(RNS) Vicious cycles of violence often begin here. It is the holiest site in the world for Jews, the third holiest for Muslims — a place where millions of people have prayed for a millennia. Yet, often, it is a launching pad for deadly attacks and counterattacks.
There’s actually no temple at the Temple Mount?
Right. There is a remnant of a retaining wall that helped support the Jewish temple. What is known as the Western Wall buttressed the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. There are no remains of the First Temple, which was built by Solomon, the king of ancient Israel and Judea, and destroyed in the sixth century B.C. by the Babylonians.
Why was the First Temple built?
King David wanted to build a permanent resting place for the ark containing the Ten Commandments, a task that fell to his son, Solomon. In ancient times, the Jewish high priest would enter the temple once a year on Yom Kippur to pray to God on Israel’s behalf. Orthodox Jews still pray three times a day for its restoration.
“It is the place the high priest went into once a year to see the face of the Lord, in the Scriptures, and to get his blessing for the people,” said Rabbi Tzvi Graetz, executive director of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues. When it was destroyed, “it wasn’t just a building that was destroyed, an entire nation went into exile,” Graetz said.
Is the Temple Mount holy to Muslims in the same way?
Not exactly. The top of this mount was, according to the Quran, the holy landing place in about 620 A.D. for the Prophet Muhammad. After his “Night Journey” on a winged beast to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, Muhammad prayed, and the angel Gabriel offered him water, wine or milk. The prophet chose milk, and Gabriel told him that it meant his followers would follow the true path, Islam.
It was also the place from which Muhammad ascended to heaven. Before this ascent, said Imam Abu Nahidian of Virginia’s Manassas Mosque, Muhammad did not know the particulars of prayer. “In order to see all that he had to ascend to heaven to see the words,” Nahidian said. When Mohammad returned, he was able to tell his followers how to pray (five times a day).
Can’t Muslims pray at the top and Jews pray at the bottom without bothering each other?
On peaceful days, that’s what happens. Muslims pray at the two mosques at the “top” of the Temple Mount — which they call the Noble Sanctuary — and can look over the edge to see Jews praying at the Western Wall below. But both Israelis and Palestinians have intentionally upset the peace at the Temple Mount, knowing that any disturbance there is likely to send violent shock waves far beyond.
In 2000, Ariel Sharon, then the leader of Israel’s opposition party, took a delegation to the top of the Temple Mount, inciting rioting from Muslims and sparking the Second Intifida, which resulted in the deaths of more than 4,000 Israelis and Palestinians.
On Oct. 29, a Palestinian shot Rabbi Yehuda Glick near the Temple Mount. Glick wants Jews to pray freely at the top of the Temple Mount, which Israel, for fear of inciting violence, does not allow. Since his assailant was killed by Israeli security forces, Palestinians have mounted several attacks on Israelis. Israeli police have killed rioters and terror suspects.
So who is actually in charge of the Temple Mount?
Jordan pays the salaries of the employees of an Islamic Waqf, or trust, which oversees the Noble Sanctuary. But Israel, which has soldiers stationed around the Temple Mount, effectively controls access to it. After the attempted assassination of Glick, for example, Israel closed the Temple Mount to men under 50.
What’s this I hear about a Third Temple?
In Judaism, there is a belief that a new temple should be built on the ruins of the First and Second. But most Jews consider it an unrealistic and dangerous goal given that it would entail the destruction of the Noble Sanctuary. As Graetz puts it: “Some extremists have the terrible fantasy of blowing up the mosque and building a temple. That’s not the kind of temple I would ever want to visit.”
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