Flashback and Flashpoint: What’s Going on with the Temple Mount?

Sometimes it seems like I must have dreamed it; that before the year 2000, I used to lead my tour groups around Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, and into the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque. Those were days when the Mount often seemed strangely tranquil, amid unrest elsewhere in the country and even in the city. This was the eye of the hurricane, I used to tell people.

The Temple Mount and the Western Wall. Courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism; photo: Noam Chen.

But over the years, beliefs about the Temple Mount’s sanctity have been gathering into what seems like a tidal wave of fury and hatred. Now the Mount has become a flashpoint again. The recent spate of violence was sparked in mid-July by the killing by terrorists of two Israeli policemen on duty outside the Mount, followed by the killing of the terrorists on the Mount and the killing of three Israelis in their home in Samaria by a terrorist. In the wake of clashes with security forces over these past two weeks, hundreds of Palestinians were injured and at least six Palestinians have been killed in the midst of clashes, mainly in the West Bank and Gaza.

What I’d like to do here is to help illuminate a little of what the Mount means to the different religions that sanctify it. There is so much to read on the subject that one lifetime isn’t enough. But at the end of this article, you’ll find a small assortment of less familiar sources, some of which I quote here and which I’ve found helpful.

Flash back 2,000 years, and you’ll find ancient texts that extol the Temple, and by extension the Mount, as the embodiment of peace and unity, the very antithesis of bloodshed. Truly, it is a great idea and ideal – a uniquely perceived sacred intersection of space and time. And it has been disastrously diminished by self-serving small-mindedness, especially of late, into a wicked scrummage over a piece of real estate.

Debate swirls about virtually everything involving the Temple Mount. It’s the place where Abraham offered Isaac, you’ve probably been taught. Then you discover that Muslims believe it was the patriarch of the Arabs, Ishmael, who was offered by his and Isaac’s father, Abraham. You’ve only begun to digest that when you discover that the traditional site of the offering, which the Bible names as Mount Moriah, actually defies the inner geographical logic of the biblical story.  Be that as it may, Solomon, the Bible says, built the Temple at “Jerusalem, Mount Moriah, where the Lord had appeared unto David his father” (2 Chron. 3:1). And as Prof. Dan Bahat told me many years ago in an interview: “I believe that when David founded Jerusalem as his capital, he created a formula: Jerusalem equals city plus people plus God plus dynasty.”

The Temple was the intense focus of Israelite/Jewish practice – notwithstanding the thwarted desire for decentralized worship and the railing of the prophets against sacrifice in the midst of corruption and deceit . The Roman destruction of the Temple sparked a crisis in Jewish faith and practice that was turned into a fateful crossroads by sages like Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai, who said that Temple sacrifice and worship could be represented by “deeds of love, as it is said [Hosea 6:6] for I desire loving-kindness, and not sacrifice” (Avot de Rabbi Natan 4). And yet, the rebuilding of the Temple continued to flicker in various sources over the centuries.

Stones that fell from the Western Wall at the moment of its destruction by the Romans. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Fast forward to the modern era, and the secular Zionist movement, which espoused an essentially practical project – the return of the Jewish people to their ancestral land. Even so, it couched its philosophy in messianic terms of redemption. According to comparative-religion expert Dr. Tomer Persico, Israel’s visionary first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, believed that Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount would preclude “the fulfillment of Zionism’s progressive worldview.” Persico, among others, has noted that Zionism sought to make use of the idea of a rebuilt Temple, but to clothe it in secularity –  national home, yes; Temple, no. The relatively recent movement by nationalist Orthodox people to ascend to the Temple Mount, and the outcry in those selfsame circles about the method of the government’s resolution of the current crisis, are a sign – which can be either worrisome or joyful depending on who you ask – that this dichotomy may be failing.

Christian pilgrims devoted to the site often ask me why Moshe Dayan “gave up” the Temple Mount after capturing it in the Six-Day War. “What do I need all this Vatican for,” is one version of a statement widely quoted as Dayan’s answer to that question. Indeed, after the Six-Day War, with Israel in virtual possession of the holiest place in Judaism and third holiest place in Islam, and as a political decision rather than a purely religious one, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel forbade Jews to visit the Temple Mount. The reason given: we are currently in too impure a state to set foot on the holy ground. Mainstream Orthodoxy still holds to this view, although the debate in the nationalist Orthodox milieu has grown heated in recent years. Actually, the decision was meant to keep the lid on an clearly volatile religious powder keg. As Dr. Sarina Chen, an expert on this issue, has pointed out: “Both camps believe the Temple Mount possesses cosmic sanctity stemming from the place itself, and both sides call upon ancient rabbinic sources, regarding the hierarchy of sanctity and impurity…”

As for Christianity and the Temple Mount, Jesus’ relationship with the Temple spanned literally his entire life according to the New Testament. As the first-born son he was presented in the Temple; at age 12 he accompanied his parents there on the Passover pilgrimage; the devil dared Jesus to jump from the Temple’s “pinnacle”; on Hanukkah he taught in the temple courts; he prophesied the Temple’s destruction and perhaps most famously of all, he overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple courts. Christian texts, John 4:21 for example, seem to regard the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as replacing sacrifice in the Temple and the Temple itself. Yet over time, many Christians have come to look forward to the rebuilding of the temple as an essential harbinger of Jesus’ return; some see political unrest as part of that process. This is but one example of the complexities of Christian views on the Temple, surveyed in an article by Oded Irshay that you’ll find in the reading list below. According to legend, when Christians first ruled Jerusalem they maintained the Temple Mount as a heap of garbage and rubble. But as time went on, Jerusalem was seen as key to the End of Days, and the rebuilt Temple actually became essential to that vision. Over the past two decades or so, this has led to a confluence of interests that brings thousands of Christians annually to the Temple Institute in Jerusalem, which teaches about the laws regarding the rebuilding of the Temple and hints broadly of its desire to bring that about. Ironically, the Temple Institute might be one of the few places anywhere where a devout Christian and an Orthodox Jew might meet, both geographically and ideologically.

And what about Islam’s views of the Temple Mount? The rock where Abraham offered his son, and from which in Islamic tradition Mohammed ascended to heaven, now crowned with the Dome of the Rock, is their third holiest site after Mecca and Medina. One of their many names for the esplanade is Al Aqsa, after the eponymous mosque on the Mount.

The devotion of Islam to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount has been in evidence for centuries. Islamic tradition has a specific genre of praise literature going back to the seventh and eight centuries called Fada’il Bayt al-Maqdis (“Praises of Jerusalem”). Jerusalem is not mentioned specifically by that name in the Koran, yet in this genre and in other literature it holds an essential place in the Islamic view of final judgement, redemption, resurrection, heaven and hell.  And speaking of names, one of Islam’s names for Jerusalem is Bayt al-Maqdes, from the Hebrew Beit Hamikdash, which means Temple.

One such tradition, cited by the 11th-century  Ibn al-Muragga, and quoted by Ofer Livne-Kafri (another source in the list below), clearly links up to Christian beliefs. It expresses the idea that the hour of resurrection “will not come until seven walls of precious stones, gold, silver, clouds, and light are set around Jerusalem.” In another place, Ibn al-Muragga writes that God will send winds that will “uncover every stone and building and they will purify them from all the damages of men. Then he will build around it seven walls: a wall of light, upon which are the angels of holiness, and a wall of clouds and a wall of topaz and a wall of sapphire and a wall of pearls and a wall of silver and a wall of gold,” going on to mention that at that time Jesus will appear in Jerusalem.

From the same source, Livne-Kafri shows us inspiration from Judaism: “Rejoice, Jerusalem and the Rock … and it is called the Temple…and I shall restore bayta l-maqdisto its former sovereignty (mulk) and I shall crown it with gold and silver and pearls, and I shall send to you my people, and I shall place my throne on the Rock, and I am God, the Lord, and David is the king of the sons of Israel.”

It’s all so complicated and so fraught that I can only end with hope, and a return to sources of spiritual sustenance of my own faith. In the words of Isaiah 2:1-3: “Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains…and all nations shall flow to it …” and Micah 4:3-4: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”




Recommended Reading


Chen, S. “Visiting the Temple Mount: Taboo or Mitzvah” Modern Judaism 34, 1. February 2014, pp. 27–41.


Feinberg Vamosh, M. 2010. “Meaning of the Mount.”


Grabar, O. and Kedar, B.Z. 2009. Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Jerusalem’s Sacred Esplanade. Jerusalem.


Irshay. O. 1996.  “The New Testament Temple.” Eretz. May–June 1996, pp. 30–35.  


Livne-Kafri, O. “Jerusalem in Early Islam: the Eschatological Aspect,”

Arabica, T. 53, Fasc. 3 (Jul., 2006), pp. 382-403.


Marx, D. “The Missing Temple: The Status of the Temple in Jerusalem in Jewish Culture following Its Destruction. European Judaism 46, 2: 2013: 61–78.


Persico, T. 2014. “Why rebuilding the Temple Would be the End of Judaism as we Know It.”


“Tunnel Visions.” 1996. An interview with Prof. Dan Bahat. Eretz, May–June 1996, pp. 7–8.



Lifeline from the Grave

Our recent Purim celebration drew my thoughts to that other biblical woman with a warning for an ancient king: Hulda, teacher and prophetess. This is the story of her tomb, which she shares with two alter-egos from across the religious/ethnic divide.

“Don’t’ worry,” the service person who gave me my new cellphone told me. “All your numbers are in there.” A prophetess, she wasn’t: Virtually all of them had evaporated. Among the few that remained: my shorthand listing of  “Mhmd Hulda’s  tomb crtker.” Whew! That meant I could still call Hulda’s tomb, and Hulda’s tomb could call me back to confirm. Well, not in the creepy sense, like poor Elva Keen in Twilight Zone’s 1964 segment, “Night Call.”

Elva Keen gets a call from the grave, but not Hulda’s…like I can. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Elva Keen gets a call from the grave, but not Hulda’s…like I can. (Photo: Wikipedia)

The phone number from the grave in this case belongs to Mohammed, the guard who’s got the key to Hulda’s tomb. You can usually find him at the Dome of the Ascension, the venerable Christian holy place next door, now abutted by a mosque. In fact, that’s part of what I want to share with you here: Try running down the list of sites in the Holy Land that have been or are venerated by the believers of one religion – or sect of the same religion – and are now zealously guarded by another. It’s quite a good “theory of everything” when it comes down to grasping the complexities of our relationship across the ethnic/religious divide. At the end of this article is a partial list of these sites – please feel free to add to it! But back to the prophetess.

Who was Hulda?

 A time of major regime change in the Fertile Crescent finds King Josiah purging the land of Idol worship. A “scroll of the teaching” has been found; the king wants to know what’s in it. The star  prophet of the time, Jeremiah, is apparently out of town, but Hulda, wife of Shallum son of Hope (Tikvah), one of the king’s courtiers (and, the sages say, Jeremiah’s cousin), is available and brought to court.

Hulda the Prophetess explaining the scroll to Josiah, rendering of a painting by Mantegna.

Hulda the Prophetess explaining the scroll to Josiah, rendering of a painting by Mantegna.

Hulda, whom the medieval Jewish commentator Rashi gleans from the Bible was a teacher, gives Josiah some really bad news for the nation and then softens the blow with some hope for him personally – albeit “from the grave” (2 Kings 22:14–20;  2 Chron. 34: 22–28).

Hulda’s tomb may have been located within Jerusalem at one point and later removed, for biblical reasons. In any case, by the Middle Ages, Jewish pilgrims write that they visited Hulda’s tomb at the top of the Mount of Olives – apparently the same place you’ll find it if you call Mohammed the guard for an appointment. Rabbi Moshe Basulo, who visited Jerusalem in 1522, writes that the tomb was guarded by a Muslim, whom one would pay for oil to light a memorial lamp. Some things never change (or almost never; nowadays there’s no lamp-lighting).

Not everyone was enthusiastic about visits to Hulda’s tomb. In the early nineteenth century, Rabbi Yehosaf Schartz wrote: “And now the hearer will hear and the viewer will see a wondrous thing: How a big mistake, a lie and a deceit and everything is in the hands of the masses of our people to say and believe that there is the grave of Hulda the Prophetess…and now, dear reader. Does the knowledgeable and understanding heart not pain over this thing that Israel goes to worship at a foreign tomb, saying that it is the tomb of the righteous woman Hulda the Prophetess, may we be protected through her.”*

Now that’s what I call a party-pooper.

Hulda’s Tomb, rendering of an undated, unattributed drawing, Zev Vilay, Jerusalem, Vol. 3, p. 368. The entrance to the tomb can barely be seen here, bottom right.

Hulda’s Tomb, rendering of an unattributed drawing, Zev Vilay, Jerusalem, Vol. 3, p. 368. Tomb entrance barely visible bottom right.

Move over Dr. Atkins, here comes the Hulda Diet

When you visit the tomb, you’ll descend a steep flight of stone stairs to the cenotaph – the tomb marker – and see that it’s in a niche up against a stone wall. An ancient tradition says that if you could walk all the way around the tomb, you’d earn a special blessing.

Hulda’s Tomb marker (note the narrow space in back). Photo: Ana Vargas.

Hulda’s Tomb marker (note the narrow space in back). Photo: Ana Vargas.

Obviously the larger you are, the harder this is. Zev Vilnay writes that the guard at the tomb in his day told him:  how “he once saw with his own eyes how an overweight woman tried to go around the tomb and reached a point where she could go neither backward or forward. She cried out ‘Mother Hulda, save me.’ Immediately she was relieved and went around the tomb with no difficulty. That is a sign that the great righteous woman was in her place in Paradise and Allah knows the truth.”**

The first floor of Hulda’s Tomb. To the right of the prayer rugs, ancient steps lead down to the tomb. Photo: Ana Vargas.

The first floor of Hulda’s Tomb. To the right of the prayer rugs, ancient steps lead down to the tomb. Photo: Ana Vargas.

St. Pelagia

To Christians, this very same tomb is occupied by St. Pelagia, a fifth-century actress and singer from Antioch known for her great beauty. Unfortunately, back in the day, that profession would get you ousted from any self-respecting salon and you’d have to endure a variety of epithets I’ll leave to your imagination. In any case, Pelagia, at the behest of her bishop, St. Nonnus, left her old life behind, disguised herself as a man and came to Jerusalem where she lived alone in a monastic cell and died in 457 CE.

St. Pelagia among the courtesans, with St. Nonnus praying for her, 14th-century manuscript. Photo: Wikimedia commons.

St. Pelagia among the courtesans, with St. Nonnus praying for her, 14th-century manuscript. Photo: Wikimedia commons.

Guess what? the squeezing tradition made it across the religious divide: Christian visitors paying their respects to St. Pelagia wrote that managing to circumnavigate even the narrow back of the tomb would get you a ticket to Paradise. So here’s another quiz question for readers steeped in Jerusalem lore: Name two other places where squeezing through a narrow place ensures you Paradise (answer at the end).

A righteous Muslim woman remembered

In Muslim tradition, this is the tomb of Sit’ Raba’a al-Aduwiyyeh. She was born a slave in Basra, Iraq, and according to the story, when her master saw a golden aura surrounding her as she prayed, he decided to free her. She rose to fame as a sufi, a mystic in the Islamic tradition, and is said to have written love poetry to God, whom she called “my hope, my tranquility, my joy.” *** She died in 815 CE. (A mosque by that name hit the news during the Egyptian uprising against Mohammed Mursi, when his supporters took shelter there. But I digress. Or not.)

Husband Arik (who’s finally getting well, we hope) has a new home-visit nurse, a young man named Jihad, who is a born-and-bred Jerusalemite. Jihad told me he’s never been to the tomb, but he is very familiar from his childhood with the stories of Sit’ Raba’a as a healer and a performer of good deeds. Jihad and I discussed the apparent proliferation of Sit’ Raba’a tombs throughout the Arab world, and, as he put away the bandages and washed up after treating Arik, we agreed that this is because the world is hungry for righteousness.

So where can the story of Hulda’s tomb take us? The Bible says no one knows Moses’ burial site (Deut. 34:6–7), ostensibly, we are taught, so it would not become a focus of worship. The following legend regarding that issue might give us a path: “The Roman emperor even sent two army units, charging them:  “Go and see where Moses is buried.”  They went and stood up above and saw it down below; then they went down below and saw it above.  So, they split up, half above and have below; those above saw it when they looked down, and those below saw it when they looked up.  Hence it is said, ‘no one knows his burial place'” (Sifrei Deuteronomy 357).

There are ardent seekers of righteousness and justice among all humanity. We  split, splice, slice and dice ourselves into our own tiny human slots (or allow it to be done to us); but Hulda’s tomb might show we just can’t help having much more in common than we sometimes realize. So let’s not forget the “hope” in Hulda’s name.

I like to tell the story you’ve reading here on site Hulda’s Tomb. This 2013 Women of the Bible tour, with Logos Bible Study led by Dr. Bill Creasy, made the time. Photo: Ana Vargas.

I like to tell the story you read here on site Hulda’s Tomb. This 2013 Women of the Bible tour, with Logos Bible Study led by Dr. Bill Creasy, made the time. Photo: Ana Vargas.

Two other narrow places the faithful try to squeeze through for miracles: The columns under the shrine of the hair of the prophet’s beard inside the Dome of the Rock, and Mary’s Tomb in the Kidron Valley. Can you add any?

Can you add to this list of sites that “share sanctity.”  Church of the Ascension; Church of the Holy Sepulchre; Church of the Nativity; Dome of the Rock; Golden Gate; King David’s Tomb; Rachel’s Tomb; Room of the Last Supper; Samuel’s Tomb; Tomb of Joshua; Tomb of the Patriarchs; Tomb of the Prophets; Tomb of Dan. 

Read more about Hulda in Women at the Time of the Bible.

*Zev Vilnay 1972, The Old City, Vol. 3 p. 370.

** Ibid., p. 369.

***!wiki=P27399 Hulda’s Tomb (Hebrew).