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Temple Mount, Jerusalem


The last bit of uneven rock that protrudes from the top of Mount Moriah is the holiest spot in Judaism. Jews identify it as the foundation stone of the world laid by God. On it, at God's behest, Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac, and Jacob, son of Isaac, dreamt of the ladder to Heaven used by the angels. In the tenth century BCE, King Solomon erected the first Jewish Temple on top of the rise - hence the name Temple Mount - at the centre of which was the Rock. On this stone was installed the Ark of the Covenant, in which were kept the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments revealed to Moses by God. A chamber, called the Holy of Holies, was built over this. Only the High Priest was allowed to enter it.


The Temple was rebuilt following its destruction by the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE, and expanded by Herod the Great in the first century, around the time Christianity was born. Jesus is supposed to have prayed on the Rock, and in the fourth century, Helena, mother of the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine, raised a church on the hill. Comparatively, Christendom's attachment to the Mount is least amongst the three religions. And even though Islam was born six hundred years after Christianity, the Mount holds much more spiritual and physical significance for it. After Mecca and Medina, it is Islam's third-most revered site. During his early days in Medina, in acknowledgement of the prophetic primacy of Abraham, Muhammad positioned his qibla (direction of prayer) towards Jerusalem. Additionally, the Quran relates the story of the Prophet's fateful night journey to Heaven, summoned by God, with the archangel Gabriel as escort. The first part of the journey, the Isra, began from the 'the most sacred mosque', the Kaaba. Woken from his sleep, Muhammad was whisked away on the winged horse Buraq to 'the farthest mosque', believed by Muslims to be at the Rock on the Temple Mount. On the second phase of his divine excursion, called Mi'raj, he was transported to Heaven, where he met earlier prophets like Moses and Abraham, and was given an audience by God himself.

A few years after the Prophet's death, Umar, the second Caliph, captured Jerusalem. He cleared the rubbish dump that the Mount area had been reduced to by the Romans, paid his respects at the Rock, and ordered that a mosque be built at some distance from it, in the direction of Mecca. The intention was to clearly emphasise to Muslims the precedence of the Kaaba over the Rock, which is foremost to the Judaic religion. However, some years later, the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik visited Jerusalem, and giving the Rock its own due, commissioned a dome over it. The motivation could also have been to exceed existing Christian churches in magnificence. While the original wooden Al-Aqsa ('farthest') Mosque was rebuilt over the centuries, the Dome of the Rock, apart from renovations, has survived in its original form. Today, not only is it the oldest surviving Muslim monument, but is also recognized as one of the finest examples of Muslim religious architecture.


The last major rebuilding of Al-Aqsa was in the eleventh century. It has seven bays, of which the three main ones are in Romanesque style. There are several pillars and halls inside, and much of the decoration, including the ceiling, dates from the twentieth century. In contrast to the Mosque's lead-sheeted dome, the Dome of the Rock gleams with gold leaf. Both the drum on which it stands and the closed arcade around it, are octagonal. The stunning tile-work on the façade was originally the handiwork of sixteenth-century craftsmen, sponsored by the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. Two rows of inscriptions running around the base of the dome and the octagonal exterior walls below relate the story of Muhammad's nocturnal sojourn to Allah's abode, and speak of His glory. The interior calligraphy records the contribution of various rulers to the building's embellishment, and also articulates through Quranic verses that Jesus was a Prophet, and not the son of God as claimed by Christians. Rich mosaics and carvings in floral and geometric patterns decorate the surfaces of the ceiling and the two concentric arched galleries. Ensconced behind a wooden screen is the Rock. Under it is a cavity, in which, it is said, that the dead meet to pray and await the Day of Judgement.

If there is one site where the three Abrahamic religions superimpose inextricably upon one another, it is the Temple Mount. Though all three faiths have the same roots, they have branched differently, and perhaps because of their common lineage, have found all the more need to assert themselves unequivocally and uncompromisingly against one another. Their relationship has always been uneasy and volatile, and Jerusalem, the legendary city of the Holy Bible and the Quran has borne much of the fallout.

Though Israeli forces captured Jerusalem from the Arabs in 1967, they considered it prudent for the sake of peace to let status quo remain on the Mount. Thus, while Muslims continue to control the hill, the Christian focus in Jerusalem is on another small hill called Golgotha, the place of Jesus's crucifixion. The Jews, denied their ruined Temple, lament its destruction at a section of the Mount's outer wall known as the Western Wall - the last major surviving feature of Herod's great building around the original location of the Ark.

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