We rose early this morning to beat the crowds at the Temple Mount (Al Haram ash-Sharif in Arabic). Arriving at 7:15 we were one of only a few groups, and the grounds seemed expansive. The golden Dome of the Rock glittered in the morning sun as our guide helped us imagine Jerusalem in the times of Herod (when the Temple Mount was constructed and the Temple massively expanded), the later Roman era (when the Temple was destroyed and replaced by a temple to Jupiter), the early Muslim conquest (when the Dome of the Rock was built), and Byzantine era (when the area was ignored while hundreds of churches where built all around the city).
Along the southern end of the western wall, we touched the stones that had toppled from the Temple Mount in 70 CE. We felt the pain of the Jews when their first Temple was destroyed by Babylon and the second by Rome:
By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down
and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? . . .
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!’
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! – Psalm 137
As we stood beneath the towering walls that remain of the Temple Mount, we also witnessed, high above our heads, a 1,700 year-old inscription carved into the rock in simple Hebrew:
For thus says the Lord:
I will extend prosperity to Jerusalem like a river,
and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream;
and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm,
and dandled on her knees.
As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you;
you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;
your bodies shall flourish like the grass;
and it shall be known that the hand of the Lord is with his servants. – Isaiah 66:12-14
In the background of this juxtaposition of destruction and hope was the song of an Israeli family and Jewish community celebrating a Bar Mitzvah. Monday is Bar Mitzvah day at the Western Wall, our guide informed us. The happy family played drums, sang songs, and blew the shofar in celebration of a young boy who had committed himself to the community of faith. In a place that had been twice devastated, hope has risen for Jews not only in Israel but the world over who again have access to their holiest place.
This access has not come without a cost, both for Israelis and Palestinians. On the Temple Mount, Jews must be guarded – in part for their safety but also to ensure that they do not pray and so incite another conflict. (The Israeli parliament ceded administrative control of Al Haram ash-Sharif back to Jordan after Israel’s victory in the 1967 war. Today it is administered by the Waqf in Palestine who permits Jews to enter the area but only under supervision. Many Orthodox Jews will not enter the Temple Mount anyway for fear of treading on the Holy of Holies.) Among Palestinians, concrete walls and ever-present Israeli security forces are a reminder that they are not really free, even in their areas of supposed sovereignty.
With the music of the Bar Mitzvah still ringing in our hearts, we closed our tour on a rooftop in the Muslim quarter with expansive views of the Dome, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the hills that surround this holy city. The Muslim call to prayer rang out from the many minarets, followed ten minutes later by the tolling of the bells from Christian steeples. There is still much pain in this city, and still moments when it seems like violence and destruction will prevail. As people of faith, however, we hold fast to hope not only for this city but for our world:
They shall call you the City of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel.
I will appoint Peace as your overseer and Righteousness as your taskmaster.
Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders;
you shall call your walls Salvation and your gates Praise. – Isaiah 60:14, 17-18
May it be so.