alan balfour

Solomon's Temple: In Place of God
To be published by Wiley-Blackwell

Alan Balfour

This is a history of Solomon’s Temple and the place where it once stood. In the present it has several names, in its most ancient form it was Mount Moriah, tradition holds that it was here on this hill that Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. In Hebrew it is Har haBáyit – Temple Mount, in Arabic it is Al-Haram al-Sharif – the Noble Sanctuary. For much of this history it will be called Temple Mount.

The book is written to bring life to past realities. It assembles the surviving texts and images that have sustained the idea of this place over time. These are by necessity subjective impressions, but the place itself is defined by just two structures in its more than four thousand year history – the Jewish Temple of Solomon, long since destroyed and Islam’s Dome of the Rock. These are finite objects through which the imagination can reenter its past.

It is a troubled place, existing in such a confused web of fact and fiction that only by probing deeply into the multiple layers of acts and desires that have played out on its surface can the dense relationships between Judaism, Christianity and Islam be appreciated.

Solomon built his temple in Jerusalem 3000 years ago to house the Ark of the Covenant and be the only place of sacrifice for the Jewish people. A poem in the Midrash Tanhuma  offers a graphic sense of the significance of Har haBayit to Judaism:
    As the navel is set in the center of the human body,
        so is the land of Israel the navel of the world…
        and Jerusalem is the center of the land of Israel,
        and the sanctuary in the center of Jerusalem,
        and the holy place in the center of the sanctuary,
        and the ark in the center of the holy place,
        and the Foundation Stone before the holy place,
        because from it the world was founded

For some Even haShetiya The Foundation Stone that held the Ark of the Covenant is still present in Temple Mount.

It is on Temple Mount that Christ’s actions come to the attention of the priests that eventually lead to his crucifixion: Matthew writes:  “And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them. And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the Son of David; they were sore displeased.”

In the Qur’an (Sura 17:1 al-Israel) Mohammad wrote of his miraculous flight from Mecca to Jerusalem:

Glory be to He Who carried His servant by night, from the Holy Mosque to the Furthest Mosque, the precincts of which We have blessed. So that We might show him some of Our signs. Surely He is the All-Hearing, the All-Seeing

The ‘Holy Mosque’ was in Mecca, the ‘Furthest Mosque,’ in Arabic al-Masjid al-Aqsa, was on Al-Haram al-Sharif .

In the present three distinct populations live in the old city of Jerusalem - Arab, Jew and Armenian Christian - and though they all walk the same streets and breathe the same air, they exist in quite separate worlds. The Muslim Arabs are the poorest and the most ancient presence. Many are dressed in the loose tunics and turbans that have remained unchanged for centuries. They are at home in the dense network of streets that attach to the west wall of al-Haram al-Sharif, literally the ‘Sacred and Noble.’ Al-Haram is dominated by the golden Dome of the Rock, completed in 69, in the year of the Hijra, Anno Hegirae, or 691 in the Common Era. This Islam’s third holiest place after Mecca and Medina is not a mosque but the first Muslim shrine formed to symbolize the strength of the one god. It lies above a rock cave whose origins are profoundly mysterious.

Here the faithful remember the Isra, Muhammad’s miraculous flight from Mecca to this very place on the back of his white steed al-Buraq ‘Lightening.’ They can touch the post where it was tethered; they look to the Dome and feel the presence of Muhammad as he was met by Jesus and Abraham. They have seen the Prophet’s footprints in the rock beneath the Dome as he the prepared to climb the golden ladder to heaven and into the presence of God. During Ramadan Muslims, from across the world fill the great platform in front of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in prayer. As they pray they are reminded that it is written to this place, when the world will come to an end, that the dead will return and judgment be pronounced on every person in accordance with his deeds. For the Qur’an states that “On the Day of Judgment when the Trumpet of Resurrection will sound for a second time all creatures brought to life and all of mankind will be assembled beside the eastern wall to the city.”  The city is Jerusalem.

Christians arrive in the city to be close to Christ’s Passion and to walk in his footsteps along the Via Delarosa. Some gather on the terraces below the Mount of Olives, overlooking the vast platform dominated by the Dome, and their preachers compel imaginations into reliving the fateful day when Christ descended into the city. ‘Here’, they point ‘is where the path led across the Kidron Valley, here the gate where Christ entered the city.’ If the Temple is mentioned at all, it is to imagine Christ driving out the money changers from somewhere at the west end of the platform, and tbe reminded that he foretold the destruction of the Temple saying to his disciples that “not one stone upon another,” would be left standing. As they look down across the monumental of Islam some Christians see in the distant future a new temple and are comforted because it will mean their world has reached the ‘end of time.’ This will be the prelude to the   ‘second coming’ of Christ. He will materialize in a flash of brilliant light just outside a gate, a gate they can see now blocked up near the center of the wall facing them.

For the Jews there are two Jerusalems: the secular city, and the orthodox city. Religion dominates life of the orthodox city. The residents live in enclaves and strictly observe Halakha, the laws of the faith.  Every morning men can be seen striding with great deliberation from their apartment buildings into the lanes of the old city to Kothel Hama'arabit, the Western Wall; sweeping all aside, self consumed and anxious beneath wide brimmed hats and black coats; their prayer shawls in plastic packets under their arms. All Jews are compelled to pray against, the Western Wall and that as they pray they are closest to god for it written that ‘the Divine Presence never departs from the Western Wall.’ This is the most sanctified place in Judaism. Temple Mount is the only place where god dwelt on earth and for some the only place from which he will deliver the messiah. The Western wall is a remnant of the Temple complex restored by Herod in 19BCE. In 70 CE the Romans completely demolished the Temple as they regained control of Judea and drove the Jews out. A desire to rebuild the Temple has lingered in imaginations ever since. Another figure compels the mind of some who are praying at the Wall. Sifting through the traces of ancient structures they strain to envisage a chamber in which the Arc of the Covenant has rested.

Looking down on Temple Mount from the hill to the east, it is still possible to remove the massive structure and visualize a small hill rising steeply out of the Kidron Valley. Add to this the groves of olives on the slopes and some simple lean-to farm buildings and near the top, a threshing field and a donkey endlessly circling, and see the approach of King David with his retinue, and he would buy the land, all according to the Old Testament Book of Samuel.

The formative act in the pre history of this place is shared equally in the books of the Jews, Christians and Muslims. Travel back a further thousand years; it is the same hill rising above the trees in the valley, covered in thickets of dense brush; thorny and dry. Those for whom the Bible is literal truth can visualize the scène, they are watching from a distance an extremely old man, slowly and carefully forming an altar from loose stones, and on it setting out the makings of a fire from twigs and branches. Inexplicably his young companion, his son, agrees to be tied hand and foot and voluntarily lies down on the pyre. It is written in Genesis that this is the place where god tested Abraham’s faith by demanding as proof the sacrifice of a son. The imagination sees that moment when god thanked Abraham for his obedience and confirmed he would be the father of nations and Isaac and Jacob and all who descended from them, would be his chosen people. It was the birth of a new religion.

Judaic Midrash are interpretations and commentaries on scripture, the Tanhuma, named after a fourth century scholar, are commentaries on the Pentateuch.