This is an informative piece I read on The Telegraph.
It is the spiritual core – and potential tinderbox – of a contest of beliefs that many fear could trigger an all-out religious war.
To Jews, the most sacred part of their faith is represented by the Temple Mount, a compound standing on what is believed to be same site as the ancient Jewish temple built by Herod the Great and later destroyed by the Romans in 70AD.
It is also believed to be the site of an earlier temple, built by King Solomon in 957BC and destroyed by the Babylonians more than 370 years later.
But to Muslims, the very same location is known as the Haram al-Sharif (or Noble Sanctuary), home of the glittering Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, from where the Prophet Muhammed is believed to have ascended to heaven.
The two structures were commissioned by Umayyad Caliphs after the Islamic conquest of Jerusalem in 637AD.
The tensions that have revolved around this ancient shrine spring from these competing beliefs and have been exacerbated by the Middle East’s convulsive politics.
The 1948 war which brought the state of Israel into existence left Jerusalem a divided city, with the Arab-dominated eastern sector – including the Old City and its associated holy sites – falling into the hands of Jordan, while the Israelis took command of the Western half.
When Israel conquered the entire city – along with the West Bank, Gaza, Golan Heights and Sinai – in the 1967 Six Day War, it regained access to its religious sites. Yet the Haram al-Sharif continued to be administered by a Jordanian-appointed Islamic body, known as the Waqf, an arrangement that remains in place to this day.
While Jews are allowed to visit the site under supervision, they are not permitted pray there, a restriction which successive Israeli governments have observed.
Jewish worshipping rights are restricted to the Western (or wailing) Wall, which is situated beneath the platform of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and is believed to be the sole remaining part of the ancient temple.
Indeed, after the 1967 war, an Arab neighbourhood adjacent to the wall was demolished to create a platform where Jews can now pray.
But in recent times, radical Right-wingers have refused to be satisfied with this and have begun clamouring for prayer rights inside the compound itself. This has led to an increasing number of visits to the mount by Israeli activists, some of whom are said to have prayed surreptitiously, triggering clashes between Palestinians and the security forces.
This in turn has fuelled Palestinian accusations – refuted by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government – that Israel is intent on overturning the status quo on the compound, which forbids Jewish prayer and cedes administrative control to Jordan.
Yet the idea of Jewish prayer on the site is anathema even among many religious Jews. Many refuse to visit the site lest they enter an area where the Holy of Holies once stood, the most sacred part of the ancient temple and the place where the high priest – who entered only once a year on Yom Kippur (the Jewish day of atonement) – is said to have communicated directly with God.
According to tradition, ordinary Jews were forbidden to go to the Holy of Holies – whose precise location is unknown – because they were ritually impure.