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Sacred Places

The Temple Mount

Our next two sacred places, which still possess a profound spiritual aura, are in the city of Jerusalem, a city sacred to three world religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which, between them, command the devotion of well over two-thirds of the world's population. By the beginning of the Bronze Age (c. 3500 B.C.E.) what was to become Jerusalem had Jews at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Western Wall is all that remains of the Second Temple, which was destroyed in 70 B.C.E. It serves as a gathering place for Jews to lament the Temple's loss. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS been conquered by a Canaanitic people known as the Jebusites. By around 1400 Egyptian records indicate that the site was called Urusalim (Heb., Yerushalayim). However, the history of Jerusalem as we know it begins with the Hebrew conquest of the region around 1250. Around 1000 King David managed to capture the city from the Jebusites, brought the Ark of the Covenant from Qiryat Ye'crim, where it had been kept, and installed it in a tabernacle. He also began construction of a modest temple, which was vastly enlarged and completed by his son and successor, King Solomon.

Although Jerusalem is studded with monuments sacred to the three religious traditions that venerate the city, in what follows we shall focus on two locations that loom above the rest: the first is the Temple Mount, which today includes the Dome of the Rock, the al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Western Wall or "Wailing Wall," the last remnant of the Second Temple; the second is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem. The most well-known and popular Christian pilgrimage site, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, was originally constructed in 330, but was destroyed some three hundred years later and rebuilt in the thirteenth century. © CARMEN REDONDO/CORBIS

The Temple Mount, also known as Mount Moriah and, to Muslims, as Haram-esh-Sherif, was initially the site of Solomon's Temple, completed in the early tenth century B.C.E., which was totally destroyed by the invading Babylonians in 586. The Second Temple was begun on the same site shortly after 539, when the Persians liberated the Jews from captivity. It was ravaged several times in the ensuing centuries, most notably by the Syrian king Antiochus IV in 168 B.C.E. In 4 B.C.E. the Second Temple was extensively restored by Herod the Great, only to be destroyed permanently by the Romans in 70 C.E. in the wake of the great Jewish Revolt of 69–70.

The dimensions and appearance of both temples were roughly similar. The First Temple reached the zenith of its development under King Hezekiah (c. 715–687 B.C.E.). By that time it had become a prime place of pilgrimage for Jews from both Israel and Judah. The most sacred part of the temple was the "Holy of Holies," where the Ark of the Covenant, a box, traditionally 2.5 cubits (3 feet, 9 inches) in length and 1.5 cubits (2 feet, 3 inches) in height, that contained the Tablets of the Law (the Ten Commandments) which Moses had received atop Mount Sinai, was kept. The Holy of Holies was located deep inside the principal building and could only be approached by the hereditary priests, that is, the descendants of Aaron, the first Jewish high priest and traditional founder of the Hebrew priesthood.

The Second Temple, especially as restored and enlarged by Herod the Great, was even larger and more impressive than Solomon's Temple, although it still served fundamentally to house the Ark and the Tablets of the Law. It was in the Second Temple that Jesus disputed with the Pharisees and later Worshippers around the tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The Romans built the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on what they believed was Golgotha, the site of the crucifixion of Jesus. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS kicked over the tables of the money changers in the courtyard. However, save for a handful of artifacts looted by the Romans—a menorah, or sacred seven-branched candelabra, a shofar, or ritual horn, and some cups and other vessels, images of which were carved on the Arch of Titus in Rome—most of the Second Temple's furnishings, including the Ark and its sacred contents, were lost forever when the building was razed in 70 C.E. (According to some legends, the Ark of the Covenant managed to survive the catastrophe, and several sites have been suggested as its ultimate resting place, including one in Ethiopia; this was the theme of the film Raiders of the Lost Ark.)

However, the Temple Mount remained, as did the aforementioned Western Wall, better known as the "Wailing Wall," where Jews still come to pray and lament the temple's loss. And the Temple Mount also came to occupy an extremely important position in Islam as well. Indeed, it is the third most important pilgrimage site, outranked only by Mecca and Medina. The reason is that when the prophet Muhammad died in 632 C.E. he ascended to heaven astride his horse, but not before stopping briefly at the Haram esh-Sherif, or Temple Mount, more specifically on the rock traditionally believed to be the one on which Abraham offered the sacrifice of his son Isaac to God. Indeed, devout Muslims believe that the imprint of one of Muhammad's horse's hooves can still be seen on this rock. A sanctuary, called the Dome of the Rock, was built between 691 and 692 C.E. by the Umayyad caliph 'Abd al-Malik to mark this sacred spot. Originally its domed roof was covered with gold leaf, although in 1962 the gold was replaced by gold-colored anodized aluminum. Nearby is the sacred al-Aqsa Mosque, which has also figured importantly in recent disputes between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

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