In today’s tenuous political climate, any issue surrounding the Temple Mount is fraught with tension and controversy. Archaeological excavations are not allowed on the holy esplanade and any claim to the past is a subject for controversy. But sometimes, a bit of insanity can uncover facts.
Although there has not been almost any modern archaeology on the site, historical accounts provide a timeline for the site. According to tradition, King Solomon built the First Temple on the site in the 10th century BCE. King Solomon’s political connections allowed him to build the structure with all the finest materials from the Near Middle East. The biblical text describes in I Kings 6 the glorious building, with imported cedars from Lebanon and many vessels and architectural elements of gold. The Temple of King Solomon stood until 586 BCE when it was destroyed by the Babylonians under Nebucchadnezzer II.
Seventy years later, in 516 BCE the Second Temple was dedicated in the same location. It was not as grand as the First Temple at its inauguration. However, many subsequent leaders, including King Herod in the 1st century BCE, made improvements and enlargements of the complex. Under the Romans, the Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE as described by the historian Josephus.
From the time of the destruction of the Second Temple until the building of Islamic structures at the end of the 7th century CE the history of the site is fuzzy. It is not known whether the Byzantine Christians built there or left the place as a ruin. The paucity of archaeological work on the Temple Mount has left this period of time as a matter of speculation.
Two impressive Moslem buildings stand on the Temple Mount today. The spectacular structure, the Dome of the Rock, standing in the location of the First and Second Temples, has been considered from its 7th century CE foundation until today as one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.
But the most important building for Moslems on the holy complex is al-Aqsa Mosque, also built at the beginning of the 8th century CE, and located at the southern end of the Temple Mount. Al-Aqsa has suffered from earthquakes and fires over the ages and has been rebuilt many times.
On August 21, 1969, Australian Denis Michael Rohan entered the al-Aqsa Mosque as a tourist. Armed with kerosene, he succeeded in setting fire to the mosque, damaging the building and incinerating a 12th century pulpit, known as the minbar of Saladin. This sheep shearer who was working on a kibbutz in Israel was charged with insanity and finally extradited to Australia based on humanitarian considerations. Al-Aqsa was repaired once again. Because of structural damage from the fire, beams from al-Aqsa needed to be replaced because of the destruction. Some of the old beams made their way to Israeli universities where they were analyzed and dated by carbon14. Samples of 140 beams yielded the origin of the wood. About 50% were Turkish pine and 25% were cedars of Lebanon – both imported from other regions for monumental building. Israel doesn’t have any indigenous trees which are long enough for monumental building spans. When they dated the samples, researchers found that some of the wood was dated to the initial building of al-Aqsa in the 7th century CE. Others dated to the Byzantine period giving rise to questions about building activity during that time.
The biggest surprise, however, is that some of the beams, including cypress, pine, and cedars were dated to the time of the First Temple, almost 3000 years ago! Although the First Temple was destroyed, it seems that some of its wood was repurposed and used over the ages for building projects on the Temple Mount, including al-Aqsa Mosque.
During this period of time when we mourn the loss of the Temple, it is refreshing to learn that not all is lost. And sometimes a crazy man can discover the surviving remnant.