We finally visited Haram al-Sharif – which houses the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock – this past weekend, after being on a waitlist for a year to get in for a special behind-the-scenes tour of one of the most important religious sites in the world.
I often say how everything is complicated in Jerusalem, and man, Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary as Muslims call it, is surely the most complicated and contentious part.
Haram Al-Sharif is the thirty-five acres of land on a hilltop in Jerusalem’s Old City. It’s the third holiest site for Sunni Muslims (the first is Mecca and the second is Medina, both in Saudi Arabia). Muslims believe that it was from here that the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven on a winged horse. The gold Dome of the Rock shrine was built in the late 7th Century to honor this feat. Today, it’s one of the oldest Islamic structures in the world, an architectural marvel, and its glimmering domed top can be seen from all over Jerusalem.
The very same hilltop area is also the holiest site for Jews, and they call it the Temple Mount. Jewish tradition says it was from the Temple Mount that God gathered the dust used to create Adam, and, much later, where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son to God. (Interestingly, the Torah names the son as Isaac, though many Muslims believe it was Abraham’s first son Ishmael.) According to the Old Testament, King Soloman built the First Temple of the Jews on the hilltop more than 3,000 years ago, and it was inside this temple where the Ten Commandments were stored. Then the Babylonians sacked it, burned it, and sent the Jews into exile. Jews returned in 539 BC to build the Second Temple on the same site. Then Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 AD, and all that remains of it today are the stones that make up the Western Wall, which Jews around the world face when they pray, and tons of Jerusalemites and visitors flock to each day.
Here’s a photo of the Western Wall, which is located in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. (Photo via Wikipedia, because despite all my photos from Jerusalem, I, inexplicably, haven’t yet taken a good photo of the Western Wall).
The treed spot above the wall is the peaceful courtyard in the Haram al-Sharif complex, and the wooden walkway is pretty much the only entrance that non-Muslims can use to enter Haram al-Sharif. Muslims can enter from numerous other spots in the Muslim Quarter.
During the Crusader period, which began in 1099, the area was a place of worship for Christians, but the Muslims retook it in 1187, and the site has pretty much been in Muslim hands ever since (throughout the Mamluk, Ottoman, British Mandate, and Jordanian periods). In 1967, Israel seized East Jerusalem from Jordan and has controlled the Old City ever since. But a Jordan-based Islamic trust called the Waqf has custodianship of Haram al Sharif and, together with the Israeli government, controls who enters the site.
It’s controversial for Jews to enter the area, both because of religious restrictions (some believe it’s sacrilege to step foot on “Holiest of Holies”) and because of the current political climate. It’s also strictly against the rules for Jews or Christians to pray on Haram al Sharif.
During our visit, there were Jewish tourists inside the compound, and they were led by several armed Israeli guards. This is a contentious practice because the Waqf doesn’t want weapons there, but Israel wants to make sure its people are protected when touring a controversial site.
Whew, so there’s the history as I’ve learned it. If you want to read more, there are endless sources from which to choose, often telling slightly different versions of the same story. (I enjoyed this archeology-based article from Smithsonian called What is Beneath the Temple Mount).
Anyways, enjoy our photos from what was a super special day
To Holy Sites,
Em in Jerusalem