Take the rising pathway to the right of the Western Wall, which leads to the Temple Mount, one of the most historic and sublime sites in the world. In the Islamic world, this is the Haram es Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, and one of its crowning architectural achievements. After David conquered Jerusalem, he purchased the flat rock at the top of Moriah from Arunah the Jebusite, who had used it as a threshing floor. Some historians theorize that the name Arunah, a dialect variation of the name Aaron, may indicate that Arunah was a Canaanite priest, and the site a Canaanite holy place. The Bible (2 Chron. 3) relates that "Solomon began to build the house of the Lord at Jerusalem on Mount Moriah." The more modest Second Temple (Solomon's was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.) was originally built by returnees from the Babylonian Captivity between 525 and 515 B.C., and later, shortly before the time of Jesus, Herod enlarged and rebuilt it into the most massive religious complex in the eastern Roman Empire. The vast Temple Mount you see here is an artificially created, flat, stone-paved platform, about 12 hectares (30 acres) in area, built by Herod to accommodate vast numbers of pilgrims in ancient times. Herod's temple complex was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70. All structures on the Temple Mount today, including the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque, are Islamic holy places and religious institutions built after the Muslim conquest of A.D. 638.
There is no charge to enter the Temple Mount compound. You must not, however, wear shorts or immodest dress in the compound. (If your outfit is too revealing, guards may be willing to provide you with long cotton wraps, or they may ask you to return another time with more modest clothing.) Visitors are allowed on the Temple Mount by permission of the Islamic religious authorities, and are asked to obey instructions given by the guards.
There is an admission fee of NIS 38 ($9.50/£4.75) to go inside the two mosques and the Islamic Museum. If the buildings are again open to foreign visitors, I highly recommend that you invest in the combined admission ticket, which may be purchased from a stone kiosk between Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock. If visiting hours are lengthened, you may usually remain on the Temple Mount, but cannot enter the Dome of the Rock or the Al Aqsa Mosque during the midday prayers.
Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest place of prayer in the world for Muslims after Mecca and Medina, is the first large edifice you'll come to. Completed in approximately A.D. 720, it is among the oldest mosques in existence and also among the most beautiful -- a vast broad basilica originally nine naves wide (it was rebuilt somewhat smaller after the Crusades). It was in front of the graceful porticos of the Al Aqsa that King Abdullah I of Jordan was assassinated in 1951, by gunmen who felt he was attempting to create a basis for eventual peace in the area. He died here in the presence of his then 15-year-old grandson, the late King Hussein of Jordan.
Note: Although at press time the interiors of the Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock were closed to visitors, the following information is provided in case they are reopened.
A mosque is a sacred enclosure open to air and light (as opposed to the dark interiors of pagan-era temples). Because a mosque is a sacred precinct, you must remove your shoes before entering. This tradition is very ancient, going back to the time when Moses, approaching the Burning Bush in the Sinai, heard the voice of God telling him to take off his shoes. You must also leave handbags and cameras outside, so you might want to come with a partner who can watch these things for you. Try to stash your wallet and identification papers into a pocket.
After passing through the portico, you will enter a broad open hall with chandeliers, its floor covered with Oriental rugs. The mosque's lofty ceilings, supported by a forest of varied columns, are embellished with early Islamic and Byzantine design. Up front, past rows of great marble pillars, is a wood-partitioned platform reserved for the Jordanian royal family. The extraordinary wooden-stair pulpit of the Al Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam's great artistic treasures for more than 7 centuries, was commissioned by Saladin for the rededication of Al Aqsa as a mosque after the Crusader occupation. Originally built by master artisans from Syria, it was destroyed when a mentally disturbed Australian tourist set fire to the Al Aqsa in 1969, and it has been painstakingly reconstructed by craftspeople retrained in techniques that have not been used for hundreds of years. A separate women's prayer chamber, in blue, is at the right. As you enter the Al Aqsa, you face south, in the direction of Mecca. Mihrabs, or prayer niches on the southern wall, remind worshipers of the qibla, or direction they must face during prayers, which are performed five times a day. During the five daily prayers, the Al Aqsa is filled with worshipers who in unison perform the rituals of prostration that accompany Islamic prayer. Non-Muslim visitors are not permitted inside mosques at these times. In between prayers, when visitors are allowed to enter, you will find a large, serene space, with perhaps a few individual worshipers at various places on the floor. Unlike most churches and synagogues, mosques contain no pews or chairs. Visitors are invited to view the architecture and design details of the building; however, they are requested not to engage in any prayers.
Leave Al Aqsa, reclaim your shoes and belongings, and turn right. You will only be permitted to walk to the end of the building, but at the far end of the vast pavement is a corner in the city walls. Some say this is the "pinnacle of the Temple" where Satan took Jesus to tempt him (Matt. 4:5). In the distance, you can get a marvelous view of the Mount of Olives and the Kidron Valley.
A stairway leads to the so-called Solomon's Stables, perhaps first misidentified by the Crusaders. Today, these subterranean chambers are popularly believed to have been the stables for King Solomon's thousands of horses. The "stables" are actually the substructure supporting this portion of Herod's vast, artificially created ceremonial platform that is the present surface of the Temple Mount. To add to the confusion about the site, many Muslims believe the "Solomon" referred to is the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman (Solomon) the Magnificent, who rebuilt the walls that surround the present Old City and did extensive repair work on the Dome of the Rock during his reign in the mid-1500s. (For security reasons, this area will probably be closed to visitors.)
Heading straight across Temple Mt. Plaza toward the Dome of the Rock, you'll pass El-Kas, the fountain where Muslims perform their ritual ablutions before entering the holy places. It is equipped with a circular row of pink marble seats, each of which has a faucet. The fountain is not for use by non-Muslims.
The exterior walls of the dazzling Dome of the Rock are covered with a facade of Persian blue tiles, originally installed by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the mid-16th century. In 1994, under the auspices of Jordan's king Hussein, the great dome was completely reconstructed and regilded with 80 kilograms (176 lb.) of 24-karat gold. The Dome of the Rock is reached by climbing the broad ceremonial stairs that lead to a decorative archway and a raised center portion of the Temple Mount complex. The Dome of the Rock's interior is every bit as lavish and intricate as the outside. Plush carpets line the floor, and stained-glass windows line the upper ceiling. Again, visitors must remove their shoes and leave them, along with their cameras and bags, on shelves before entering the shrine.
Everything in this beautiful Muslim sanctuary, built in A.D. 691, centers on the rock that occupies the middle of the shrine. According to Islamic tradition, this rock is the spot from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended to view paradise during the Night Journey described in the 17th Sura of the Koran. Tradition holds that when the Prophet rose, the rock tried to follow, and although it failed, the cave beneath the rock was formed. Footprints of Muhammad are pointed out on the rock.
Next to the rock, a few strands of the Prophet Muhammad's hair are kept in a latticework wooden cabinet. A stairway leads under the rock to a cavelike chamber; according to tradition, this is the Well of the Souls, where it is said the souls of all the dead are gathered. Glass partitions have been erected to stop pilgrims from eroding the sacred rock -- for centuries it was chipped away by the faithful who wanted to bring home a memento.
Jewish tradition holds that on this rock occurred the supreme act of faith that stands at the very foundation of the Jewish religion: Abraham's near sacrifice of Isaac. Genesis 22 relates how Abraham, in approximately 1800 B.C., followed God's instructions to go to Moriah and sacrifice Isaac, his beloved son. Isaac, unaware of the dreadful command, followed in his father's steps and asked, "Behold the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" Abraham responded, "God will provide for the sacrifice," as he built the altar on the rock and prepared to bind his son. At the final moment, the voice of God intervened and ordered Abraham to lower his knife. Approximately 900 years later, in 960 B.C., the Temple of Solomon was constructed either on or beside this rock. For the next millennium, the First and Second Temples were located on this site.
From the flat courtyard surrounding the two mosques you have a wonderful view. To the south are the Valley of Jehoshaphat (Valley of Kidron) and the UN Government House (Mount of Contempt) on the hill. To the east are the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives, the Russian Magdalene Church, with its many onion-shaped golden domes, and the Tomb of the Virgin. Midway up the Mount of Olives is a large modern white structure with many levels of arcades that seem built into the side of the slope. This is the vast Mormon Center, constructed in the 1980s and considered to be one of the most beautiful examples of contemporary architecture in Jerusalem. On the crest of the Mount of Olives, above the Church of Mary Magdalene, you'll see the high-steepled Russian Monastery and the Dome of the Ascension, marking the place from which Jesus ascended to heaven. Farther to the right and a bit downhill is the gray, tear-shaped dome of Dominus Flevit, which commemorates the spot where Jesus wept as he saw a vision of Jerusalem in ruins. Indeed, from the time of the city's destruction in A.D. 70 until the building of the Dome of the Rock in A.D. 691, Jews traditionally stood near this spot and viewed the actual ruins of the Temple Mount. To the right, on the southern crest of the ridge, is the modern Seven Arches Hotel, built during Jordanian times on the ancient Jewish cemetery of the Mount of Olives.
Your combined entrance ticket also admits you to the Islamic Museum, in the southwest corner of the Temple Mount complex, to the right of the Al Aqsa Mosque. The museum is filled with architectural details, including capitals and carved stonework from earlier structures on the Temple Mount as well as ornamental details from earlier periods of the Al Aqsa Mosque's existence.
Scheduling a Visit to the Temple Mount -- At press time, tourists could only visit the Temple Mount/Haram es Sharif from Sunday to Thursday from 7:30 to 11am and from 1:30 to 2:30pm. It is best to arrive at least an hour ahead of closing time. Although visitors may walk around on the Temple Mount, take photographs, and enjoy the vistas, for now entry into the Dome of the Rock, the Al Aqsa Mosque, and the Islamic Museum is not permitted. Longer visiting hours and permission to enter the buildings on the Temple Mount may be restored during the time span of this edition. The Temple Mount is always closed to non-Muslims on Friday and during the entire holy month of Ramadan.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.