Contention between Israeli Jews and Palestinians stretches back nearly a century, with little hope of resolution. In the past few months, however, the conflict has increasingly focused on a struggle for control of the Temple Mount.
The site of Solomon’s temple and, later, of Herod’s temple at the time of Jesus has been a sacred place for over 3,000 years. The original Jewish temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. Rebuilt 70 years later, the temple endured another six centuries as the center of Jewish spiritual life until the Romans destroyed it in A.D. 70 amidst a Jewish rebellion. The surviving Jews were scattered and have been left without a temple for almost 2,000 years.
When the Holy Land was Christianized in the early fourth century by order of the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine, monumental churches were built throughout it, including the Holy Sepulcher over the traditional tomb of Jesus. However, the Temple Mount was intentionally left desolate as a sign of the fulfillment of Christ’s prophecy that not one stone of the temple would be left standing. And so it remained for three centuries, visited by pilgrims following in Jesus Christ’s footsteps, but unadorned by any Christian shrine.
Thus, when Arab Muslims conquered Jerusalem in 638 under the Caliph Umar, they entered into a treaty to protect the Christian and Jewish holy places in the city. Searching for a location in Jerusalem to construct a mosque for the new Muslim community, the Arabs naturally turned to the large space left empty by the Christians on the old Temple Mount. Soon the Arabs had built not only the Al-Aqsa Mosque for prayer and worship, but also a new shrine. Known as the Dome of the Rock, the sanctuary is one of the great architectural achievements of the Islamic world. It commemorated the biblical temple of Solomon and the place where Jesus taught and performed miracles — both of which were described in the Quran and accepted by Muslims as authentic sacred history. In addition, Muslims believed that Muhammad had visited the Temple Mount of Jerusalem in vision, ascending from there into heaven.
Apart from a century of Christian rule under the Crusaders, the Temple Mount remained in Muslim hands for the next 13 centuries. Jews were given locations on the fringes of the Temple Mount for prayers, which eventually developed into the Western Wall.
The Israeli conquest of Palestine and east Jerusalem in 1967 placed the Temple Mount in Jewish hands again for the first time in 1,400 years. Although some Israelis at the time agitated for permanent occupation of the Temple Mount and destruction of the Muslim shrines there, the Israeli government decided to leave Muslim authorities in charge of the area. Indeed, the rabbinic leaders of Israel forbade Jews from entering the Temple Mount lest they unintentionally profane the sacred precincts where, according to Jewish law, only priests could enter.
Throughout the medieval period of Muslim dominance in Jerusalem, Jewish messianic expectations were of two minds regarding the rebuilding of the temple. One maintained that when the Messiah came, he would rebuild the temple as a sign of his divine authority. The other tradition held that the temple must be rebuilt by the Jews in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. These two traditions — which could be called quietist and activist — still exist among Jews today. Activist Jews thus believe that Israel must expel the Muslims from the Temple Mount, destroy the Dome of the Rock and rebuild the “Third Temple” to prepare the way for the Messiah.
For decades, these Third Temple movements have been preparing and agitating for the rebuilding of the temple, going so far as to make utensils, furnishings and priestly robes for use in the coming sanctuary. Every year, on Jewish holy days, these groups have attempted to force their way onto the Temple Mount to pray, and have consistently been turned away by Israeli security forces.
In recent months, however, increasing numbers of Jews have begun wider agitation for the right to ascend the Temple Mount to pray, in violation of the early 1967 status quo agreement regarding the site. Palestinian Muslims have reacted with both demonstrations and violence, and with the threat of a potentially new “intifada” (uprising). Thus, despite Isaiah’s prophecy that the Temple Mount should be “a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7; Mark 11:17), it remains a source of discord and conflict.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation, and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.