Visiting the “Holy of Holies”

A few weeks ago, I had a very rare opportunity.  I was able to go inside the Dome of the Rock to see the place where the Holy of Holies of the Temple once stood.  For those not familiar with the background, let me provide a very brief (and incomplete) background.  If you know the background, feel free to skip ahead.

A Little Background:

King David wanted to build a “House” for God in Jerusalem.  God told him, it’s wasn’t for him to build it but his son, Solomon would.  However, the Temple would be placed on a plot of land David had already purchased for an altar to the LORD.  2 Samuel 24 tells the story of this purchase.  David is told by God to purchase the “threshing floor” of Aravnah the Jebusite on Mt. Moriah.  David purchased it and built an altar to God as he had been instructed.

After David’s death, Solomon expanded the city of Jerusalem north from the Eastern Hill up onto Mount Moriah.  According to the Biblical text, he puts a large palace compound in this new area as well as the “House of the LORD” where Aravnah’s threshing floor had been.  By what we read in the Bible, it must have been a special place.

In 722 BC, the Assyrians invaded the land and carried away much of the population of the Northern kingdom of Israel—never to be heard from again.  The Southern Kingdom of Judah was not taken, but they were effectively made into a vassal state of Assyria.  In 586 BC, the Babylonians entered the land.  They took Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple.  The people of Judah were carried away to captivity in Babylon.  About 70 years later, the Persians allowed them to return from Babylon to rebuild the city.  Later came the Greeks and Seleucids, followed by a brief period of self-rule under the Hasmonean dynasty before Rome came in and took control.

Herod the Great was made ruler of the land in 37 BC and reigned until his death in 4 BC.  Herod was a complex figure.  He was ruthless and paranoid.  Caesar Augustus said, “it was better to be Herod’s pig than to be one of his sons.”  Yet, despite his significant flaws, he did a lot to enhance and upgrade the land of Israel.  He was a master builder.   Nothing was too small for Herod.  He built up Judea and made it a model example of the “best” Rome had to offer.  One of his greatest building projects was to reconstruct and expand the Temple in Jerusalem.

Temple Model

Model of the 2nd Temple at Israel Museum

For Herod, the site of the original Temple was too small for his plans, so he basically built a large upside-down box over Mt. Moriah.  With the additional real estate (35 acres) he was able to build a massive Temple structure that was the envy of all in the Roman Empire.  The temple complex took 46 years to build, according to the Gospels.  Yet, Herod died before its completion.

However, in response to the “Great Revolt” in Judea 67 AD, Rome sent in their army.  They destroyed Jerusalem and razed the Temple in 70 AD.  Incidentally, according to Jewish tradition the 1st Temple and the 2nd Temple were destroyed on the exact same date:  The 9th day of the Month of Av.  To this day, it is a day of solemn remembrance in Israel.  It was never rebuilt.  The only remnant of Herod’s Temple today is the large platform upon which he built the Temple complex.

In the 7th Century AD, Islam believes that the Prophet Mohammed came to this site and ascended to Heaven where God gave him the instructions to pray 5 times per day.  Sometime later, they built a Mosque and the Dome covering the Rock where this ascension took place.  For Islam, the site is now called “Haram al Sharif”, or the Noble Sanctuary.  It includes the Al-Aqsa mosque—Islam’s third holiest site and the Dome of the Rock—which sits on the site where most believe the Temple stood.  Today, the site is “controlled” by the Israeli Defense Force and is administered by the Islamic Waqf.  Jews pray at the Western Wall because it is the closest place to where the Holy of Holies was in the Temple.

Visiting the Noble Sanctuary:

If you are non-Muslim, you are welcome to visit the Al-Aqsa compound at specific times and on specific days.  It is a massive site.  However, entrance into the Dome of the Rock or the Al-Aqsa mosque have been off-limits since the Second Intifada.  Trying to sneak in is a MAJOR no-no.

Through some special connections, JUC was able to arrange a special visit for us inside both the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque.  Needless to say, everyone was pretty excited for the opportunity.

The special visit required an escort from the Islamic Waqf to explain the history of the site and why they are important to Islam.  After passing through security, we met up with our guide.  He began to tell us the history of the site.  “When the Prophet Mohammad came to this site”, he said, “there was nothing here but garbage and rubble.  Nothing had ever been here before he got here.” OK…that was an interesting half-truth/interpretation of history and archaeological evidence, but nevertheless, it was his show, so we politely listened.  He rattled off lists of people that came to the site and built this and that.

Olive Trees on Temple Mount

The complex today is like a large park.  There are olive trees and large open spaces.  It’s so big, that it doesn’t seem very crowded.  As you approach the Dome of the Rock, there are actually two domed structures.  The smaller structure was the model built by the architect to show what the actual building would look like.

Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock with the prototype model next to it.

The Dome of the Rock is a large building.  It stands at just over 67 feet high (incidentally, Herod’s temple height was more than 2x higher).  The diameter of the dome is about 66 feet.  The building is octagonal—a design taken from Byzantine Christian churches of the day.  The dome built in 691 AD was of lead.  The gold covering is a relatively recent addition to the structure, that was donated by King Hussein of Jordan in 1993.  It’s a beautiful building.

Dome Entry View

The View as you enter from the Western Door–looking East.

We walked around to the western entrance to the Dome of the Rock, this is probably where the western wall of the Holy of Holies stood.  According to rabbinic literature, this was where the Shechinah (God’s Divine Presence) was.  We took off our shoes and entered.  The building is as striking within as it is without.  Mosaics and decorations seem to cover every surface.  And in the center, directly under the dome, is the rock.  THE. ROCK.

Our guide continued to give us the history of the building and point out the mosaics, but I had quit listening.  I was focused on the rock.  Rabbinic writings refers to this as the Foundation Stone.  Jewish tradition says that creation took place from this spot.  It was believed that from this rock, God collected the dirt to form Adam.  It was on this rock that Abraham bound and (almost) sacrificed his son, Isaac.  And it was here where many believe the Most Holy Place of the “House of the LORD” stood—the place where the Ark of the Covenant sat—the earthly throne of God Almighty.

Foundation Stone Panorama

A wide-angle view of the “Foundation Stone” inside the Dome of the Rock.

The rock itself is the same Cenomanian-Turonian limestone covering most of the city of Jerusalem.  It’s the “peak” of Mt. Moriah that now sits within the “box” that Herod put over top it.  The limestone is a rough and has been chiseled out in different places throughout history.  When these carvings were made is a matter of archaeological debate.

Well of Souls

Inside the cave underneath the rock.

Underneath the rock is a cave, called the “Well of Souls”.  There is a small round hole that cuts through the ceiling of the cave to the rock above.  We descended into the cave for a look around.  As we were all huddled in the cramped space, our guide said something that stopped me in my tracks.  He mentioned, in passing, that in ancient times the rock above was used as a threshing floor and that the grain from the threshing floor would be stored in the cave below.

Side Note:  For those that don’t know what a threshing floor is, here’s a brief explanation.  Before the advent of modern farming equipment, grain (wheat and barley) would be cut and taken to a threshing floor.  A threshing floor was typically a stone surface on a hillside.  It was generally sloped and rough, not smooth.  The grains—still in the husks—would be spread out on the stone floor and a sled would be drug across it to split up the husks and chaff from the grains.  A donkey was often used to drag the sled across the threshing floor.  A winnowing fork would then be used to throw the grains and chaff into the wind.  The heavier grains would fall to the stone floor while the wind would carry away the lighter chaff.  You can still find threshing floors in Israel today.

Now, back to the rock.  The guide said it was a threshing floor!  Earlier, he had denied that any building had been there before the Dome was built, and now he casually adds this small detail about its prior function as a threshing floor.  Earlier this semester, I stood on a threshing floor on a hillside near Bethlehem.  I can tell you that the stone within the Dome of the Rock has the look and feel of a threshing floor.  What makes this so interesting is what the Bible records in 2 Samuel 24.  It says that David purchased the threshing floor of Aravnah the Jebusite in order to build an altar to God.  We later read that Solomon built the temple on this very spot.  I am not sure if our guide knew what he had just done, but he had just corroborated the Biblical account.

Al-Aqsa Mosque from Entrance

View of the Al-Aqsa Mosque from the entrance.

The second stop was inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque.  This mosque takes up most of the southern end of the platform that Herod built.  This was the location of the Royal Stoa—Herod’s Royal Portico built on the Temple Mount.  At the time of its construction, the Royal Stoa may have been the largest building (by square footage) under a single roof in the entire world.  The mosque is pretty dang big too.  It is the 3rd holiest site in Islam today.  Underneath the mosque is another mosque that apparently includes the “Hulda Gates”, which were the way most worshippers would have entered the Temple from the southern steps at the time of Jesus.  Those gates have long been blocked, but their outline can still be seen above the steps on the outer walls.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t go down there.  Nevertheless, the size of the building gave me a better appreciation for just how large Herod’s Royal Stoa must have been.

Hulda Gate

One of the Hulda Gates

In 1999, the Islamic Waqf undertook illegal renovations underneath the Al-Aqsa mosque.  They removed truckloads of “fill” from underneath Herod’s Royal Stoa.  The fill that was probably placed there during the construction of the Second Temple and maybe before.  It was dumped in the Kidron Valley.  A team of archaeologists led by my professor, Dr. Gabriel Barkay, began excavating the pile.  The project is called the Temple Mount Sifting Project.  They have found some 500,000 items of material culture much of which dates from the Second Temple period back to the First Temple that Solomon built and even earlier.  The analysis work is still being done and has yet to be published. Unfortunately, because there was no proper excavation, full understanding of the finds has been significantly hindered.

Ancient Wood

Wood removed during renovations at the Al-Alqsa Mosque

One interesting side note is that during earlier repairs and renovations at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, they removed some wooden timbers.  Some of these had intricate decorations on them.  It was noticed by one archaeologist that some appeared to be very old, so they took some samples.  Carbon dating indicated that some of these wooden beams dated to the time of the First Temple—Solomon’s Temple or his royal palace complex.  Some of these beams still sit under a tarp on the eastern side of the Temple Mount.

The Temple Mount takes up about 1/6 of the Old City of Jerusalem.  It is an archaeological “black hole”.  No proper archaeological excavations have ever been done on the site.  So much history that is important to Jews, Christians and Muslims is off-limits.  No other site in the world is as bound up in religion and global politics as the Temple Mount.  Getting the rare opportunity to go inside these sites helped bring these ancient Biblical texts to life and also helped me appreciate why the 3 monotheistic religions of the world have called this ground Holy.

2 thoughts

    • Hi Eric, The books of Kings and Chronicles give us pretty detailed descriptions of the first temple built by Solomon. Josephus gives us a pretty good description of the Temple that Herod built. However, none of them describe the Holy of Holies other than the OT, which tells the Ark of the Covenant was in it. Neither say if the rock was exposed. I suspect it was not. Some have speculated that the cut marks in the stone represent building cuts from Solomon’s time. Others think they are crusader-made. There is really no way to tell.

      We are not 100% sure if the Holy of Holies was over the rock or if it was under the altar in front of the Holy of Holies. Theologically, both work. Given the measurements of the temple and size of the platform that Herod built, I personally lean towards it being the Holy of Holies location.

      There is a good book called “The Quest” by Archaeologist Leen Rittmeyer. It has a lot of information about the Temple and what little we know archaeologically. He believes that the cut marks were from Solomonic times to shave the rock in order to place the Holy of Holies over top it. His case is pretty convincing (in my opinion).

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