar “Allah Akbar”. I wait for them to leave before taking the steps down towards the exit. Through an open window I hear the screams of playing girls; a sign on an old wooden door says “Shariah School for girls”.
After a visit it is hard not to wonder about the significance attributed to the barren rock within the Golden Dome, the one thing that the three monotheistic religions can agree on. That when here Abraham attempted to sacrifice his son Isaac to God he learned that there is something bigger than man. If only that common belief would lead to peace.
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