The next couple of weeks will see a close calendar alignment of the Jewish Passover (5th – 13th April), the Roman Catholic and Protestant Easter (9th April), the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Easter (16th April), and the end of Ramadan (21st April). Our newest faith communities in Ireland – Orthodox Christian and Muslim – now number about 80,000 each and join over 20,000 Pentecostals (African, Latin American and Romanian) as the fastest growing religious groups on our rapidly changing island.
The Garda Síochána and PSNI are not expecting any trouble from the various monotheistic faithful this April; but the congested calendar may pose significant challenges in Jerusalem, the city that birthed them. There is one slither of land in particular that stirs much greater passions than ‘the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone’. The 24 acres of the Temple Mount / Haram Al-Sharif elevation is revered by the three great Abrahamic religions; and it continues to reignite the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It even divides people in Ulster with some of us discovering our inner Hamas and others adopting the Zionist cause, burning distant ‘flegs’ on our tribal pyres.
For many Jews, Mount Zion is the most sacred spot on Earth. It is the very place where the world began – where God formed Adam out of dust – and where on the Day of Judgement it will end. Jewish tradition maintains it was here on Temple Mount that Abraham stood ready to sacrifice his son; that Jacob wrestled with an angel; and that Solomon’s ancient Temple was built. For five centuries this First Temple protected the Tabernacle (God’s Dwelling Place amongst His Chosen People) and the Holy of Holies that concealed the Ark of the Covenant. And long after the First Temple was torn down by the Mesopotamian King Nebuchadnezzar II, it would become the site of the Second Temple (built by returning Babylonian exiles and magnificently expanded by the Roman client king Herod the Great).
The destruction of the Second Temple by General Titus’ legions in 70 AD, a reprisal for the Great Jewish Revolt, was utterly calamitous for the Hebrew peoples and saw many of them exiled and dispersed across the Empire and beyond. Only one section of a sole retaining wall has survived – the Western Wall – and it is the closest point to the Holy of Holies that Jews are allowed to gather for prayer today. Here, many of the faithful wait and yearn for the coming of the Messiah and the resplendent emergence of the glorious Third Temple.
Jewish Messianism gave birth to Christianity. Mary came to the Herodic Temple to offer the sacrifice demanded by the Torah for the birth of her infant son; the teenage Jesus taught on the Temple Mount; and the adult Jesus predicted the Temple’s destruction (according to Mark’s Gospel which may have been written shortly after the temple was torched). The destruction of the Second Temple provided a breakthrough for Jesus’ followers, allowing them to gain an advantage over rival Jewish sects including the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes. And Paul won the argument against Jesus’ brother James, allowing the Jerusalem movement to reach out beyond the Jews to convert the gentiles.
After Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the 4th century, its position was secured as the favoured imperial religion. Jerusalem now became a place of Christian pilgrimage and one of the five patriarchal sees. Emperor Justinian dedicated a church to the Mother of God, built upon the very ruins of the Jewish Second Temple.
During the 7th century, Jerusalem and the Temple Mount fell to Islam and a mosque replaced the church. Fast forward to 1095 when, at the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II called for the First Crusade to ‘reclaim’ the holy sites for Christ in return for a remission of time in Purgatory. In 1099, the First Crusaders waged ‘holy war’, captured Jerusalem and slaughtered most of the city’s Muslim and Jewish inhabitants. The Al-Aqsa Mosque was desecrated and converted into a royal palace that temporarily housed the Order of the Knights Templar. This Latin Catholic reconquest lasted for less than a century. Saladin’s Muslim army recaptured Jerusalem in 1187.
Further crusades failed to retake Jerusalem, with crusading armies indiscriminately slaughtering Jew, Greek Orthodox Christian and Muslim alike. Later caliphs did, for the most part, show remarkable restraint and allowed Christian pilgrims to continue to visit the Holy Land. Today less than 2% of the population of Jerusalem is Christian (mainly Orthodox) and most of these Christians are found amongst the Palestinian Arab population.
Muslims believe that Muhammad is the Prophet of Prophets who followed directly on from Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and other messengers, all of whom were connected to the sacred Jerusalem mount. This is unsurprising as Muhammad lived in a 7th century Arabian peninsula that was dominated by Judeo-Christian beliefs. When Byzantine Christians first encountered Islam they thought it was just another Christian or Jewish sect. The earliest followers of Muhammad even prayed in the direction of Jerusalem. Abraham (Ibrahim) is extolled in the Qur’an as a great prophet and the rebuilder of the Kaaba in Mecca, the first house of worship to the ‘One and Only True God’; and Mary is mentioned 70 times and identified as “above all women of creation” and the mother of the prophet Isa (Jesus).
Jerusalem’s Temple Mount is known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary). It is Islam’s third holiest site after Mecca and Medina. Muslims believe it was also here that the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven on the back of a winged horse. This was celebrated by the building of one of Islam’s greatest architectural triumphs, the Dome of the Rock. A few years later, Caliph Al-Walid built the Masjid Al-Aqsa, the earliest of the Al-Aqsa (farthest) mosques to arise on the mound. It took its name from the then ‘farthest mosque from the Great Mosque of Mecca’, identified as Jerusalem and where, according to the Qur’an, the Prophet Muhammad completed his Miraculous Night Journey. Various subsequent invaders, and not least the Ottoman Turks, have patronised these magnificent Muslim houses of worship.
Today the legal status of Jerusalem, the Old City and Haram al-Sharif are widely disputed. Both Israel and Palestine claim Jerusalem as their national capital. Illegal Jewish settlements continue to spread across Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, but beyond these transgressions the Arab world will not tolerate any violation of the sacred mound which is still administered by a Jordanian Islamic Waqf. Rabbinic Law actually acquiesces and bans Jews from walking on the Haram site in case they accidently set foot on the unknown location of the Holy of Holies. However, many Zionists reject this accommodation and want to seize control of ‘Mount Zion’, obliterate the Muslim shrines and rebuild the Second Temple.
Some Irish Evangelicals, on the Christian Right, support Zionism and believe that the Second Coming of Christ will commence on the Temple Mount, when unbelievers will be slaughtered. They applauded Trump’s recent inflammatory relocation of the US embassy to the contested capital, seeing it as Providential and evidence of the approaching ‘Rapture’.
Sadly so much has changed since the time when Muslims, Jews and Byzantine Christians all prayed facing towards the sacred places. The three great monotheistic faiths are all ‘Children of the Book’ and share many of the same prophets and a wealth of artistic and architectural influences. They all love and revere this slender finger of land. But a common heritage counts for little as the verbal insults, stones, petrol bombs, rockets and airstrikes rain down on the Judean hills and the Gaza Strip. And in Ulster, we might do well to consider if our fascination is predominantly human rights based or more about tribal point-scoring.
Keith Williamson is a History and Politics teacher in County Down