My dad was very good at bricklaying and when we were younger and the family was expanding he would build an extension here and there to the house to make sure that it was big enough to provide a good home for us. I remember him digging the footings and laying the damp course before the cavity wall began to rise and gave shape to whatever it was he was building, an extension to the living room, a utility room, an office, an extra loo. The walls he built helped to create a home.
Today was a very special day. Earlier in these six weeks I visited the Temple Mount and I again visited it with the Caterham Team Pilgrimage. On both occasions we entered by the tourist route and through the Morocco Gate. On each occasion it was wonderful and a privilege to be up there. But, as a result of the excellent relationship and the trust that has been built up between St George’s College and the Waqf, the Islamic trust with the care of the holy sites and more besides, today we were to be allowed into the al-Aqsa Mosque, the third most holy site for Muslims, and the Dome of the Rock.
Before the Second Intifada, known as the al-Aqsa Intifada, which began in September 2000, partially provoked by the visit of Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount, pilgrims were allowed to go into both the Mosque and the Dome. Since then we haven’t been able to except by invitation of the Waqf, and that is a rare privilege.
So we entered not by the tourist gate but by the gate for honoured guests which is by the Lion (St Stephen’s) Gate. The women in our group were modestly dressed and we were all on our very best behaviour as befits guests. Instead of calling it the Temple Mount we called it by its proper name ‘Haram al-Sharif’ which means ‘The Noble Sanctuary’.
This is a perfect name for this most wonderful place. We were led by an Islamic guide who told us something that I had never realised, that the whole site is the mosque not just what we call the Mosque. The whole site is holy, the Dome of the Rock is but one of the domes in the mosque and in fact every where you look there are domes large and small. And for Friday prayers and other holy days the men pray in the Mosque and around it, the women pray in the Dome and around it but that they are all in the mosque.
The whole place has a nobility that I always find in Islamic architecture. The symmetry, the colours, the harmonious style is calming. There is water and it reminds me of the opening of the poem by Philip Larkin ‘Water’
If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.
In the al-Aqsa there are rich carpets and gilding, fine windows and mosaics. It is the same in the Dome of the Rock.
Yet what is so special for us is the rock beneath the golden dome. We went beneath it into the cave. This rock is the summit of Mount Moriah, the rest of the hill lost in the level platform that was constructed around it by Solomon and then most spectacularly in the 1st century BC by Herod. It is a monumental piece of civil engineering. But the summit of the mount is there, plain rock, for all to see.
Here Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac (or Ishmael according to the Quran); here was the threshing floor of Araunah (Ornan) the Jebusite, purchased by David; here the Ark of the Covenant rested; here Solomon built the Temple as we are told in 2 Chronicles
Solomon began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the Lord had appeared to his father David, at the place that David had designated, on the threshing-floor of Ornan the Jebusite. (2 Chronicles 3.1)
From here the Israelites left as slaves; to here they returned from exile in Babylon. Here Herod built the Second Temple and to here Jesus came. He wouldn’t have seen the rock as we did. That was in the Holy of Holies (so we believe) and only the High Priest could enter that, and only once a year. But into this Noble Sanctuary Jesus walked.
The whole Temple site was destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans and the place remained empty, a dump. But from this rock in around the year 621 the Prophet Muhammed, led by Gabriel, journeyed by night into heaven and was instructed by God, returning to then instruct his followers.
This rock has a nobility for us all, Jews and Christians and Muslims and as we stood in the cave beneath it the sense of this being a true holy place was tangible.
Later in the day we stood on the steps beneath the south wall of the Temple. Up these steps from the Ophel the pilgrims would come and Jesus and his disciples came, to enter the sanctuary of God. But if you look from the steps, across the City of David to the village of Silwan and beyond, you see the Israeli Security Barrier, the wall that has been erected to keep the Palestinians out of Israel. Not every wall creates a home, not every wall defines a noble sanctuary. Some walls that we build are an affront to humanity.
27 years ago today, 9 November, the wall that had divided Berlin began to come down. Construction of the wall had begun on 13 August 1961 and it took until 1989 for the thawing of the Cold War to result in the breaching of the wall and a new age of freedom to begin. But in Belfast the British Government built a wall, a ‘Peace Line’ in 1969. It is still there. (It is amazing the names we give to walls to deny they are walls – the Peace Line, the Separation Barrier!) And on the day when we celebrate the freeing of the people of Berlin a man is elected in the USA promising to build a wall along the Mexican border. Ironic is not the word. It has no nobility and cannot create sanctuary.
Jesus, you tore down the walls that divided people;
challenge our desires to build walls
that divide and don’t include,
that keep people out not bring them in,
that have no nobility
and create no sanctuary or home.