September 25, 2020

Israel 2019: Around the Temple Mount

Temple Mount, Jerusalem Temple Mount, Jerusalem © Eldadcarin | Dreamstime.com

Israel’s Temple Mount area is where we will be visiting today. We are given two choices regarding visiting the top of the Temple Mount - we can sleep in and linger over breakfast, and then wait two hours in line, or we can get up at Oh-Dark-Hundred and be first in line.

Apparently our faithful leaders do not take well to lines. So it is very early in the morning when we disembark from our buses outside the Joppa Gate. Before us is the southwest corner of the Temple Mount. As I approach the gate, I remember seeing a photo of this gate the day the Israeli forces took over control of the Temple Mount in the Six Day War. In the photo, to the right of the gate, rest the mangled remains of a Jordanian military vehicle. Its job had been to defend the gate and the Temple Mount beyond. It, the men in it, and the government they were loyal to, failed. To me it graphically represented the crushed expectations of the Arab nations who desired to eliminate Israel. In that same picture are Israeli soldiers on both sides of the Joppa Gate, in an obviously post-victory, celebratory mood.

That picture captured the hour the Jewish nation regained control of the Temple Mount for the first time since the Hasmoneans succumbed to the Romans back between 60 BC and 35 BC. To me, their celebration represented another step towards a bright future for Israel and fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.

Today, that military vehicle is long gone, and almost no one is around the gate this early in the morning. Before us is a long ramp. It is angled up to a check point at the level of the top of the Temple Mount. Our guide is vindicated. There are no other groups before us. And he clearly wants us to acknowledge his wisdom. But then again, he was raised in the Old City of Jerusalem. We pay him to know these kinds of things.

Again, we are schooled about what we are about to enter and how we are to act. We are reminded that even though Israel now owns the Temple Mount, it is the Palestinian Authority that is allowed to have administrative authority over it. We are told to carry very little with us. Books of any kind are not tolerated. Neither is preaching. Nor is any man/woman physical contact allowed. Not even a hug for a picture. And just to make sure, the Palestinian Authority has people that will inspect us thoroughly and then follow visitors. 

We are told to expect to be scanned and possibly searched at the top of the ramp, and we are. It must have been a good day for them, because we passed through the checkpoint fairly quickly with no major incidents. The moment we step onto the Temple Mount, we pass between armed Palestinian soldiers on the right and armed Israeli soldiers to the left. There does not seem to be any tension between them.

The Temple Mount is a 35 acre flat surface that is mostly open. We are told that around 50,000 Muslim faithful attend the Al Aqsa Mosque. It occupies the southern end of the Mount. Its name is translated as “The Farthest Mosque”. We stroll to about the middle before our guide starts pointing out places of interest on the Mount and beyond. It is very interesting to see the Mount of Olives from this vantage point. For it was just yesterday that we were looking across the Kidron Valley to the Temple Mount from over there.

The top of the Temple Mount is not so demanding visually. Like I said, it is mostly flat, and most of the structures are contemporary. We continue north towards the golden Dome of the Rock. It is a beautiful building that commemorates Mohammad’s travel here from Mecca. And that tradition is why this spot is the third most holy place in Islam. It also explains why all of Islam used to pray in the direction of the Temple Mount before they began praying towards Mecca.

What is important here? It is not really the walls, the fill dirt or the stone pavement. It is not even the bed rock beneath the Dome of the Rock. Its importance for Jews and Christians alike is its history, prophecy and that God has said it is important to Him. It is upon this summit that Abraham, in Genesis 22, exhibited so much faith in Yahweh that he brought his son to be sacrificed. It was at summit’s threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite in 2 Samuel 24 that King David’s prayers caused the Lord to have the Angel to sheath his sword, and relent from slaughtering more Israelites for David’s sin. It was here that Solomon built the first Temple as told in 2 Chronicles 3:1. It was here in 586 BC that Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians burned that earthly dwelling place of Yahweh and shoved every stone into the valley (2 Kings 25 and 2 Chronicles 36). It was here that Ezra and Zerubbabel in Ezra 3 and Nehemiah 7 saw their faith blossom into a new temple. It was here in Matthew 24 that King Herod’s “McMansioned” Temple is mentioned, only to have it destroyed again by Titus a few years later in 70 AD. This bed rock then remained exposed to the elements for over 600 years until the Muslims covered it.

When the Israeli forces captured the Temple Mount in the Six Day War, they had to make an extremely difficult decision. Namely, what to do with it now that they have it? There were very vocal groups that called for them to immediately remove both the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Then rapidly rebuild the Temple to the Lord. But there were those that feared the consequences of rushing in to such action. Their decision was to not irritate the Muslim population and the world any more than necessary. Therefore, the Jewish military protected the Islamic holy sites on the Temple Mount. This is why in Israel today, we are watched by Palestinian Authorities.

Most people still believe that was a wise decision. But others see it as only having kicked the problem of the next Temple down the road of time. The problem is this; the Dome of the Rock sits smack dab on the bed rock of where most agree the future Temple must be located. As I understand the problem, only in a parallel universe can two structures occupy the same place at the same time. Therefore, there is a problem.

But possible solutions are not wanting. Even to the exact location of the future Temple, there are a wealth of ideas. The orthodox insist that the Dome of the Rock must be removed. To this end, there are all kinds of conspiracy theories about its removal. One of the strangest is a group of self professed “Christians”. Their understanding of Biblical prophecy is that they can hasten the Day of the Lord by blowing up the Dome of the Rock so the new Temple can be built. Their favorite plan seems to be tunneling under the Dome of the Rock to do the deed. How this might be done without notice seems a mystery. Even so, the Palestinian Authority is very sensitive to any digging in that direction.

Other Biblically orthodox groups assure everyone that since God predicts a return of the Temple in Revelation, God will see that it happens. They propose no plan of action, but wait on God’s good and perfect timing. Then there are the “alternative locations” people. They propose that the Temple was not located over the Dome of the Rock. They propose that there is ample space on the Temple Mount for the Dome of the Rock, the Mosque and the Temple. And as you can imagine, this attempt at appeasement is like throwing gasoline onto hot embers. The most extreme idea I’ve read from this group is that Solomon’s Temple was not on the Temple Mount. And they have their data points to support their theory. Decades have elapsed since this proposal and no new Temple is in sight. Therefore, I’m thinking that it is not that popular of an idea.

There is a group known as The Temple Society. It is locked and loaded in regards to the new Temple. They have stored in ready-to-quickly-assemble-order, everything needed to construct a new Temple in two months. They have the building parts, priest garments, and hardware necessary. All of that is the part that money can easily buy. The potential deal killers are the three things that they do not have. First, they do not have a place to build their Temple. The Dome of the Rock sits over the site they want to build upon. Second, they need priests that can only come from the direct line of Aaron. How can this be determined some 2,000 years later? But, there is hope. In ancient times, the Jewish genealogies were very important. So important that after the Babylonians destroyed the Temple and carried Judah into exile for 70 years, the priests somehow retained their genealogical scrolls. That’s impressive. So the question is this - what happened after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., and the dispersion that followed? Without a Temple, there is no need for the Sadducees class of priest to do the sacrifices. Teaching was dispersed to the Synagogues. Eventually even the Pharisaical class of Rabbis seem to fade away as teachers. For centuries a Rabbi from any tribe could become qualified to teach. And as impossible at it may seem, I understand that they have candidates of Aaron lineage identified. Again, impressive.

Third, a perfect red heifer is required to purify the Temple. The ashes of a heifer are required to be mixed with water and sprinkled over everything. The problem is that the required red heifer has not existed for a very long time. However, twenty years ago I read a report that through the laborious art of selective breeding, a small herd of red heifers now exists. If true, the problem is solved. If true, I can only imagine the security blanketing these animals.   

As we move north on the Temple Mount, our guide points out things of interest. Some things we see are from Herod’s age, some Byzantine, some Muslim, and some Crusader. It is a true collage of history up here. I am surprised when we pass through some trees along the east wall towards the North Gate. They could almost pass for a garden.

The North Gate is a little brother to the check point above the Western Wall. There is a security shack with guards. But they and the place are much more relaxed. I wonder if this is so because the bulk of pilgrims tend to enter back near the Joppa Gate. Or is it that the Palestinian guards feel more at ease in this predominately Muslin neighborhood? Perhaps this gate is how the faithful go to the Mosque? Who knows? We are pleased to have an easy transition from the Temple Mount to this neighborhood.

We walk by walls, tiny gardens, and shops with residences above. We pass by a woman begging. It is the only sign of homelessness that I will see on the trip. Out in the open country, I saw very little evidence of landscaping. In the old city of Jerusalem however, there is the occasional little garden. It is a pleasure to see these islands of life tucked into all of this weathered stone. Israel and Southern California share the same latitude and years of sparse rainfall. So Sue and I easily recognized most of the plants.

Saint Anne’s church is our next destination. It is a Crusader era church built to honor of Anne, mother of Mary, Christ’s own mother. It sits tucked between the buildings under the north wall of the Temple Mount and next to the pool of Bethesda. Our wanderings have exposed us to many little churches. So many that they start to blur. Honestly, I did not approach this church with any enthusiasm.

As we pass the front door, I look inside and see that the little church is packed. At the door is a tall slim grey-haired priest dressed in a white rough-cotton robe with a brown rope belt. He stands guard, or so it seems before the next group lined up to enter. But he does not seem to be relating with anyone. He simply gazes over the sea of people waiting to enter his domain.

We are told that we are two groups out, but we do not line up. Apparently we have an appointment. And I count two other groups waiting in the distance. Whatever the draw, I easily admit that this church is a popular place for pilgrims to visit. My curiosity is sprouting.

While we wait, most of us wander thirty feet away to look into the rock ruins of what was the Bethesda Pool, What looks like a possible pool deck level is a good 15 feet below where we stand. Most of the stones in the church buildings are of a yellowish color. These are paler in color.

I look back at the small church and I see the priest escorting a half dozen people along the outside of the church toward the back. I don’t know why I mention this, but I do. Soon, we are called to line up and prepare to enter. A new non-priest is now the gate keeper, and another group is lining up behind us.

Looking in, I see one group standing along the left, and another sitting. Seconds later, the sitting group stands up and files out the door. The standing group now takes a seat while we file in along the side to stand and wait.

The sitting group is led in a couple of worship songs by a man who appears to be their pastor. I admire the beauty of their voices. They are a talented group, and some of the more musically inclined from our group join in their song. We are next. While finding seats, one or our pastors instructs us to open to the song section of guide book. Seconds later, I am blown away. I think, “That cannot be us singing!” The sound is so beautiful that I cannot begin to describe the experience. Two songs later, we are quickly ushered out the front door. I am in a bit of shock. It was too beautiful to end so quickly.

From that moment on, I count those few minutes as one of the rare and wonderful moments of my life. Our guides have taken us back to the Bethesda Pool wall, and are pointing out its important features. But I do not have ears for what they are saying. My heart is back in that room. Apparently my group has some talent too. Approaching this Crusader era church, I was underwhelmed. Now I cannot impress upon you enough my recommendation to visit this place.

The first Crusade was launched by Pope Urban III in 1058. And the European armies were successful in defeating the Turks. The Europeans enjoyed relative peace with the Arabs for about the first hundred years. But after the misguided and quickly defeated second Crusade, there was nothing but conflict between the Arabs and the Europeans. Leap forward another hundred years and the Arabs have successfully removed the last of the European strongholds. So St. Anne’s Church must have been constructed somewhere between success and defeat. All of this to say, the Muslim Arabs did not destroy this church. Why? Could it have been that the acoustics transcended their hatred for the Europeans? I said “Europeans” and not Christians for a reason. Yes, they were Christian European armies that went against the Muslim armies. However, The Ottoman Empire’s history books taught that the conflict was nothing more than a European invasion quickly repulsed by the superior Islamic forces.

From St. Anne’s Church experience we turn the corner of the Temple Mount and find ourselves at the Western Wall. It is common to see pictures of this plaza jammed packed with people. Today, there are very few.

 

I approach the area before the wall. There is a box on a pole with disposable kippah or yarmulke. I respectfully put one on my head and approach the wall. This wall was not available to the faithful until after Jordan was ejected in the ’67 war. Yet still to this day, the top of the Tempe Mount is still forbidden territory to Jewish praying or teaching. Therefore, this part of the Western Wall before me is both the closest they can possibly get to the original Temple site, and the only place where original Temple wall stones are visible. But as high as the wall is, only the two bottom stones are from the time of the Temple. Beneath the ground there is another 60 feet of stone.

Even so, the wall before me is impressively high. Stuffed between the stone joints are thousands of pieces of paper. On each is a prayer. We are told that every year, the prayer pages are removed to make room for more prayers. Higher up the wall is one of those symbols of defiance. It is a green bush growing out of one of the stone joints.

If the wall before me is my 12 o’clock, then at my 7 o’clock is the entrance to the Temple wall underground tour. We will be taking that adventure next. At my 8 o’clock is an older Rabbi in orthodox clothing teaching a group of young boys dressed similarly. At my 10 o’clock is an arch. Inside book shelves line the walls and more men in orthodox dress appear to be studying. At my 3 o’clock is the short wall that delineates the woman’s section of the wall. To the right of that is the ramp to the top of the Temple Mount we used this morning. Looking down over all of this from that ramp are the Palestinian Guards. At my 6 o’clock, are densely packed buildings, all competing for a view of the Western Wall and Temple Mount.

Walking in all directions are serious looking men, all of which are dressed in orthodox garb. About 20 feet from the wall is a younger man. The entire time that I am here, he paces the whole men’s area of the plaza passionately and vocally praying. At the wall before me is another younger man leaning against the wall with as much of his body as possible. Along the wall are several older men with portable desks that hold an open book. These men are visibly putting their whole bodies into their prayer by rocking back and forth. It is an impactful place. We are fortunate that there has not been a conflict here that would have prevented us from visiting.

Our group is gathered together and escorted into the underground tour entrance. I am a bit excited. This is one of the places I really want to visit. Not far into the tunnel we pack into a side room with a model of the Temple Mount through time. It is extremely instructive. The first phase is a 3D representation of how the hill might have looked in the time of King David. The second phase sets over the first like a set of dentures. It represented the wall of Solomon’s Temple. The Temple wall surrounds the bedrock that is the peak of Mount Mariah and extends down the hill towards the old city of David. The empty space within the wall was filled in to make a level Temple Mount. Herod’s Temple expanded that wall downhill even more. The Temple’s Holy of Holies was over that very same rock. It is this rock that the Jewish faithful want to get as close as possible to. And as I discussed earlier, it is this very same rock that the Dome of the Rock sits upon, and the next Temple will be built upon.

We walk along hundreds of yards of passages. We walk over Plexiglas plates with huge cisterns below. Excavation work is evident everywhere. In one area are several women praying. We are told that this spot is as close as they can get to the Holy of Holies underground. We pass enormous wall stones. Some are so large that they defy logic. The passage had a number of usages both mundane and logistical. And like everything else, nothing was assembled or dug out at any one time period.

At our visit, a new exit to the tunnel tour was being celebrated. If the curious pilgrims can enter at one end and exit another, about ten times the amount of people can enjoy this exhibit each day. However, for some reason, perhaps construction, we had to retrace our steps. But even so, passing other groups was not a problem.

The passage ways of this exhibit are a real sore point with the Palestinian Authority of the Temple Mount for at least two reasons. First, they do not want any kind of excavation anywhere near the area of the Dome of the Rock. Second, it is the Palestinian Authority’s historical point of view that the biblical kingdom of Judah never existed. Therefore, they forbid any excavation in the area that might prove otherwise.  We are told the Palestinians excavated some dirt up on the temple mount, but would not let anyone examine it. They put it in trucks and hauled it to the dump. But the Israeli authorities caught wind of this and dispatched an archaeologist. Apparently, they did recover important artifacts that help confirm the eras of the united and divided kingdoms.

Back on the Western Wall Plaza, we walk towards our morning entrance at the Joppa Gate. Near it we enter the South Wall excavation. This is quite impressive. The base of this excavation is 60 feet below the Western Wall plaza. At this level are remnants of structures from the time of Christ, and evidence of Titus’ destruction.

Coming out of the South Wall from a gate that has been sealed off by the Muslims are the Southern Steps. They are wide and long. It is upon these steps that Jesus is documented to have taught. Behind the wall at the top of the steps is the underground portion of the Al Aqsa Mosque. At the bottom of the steps are the remains of pools used for ritual cleaning before entering the Temple Mount. Scattered around are large chunks of rock presumably thrown down from the mount during one of the destructions. Our guided pointed out one such piece lying at the corner of the Temple wall. It was obviously a corner piece. It was white, coved or rounded along one edge and looked to be about three or four feet long on each side and about two feet in width and depth. It is the color and the edging that is significant. It indicates that it was likely the corner trim at the top of the Temple wall, and it now sits were it fell.

Hezekiah’s Tunnel is next. I think most of us are excited to experience this remnant of history. The weather for our early morning visit to the Temple Mount was chilly, so we were all dressed warm. We felt a threatening drizzle while at the Southern Steps. So when we arrived at Hezekiah’s Tunnel. We are well covered. All of which will have a bearing on what is to happen next.

Above and before the tunnel is a wide ticket facility. To the right is a changing area. I change from my jeans and tennis shoes into shorts and water shoes. If you ever plan to enter either the Dead Sea or this tunnel I highly recommend getting a pair. They are inexpensive and surprisingly comfortable. I store my clothes into my back pack. But because of the chill, I keep my jacket on.

To the left is the entrance. Many stairs are descended to a small area with a pool. There are now two tunnels to choose from. There is the water tunnel and the dry tunnel. The choice is available based on whether one is less or more adventurous. I choose to be more! Next to the pool is an articulated sign to show the depth of the water. Today it is about 18 inches deep, and when I step in, the water is pleasant. I am last in my group to enter the reliable gravel of the tunnel footing. Soon, very soon, my choices begin to have painful consequences.

First, I did not bring a light because almost everyone else had one. I figured that I could easily navigate by their lights. I was wrong. The people in front of me did not wait for everyone to enter. So by the time I crossed the pool and ducked into the tunnel, it was black. But I do not mind the dark and the walls are smooth. So I figure that I will just slide my hands along the edges. That would have worked except for a few factors I had not figured upon.

The first is that at 6’2”, I am three or four inches too tall to stand erect. Therefore, I have to transverse the whole tunnel bent over. Even so, I repeatedly bump my head on the uneven ceiling. A few hundred yards in and my back was well over it. The second is that the tunnel is too narrow for my shoulders. But walking sideways is impossible because of my back pack. The third is that I unwisely kept my rain jacket on with the back pack over it. The exertion of crab-walking all hunched over is causing me to overheat. I have to stop frequently to catch my breath.

So, with no place tall enough or wide enough to remove my back pack and jacket, I cannot solve my heat problem. Nor can I retrieve my phone and use it as a light. Consequently, I slog along, seriously looking forward to the light signifying the end of the tunnel. Sue, my equally adventurous wife, is 5’4” and having no problem with the tunnel dynamics. She is following like-sized people, so she does not realize that I’m not behind her for a long time. When she does, she returns.

It is a relief to hear her voice, then the light of her phone. She sees my plight and immediately assists me in removing my backpack and jacket without dropping them into the water. She takes the backpack and hands me my phone. So I finish the last half less hot and with a light. Finally we emerge into the light and then another pool where everyone is waiting. It is an ordeal I do not wish to repeat.

I was seriously bereaved of some important intel prior to entering the tunnel. So here is my personal advice:

First, if you are tall or large, I strongly urge you to avoid this tunnel.

Second, do take a light. Don’t do like I did and expect to rely on the people around you.

If you have any problems with tight or dark spaces, do not even think of entering this cave.

A friend of mine took the dry tunnel. He is at least 6’6” and 320 pounds, and he had no trouble with it.

After the tunnel, our day of touring is ended. Tomorrow the final footsteps of Jesus.

End.

 

 

    

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