My Unvisit to the Temple Mount

Temple Mount

Jerusalem has many important sites, both in historical and religious contexts, usually a combination of both. The three great monotheistic religions of the world, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, each claim the city as holy and have corresponding sites of importance in the great capital of antiquity. Of these the most enigmatic is without doubt the Temple Mount.

Simply put, the Temple Mount just may be the most holy site in the world. According to Judaism, the Temple Mount is where God created the world, where life was breathed into Adam and where the two great temples once stood. It is also home to the Divine Presence, giving great importance to the Temples and why the site remains holy today. The Kotel, or Western Wall, is the last remaining vestige of the ancient Temple complex, thus the site of pilgrimage for many Jews. The site is important in the Christian faith for the role it played in Jesus’ life as well as being the site of the Second Coming. Finally, Islam considers the site its third most holy for being the location of Muhammad’s journey to Jerusalem and ascent to heaven. On the Mount are the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The area is revered by all three religions because of the presence of the Dome of the Rock, inside of which sits the Foundation Stone, which is also believed to be the altar on which Abraham bound his son Isaac.

Due to this importance across the three religions, the site has been, and continues to be, a source of great tension and debate. Israel has controlled the site, indeed the entire city of Jerusalem, since the Six-Day War, but the Temple Mount is managed by an Islamic Council. Because the location of the Holy of Holies remains unknown, Israel’s Chief Rabbis have long maintained that it is forbidden for Jews to enter the Temple Mount, although it still remains a topic of debate amongst religious authorities.

Temple Mount line

Unlike the Kotel or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Temple Mount complex is not always open and many of the buildings contained on the site are verboten to non-Muslims. When I visited it was open to tourists from 7:30-11:00 am and 1:30-2:30 pm, although check once you arrive in Jerusalem.

Given the limited visitation times, the entrance line can be quite long, I waited about 45 minutes to gain entry into the holy site. Honestly, Temple Mount wasn’t what I expected, although I’m not sure what I thought it would be like. The top is a large open area, with a smattering of buildings, benches and kiosks. The two most important structures are the revered Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, which sits opposite the mosque.

Al-Aqsa Mosque

I walked up to the mosque, not sure of the protocol, but hoping for admittance. Policies on non-Muslims entering mosques vary around the region, in Turkey it was allowed, but against the rules in Morocco. It didn’t take long for someone to quickly approach me though and point me away from the building. Apparently Al-Aqsa followed the Moroccan example. Disappointed, but understanding, I followed the directions and wandered across the courtyard to the massive Dome of the Rock.

No skyline photo of Jerusalem is complete without inclusion of the colorful, gilded Dome of the Rock. To stand in front of this iconic structure was even more impressive than I could have imagined, the sun shining brightly off of the golden dome.

Dome of the Rock

Dome of the Rock

After taking photos from every possible angle, I decided to try to enter the building. Given the importance of the site to the three religions, I thought for sure they would let me in. Non-Christians can enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, non-Jews can pray at the Kotel so I thought gaining entry into the Dome of the Rock would be easy. I thought wrong.

I was abruptly, and rudely told to go away. I took one look at the guy’s expression and knew a debate wouldn’t accomplish much, so I moped away, looking back at the guard like a sad puppy – all with no effect.

While I can appreciate the fact that it is a religious site and they don’t want thousands of people wandering through the building, I personally don’t think it’s right to close off the Dome of the Rock to non-Muslims. Any other mosque in the world I agree with, but not this one. It’s important to my religion too, so why can’t I enter and pay homage in the same way as anyone else?

I wandered about the Temple Mount for a few more minutes, admiring the views of the city and the nearby Mt. of Olives before leaving, fairly dejected. I’m glad I got to visit the site, but I don’t feel like I actually visited it. Maybe someday the religious authorities will once again allow the People of the Book admittance to this site of mutual importance, until then at least I have my unvisit.

Dome of the Rock

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

22 thoughts on “My Unvisit to the Temple Mount”

  1. Matt, the reason you were denied admission is because of security reasons. I was able to go into both mosques in 1995, but since then things have changed. I was in Israel in June 2010 and experienced the same disappointment. Because of the sensitivity of the area and its importance to Jews and Muslims, and because of the recent terrorist attacks, they have decided to limit access to non-Muslims.

    Sorry that no one was able to explain that to you! I took a short tour of the Old City and my tour guide told us the back story.

    1. Thanks for your perspective! I’m not sure if I totally believe your guide though. I mean, using that logic half the city would be off limits. Maybe it is, but I’m not sure.

  2. I was lucky when I visited last May. I got to go up and wander around. I followed the advice of a couple people who said early in the morning (7:30 AM) would be the best time. I would have liked to see the inside of The Dome of the Rock, but that wasn’t going to happen.

    I think I had such good luck because they’d been going through an extended period of peace.

  3. I was just looking at my Temple Mount/DOTR pics and thinking of doing a post–but you captured it very well, Matt. I’ll have to think of another angle! We had a similar experience when we were there in May. 20 years ago, I got to enter the Al-Aqsa and the DOTR, as a Christian woman! But this time? No dice. Definitely limits how much you can appreciate it. I’m going to post on the Holy Sepulchre this afternoon…

  4. I’m so glad you’re interested in Israel. Most travelers just don’t bother to come here. It’s too bad you were disappointed with the Temple Mount. I enjoy it, even though, like you say, you can’t go in any of the buildings. Both times I’ve been up there I’ve seen school boys playing volleyball outside and have gotten to take tons of photos and video. I guess I made it up there at just the right time for their recess. You’re right – the entrance times are severely limited, as are the entrances themselves. Everyone should check when they go to Jerusalem because the times can change. And in times of trouble they just close it entirely to non-Muslims and even Muslim men younger than 45 or 50.

    1. Thanks! I loved my time in Israel and will be traveling to Jordan in a few weeks. I enjoyed the Temple Mount itself, don’t get me wrong, but was definitely disappointed at the lack of access.

  5. Matt – you had it easy.
    I am one of those religious Jews who regularly visits the Temple Mount -although I do not visit the vicinity of the Dome of the Rock for religious reasons, because of its extreme holiness – that’s where the Temple actually stood. I guide groups there that are willing to follow the religious laws that apply to this site.
    Unlike tourists, observant Jews are detained by the Israeli police before going up to the Mount, We have to show our id cards (or passports, in the case that we are visitrs ot Israel), our particulars are recorded nd we are sternly warned not to pray or engage in any religious behavior – singing, etc. We are provided with a special “escort” (actually two – one Israeli policeman, and a second Muslim Waqf official) to make sure that we do not do anything provocative (like pray) as well as to protect us (the policeman, not the Waqf fellow). Sometimes they try to hurry us off the Mount, claiming (sometimes correctly) that there are other groups that wish to visit.
    This is to prevent “incidents” that may spark violence. Personally, I have rarely had trouble with the Muslims on the Mount – most ignore our presence. Maybe they are used to us, maybe they prefer to pretend that we’re not really there.
    The Israeli police cooperate with this because the “political level” wants to avoid conflict with the Muslims and incidents that may lead to riots and bloodshed.
    Usually, it’s no big thing.. Rarely, this leads to delays of up to two hours (!) while hundreds of tourists are admitted to the Mount and we are left waiting. I see this as the price that we have to pay to visit the holiest place on earth – but sometimes the behavior of the police bothers people so much that they refuse to return. Too bad.

    1. Wow, I didn’t even realize you were allowed to visit, having seen some of the signs leading up to the Temple Mount. I’m glad you do make the effort though because, as we both have said, the area is of extreme important to many different groups.

      1. Matt-
        The Chief Rabbinate puts up signs saying that no one may visit the Temple Mount because of its holiness.
        This is not precise – but they are right in that most visitors (Jewish or otherwise) to the Mount do not know or care about ritual purification (for Jews) before visiting the Mount, or where it is permissible to walk and where it is not.
        In recent years a large group of religious Jews, after immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath)have begun to visit this site, avoiding the area whene the Temple actually stood (the vicinity of the Dome of the Rock.
        I find it an amazing experience – on our tours we point out the historical and spiritual significance of this spot to Jews, while avoiding any provocation of the Muslims who visit or worship there.

  6. Thanks for your post, Matt. First a couple of minor clarifications…

    — All of the walls surrounding the Temple Mount, not just the Kotel, are the remains of the Temple Complex, but that is the closest spot, from the outside, to where the Temples stood. There are other parts of the Western Wall which are closer, but the Kotel is the most easily accessible.
    — The spot of Jesus’ Second Coming is believed to be on the Mount of Olives (as it is also the Jewish spot associated with the arrival of the Messiah), not the Temple Mount, but presumably he would go to the Temple Mount after!
    — In addition to the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque, there is also another mosque that was quickly built (and with questionable legality) at the Southeastern corner of the Temple mount, under ground, in what was formerly known by the misnomer Solomon’s Stables. It is currently one of the largest, if not the largest mosque in the Middle East.
    — The Dome of the Rock is not, in fact, a mosque. It is a shrine. Muslims do not pray inside it.

    That being said, I wanted to discuss the reasons you experienced the frustration you did (frustrations I share). As a few of your commenters mentioned, the rules used to be different, and until a few years ago, all people were allowed to go into both the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque. The decision that now limits the access of non-Muslims both to the Temple Mount overall, and to those buildings specifically is one that was made by the Waqf (the Muslim religious leadership), not the Israeli authorities. It is largely seen as a politically motivated statement to express their control. The security situation is far from the reason, since there were never any attacks by non-Muslims against Muslims on the Temple Mount.

    It is a true shame that the Waqf feels the need to limit the access of non-Muslims to a site revered by so many non-Muslims as well. Hopefully some time in the future that will change. But until that time, it is important to note who protects religious sites and the access to them, and who does not.

    I hope you’ll come back to Israel again soon, and be in touch when you do!

  7. I went to this site in 1989 and was allowed to enter the mosque inside the dome. It is large and spectacular. The floor was covered with reddishoriental rugs and several men kneeling and bowing in prayer. At the time I didn’t realize that access to this sight would not be available in later years. What did impress me in an odd way was the very strong smell of feet. Sorry to say. We had to take our shoes off before going in and my biggest concern was that my own socks were going to “catch” that awful smell. Sorry to mention this, but maybe this is some consolation to anyone being dissapointed at being denied acces to this place.

  8. Matt,

    I hope you can appreciate the political sensitivities relating to Al Aqsa and there have been terrorist attempts to attack Muslim worship peers and attacks in and around the sites.

    Remember Muslims treated this as an open city for all.
    While I respect all 3 religions I would like to add that the great city of Yar Ul Shalom or Dar Ul Salam in Arabic was destroyed first by Nebuchadnezzar and then by the Romans. When our beloved khalifah Rashid Umar binge Khattan (RA) entered the holy city over 5 centuries after the Romans expelled the Unitarian Christians and Jews this city was barren, rubble and destroyed.

    This city today is a testimony to the Muslims who restored and rebuilt the city a third time and declared it an open city for all.

    Sadly your post does not reflect this and comes across that Muslims are not inclusive or open, on the contrary.

  9. Hmm, sorry you weren’t allowed into the mosques. Frankly, I’m surprised to hear that, because I’ve seen many non-Muslim tourists enter both mosques. In fact, Islam has a long tradition of *inviting* non-Muslims into mosques to visit, for, as the prophet Mohammed said, “when there are any non-muslims seeking help from you, lend your hand to them as well, as they are your family members.” However, non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the mosques at or around prayer times due to crowding (and the fact that men are not allowed to observe unrelated women in prayer), so that might be one explanation.

    Last time I visited was several weeks ago, on an Islamic holy day. The place was packed, and both mosques had an overflow of people praying near the doors. Though I’m a Muslim and was dressed appropriately, I waited outside of the Dome of the Rock during afternoon prayers out of courtesy: I wasn’t going to pray, so I stayed out in order not to occupy the space of someone who wanted to pray. (BTW, Joel is incorrect in his statement that the Dome is not a mosque. It most certainly is, and people most certainly do pray there, *all* the time.)

    Now, you have to understand that the people praying at these mosques are just random people. They are not affiliated with the mosque in any official or semi-official capacity (we don’t have “congregations” like you have in churches, though I kind of wish we did), and absolutely do not represent the mosque. While some of those people can be sweet and accommodating, like the women who found and returned the iPhone I had left in a restroom stall, and some can be downright rude, like the old lady who made me move out of the portico so that she could set up her camp chair and pray. In addition, I saw a touristy couple consisting of a Muslim woman in a headscarf and a “foreign” looking man turned away, not very politely, during the couple minutes before the start of group prayer. So, the mosque-attending crowd is a mixed bag — you win some, you lose some. :-) But don’t think it has anything (much) to do with your ethnicity or religion.

    Rudeness is never acceptable, and I’m sure God and the prophets would frown upon its occurrence, especially in holy sites. However, the situational context of people’s interactions at the Haram/Mount is that most had to work very long and hard to get there, and they’re not about to let anyone stand in the way of their goal of participating in group prayer in the mosque (which is kind of a big deal). Those who live in the West Bank would have had to apply for permits to enter Israel weeks in advance, then travel longer than necessary due to bypass roads (constructed so that Palestinians don’t drive on the roads used by Israelis) and checkpoints (with mazes of massive steel gates that make people feel less like humans and more like cattle being corralled into a slaughterhouse). To give you some perspective, I traveled with some relatives last time. As a born-and-bred U.S. citizen who never had West Bank residency, I am allowed to move freely and can make the trip between my family’s village and the Damascus Gate in 20 minutes. However, the “Palestinian” route requires three different buses and passage through a checkpoint, so the journey took over an hour, much of it under the hot sun. So, while the local Muslims certainly should be mindful, for their own spiritual sake, of how they treat fellow humans in their holy sites, it also behooves us as visitors to be mindful of how weary they must be upon their arrival. Believe me, it took restraint to keep from telling the old lady who confronted me that I hoped God would reject her prayers. ;-)

    Nahum, I am glad you continue to visit in the spirit of faith and coexistence. I’m sure you’re aware of the incidents that have occurred when people have gone there with the intent to incite violence. Within every population, there are troublemakers who invariably ruin things for everyone else. However, I’m glad that you continue to follow the rules, and hope those rules can soon be lifted under conditions of peace for all the people, of all faiths, who call the Holy Land “home.”

    1. Thanks, but there was nothing very inviting about my experience. Sad to say, but it’s true. Maybe it’s different now and I’m willing to go back.

  10. Salams, I am a white American convert who went there in 2012 with my husband (second generation Palestinian American) and a male friend, my former student (second generation Pakistani American).

    We found that when entering Israel, my former student was the one taken to a separate room and questioned for hours, while I was questioned for a short time, and then an Israeli guard confused me about where to go which set off some concerns for them and then I had to sit alone another 2 hours, while no one asked my bearded, devout, Arab husband anything. He just sat with our son waiting for us.

    In al-Quds (Jerusalem), Israeli security kept stopping me, letting my husband and former student pass without a question. They would have me prove I’m Muslim by saying shahadah and reciting Quran before letting me go. This was just in the shopping area.

    When I went to Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa for the first time, with them, I had a short questioning but not much. But the next morning when I went alone, thinking I could enter and easily pray, the Israeli guard stopped me, insisting I was Jewish (a light-skinned woman in hijab), quizzing me about my background, where I came from, how I converted, etc. He still didn’t believe me so he called over a Muslim man (I think under cover) who then quizzed me on the Quran so that I recited 6 Surahs before they gave up and let me go, with obviously concerned faces. So I walked across the Temple Mount to the Dome of the Rock (where, yes, Muslims do pray non-stop), and entered to pray. When I entered, some other men started quizzing me so I pointed them back to the guard. And finally prayed.

    Afterward I went to al-Aqsa. I prayed there, then was doing dhikr, when a man eyeing me from across the masjid came over to ask what language I prayed in, etc. I think he worked with them too. He sat in front of me in the women’s section and started asking me questions.

    Later, my husband explained it was under heightened security due to threats from Jewish groups. Sad that we all have to live like this. My husband was fine in al-Quds, but when we went to see his family in Hebron, we saw where the neighboring settlers had spray painted the equivalent off “off limits” across the front of their house, on farm the family has owned for centuries.

    Then we went to visit the burial place of Prophet Abraham, in a mosque. Again, my husband and his Palestinian cousins passed Israeli security just fine. They detained me for questioning, thinking I was Jewish. My husband said they were strict there because years ago, a Jewish settler entered the mosque with machine guns and gunned down the Muslims while they were praying. So Jews are no longer allowed on that side.

    It’s a complicated region.

    I hope you do get to enter one day.

    Take care.

  11. “The Cave of the Patriarchs massacre, also known as the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre or Hebron massacre,was a shooting massacre carried out by American-Israeli Baruch Goldstein, also a member of the far-right Israeli Kach movement. On February 25, 1994, Goldstein opened fire on a large number of Palestinian Muslims who had gathered to pray inside the Ibrahimi Mosque (also Mosque of Abraham), at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, West Bank. It took place on February 25, 1994, during the overlapping religious holidays of both Jewish Purim and Muslim Ramadan.The attack left 29 people dead and 125 wounded. Goldstein was only stopped after he was overpowered and beaten to death by survivors.”

    Palestinians responded with protests, in which Israeli soldiers killed more Palestinians and Israelis were hurt as well. Israelis overall strongly condemned the massacre and its related group. But everyone got scared of this happening again. And unfortunately there have been repeated threats to the Muslims on the Temple Mount. My husband said it was actually the Israeli government who put stricter limitations on Jews/non-,Muslims going there, though I don’t know the details.

    In my case, they thought I could have been a Jewish terrorist in disguise. And I did feel very said that I was able to go to the Wailing Wall without question (though staying at a distance — like how you didn’t enter the mosques), but non-Muslims couldn’t freely move around on top of the Temple Mount. I wish that weren’t the case.

  12. Also, whereas a decade ago very few Jews visited the Temple Mount due to its extreme holiness, now there is a movement to go there and pray there, to push the issue and gain more access despite the religious restrictions they’ve traditionally put on themselves. So vast amounts of Jews are able to go there now, compared to before, and the Israeli government is responding by starting to limit Muslim access to the site at key times when Jews are there, in an attempt to reduce friction.

    If I know Muslims, doing this too much will certainly create more tension than it would resolve.

    There are extreme/fringe Jewish groups that want to get rid of the mosques altogether. This is the ultimate threat.

    And oh how I wish we could all share and be happy.

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