MIDDLE EAST HISTORY From unique Mamluk designs to the best hummus in the Old City, Stephen Rubin takes us on a tour of the area surrounding the iconic Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
There is nothing better than starting a day in Jerusalem at the Dome of the Rock / Temple Mount / Al Aqsa Compound / Solomon’s Temple / al-Haram-ash-Sharif (Arabic) / Har Habayit (Hebrew) or whatever you want to call the disputed holy site and location where security-policy wonks would probably give favorable odds to anyone wanting to make a bet on where World War III will erupt.
Heading up to the sacred compound is an excellent way to combine architectural study, political incongruity, theological exploration and historical debate into a 35.5-acre radius.
It’s often difficult for many people to separate their vigorous emotions from the complicated political intricacies and historical nuances attached to the site; however, for these purposes, just put on your neutral goggles, head up to the mount and check out what’s up there. Trust me, there’s more than just a golden dome and a few mosques.
Here are five things to see besides Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock:
Start your journey
Non-Muslims need to start their expedition at the Mughrabi Gate, while Muslims can access the site from a number of the gates connecting the old city to the compound.
Located just south of the Western Wall prayer square, this is the only entrance accessible to non-Muslim visitors. Going through this wooden overpass will put you at the southwestern area of the mount, just next to the Al Buraq Mosque. According to Islamic tradition, the mosque was built to honor the spot where the Angel Jibreel (Gabriel) tethered Mohammed’s horse after the Prophet’s night-journey from Mecca to “the farthest mosque”, the location of the Al Aqsa Mosque – identified in Islam as being located in Jerusalem.
This is the best hummus in the old city
The mosque rests over one of the entrance areas accessed during the days of Herod the Great after he expanded the compound and built the retaining wall we see today. Archeologists have labeled this area Barclay’s Gate, after the Christian missionary James Thomas Barclay, who happened to stumble upon the inner-gated area while exploring the mount from within. This area is not visible today; however, underneath the Mughrabi Gate, there are remains from the original gate.
As you head southeast towards Al Aqsa, just by the entrance of the Islamic Museum, you will see a number of Roman period Corinthian capitals. The Judeo-Roman historian, Josephus Flavius, describes the multitudes of Corinthian columns used in King Herod the Great’s royal portico, which sat at the southern entrance of the Temple Mount and stretched across the compound from east to west. Josephus makes note of the fact that all of the capitals were extravagantly enameled in gold plating. If you look closely on some of the massive remains, you can still see traces of gold leaf overlay on the Roman capitals.
After you’ve stood in the courtyard between Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock, head back towards the western side of the compound, to the northern section from where you entered. You will see a giant gate leading into a Souq; this is the Cotton Merchant’s Market, and what used to be the main market and throughway to the Dome and Al Aqsa during the 250-year Mamluk rule over Jerusalem. Just imagine, approaching the massive compound through the market, only to be greeted by Islam’s most impressively beautiful structure.
Here looking at the massive concave roofing above the exit, you can get an excellent look at the impressive Mamluk architectural motifs, which are the primary styles we see today amongst Jerusalem’s earlier Islamic building structures. Just to the right, you can get a look at the 14thcentury Al Arghuniyya Madrasa. Madrasas (study houses), Khanqas (mystic learning centers) and large Mausoleums were what defined Mamluk urban development and Islamic expansion during the 14th and 15th centuries.
Once you see the ablak – colorful red, yellow and black masonry set within the cream-colored Jerusalem limestone – and the mukarnas – three-dimensional stalactites emanating from the half-domed support structure – you will forever be able to identify these uniquely Mamluk designs.
Now, as you stroll through the old city’s Muslim quarter, you will be surprisingly impressed by the amount of Mamluk buildings that remain with us today. We often like to credit the Mamluks for their prestigious way of combing defense, design and diplomacy under one roof.
Despite the lack of prominence in modern historical circles given to Mamluk rule over the holy land, this Turkic military aristocracy, which originated in Cairo, was responsible for a number of impressive feats, most notably, the defeat over the Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut and their eventual failure in capturing Jerusalem.
Visitors to the old city in Jerusalem often note that the Cotton Merchants Souq gives them the most authentic feel of how the walled city would have felt during the later Muslim periods.
Third stop…the tombs
As you continue north along the Colonnade and Arcade, have a look to the left into the tomb-chamber of Palestinian national heroes. Here you will see the burial place of a number of members of the Al-Husseini family; including the tomb of Feisal Husseini, a founding member of the PLO and relative of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the controversial, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem during the British Mandate.
Just prior to the Second Intifada in 2001, Feisal Husseini died of a heart attack and a massive procession with tens of thousand of Palestinians took place in the eastern part of Jerusalem as his coffin was escorted to the mount.
Continuing just north of the Palestinian tombs, look up and you will see a giant façade with a beautiful design with a royal crown on it…Welcome to the Tomb of Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca or as he is better known to us, King Hussein I (the first Hashemite king and great grandfather of the late King Hussein of Jordan). King Hussein I is the only Hashemite monarch buried on the mount, while his son Abdullah I and Hussein II are buried in Amman at the Raghadan Palace.
Interestingly enough, Abdullah I was assassinated – the convicted assassins had strong links to the al Husseini family – on the steps of the Dome of the Rock; however, he had made it previously known before his death that he preferred to be buried at his palace in Amman.
There’s more…notice the politics
You may have noticed the complex management of the mount since you crossed through via the Mughrabi Gate. After the Six Day War in 1967, and Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem from the Jordanians, the holy mount fell under Israeli control; however, the government of then Prime Minister Levi Eshkol decided to leave the site under Muslim administration and Waqf status (Islamic Trust), while maintaining a heavy Israeli security presence at the site.
Due to the highly combustible security and political implications, authorities decided that prayer books other than the Quran are not allowed and non-Muslim prayer is strictly forbidden at the site. Entrance times and access points are also limited and often subject to abrupt changes depending on the security situation.
A private security company runs the initial security checks; Israeli police patrol the compound to maintain the site’s multifaceted and complicated status quo; while Palestinian administrators constantly on walkie-talkies ensure that no visitors in any way infringe upon the site’s Islamic sanctity. The situation is like walking on eggshells as observant Jewish visitors may try to sneak in a prayer to the behest of the Palestinian management.
For the Palestinians, the Israeli police don’t do enough to maintain the status quo, while a number of Israeli Jews feel like the police are too strict in their regulations. This is something you will undoubtedly see while walking around the mount. It definitely makes a visit more interesting and suspenseful and is the best way to see the profound emotional attachment to the area in the hearts of both Jews and Muslims and part of the reason why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains without a solution.
While walking around, one can feel the agonizing words of Mercutio before his death in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “A plague on both your houses’
Before you head out to the Souqs…
So you’ve seen the tricky administrative and security situation, learned how to identify Mamluk architectural styles, seen the graves of Palestinian national heroes and the first Hashemite ruler while even being privy to seeing remains of lavish Roman columns – quite possibly from King Herod the Great’s architectural masterpiece and location of the Jewish temple, which at the time was the largest single structure in the world that was constructed during the Roman period.
So what now?
Stroll around the site and check out the numerous public fountains or sabils, a number of which were constructed just shortly before the Ottoman conquest of Jerusalem. With the vast amount of worshippers coming to pray on the holy mount compound, it was necessary to build a more expansive water supply system.
The most impressive of these sabils is the one built by the Mamluk Sultan Qatbay towards the end of the 15th century, just at the steps leading down from the Dome of the Rock’s courtyard to the Crusader-era Chain Linked Gate. The structure itself looks more like a mini monument than a public fountain and has all the attributes of Mamluk architecture. Up until the British mandate, water was brought to the compound via an impressive aqueduct and reservoir system starting near Bethlehem and most likely built during the reign of the Hasmonean dynasty in the 2nd century BCE.
Now its time to eat
Visitors can exit from any of the open gates, despite most only being able to enter via the Mughrabi Gate. Head out of the Chain Linked Gate on the western side of the site, just south of the Cotton Merchants Gate, and walk all the way up the ramped-street towards the area of the ‘Upper City’. When you get to the dead end, hook a right down onto ‘Shuk Hatsorfim’ Street. Just on the right after about 15 meters, you’ll see a tiny hummus stand stuck in the wall. This is the best hummus in the old city and can only be taken to go. Get a plastic take-away container full of hummus and tahini, walk back to the main road and continue climbing until you can make a left. Go left and look for the staircase heading up to some of the roofs of the Jewish Quarter. Climb up to the roof, open your hummus and enjoy the view over the entire holy mount compound that you now know inside and out.
Now, the day is yours!