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On The Temple Mount

12 July 2008

Probably my favorite thing about the student apartments here at Hebrew University is that I might have one of the best views in the entire city out my apartment window.  My camera isn’t spectacular, but here’s a hint of it:

You can pretty clearly see the Dome of the Rock shooting up out of the Old City, and the dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque to the right of it.  As it turns out, though, getting up on the Temple Mount is quite the ordeal.  It’s only open during non-prayer times, and since it’s guarded by the Israeli Police, it’s also closed on Saturday.  Moreover, it closes at 2:00 p.m. for reasons I still haven’t been able to discern.  But, after a week and a half, we were finally able to manage a visit up there.

Entering the mount itself was an interesting window into the fragile coexistence of religious authorities in this country.  The Temple Mount, of course, was the site of the First and Second Temples, but since nobody is exactly sure where the temple itself was located, it is technically forbidden for Jews to set foot on the grounds, lest they stumble across the temple in an impure state.  Thus, even though it’s one of the most fortified locations in the entire city, the hordes of Israeli Police sit just outside of the temple mount itself, while as one approaches the gate, a member of the Muslim administration authority stands and ensures that no-one enters the mount dressed in an immodest fashion.

I’ve studied both the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock in a course on Islamic Art History, but absolutely nothing can compare to seeing them up close..  It sits on what is, actually, a pretty desolate place.  The temple mount itself is barren, covered in well-worn stones below which likely sits a treasure trove of archaeological wonders.  And out of nowhere arises a structure so grand, so detailed, it’s not hard to see why it evokes such reverence and even from those who understand little of the significance of what is inside.  Each mosaic was done by hand, carved with such detail that it seems the work of an entire lifetime.  The inside, I’m told (non-Muslims are not allowed inside), is even more spectacular, with vegetal patterns and kufic Qu’ranic script surrounding the rotunda over the rock itself.  And while it has been rebuilt on several occasions, and re-gilded quite recently, it has existed on this very spot since the 7th century, and seen more wars fought around it than most could even imagine.  Yet it, like so many sites in this city, seems to have a penchant for endurance.  It towers over the Old City and the valley, quite literally above the fighting and enmity that have been the essence of this land for so long. 

It’s had its close calls, of course.  When Israel captured the Old City from Jordan during the Six Day War, there was a suggestion from a general or two that the IDF place explosives inside it and Al-Aqsa as a way of ending Arab claims to the mount.  Thankfully, this proved to be an unpopular idea among the leadership at the time, as that war would likely be ongoing.  And as I found out, the Temple Mount was closed to visitors for quite a while after Ariel Sharon visited the area in 2005, provoking such anger and violence that the site was shut down completely to non-Muslims.

On that note, I happened to have a conversation with a Palestinian who happened to be at the Dome during our visit.  I was admiring a stone minbar (the rough equivalent of a pulpit in a Mosque) from Al-Aqsa that now sits outside, and after he was kind enough to translate some of the calligraphy for me, we got to chatting a bit.  Truth be told, it was more or less a blatant pitch for me to convert to Islam—he took every opportunity to drop the name of some American he knew who had converted, and pointed me to websites where I could find their reasoning behind it.  That said, he was very nice, and clearly more than a little knowlegable about the site and its history.  But when I asked him about Sharon, he said something that made me literally shudder.  Sharon, as you may know, suffered a brain hemorrhage in 2005, and since that time has been in a persistent vegetative state.  To this, he replied, without apology: “This is too easy.  He desecrated this place, to occupy Palestine and then to set foot here.  I hope it’s torture for him—it’s not right that he should feel no pain”.

Perhaps it’s just the bubble in which I’ve lived at the university, but I don’t think I’ve heard that kind of pure hatred spoken aloud here thus far.  It’s one thing to see the graffiti; it’s everywhere as you get closer to the old city.  Things like “Gas the Arabs”, “Arabs=Dogs” or “Nuke Israel”—and those are the ones that aren’t written in Hebrew or Arabic.  But to here it from the mouth of a person who, not ten seconds before, had been quite kind indeed, gives an unwelcome face to that sort of anger.  We’d much rather, I think, consign that rhetoric to the nebulous realm of “extremists”, as though it represents some group of shady men in a smoke-filled room who sit aloof from the every day realities of the world.  And that conception, I’m convinced, is to a large extent true.  The streets aren’t crawling with people consumed by a violent anger, no matter how much CNN might suggest otherwise.  But it’s very easy to see the people here as being not unlike the Dome of the Rock—making their way through life with whatever happiness can be gleaned and staying out of the way while the world goes to hell and back again at its feet.  There, in the shadow of the Dome, that had never felt less the case.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Allison permalink
    15 July 2008 3:57 am

    Wow.
    Spectacular view from your window, as well as a spectacular view of the minds/souls of the local population.

    Safe travels.

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