High Place: Symbolism and Monumentality on Mount Moriah, Jerusalem

Article excerpt


In advance of the year 2000, attractive advertisements sponsored by the Israel Ministry of Tourism began to appear on the pages of glossy magazines in the United States. They showed three photographs of Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, the place known to Jews as the Temple Mount, site of the temple of Herod, and to Arabs as the Haram al-Sharif(Noble Sanctuary). Two of the photos were retouched; the first showing the area in the year 0 AD dominated by a computer simulation of Herod's Temple, and the second showing the same view in the year 1000 AD, this time with a lead-sheathed Dome of the Rock, the most prominent Islamic building on the Haram al-Sharif. The third photo showed a couple romantically intertwined and looking out improbably from the balcony of a hotel overlooking the Muslim cemetery in East Jerusalem, on the hill as it looks today--with the, now gilded, Dome of the Rock again in the foreground. "Come to the land where time began" implored the copy, "The millennium is coming. Where else would you go?"

During the autumn of 2000, as political events overtook the millennial euphoria, it seemed clear that the answer was "anywhere but the eternal city of Jerusalem" as tourists left in droves and others cancelled their plans to come. Unwittingly, the creators of one of Israel's more innovative advertising campaigns prefigured what was to become the focus for much of the turmoil that has now engulfed the region. Regardless of whether one views Ariel Sharon's visit of September 28, 2000, to the Haram al-Sharif as cause, incitement or merely pretext for the so-called Al-Aqsa Intifada, the significance of this thirty-five acre hilltop (Figures 1, 2) in the national and religious consciousness of both Muslims and Jews is unmistakably powerful. For Palestinians, the site now represents the origins of their culture in deep time as well as symbolizing their continuity of geography, economy and aspects of their traditional culture (Halaby 1999: 184; Duri 1990: 105). For Israelis, the hill is representative of that continuity of language and religion which have made Jerusalem central in Jewish liturgy for generations (Benvenisti 1996: 2-5). With the support of one of the best-known books in the world, the Bible, Israelis have been successful in communicating their cultural attachment to Jerusalem to the rest of the world, and the existence of the modern State of Israel has been a decisive factor in keeping the "Israelite" past alive (Whitelam 1996). This envisioned geography has been powerfully sustained both by biblical scholarship and diaspora Jewish culture, despite a paucity of evidence for Herod's temple on the ground.


The purpose of this paper is to put the territory of Mount Moriah into perspective by examining its monumental and symbolic role over an archaeological time scale. Although archaeological investigations have been by no means comprehensive, it can be inferred that the site's special topographical position has given it a particular religious and political prominence over 4000 years.

Lineages of space and symbol

Certain spaces assume great significance for believers that may not be immediately perceptible to non-believers. Attachments to a site can be created by powerful religious interests operating within a state or simply by the site's natural features. In the Levant and throughout the Mediterranean from the earliest periods, the prominence of hills in the landscape have made them the preferred locations for palaces, temples and urban centres. These sites, referred to in Biblical texts as "high places" are the prototypes for the historic buildings on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.

The enclosure of sacred spaces began with the idea of both creating protection for objects of worship and channelling the approach of worshippers and pilgrims. The demarcation of these sites reinforced and strengthened divisions within society (Lefebvre 1991; Soja 1980). …