Palestinian women pray in front of the Dome of the Rock, at the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City during the holy month of Ramadan on June 7, 2016. Photo by Ammar Awad/Reuters

The ’Splainer: Why is Jerusalem’s Temple Mount so disputed?

The ’Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ’splaining to do”) is an occasional feature in which RNS staff give you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at the water cooler.

(RNS) — Jerusalem's Temple Mount is the holiest site in the world for Jews and the third holiest for Muslims — a place where millions of people have prayed for millennia. Yet, often, it is a launching pad for deadly attacks and counterattacks.

The most recent violence unfolded on July 14, when three Arab residents of Israel fatally shot two Israeli police officers guarding the Al-Aqsa Mosque. In response, Israel erected metal detectors and cameras at entrances to the mosque. More deaths followed as three Israelis were stabbed to death in the West Bank, four Palestinians were killed in East Jerusalem, and this weekend a Jordanian worker stabbed an Israeli Embassy worker.

After more than a week of violence — and a flurry of diplomatic closed-door meetings — Israel announced it would remove the metal detectors. But those are just the latest symbol of the broader struggle over ownership and control of the sacred site.

What is the Temple Mount and why is it holy to different groups? And why are some willing to fight over it? Let us Splain ...

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What does the Temple Mount consist of?

The Temple Mount consists of three main sacred sites — the Al-Aqsa Mosque; the Dome of the Rock, sacred to Muslims for its ties to the life of the Prophet Muhammad; and the site of the Second Jewish Temple. The site is sacred to Christians, too, as Jesus is believed to have walked there. Its most visible feature is the golden-roofed Dome of the Rock, visible from much of the city.

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 the year 70. There are no remains of the First Temple,  built by Solomon, the king of ancient Israel and Judea, and destroyed in the sixth century B.C. by the Babylonians.

Pope Francis touches the stones of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City on May 26, 2014. Photo by Andrew Medichini/Pool/Reuters

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

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.

Rabbi Tzvi Graetz, executive director of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues, said that when it was destroyed, "it wasn't just a building that was destroyed, an entire nation went into exile."

Is the Temple Mount holy to Muslims in the same way?

Not exactly. According to the Quran, the top of this mount was the holy landing place in about 620 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 meant his followers would follow the true path, Islam.

It is also the place from which Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended to heaven.

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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 Intifada, which resulted in the deaths of more than 4,000 Israelis and Palestinians.

In 2014, a Palestinian shot Rabbi Yehuda Glick near the Temple Mount. Glick wanted Jews to pray freely at the top of the Temple Mount, which Israel does not allow, for fear of inciting violence. Since his assailant was killed by Israeli security forces, Palestinians have mounted several attacks on Israelis. Israeli police have killed rioters and terror suspects.

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So who is actually in charge of the Temple Mount?

Jordan pays the salaries of the employees of an Islamic waqf, or trust, that 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."


  1. The number of Jews interested in worshipping on the “Temple Mount” is minute. Most Orthodox Jews would not set foot on the Temple Mount for fear of walking unintentionally on the Holy of Holies. The Status quo with Moslems worshipping in the Haram el Sharif and Jews at the Western Wall is completely satisfactory.

  2. a) this (“There are no remains of the First Temple”) should be clarified: there are no observable remains. The Waqf does not permit archaeological excavations.

    b) it seems obvious that to compare a “nigh journey”, unprovable, with the viewable remains of the 2nd Temple as well as the testimonies left by visiting Romans at Herod’s Jerusalem, should reduce the comparision between the two religions even more,

    c) This – “both Israelis and Palestinians have intentionally upset the peace at the Temple Mount” – is misleading. Over the past three decades, no Jew has intentionally upset the peace. I think the shooting by Alan Goodman, a certified schizoprenic in 1982 was the last time something of this nature occured. The right of free access and worship is guaranteed in Israeli law but government policy has it otherwise. In the past few years, the Muslims have deliberatly sought to provoke violence by blocking access, screaming epithets at visiting Jews, throwing items at them, etc. And they have thrown rocks over the wall at the Jews praying below at the Western Wall Plaza. And by the way, Christians can’t read from the Bible about the overturning of the tables, either.

    d) This – “Jordan has officially guarded the Noble Sanctuary since 1919” – is perhaps a typo. Jordan was established in 1946. Its territory was removed from that of the Jewish National Homeland in 1922 and it was then known as Transjordan until becoming independent.

  3. 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.

    Um, no. Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount. Arabs rioted. Al Fatah launched a campaign of political violence that ran on for several years until Israel successfully suppressed. The connection between these three events was not causal.

  4. Isn’t there also a Christian myth that Christ’s Second Coming is dependent on a new temple/church in his honor being built at Temple Mount?

  5. While I fully understand the traditional significance of hopefully building the Third Temple on the Temple Mount, is there any religious reason why it must go there again? I have never heard of any one addressing any biblical reasons why it must be built on top of the previous two Temples rather than built in another location in Jerusalem. Was Solomon’s Temple built in that place for a reason, or was it “arbitrary” in location.

  6. In Christian theology, believers are the temple, being indwelt by the Holy Spirit, as was the first temple. This July 30, btw, is the fifth of Av, the day/anniversary both the first and second temples were destroyed.

  7. There is also a line of thought that the Temple Mount was actually the Roman Fortress Antonio and the real Temple was slightly to the south in the City of David above the spring required for clensing the Temple. The real temple was completely destroyed and no trace left by the Romans as a lesson to the Jews.

    Wouldn’t it be funny if knowledgeable Jews pointed to the wrong location knowing that Muslims would claim it for themselves so that sometime in the future the 3rd Temple could be built in the true location?

  8. As I understand things the exact location of the first temple is not known. Very little excavation on the site has been undertaken and the few relics found have proved to be forgeries. In fact there is no solid evidence for Solomon’s existence (or the size and splendor of his kingdom) or the purported date the temple was built.

  9. It’s actual location has not been established.

  10. The OT tells us that God instructed David to purchase this specific site from the city’s former Jebusite king and build His altar on it, and the altar would eventually be housed within the Temple. I suppose that is why it is still considered the only legitimate site for the Temple.

  11. I’ve heard a similar idea — that the mosque currently sits on the former site of the Temple’s Court of the Gentiles and the Temple itself sat farther north.

    Which would, of course, explain John’s curious vision in which an angel instructs him to measure the Temple but to “leave out the outer court, for it is given over to the Gentiles.”

  12. Thank you for explaining this to me.

  13. The struggle goes beyond what we can see, but is revealed to us in Scripture. Jerusalem is the place where the God of Israel, the true and living God, has chosen to put His Name forever, and the Jewish Temple is where the Jews worshipped Him.

    Allah is in opposition to the God of Israel and Muslims desire to fly his flag on the Temple Mount.

    So there is a spiritual battle going on. The problem is the God of Israel, the true and living God, shares His glory with no one.

  14. It is actually the 9th of Av that commemorates these anniversaries and other tragedies to befall the Jewish people. This year it begins on the evening of Monday, July 31.

  15. Beyond the biblical, rabbinic tradition developed the site as a sort of axis mundi for Judaism. The rock in the Dome of the Rock existed prior to Islam and is referred to as Even ha-Shetiyah, the Foundation Stone. It is believed to be the site of the Holy of Holies, as well as the site of various interactions between humans and God, such as the sacrifices of Cain and Abel, Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac, Jacob’s ladder dream, etc. So any future Temple would have to be on that site.

  16. Here is your chance, Jews, Muslims and Christians.
    You guys can showcase to the world that the Abrahamic religion knows how to respect God’s real estate. Just pray in Peace – up down or middle.

  17. It comes from the Book of Daniel, doesn’t it? Explains why some fundamental Christians are so pro-Israel, because they think if the Israelis somehow displace the Mosque, it will make it easier to build a Christian church there. Here’s just one article about it. Keep in mind, as Abe Lincoln famously said, “just cuz it’s on the Internet, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.”

  18. John 4:21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

  19. “Myth” would be correct, it is not scriptural.

  20. Your word usage was inexact. That was my point.

  21. Isn’t one person’s prophecy another one’s myth? Do you believe you’ll get your own planet someday, as prophesied by the Mormon Church?

  22. It’s not a myth if it turns out to be true Then that’s you making a prophecy.

  23. Then any forecast has the potential to be a prophecy in hindsight. I think your usage is suspect.

  24. You should have just said, according to judeo-christian teaching/theology/tradition. And you would have been OK. You’re welcome.

  25. I think I covered that, when I said, “myth”, but out of respect for your apparent beliefs, I’ll say, “prophecy.” But back to the point, the article only covered Jewish and Muslim interests in the Temple Mount, not this Christian “prophecy”. Have you any thoughts on that?

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