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What’s that Building Over There?

June 10, 2011

Karen Armstrong, in Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths, comments that the Crusaders – or at least, the Templars – didn’t seem to know what the structures on the Temple Mount were. They knew they weren’t seeing Solomon’s Temple (well, since the Bible tells how it was destroyed, that’s not surprising), but they thought perhaps they were Byzantine churches. (p. 280). James Carroll, in Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World speculates that they may have thought that Al-Aksa might have incorporated remnants of Solomon’s temple (p.140). Both seem to agree that whatever they thought, they didn’t know about Herod’s temple, which was the one destroyed by the Romans, and the predecessor to the mosques. (Some scholars think there was a Roman temple there for a while, in between, but it doesn’t even get mentioned).

This is interesting on various levels. First, had they talked to their Jewish neighbors back in Europe, rather than massacre them on their way to the Holy Land, the Jews could easily have told them about the two temples and their destruction. Had they asked the local Muslims, instead of massacring them, they’d have known what the two mosques actually were. Had they taken the time to learn Arabic, they might even have noticed that the rotunda of the Omar Mosque is circled by admonitions against believing in the divinity of Jesus. Yet perhaps I’m being a bit harsh on them (though they certainly deserved it), in that modern historical awareness is, well, modern. It wasn’t obvious at the time, and many of  the tools for figuring out what’s that building over there didn’t exist in the 12th century.

Which raises a broader question: what did the Jerusalemites in different eras know about the town they were living in? Is it perhaps the case that the ignorance of many today, is actually the continuation of a fine historical tradition which has been going on for millennia?

In a related note: the other day I was with a group guided by Eli Shukron, a local archeologist. Eli took us down below the Jaffa Gate. As recently as the 1990s, when the municipality was planning to build a major road in front of the gate, he was given the task of doing a quick archeological survey before  the constructor’s bulldozers arrived. Some of the top archeologists of the day told him not to have any expectations: the area was outside the walls of the city, they said, on a steep slope, so what could he expect to find?

A large public bath, for starters, from the 5th or 6th century, a street of shops, and cutting across them the wall of the city from the 8th century, the builders of which didn’t see the street and shops of 200 years earlier. Of course, none of this is as important as the structures on the Temple Mount, which have been the focal point of the city for most of the past 3,000 years, but still. See that empty field over there? It used to be downtown, before it wasn’t, and long before it was forgotten, and even longer than before it was accidentally discovered.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Stan Brin permalink
    June 10, 2011 8:03 pm

    You probably shouldn’t quote Ms. Armstrong. She’s a fraud. Her states are unsourced. Her quotes go nowhere. Many are at odds with known facts. More to the point, the book is clearly racist.

  2. June 10, 2011 11:30 pm


    I’m intending to read the Montefiore and Carroll histories of Jerusalem. Do you remember if either of them mention the few years in the 3rd or 4th centuries when the last pagan Roman Emperor (Julian?) authorized the Jews to rebuild the Temple? He was attempting to undermine the growth of Christianity by exploiting its soft, supersecessionist underbelly. Within a short period of time (a few years?) Julian was killed in the invasion of Persia. Meanwhile, the excavations on the Temple Mount unearthed deposits of natural gas. There were explosions which slowed construction – and were viewed through an approving religious lens by Christians – and after Julian was himself superseded, in death, so to speak, his successors revoked his authorization to the Jews.

    It was a short period, but likely a thrilling one for the Jewish community in Israel, tied as the Temple is into Messianic hopes. I wonder if Montefiore or Carroll have anything to add to this account.

  3. Avi in Jerusalem permalink
    June 15, 2011 12:05 pm

    Victor ,

    Montefiore writes about Julian the Apostate pp149-151. He describes this episode exactly. The book is excellent

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