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Jerusalem: Jewish and Muslim Claims to the Holy City

Jerusalem: Jewish and Muslim Claims to the Holy City

…Spiritual, historical and political claims – from both sides

By Rabbi Ken Spiro

The Jews of Israel are currently locked into a conflict with their Palestinian Arab neighbors. While the media bombards us with constant reports of violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, there is no doubt that the epicenter of the conflict lies in Jerusalem and more specifically on the Temple Mount in the Old City. Yasser Arafat constantly repeats that there can be no peace without Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine and total Muslim sovereignty over the Temple Mount.

Indeed, the last Camp David Summit floundered over Arafat’s uncompromising position on the issue of controlling the site. Israeli leaders, on the other hand, say that Jerusalem will remain under Israeli sovereignty, even as Barak offered significant autonomy over the Temple Mount and Palestinian Authority control over Arab sections of Jerusalem. What historical or religious claim do both sides make? Is either party’s claim for Jerusalem stronger, or is it merely a case of “might makes right?” The purpose of this article is not to prove or disprove anyone’s claim to Jerusalem, but rather to help clear up some of the fog clouding this controversy and enable us to better understand both the Jewish and Muslim connection to this holy site.

Jewish Spiritual Connection to Jerusalem

To understand the Jewish connection to Jerusalem we must begin with the Jewish Bible. From the Jewish perspective, the area of special holiness is Mount Moriah, today known as the Temple Mount. This area is located beneath the platform on which the Muslim Shrine, the Dome Of the Rock, now stands. In the Jewish Bible, Jerusalem has many names: Salem (Shalem), Moriah, Jebuse (Yevuse), Jerusalem (Yerushalayim), and Zion (Tziyon). The most common term for the city, Yerushalayim, is mentioned 349 times in the Jewish Bible, while Tziyon is mentioned an additional 108 times. The earliest mention of the site is Genesis 4:18, when Abraham interacts with Malchizedek, King of Shalem.

According to Jewish tradition the story of the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19) also takes place in the “land of Moriah” on the site of the present-day Temple Mount. Abraham chooses the site specifically because he sensed how God’s presence is strongly connected to this site. In the Kabbalah, the Jewish metaphysical tradition, the rock of Mount Moriah is known as the “Even Shetiyah” ― the Foundation Stone. This is the metaphysical center of the universe, the place from which spirituality radiates out to the rest of the world.

Later patriarchal stories in Genesis are also connected with the site:

    When Isaac goes out into the fields to pray prior to meeting Rebecca for the first time (Genesis 24:63-67), he is standing on Mount Moriah. Jacob’s dream of the ladder to heaven with the angels ascending and descending (Genesis 28:10-22) takes place on this site. We see from here that for thousands of years, the Jewish people have always associated Mount Moriah as the place where God’s presence can be felt more intensely than any other place on earth. That is why, for the Jewish people, the Temple Mount is the single holiest place.

This connection is still very much alive and well in contemporary Jewish practice:

    When religious Jews pray three times a day, they always turn toward Jerusalem. (Someone praying in Jerusalem faces the direction of the Temple Mount.). Jerusalem is mentioned numerous times in Jewish daily prayers and in the “Grace After Meals.” Jews close the Passover Seder with the words “Next Year in Jerusalem.” These same words are invoked to conclude the holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur.
The Jewish national day of mourning, Tisha B’Av, commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples.

During a Jewish wedding ceremony, the groom breaks a glass as a sign of mourning to commemorate the destruction of the two Temples which stood on Mount Moriah. The breaking of the glass is accompanied by the recitation of part of Psalm 137: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest Joy.” Religious Jews often keep a small section of one wall in their house unplastered and unpainted, as a sign of mourning for the destruction of the Temple.

Jewish Historical Connection to Jerusalem

The early history of Jerusalem is also rooted in the Bible. In addition to the events already mentioned, the Book of Joshua (ch. 10) describes how Adoni-Tzedek, the Canaanite king of Jerusalem, wages war against the Jews. During the approximately 400-year period from the entrance of the Jewish people into the land, through the period of the Judges, Jerusalem remained a non-Jewish city. It was not until the reign of King David (ca. 1,000 BCE) that Jerusalem was captured from the Canaanites (2-Samuel 5) and converted into the political/spiritual capital of the Jewish people. (Archaeologists agree that the original Canaanite city and the City of David was located in what is now the Arab village of Silwan, a few meters south of the “modern” walls of the Old City.)

David purchased the peak of Mount Moriah (2-Samuel 24:18-25) as the site for the future Temple and gathered the necessary building supplies. The Book of 1-Kings (ch. 6-8) describes in great detail how David’s son, King Solomon, built and dedicated the Temple: “And it came to pass after the 408th year after the Children of Israel left Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel… that he began to build the house of the Lord” (1-Kings 6:1). Solomon’s Temple is also known as the first Beit HaMikdash (the First Temple). While all archaeologists agree that it stood on Mount Moriah, probably on the site of the present Gold Dome of the Rock, its exact location is unknown.

Four hundred and ten years after its completion, it was utterly destroyed by the Babylonians when they besieged Jerusalem and no trace of it remains. After the Babylonian destruction, most of the Jewish population of Israel was forcibly exiled from the land. This forced exile on the road to Babylon is mentioned in the famous verse from Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.”

Fifty years later, after Babylon was captured by Persia, the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem. Under the leadership of Zerubavel and Nechemiah, the Jews rebuilt both the Temple and walls around the city (Nechemia 4-6). During both the First and Second Temple periods, the Temple was the central focus of the Jewish world both in Israel and the diaspora. Its upkeep was paid for by all Jews worldwide. The Kohanim (priests) and Levites served in the Temple, and three times a year ― during the holidays of Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot ― all Jews were commanded to come to Jerusalem and visit the Temple.

This rebuilt temple is known as the Second Temple (Bayit Sheni). It stood for 420 years on the same site as the First Temple, on Mount Moriah. The Second Temple was remodeled several times, but reached its most magnificent form during the reign of King Herod the Great (37-4 BCE). The great Jewish historian, Josephus, who lived during the end of the Second Temple period, gives detailed descriptions of both Herod’s construction and the layout of the Temple compound (see “Antiquities” ch. 15 and “Jewish Wars” ch. 5).

The Second Temple period ended with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. It is possible that the Jews tried to rebuild the Temple at later periods, but they were never successful, and for over 600 years the site of the Temple Mount lay in ruins. The only remains are the massive retaining walls that encompass Mount Moriah, built by Herod to support the platform on which the Temple stood. Modern Jewish Connection to Jerusalem. Although the Temple hasn’t stood for almost 2,000 years, Jerusalem continues to be the focus of the Jewish world. The Temple may not be there, but Jews believe that the intrinsic holiness of the site always remains. Jewish tradition also maintains that in the End of Days, during the Messianic Era, a third and final Temple will be built on Mount Moriah.

It is often erroneously stated that the holiest site in the world to Jews is the Western Wall. This is incorrect. The holiest spot for Jews is Mount Moriah itself, behind the Wall. The Western Wall is merely a small section of Herod’s massive retaining wall and has significance only as it relates to the Temple Mount itself.

So why do Jews pray at the Wall? Since the destruction of the Temple, the Sages decreed that due to the sanctity of the site, Jews (and non-Jews) should not go up on the actual Temple Mount. Therefore, the Western Wall became the site of prayer for Jews wishing to get as close as possible to their holiest site, the Temple Mount. It earned the moniker “Wailing Wall” because Jews coming to this site would shed tears over the loss of the Holy Temple.

Muslim Spiritual Connection to Jerusalem

The Islamic connection to Jerusalem began much later in history, during the 7th century CE. The central personality of Islam, Mohammed, was born and raised in the area of present-day Saudi Arabia and founded Islam in the early 7th century. (The first year of the Muslim calendar, or the Hajira, corresponds to the year 622 CE of the Christian calendar). Scholars agree that Mohammed was influenced by Judaism (and Christianity). This influence was significant enough that Mohammed’s original plan for the direction of prayer (Qibla) was also Jerusalem. Mohammed later changed the direction of prayer to Mecca in Saudi Arabia ― a place that was converted from a pagan pilgrimage site to the “eternal city,” and the center of the Muslim religion. (Muslims also placed Mecca as the spot where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac’s brother Ishmael.)

After founding Islam and leading his Islamic armies to victory over his pagan rivals, Mohammed died. Although Mohammed never made it to Jerusalem with his conquering armies, his successor, the Caliph Omar, captured Jerusalem from the Byzantines in 638. When Omar first visited the ruined Temple mount, he deliberately prayed south of the ruins of the Temple, toward Mecca, so that no one should think he was praying in the same direction as the Jews. The holiest book of Islam is the Koran, which according to Muslim tradition contains the teachings of Mohammed. Unlike the Jewish Bible which contains hundreds of references to Jerusalem, the word “Jerusalem” appears nowhere in the Koran. So what is the Islamic spiritual connection to the site? To answer that question we must understand more of early Islamic history.

Muslim Historical Connection to Jerusalem

By the time the Omar arrived in Jerusalem in 638, the Islamic direction of prayer was toward Mecca, and the two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina were already well-established. Islam, which like Christianity has many of its spiritual roots in Judaism recognized the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount, and one early Islamic name for the Temple Mount was Bayt al-Maqewdis ― literally “Holy Temple.” The name used today, al-Quds, is based on the Hebrew word for “holy.” Muslims have also used the term Sahyun or Sihyun, the Arabic form of “Zion.”

Historians suggest several reasons for the construction of Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount. The establishment of the Umayyid Islamic Dynasty in 658 corresponds to a period of instability in the Islamic world, characterized by power struggles and assassinations. One of the Five Pillars (commandments) of Islam is Hajj ― pilgrimage to the holiest Islamic city, Mecca. In the late 7th century, the Damascus-based Umayyid Caliphate lost control of Mecca. This need to diminish the importance of Mecca and create an alternative Muslim holy site closer to Damascus may well have pushed the Umayyid Caliph Abd al-Malik, in 688, to begin construction of the Dome of the Rock on the former site of the Jewish Temple.

Another reason suggested by historians for a Muslim presence in Jerusalem is that the Caliph wished to compete with the impressive Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional burial place of Jesus in Jerusalem. It is interesting to note that the present dimensions of the Dome of Rock are identical to those of the rotunda of the Holy Sepulcher.

Yet given that Jerusalem isn’t mentioned in the Koran, what is the uniquely Islamic connection to the site? The answer is found in the 17 Sura (chapter) of the Koran. This chapter recounts the story of a dream Mohammed has where he takes a midnight ride (al-Isra) on his flying horse al-Buraq, which had the face of a woman, the body of a horse and the tail of Peacock. The narrative of the Koran in Sura 17 describes it as follows: “Glory be to Him, who carried His servant by night from the Holy Mosque (in Mecca) to the further mosque (al-masjid al-Aqsa), the precincts of which we have blessed.” The actual location of al-Aqsa (the “further mosque”) in Mohammed’s dream ride is never mentioned. Some early Muslims understood al-Aqsa metaphorically, or as a place in heaven.

In the late 7th century, the Umayyids claimed that the actual site of al-Aqsa was in fact the Temple Mount. Later the site of al-Aqsa was restricted to the mosque area at the southern end of the Temple Mount (the site of the current Al Aqsa Mosque). The original mosque, probably located on the site where Omar first prayed when he arrived in Jerusalem in 638, was built by the Umayyid Caliph al-Walid in the early 8th century. It was destroyed by earthquakes several times and later rebuilt.

The narrative of the Koran then describes how Mohammed, having arrived at al-Aqsa, then ascends to heaven (al-Mi’raj ― “the ascension”) accompanied by the angel Gibril (Gabriel), where he then traveled around the heavens and spoke with Allah and other prophets. The Umayyids in Jerusalem claimed that the actual site of Mohammed’s ascension to heaven was the exposed piece of bedrock at the top of Mount Moriah. Thus Caliph Abd-al-Malik’s beautiful Dome of the Rock was built to commemorate the location of this important event. From 638 CE until 1917 (with the exception of the Crusader occupation from 1099 to 1187), Jerusalem was controlled by various Islamic dynasties based in Syria, Egypt and Turkey. While Jerusalem remained a city of pilgrimage, none of these Islamic dynasties made Jerusalem their capital. The only other people in the last 3,000 years to have Jerusalem as a capital are the Crusaders who founded the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem from 1099-1187.

For most of this 1,300-year period, despite its status as the third holiest Islamic city, Jerusalem remained a backwater, run-down town under Islamic control. Exceptions were during both the Umayyid period (7th to mid-8th century) and the Mamluk period (mid-13th to early-16th century), when major Islamic building projects were carried out in the city.

Modern Realities in Jerusalem

From 1918 through 1948, the Land of Israel was under the control of the British who conquered it from the Ottoman Turks in World War One. The State of Israel was established in 1948, when half of Jerusalem ― including the entire Old City and Temple Mount, was under the control of the Kingdom of Jordan. During the Six Day War in 1967, Israel captured the Old City and for the first time in over 2,000 years, the Temple Mount was back under Jewish control. It is worth noting that the inaugural PLO Covenant of 1964 does not mention Jerusalem. Only after the city fell back to Jewish control did the updated PLO Covenant of 1968 mention Jerusalem by name. One might have expected that the Israelis would immediately expel the Muslims and re-establish control of the single holiest Jewish site. But in an act of what can only be described as unprecedented tolerance, Israel handed over control of the site to the Wake, the Muslim Religious Trust. Today, although Israel technically claims sovereignty over the site, the defacto reality since 1967 has been that the Muslims have control over the site, to the point where Jews are forbidden to pray on the Temple Mount (but permitted to visit).


Within the Hebrew word Jerusalem is contained the word for peace ― shalom. Jerusalem is often referred to as the City of Peace. It is ironic that this city sits at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict. There are no simple solutions to complex problems, especially when religious beliefs and national identities are at stake. But only through an objective understanding of the intricacies that surround the history of Jerusalem, can we hope to arrive at a just and lasting solution.

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