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Jerusalem's Temple Mount: Center of Conflict Today

A Good News Interview With Leen Ritmeyer, Ph.D.

Interview by Scott Ashley

The Good News: Could you give a brief perspective on why Jerusalem is such an important place, biblically speaking?

Leen Ritmeyer: Jerusalem was chosen specifically by God. Going back to the time of Abraham, God sent him to Mt. Moriah [which was later the Temple Mount] to sacrifice his son Isaac, a type of the greater sacrifice that later came in the form of Jesus Christ being crucified. Later God told Moses that when they came into the land, He would appoint a certain place where He would "cause his name to dwell there" [Deuteronomy 12:11, King James Version]. So it is the only place in the whole world that God has chosen to "cause his name to dwell there."

We continue in history to where David built the first altar and Solomon built the temple. It became a centralized place of worship where all the Israelites were to gather three times a year for the great feasts of Passover, the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles. It was the only center of their worship.

GN: Jerusalem is considered holy by the three great monotheistic religions-Judaism, Christianity and Islam. How and when did it come to be considered one of Islam's holy places?

LR: It happened during the seventh century when Caliph Omar came to Israel. During this time Muslims conquered all of the Middle East and went as far as Europe.

The Muslims had their two major holy sites, Mecca and Medina, which were established by the prophet Muhammad. When Jerusalem was conquered by Caliph Omar, all sorts of legends sprang up. He wanted to find where the Most Holy Place of the Jewish temple was. It later became connected with the legend that says Muhammad came to Jerusalem and went off to heaven on his horse. And from this a third Islamic holy site was chosen, to commemorate the ascent to heaven of their prophet Muhammad.

In the beginning all the Muslims prayed bowing toward Jerusalem, but that was later changed to a new prayer direction toward Mecca. The Dome of the Rock was built about A.D. 700, and the Al Aqsa Mosque was later added to the Temple Mount. There have been renovations and rebuilding, but they are still there basically as they were from the beginning.

GN: After that, for many years Jerusalem wasn't considered that important to the Muslims. How did it come to its current level of importance to the Islamic world?

LR: It did play second fiddle to Mecca and Medina. But ever since the state of Israel was established, the conflict between Arab and Jew has been growing greater and greater. You have one site, the Temple Mount, that is claimed as the third-holiest place by the Muslims and as the only holy place by the Jewish people.

Of course, from the Bible and even from archaeology we know that the Jews were there long before the Muslims. The Muslims, though currently a minority in the land, claim the whole land for themselves-not only the Temple Mount but the whole of the land of Israel. The claim of the Jews goes back much earlier, to the biblical periods, but that is denied by the Muslims. On the other hand, the Muslims say they go back 1,300 years, and no one has a right to come into their land.

The focus of the problem is becoming more and more the Temple Mount. The present-day work the Muslims are doing on top of the Temple Mount is to strengthen their foothold there.

They are converting underground structures like the Golden Gate [a chambered gate structure built by King Herod] and Solomon's stables [a massive expanse dating to Herodian and Crusader times, earlier thought to have been built by King Solomon] into mosques.

Under the guise of renovation work they are destroying or covering up remains of the Jewish temple because they deny that there was ever a Jewish presence on the Temple Mount.

GN: But isn't it true that earlier Muslim authorities acknowledged that this was the site of Solomon's temple?

LR: Yes, certainly. That's why it was chosen as the site of the Dome of the Rock in the first place. Caliph Omar specifically asked where the site of the temple was so he could build a shrine to commemorate Muhammad's ascent.

GN: How did we get to the situation where the Muslims control the top of the Temple Mount while the Israelis control the rest of Jerusalem surrounding it?

LR: The whole of the Old City, including the Temple Mount, was captured by the Israelis from Jordan in the 1967 war. There was talk then among Israelis of getting rid of the mosques and rebuilding the temple. But the Israeli government was too afraid of the international repercussions if they were to do that.

So the Israelis control all of the Old City, but they let the Muslims control the Temple Mount. But that control doesn't mean that they can build and do whatever they like. They have the right, given by Israel, to worship and exercise freedom of religion and have access to their holy sites, although the Muslims have closed the Temple Mount to non-Muslims in recent years. So they don't stand by their agreement.

Of course, all of the Old City is also an archaeological zone. No one is allowed, according to the law, to dig without having archaeological supervision. But the Muslims have been flouting that law for the last several years with what they're doing on the Temple Mount.

GN: Can you tell us some specifics about what has happened on the Temple Mount recently from an archaeological point of view?

LR: Over the last few years the area of Solomon's stables has been in the news somewhat. This is a large underground hall that contains structures from the Crusader, Muslim and Herodian periods, some of them 2,000 years old.

The Muslims, to make their claim to the Temple Mount stronger, are now using the underground structures as places for worship-especially Solomon's stables. This has been an underground area open for a long, long period, and they recently determined to change it into a mosque.

The problem is that this vast underground area, which could contain 10,000 worshippers, had access only through a narrow staircase. If anything happened, it would be impossible for people to escape. Therefore they needed a much larger entrance to this underground chamber.

They knew they wouldn't get permission to build a new entrance, so in secret, in the middle of the night, they dug out an area about 100 feet square and 30 feet deep. They sent in bulldozers and took out hundreds of truckloads of material so they could build a big staircase down to the chamber.

In the process they have destroyed not only many archaeological artifacts, but judging by the stones that were taken out of that pit, a huge wall also was destroyed. In my estimation that was a wall built by King Hezekiah around 700 B.C.

So major destruction has been done by these excavations. Archaeologists usually don't protest against excavations if you excavate and record what you have been finding. But to bring in bulldozers and destroy everything is totally different. In the debris that was dumped in a nearby valley, beautiful fragments of gateways of the Herodian temple complex have been found. And although you can photograph and record them, you don't know where they came from.

A huge number of very large limestone building blocks have been found that must have belonged to important Jewish buildings. But they've disappeared. As soon as the pit was dug out they started covering up all the ancient remains, so there's no way of knowing what they destroyed. Some blocks were also carved up and used as paving stones.

It's a sad and illegal situation, but in spite of all the protests of many archaeologists and petitions to the government, nothing has been done to stop it.

GN: So the motivation in this case was at least in part to destroy evidence of a Jewish presence on the Temple Mount?

LR: Yes. For example, from earlier surveys in Solomon's stables we know there's an ancient arch in there and a lot of Herodian stones. In the interior southeastern corner you can see the remains of Herodian windows that were part of a tower. And built into the southern wall is a beautifully decorated Herodian stone with grapevines and geometrical patterns. What happened to those, we don't know anymore.

GN: How do religiously observant Jews view the Temple Mount?

LR: For most religious Jews, that's the only site where they can worship God according to the Mosaic laws. Most Israelis don't care much about the Temple Mount and the thought of having animal sacrifices is repulsive to them. There's also a large group of religious Jews who know they can't really worship God according to the Mosaic precepts unless they have a temple.

Two institutions, the Temple Mount Faithful and the Temple Institute, are desperately trying to worship on the Temple Mount. They've been making the priestly garments, all the gold and silver vessels, the silver trumpets and the golden lampstand. They're ready to worship there tomorrow! But of course, they need to start by building an altar.

Under the present circumstances, they won't be allowed to build an altar or any structure. Ultimately they want to build a temple as well. That's caused a greater difficulty because the Dome of the Rock stands on the place where the Jewish temple stood in the past.

So they know they can't build a temple on their own. But just as in the time of the return after the Babylonian exile when Zerubbabel and Joshua first built an altar, they now want to start building an altar believing that as soon as they have an altar and start sacrificing, the Messiah will come and help them build their temple.

So every year they try to bring a cornerstone to the Temple Mount to start worshiping. They also try to do again some of the ancient rituals. A few years ago they had a Passover sacrifice on Mount Zion. So these people are desperate to start worshiping God according to their understanding.

GN: So they could start sacrifices without a temple if they only had an altar?

LR: Yes, that's true. The altar always goes before the temple. Noah built an altar. Abraham built an altar. David built an altar. The temple was built afterward. The temple was built as a house for the Ark of the Covenant. They don't have the Ark of the Covenant now, but through sacrifice they believe they do have a relationship with God.

So the altar is the first thing they want to build. They think they can only build it where the original altar stood. They believe that the altar that was built by Herod the Great and destroyed in 70 A.D. stood on the same place where Solomon's altar stood, which is the same place where David's and Abraham's altars stood. I've been able to pinpoint exactly where it was, which today would be to the east of the Dome of the Rock.

GN: Do their conclusions about the location of the temple match your conclusions and research on the subject?

LR: Yes, I've researched the location of the temple over many years and I believe I've been able to show that the foundation trenches of the walls of the Holy of Holies of Solomon's temple can still be seen on the rock inside the Dome of the Rock.

This has been accepted by the majority of archaeologists. And after I've been able to locate the Holy of Holies, which is a square of 20 cubits, right in the center you can see the depression Solomon had to make for the Ark of the Covenant. You can't have the ark standing at an angle; it had to stand horizontal in a dignified way. All this has been preserved up to today.

There have been some other proposals that would put the temple to the north or south of the Dome of the Rock. I think those are more motivated by having the possibility of rebuilding a temple without destroying the Dome of the Rock, which would start the next world war! But those locations aren't accepted by most archaeologists, and certainly not by the Jewish religious community. They do believe that the temple stood where the Dome of the Rock is now, and they won't build a temple anywhere else.

From a Christian point of view, if you believe we're living in the last days and there's quite a possibility that the altar will be rebuilt by the Jews, then the Muslims and Jews will have to come to an agreement to try to bring peace to this troubled land.

When it speaks in Daniel 11 and 12 about the covenant and sacrifices, it's quite possible that the Jews will be allowed to build an altar and start sacrificing again, just before the return of the Messiah. We'll have to wait and see what happens. GN

Readers can learn more about Dr. Ritmeyer, his research and the issues discussed in this interview at his Web site at www.adam.com.au/ritmeyer/.


Leen Ritmeyer is an archaeological architect, lecturer and teacher. He is perhaps the world's foremost authority on the architecture and archaeology of Jerusalem's Temple Mount, site of the temples built by Solomon and Zerubbabel and the extensive renovation of the second temple by Herod the Great.

Dr. Ritmeyer has been involved in several major excavations in Jerusalem, producing site plans and reconstruction drawings. His illustrations have appeared in many books, Bible atlases and academic journals.

He holds an M.A. from the University of York and a Ph.D. from the University of Manchester, both in England. He has lectured widely in Israel, Britain, Europe and the United States and currently teaches at Heritage College in Adelaide, Australia.

Dr. Ritmeyer is the author or coauthor of several books, including The Temple and the Rock (1996), Secrets of Jerusalem's Temple Mount (1998), From Sinai to Jerusalem (2000), The Ritual of the Temple in the Time of Christ (2002) and Jerusalem in the Year 30 A.D. (2004).

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