Jerusalem in a Day, part 3

jerusalem 2013(2) aerial temple mount (south exposure)

Temple Mount, looking north. Image: Wikipedia


In Part 1, I discussed some of the Christian sites in the city of Jerusalem. In Part 2, I discussed the Jewish tradition. In this final article, I’ll examine the third most important Muslim site in the world, after Mecca and Medina.

Urusalim (Jerusalem) gets its name from the Canaanites, the earlier inhabitants of Palestine, after their local god Shalem. The city was first conquered by Muslims in 632 AD.

In 1995, the largest quarter of the city was the Muslim Quarter, inhabited by 20,000 Palestinians. Today, with Jerusalem’s expansion outside the Old City, the Muslim population is over 350,000. A journey through the Arab Market in this quarter is like navigating a labyrinth.


Temple Mount in Jerusalem

jerusalem panorama

Jerusalem Temple Mount, looking west from the Mount of Olives. Image: Wikipedia


East of the Western Wall, or “Wailing Wall,” on the site of the old Temple Mount (Arabic: Haram al-Sharif) stands the great Muslim shrine, the Dome of the Rock. It is one of the earliest surviving buildings from the Islamic world. It sits upon the precinct of the old Jewish Temple, which the Romans destroyed in 70 AD.

The Dome of the Rock was built originally by the Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik in 692 AD, only 60 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. One of the highest points in the Old City, Mount Moriah, was the place where Abraham built his rock altar of sacrifice for his son.

Muslims believe Abraham’s first son Ishmael was their forefather. Jews (and Christians) believe  Abraham’s second son Isaac, was their forefather. Isaac was the father of Jacob – who changed his name to Israel (“wrestles with God”) – and had 12 sons that became the fathers of the 12 Tribes of Israel.

The Temple Mount is the location of the foundation stone of both the (first) Temple of Solomon and the (second) Temple of Herod. It is also where Muslims believe Muhammad miraculously transported from Mecca and journeyed to heaven. For this reason, Jerusalem ranks only behind the Saudi Arabian cities of Mecca and Medina in importance for Muslims.


Muslim Cemetary in Front of Eastern Wall

muslim cemetery

Bab al-Rahma Cemetery, Jerusalem. Image: Wikipedia

The Bab al-Rahma Muslim cemetery (Cemetary of the Mercy Gate) is in front of the eastern wall on the western slope of the Kidron Valley. It dates back to the 10th century AD though some graves are believed to date as far back as the 7th century. It features the graves of a number of Muslim Companions and scholars.

Some believe its origin is tied to the Jewish tradition that here, the dead will be raised first.

Alternatively, Muslims believe they must cross As-Sirat, a tightrope bridge over a valley of hellfire, to enter Paradise, as described in the Hadith and based in part on Quran 37:23-24.

On the “Day of Judgement,” those found guilty will fall from the bridge into the hellfire. Muslims believe that one end of the bridge is the Pillar or Armchair of Muhammad, a small protruding bridge marker visible close to the southern edge of the Temple Mount’s eastern wall.

For the reason above, a Muslim cemetery was placed against the eastern wall to shorten the journey across the bridge.

Frank Herbert picked up this idea for his novel Dune, where life is a journey across the Sirat, with

“Paradise on my Right, Hell on my Left, and the Angel of Death Behind.”



Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount

jerusalem 2013(2) temple mount dome of the rock (se exposure)

Dome of the Rock, Qubbat aṣ-Ṣakhra in Arabic, Jerusalem. Image: Wikipedia


The entrance to the Dome of the Rock shrine and al-Aqsa mosque precinct has armed guards, though they were not in uniforms. I was told earlier in the day by a uniformed Israeli Army soldier that the shrine was closed to tourists until, “Oh, 1 pm”, while he played an engrossing game of backgammon in a way that sounded like he was making this up as he went along. But I listened to him as he explained this to me; he had an automatic rifle!

Later, while walking through the city streets, I passed through a small door (“eye of the needle”) in a large gate and found myself in the shrine precinct! As I walked up the steps to the shrine itself, I thought of three things:

  • I guess the shrine is open now
  • This blue and gold Dome of the Rock shrine is quite fabulously beautiful
  • I am now standing on the actual historic site of the original Jewish Temple.

As I approached the shrine’s door, I noticed people were removing their shoes before entering. There were thousands of people there for prayer. It was the last day of Ramadan, the month-long Muslim fast (during the daylight hours), and many Muslim pilgrims were in attendance. The April 1996 issue of National Geographic magazine has an aerial picture of this area with 200,000 people praying.

What I had not realized at the time was that I had passed through a guard point unchallenged because I had entered at the same time as an old Muslim woman whom the guards assumed I was accompanying. We parted after entering the gate, and as I approached the door of the shrine, I was stopped by a guard. Because I didn’t understand his Arabic, I asked if the problem was that I needed to remove my shoes.

“Are you Jewish?”

… a man with an automatic rifle asked me. Later I learned that Jews are not permitted to pray on the Temple Mount. Dressed in my khaki raincoat and pants, I replied, “Christian.”

“Closed today,”

… I was told, amidst the thousands surrounding me. There was no explanation about when it might be opened, except that my being there would “upset the guides,” and I was promptly ushered out of the precinct.


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.

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