The magnificent golden Dome of the Rock dominates the vast 35-acre Temple Mount, the area known to Muslims as Haram esh-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary). At its southern end, immediately in front of you as you enter the area from the Western Wall plaza (the only gate for non-Muslims), is the large, black-domed al-Aqsa Mosque, the third in holiness for Muslims everywhere.
Built in the late 1st century BC by Herod the Great—"King of the Jews" by
grace of the Romans—the Temple Mount was one of the greatest religious enclosures of the ancient world. An immense wall was constructed around the hill known as Mt. Moriah, and the inside was filled with rubble to level off the crest. At the center of the plaza stood Herod's splendidly rebuilt Second Temple, the one Jesus knew, renowned as an architectural wonder of its day. The Romans reduced it to smoldering ruins in the summer of AD 70.
Jewish tradition identifies the great rock at the summit of the hill—now under the gold dome—as the foundation stone of the world, and the place where Abraham bound and almost sacrificed his son Isaac (Genesis 22). With greater probability, this was where the biblical King David made a repentance offering to the Lord (II Samuel 22), and where his son Solomon built "God's House," the so-called First Temple. The Second Temple stood on the identical spot, but the precise location of its innermost Holy of Holies is a question that engages religious Jews and archaeologists to this day. In the absence of indisputable evidence, the devout will not approach the area for fear of desecrating the once-inviolable temple precincts.
The haram today is a Muslim preserve. When the Arab caliph Omar Ibn-Khatib seized Jerusalem from the Byzantines in AD 638, he found the area covered with rubbish and had to clear the site to expose the rock. It is said that Omar asked his aide Ka'ab al'Akhbar, a Jewish convert to Islam, where he should build his mosque. Ka'ab recommended a spot north of the rock, hoping, the story goes, that the Muslims, praying south toward Mecca, would thus include the old temple site in their obeisance. "You dog, Ka'ab," bellowed the caliph. "In your heart you are still a Jew!" Omar's mosque, south of the rock, has not survived.
Jerusalem is not mentioned in the Qur'an, but Muhammad's night ride is. Awakened by the archangel Gabriel, he was taken on the fabulous winged horse el-Burak to the masjid al-aqsa,the "farthermost place" (hence the name "al-Aqsa" Mosque). From there he rose to heaven, met God face-to-face, received the teachings of Islam, and returned to Mecca the same night. Tradition has it that the masjid al-aqsa was none other than Jerusalem, and the great rock was the very spot from which the prophet ascended. To be sure, Muhammad's triumphant successors venerated Jerusalem's biblical sanctity; but some modern scholars suggest they did not like the feeling of being Johnnies-come-lately in the holy city of rival faiths. The magnificent Dome of the Rock, completed in AD 691, was almost certainly intended to proclaim the ascendancy of the "true faith" and the new Arab empire.
In the 12th century, the al-Aqsa Mosque became the headquarters of the Templars, a Crusader monastic order that took its name from the ancient temple that once stood nearby. The spot has been the setting for more recent dramas, though—most important the assassination of King Abdullah I of Jordan (the present king's great-grandfather) in 1951.
At the time of this writing, the Muslim shrines were closed to non-Muslims for an indefinite period, leaving the faithful alone to enjoy the wondrous interiors of stained-glass windows, granite columns, green-and-gold mosaics, arabesques, and superb medieval masonry. Even if you can't get inside, the vast plaza is both visually and historically arresting and worth a visit. Take a look at the bright exterior tiles of the Dome of the Rock and the remarkable jigsaws of fitted red, white, and black stone in the 14th- and 15th-century Mamluk buildings that line the western edge of the plaza. Overlooking the plaza at its northwestern corner is a long building, today an elementary school, built on the artificial scarp that once protected Herod's Antonia fortress. The Christian tradition, very possibly accurate, identifies the site as the praetorium where Jesus was tried. Security check lines to enter the area are often long; it's best to come early. Note: the Muslim attendants prohibit Bibles in the area.
Access between the Western Wall and Dung Gate, Jerusalem, Israel