Dec 042013
 

Today was a defining moment for me.  At first I thought it was a defining point of my world tour but on further reflection it was more of a life defining experience.  What I experienced today will stay with me forever.

After re-jigging my Jerusalem itinerary last night, I spent the day in Jerusalem Old Town today and will visit the West Bank towns of Ramallah and Bethlehem tomorrow.

My itinerary today was quite simple. Start the day with a 2 hour tour of Jerusalem Old town, then walk around my favourite spots alone before lining up in the queue to enter The Temple Mount.

Basic introduction to The Temple Mount (Source: Wikipedia)

The Temple Mount, known in Arabic (and in Islam) as the Haram al-Sharif and in Hebrew as Har haBáyit, is one of the most important religious sites in the Old City of Jerusalem. It has been used as a religious site for thousands of years. At least four religions are known to have used the Temple Mount: Judaism, Christianity, Roman religion, and Islam.

View of The Temple Mount and Western Wall

View of The Temple Mount and Western Wall

Among Sunni Muslims, the Mount is widely considered the third holiest site in Islam. Revered as the Noble Sanctuary (Bait-ul-Muqaddas) and the location of Muhammad’s journey to Jerusalem and ascent to heaven, the site is also associated with Jewish biblical prophets who are also venerated in Islam.

The location is the holiest site in Judaism and is the place Jews turn towards during prayer.  Judaism regards the Temple Mount as the place where God chose the Divine Presence to rest; according to the rabbinic sages whose debates produced the Talmud, it was from here the world expanded into its present form and where God gathered the dust used to create the first man, Adam.

The Dome of the Rock currently sits in the middle, occupying or close to the area where the Bible mandates the Holy Temple be rebuilt.  According to some Islamic scholars, the rock is the spot from which Prophet Muhammad ascended to Heaven accompanied by the angel Gabriel. Further, Muhammad was taken here by Gabriel to pray with Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.

The Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock

The Foundation Stone and its surroundings is the holiest site in Judaism.  Both religions traditionally regarded the location of the stone as the holiest spot on Earth, the site of the Holy of Holies during the Temple Period.

In light of the dual claims of both Judaism and Islam, it is one of the most contested religious sites in the world. Since the Crusades, the Muslim community of Jerusalem has managed the site as a Waqf, without interruption.  As part of the Old City, controlled by Israel since 1967, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority claim sovereignty over the site, which remains a major focal point of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  In an attempt to keep the status quo, the Israeli government enforces a controversial ban on prayer by non-Muslim visitors.

Non-Muslims are strictly forbidden from entering inside the Dome of the Rock.  Furthermore, non-Muslim visitors can only view the outside area between the hours of 7:30–10:30 am and 1:30–2:30 pm during winter. As my tour took up most of the morning, I only had a 1-hour window to make the afternoon viewing.

After losing track of time at my new favourite falafel house in East Jerusalem, I made a dash back inside the Old Town to try to make the afternoon viewing.  My chances were slim as only 45 minutes remained and I had to queue.  My chances then took another blow as I approached a couple of Israeli armed forces with AK47’s thinking this was the entrance only to find out it was the exit.

It was then I decided to approach a young arab guy and ask him for directions to the entrance.  He started to point me in the right direction and reminded me that I was running out of time.  He reiterated that non-muslims are not permitted to enter inside asked me about my religion.  I told him that my background was Islamic but I do not know how to pray nor have I had any religious instruction.

He then asked me if I wanted to go inside with him.  I really wanted to see inside and it was at that point that I knew I would have to draw a line in the sand and make a commitment.  He then led me to the first of three checkpoints for entry.

The first checkpoint was another pair of Israeli armed forces with AK47’s.  I had no idea they were Israeli as they were speaking fluent Arabic and then started asking me to recite verses from the Quran to prove my faith.  I was completely truthful with them and said I had no religious education but was of Lebanese / Muslim background.  He then asked me my name and I told him.  At this point I thought I had no chance as after he looked at my ID he laughed and said I was Jewish with the surname David.  Due to the frustrations my name had caused me yesterday at the border, I got quite heated with him and told him straight again that my background was Lebanese / Muslim.  My friend Ahmed started to intervene at this stage also and attracted the attention of more armed guards.

After what felt like a very long time, my pleading with the guards eventually succeeded.  On the way to the next checkpoint Ahmed started giving me a crash course in Islamic religious education by reciting verses from the Quran that I need to know.

The 2nd checkpoint was a group of Arab men whom appeared more understanding than the Israeli guards.  They started asking me in Arabic how often a Muslim prays per day and at what times. Even though I knew the answers quite easily, my authenticity was severely reduced as I couldn’t string the words together in Arabic and had to use some broken Arabic/English.  Fortunately one of the men knew some english and told the other men I knew the answers.  Once again, I was given some more crash course on religious education and was asked to recite some verses before being let through.

Outside the Dome of the Rock.

Outside the Dome of the Rock.

I was now at the entrance to the Dome of the Rock where I was greeted by what seemed more like men of religion that any security forces.  The same line of questions were asked and they asked to look at my ID.  I think they could see by the look on my face that I really wanted to go inside and that I was not lying about my background.  Once again I was completely straight with them about my lack of education, but genuinely wanted to learn more by going inside.   The men asked me to recite after them some verses which I did and it was then that my shoes came of and inside I went.

Where Muhammad was taken here by Gabriel to pray with Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.

Where Muhammad was taken here by Gabriel to pray with Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.

Words cannot describe the feeling of being inside such a place of religious importance.  Not only was the interior one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, I could really feel a connection with the history. The three pictures below are taken inside the room where Muhammad was taken to pray with Abraham, Moses and Jesus.

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Another moment of significance was actually touching the rock. The right hand is placed in the hole pictured below whilst reciting the same verses once again.

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The interior of the dome is lavishly decorated with mosaic and marble, much of which was added several centuries after its completion. It is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

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At the end of the visit Ahmed told me about a custom / ritual to leave a Quran in the shrine with the names of family members written in the rear.  I also was given some prayer beads as well.  I was asked to make a suitable donation and proceeded to empty out my wallet of everything I had.  I then learned that it was forbidden to carry any form of religious artifact or anything with Hebrew letters – which meant the Israeli currency I had was not permitted.  Ahmed then disappeared for 5-10 minutes where I suspect he took the money I had outside and hopefully replaced it with another form of suitable donation.

The Church of Mary Magdalene is a Russian Orthodox church located on the Mount of Olives, near the Garden of Gethsemane in East Jerusalem.

The Church of Mary Magdalene is a Russian Orthodox church located on the Mount of Olives, near the Garden of Gethsemane in East Jerusalem.

I really feel blessed to have had this experience.  At the end Ahmed said he hoped I would return again with enough understanding to do it on my own.

A life defining moment. Being inside the Dome of the Rock, one of the most important religious sites in the Old City of Jerusalem will be with me forever.

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