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The Dome of the Rock: Part 1-The Temple Mount

Most people can identify the golden dome over the Muslim shrine, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. There are two components of this shrine that we need to explore and understand. First, the shrine itself has much history regarding Muslims, making it the third most venerated religious structure in the Muslim world, only surpassed by Mecca and Medina. The Muslims recognize Jerusalem as the location for Muhammad's ascension to heaven, as mentioned in the Qur'an (17:1). Second, the platform that the Dome is built upon, called the Temple Mount, has much history for Jews and Christians. To the Jewish people, the Temple Mount is the site of King Solomon's Temple. To Christians, it is where Jesus rode into the Temple Mount through the Golden Gate upon a donkey, fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy (Zechariah 9:9). The Dome is sacred to Muslims; the Temple Mount is holy to Jews and Christians. To understand how they interact with each other, we have to start with the Temple Mount. Part 2 will discuss the structure on top, The Dome of the Rock.


Mount Moriah

Some 3000 years ago, a small settlement called "Urusalem" was populated by a group of Canaanites called Jebusites. The Jebusites were primarily farmers and traders. They had defended this settlement successfully because it was perched on the slopes of Mount Moriah, amid several hills that made this location easy to defend. The Israelite tribes had mounted several efforts to take this hill country but had failed until now. What was different was the Israelite tribes had united to form one nation under a King called David. King David won the battle, and the settlement became known as Jerusalem. Jerusalem would be the capital of the new Jewish nation.


It is essential to visualize Mount Moriah. Without having a topographical map to refer to, use your imagination. This may sound silly, but imagine Mt Moriah as a left-foot dress shoe filled with sand. Around the edges of the shoe are valleys, and on the other side of the valleys are other mountains. For example, Mount Zion (formerly the Western Hill) would be on the right side across from where the big toe would reside. The Kedron Valley would be on the left side of the shoe, and across from the left side of the heel is the Mount of Olives. Dress shoes usually have laces in the front, down the slope of your foot to the toes. The Gihon Spring is down the slope of the shoe behind the small toe. The City of David is down the mountain's gentle slope in this location. With the shoe being full of sand, the top of the mountain (2440 ft. elevation) would have an almost flat apex in an irregular circular area, between 20 to 25 acres in size. On this apex was a large protrusion, measuring 43 x 56 feet and rising 9 feet above its natural rocky surroundings. This small promontory rock stood out like a pimple, or better yet, a nipple on an upright breast. This small Rock is what the Dome of the Rock covers.


This location is significant because Christians believe the promontory Rock is where God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Muslims believe this is where Allah told Abraham to sacrifice Ishmael, and Jews believe this is the location of their first holy Temple.


Upon King David's victory, the prophet Gad told David to build an altar to the Lord on a local merchant's grain-threshing floor on the top of the mountain. A grain-threshing floor would have been a large, open, elevated area capable of accommodating large groups of people and animals. It was located at the top of the mountain so the wind would blow the chaff from the wheat. The facility's owner, Araunah, a Jebusite, offered to give the facility to David to build a place of worship. This offer is significant because this transaction represents the whole of Araunah's livelihood. He respects David but speaks of "the LORD your God" (2 Samuel 24:23, emphasis added), perhaps indicating that Araunah did not believe in the God of Israel himself. David refuses his offer and explains in verse 24: "No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing." Interestingly, 1st Chronicles 21 has a similar story, but the merchant is called Ornan the Jebusite.


Temple Mount-First Phase

The Lord God did not allow King David to build the first Temple because of the blood he had spilled as a warrior. His son, Solomon, was given the task, and circa 967 BCE (Before Common Era), the ark of the covenant was moved to the new Temple. A special room in the Temple was built for the Ark, placing it on the foundational Rock. While the Temple was built on the top of Mount Moriah, there was no Temple Mount as we know it. Solomon had made a level foundation for the Temple, a small courtyard with an outdoor altar, and his palace on top of the mountain. While building the temple, Solomon also created a series of aqueducts carrying water from the Hebron mountains to the temple and his palace. At Solomon's temple dedication, he sacrificed 22,000 cattle and 120,000 sheep over a two-week period. Solomon needed large amounts of water to wash away the vast quantities of blood from sacrificing large numbers of animals.


In the 8th century BCE, King Jehoshaphat added a new outside court east of the existing court with separate walls and gates (2 Chr 20:5), and later in the 7th century BCE, King Hezekiah (2 Chr 3-4) redesigned and rebuilt the Temple and added a 500-cubit square platform on top of the mountain. This platform, which had walls and gates, was leveled and paved with stone around the Temple. This platform was the first phase of the Temple Mount.


In measurements we can relate to, the Hezekiah's Temple Mount was a square shape measuring 861 feet on each side (one side was 862 feet), making it a 17-acre enclosure, all on Mount Moriah's crest.


In 586 BCE, the Babylonians destroyed the Temple and deported most of Jerusalem's inhabitants. However, when the Persians defeated the Babylonians, they released the Jewish captives to return and rebuild the Second Temple in 538 BCE. While the first Temple had been torn down, most of the Temple Mount was still preserved.


Temple Mount-Second Extension

In 174 BCE, the Maccabee brothers led a revolt that defeated the Greek Seleucids for control over Judah and Israel. This bloodline evolved into the Hasmonean dynasty, establishing an independent Jewish state from 164 to 63 BCE. It was circa 140 BCE that Simon, the third brother, changed the Temple Mount, effectively adding two acres in the southern direction. At this point, parts of the platform were extending over the side of the mountain's crest, deeper walls had to be built, and more fill dirt had to be added to make the Temple Mount level. It is interesting to note that most Jews at that time considered the Hezekiah square as holy ground, but the Hasmonean extension and the later Herod extension were not perceived in this manner. The Temple Mount had changed in shape from a square to a rectangle.


Temple Mount-Third Addition

One last addition to the Temple Mount was made by Herod the Great. Herod was known as a great builder, and the Temple was to be his crowning achievement. He redesigned the Temple and added extensive acreage to the Temple Mount. He extended the walls and platform of the Temple Mount on every side except the east; the Kendron Valley was just too steep to risk rebuilding the wall on that side. The Temple Mount had expanded to 36 acres, and the shape had changed from a rectangle to a trapezoid. Herod began construction in 20 BCE, but it wasn't completed until 26 CE (Common Era, sometimes referred to as AD), a total of 46 years to rebuild the Temple and the Temple Mount.


In Conclusion

In 70 CE, the Jewish Revolt resulted in the Jewish Temple being torn down by the Romans. At this point, the promontory Rock on Mount Moriah was laid bare to the elements. The Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 CE resulted in the Jewish population being denied access to Jerusalem. In 362 CE, the Byzantine Emperor Julian allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem and to let them begin building the Third Temple. The Great Earthquake of 363 CE and Julian's death in the same year dashed Jewish hopes for rebuilding the Third Temple.


In 610 CE, the Persians drove the Byzantines out of Jerusalem and most of the Levant. In 638 CE, the Arab Islamic Empire did the same to the Persians. This change in control leads me to this final story that I copied from my book, Muslim Mechanics, on page 215.


"In AD 610, the Persians drove the Byzantine Empire out of the Middle East and gave the Jews control of Jerusalem, at which time they started to rebuild the third Temple. Later, the Persians revoked Jewish authority and gave it to the Christians, who tore down the ongoing Jewish construction and turned the area into a garbage dump. This garbage dump was what the Islamic armies found when they conquered the city in AD 638. A credible account from later centuries is that the leader of the Islamic Army, Caliph 'Umar', was reluctantly led to the location by the Christian patriarch Sophronius where they found the sacred Rock covered with rubbish."


At this point in history, the Christians were enamored with their exquisitely designed Byzantine churches and had neglected the importance and sacredness of the Rock on top of the hill.


Credit to Wikimedia Commons for the aerial view of the Temple Mount and parts of the Old City of Jerusalem. The author is Godot13, for this photo taken on 2 April 2007. The Temple Mount is the platform on which the Dome of the Rock is built.


Coming Up Next – The Dome of the Rock, Part 2


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