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Three personal views from representatives of the major faiths saves this volume about the Temple Mount from being a ‘coffee-table book.'

May 7, 2010 16:04
3 minute read.
pope at temple mount

pope at temple mount 311. (photo credit: Ziv Goren/GPO/MCT)


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Where Heaven and Earth Meet
Edited by Oleg Grabar and Benjamin Z. Kedar
Yad Ben-Zvi/University of Texas | 411 pages | $75

If the Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks ever evolve into a direct meeting between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, we can be absolutely sure of one thing: The experts will tell us that the major significance of the meeting is that it took place at all. Likewise with the book under review: The most important thing about this sumptuously produced volume is that Jews, Muslims and Christians combined to produce a book about the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.

A joint venture of the Hebrew University, Al-Quds University and the Ecole Biblique, the book is divided into “History,” “Thematic Chapters” and “Three Personal Views.” Illustrated with numerous fine photographs, it makes a valiant and largely successful effort to strike a balance among the three faiths and to show appropriate respect for each of them.The history section chronicles the story of the Mount from the time of Solomon’s First Temple, through the exile, the Second Temple, Herod’s spectacular expansion, the destruction by the Romans in 70 CE, the interim “pagan” period, the first Muslim period, the Crusaders, the return of the Muslims under Saladin, the Ottomans, the British, the Jordanians, right up to Israel’s return in 1967. The account is comprehensive, if not innovative, and uses a wealth of sources.

Without underestimating the difficulty of bringing together academic articles from different languages and disciplines, it should be pointed out that the editing is sometimes unworthy of such an ambitious project.

The thematic section deals more with the artistic, cultural and religious perceptions of the space. In his chapter, “The Holy Land, Jerusalem and the Aksa Mosque in the Islamic Sources,” Mustafa Abu Sway argues eloquently against suggestions that Jerusalem is less sacred to Islam than it is to the other two religions, while also making a plea for coexistence and mutual respect. In the same section, Miriam Frenkel’s “The Temple Mount in Jewish Thought (70 CE to the Present)” does not shrink from depicting today’s fierce controversy among Israeli Jews regarding the relevance of the site from a religious point of view, the Orthodox ban (not universally accepted) on visiting the area and the differing attitudes to the idea of rebuilding the Temple.

It is, however, the three personal views of Hebrew University president Menachem Magidor, Al-Quds president Sari Nusseibeh and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini that give an extra dimension to what is basically a “coffee-table book.” A self-declared agnostic, Magidor writes: “When I am present on the Temple Mount, I am transformed in time. In some strange way I connect to the ecstasy felt by my forefathers at the same place. The feeling of continuity, of being part of a long chain, is overwhelming.”

Magidor goes on to acknowledge that the narrative to which he connects himself is not the site’s only narrative, thereby introducing Nusseibeh, who ruminates on what divides different religions and what might unite them. “If the circumstances were not ripe, whether then or now, for the true believers in the one God to become united in their endeavors,” he writes, “can we still not entertain the hope that the holy precinct – what it is and what it symbolizes – will nonetheless one day succeed to inspire people who believe in the one God themselves to become united in their faith?”

These sentiments are echoed in a passage from Martini: “We are all invited today to seek peace and harmony, above all with respect to the religious traditions and symbols that followed one another over the centuries. May this mutual respect, alongside an open heart, help us to seek the truth that will conclusively manifest itself at the end of time.”

In these contentious days, when extremist views are so often expressed by members of all the national and religious entities in our part of the world, this worthy ecumenical production comes as a welcome corrective to the overheated rhetoric all too often heard about this sacred site.

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