The man who torched al-Aksa Mosque

Denis Rohan climbed a tree on the Temple Mount at five in the afternoon and settled down on a limb to wait for darkness. It would be a long wait.

Smoke rises above al-Aksa Mosque from a fire set by Denis Michael Rohan in August 1969. (photo credit: JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVE)
Smoke rises above al-Aksa Mosque from a fire set by Denis Michael Rohan in August 1969.
Forty-five years ago last month, a demented 28-year-old Australian sheepshearer, Denis Michael Rohan, set fire to Jerusalem’s al-Aksa Mosque – Islam’s third holiest site. Muslim riots as far abroad as India took thousands of lives and Israel’s international standing was shaken. In a three-part series based on his just-published eBook, Jerusalem on Earth: The Post-Six Day War decades, former Jerusalem Reporter Abraham Rabinovich describes the event and Rohan’s subsequent trial.
Denis Rohan climbed a tree on the Temple Mount at five in the afternoon and settled down on a limb to wait for darkness. It would be a long wait, since the August sun did not set until well past seven. Through the branches he could see worshipers coming out of al-Aksa Mosque after the last prayers of the day. The tree was well away from the paths leading out of the walled compound. As the sun illuminated the Mount of Olives across the narrow Kidron Valley, the Australian raised the camera dangling from his neck and photographed the scene. The picture would provide proof, if any were needed, that he had been there. With dusk, he slid to the ground and gratefully stretched his limbs.
He could see no one but he waited three more hours before approaching the main door of the mosque.
From a black bag, he took a length of tubing and pushed one end through the large keyhole.
Fitting a funnel into the other end, he poured into it a gallon of kerosene from a bottle. He could hear it splashing onto the floor of the mosque inside. Removing the tube, he inserted a kerosene-soaked rope through the keyhole until he could feel the slack as it coiled on the floor. Striking a match, he lit the makeshift wick, picked up his bag and ran.
The gates to the compound were closed but he climbed a staircase to the rampart of the city wall and made his way along it until he reached Lion’s Gate, one of the seven gates of the Old City, and clambered down. It was close to midnight when he neared his hotel in the Arab part of the city just outside the walls. The street seemed empty but two policemen stepped out of the shadows and called on the hurrying figure to halt.
It was two years after the Six Day War and security forces were still keeping a close watch on suspicious movement in east Jerusalem. The policemen were one of the Arab-Jewish teams that had begun operating there.
Rohan produced his passport. The policemen may have noted that his first name was spelled with only one ‘n.’ Stealing a glance behind him, Rohan could see no telltale glow from the direction of the Temple Mount. Looking into Rohan’s bag, the Jewish policeman pulled out an object he saw coiled inside. It seemed to be a whip. As he touched the haft, it came loose, exposing a dagger. The policeman looked up sharply at Rohan but the Arab policeman told his partner in Hebrew that the whip-dagger was a common tourist item sold in the Old City, a replica of the korbush used by riders to coax reluctant donkeys.
The policemen handed back the passport and korbush and bid Rohan goodnight.
The dagger was a surprise to the Australian.
The only weapon he had intended to acquire was the whip. He might need it to drive the wicked from the Temple Mount as Jesus had driven out the moneychangers.
POST-SIX Day War Jerusalem teemed with fundamentalist Christians and Jews for whom Israel’s victory heralded the imminent coming of the Messiah. Inevitably, a lunatic fringe would give its own interpretations to events. Bearded and robed figures striding through Jerusalem’s streets like figures in an Easter pageant had become a routine sight. Rohan, however, was not merely awaiting the Messiah’s arrival. The 28-year-old Australian sheepshearer saw himself playing a central role in the building of the new temple which the Messiah would enter.
First, however, it was necessary to clear space for the temple by destroying the structure that, he believed, presently occupied the ancient site – al-Aksa Mosque.
The fire he set this night had gone out even as he was running from the scene. It left only a stain for the mosque caretaker to briefly puzzle over in the morning. But Rohan would try again.
Rarely in its eventful history had Jerusalem been so shaken by the act of a single madman as it was about to be.
THE FIRST time Rohan heard a heavenly voice, he would later reveal, was in the Australian town of Grenfell in March 1964. His wife, Gloria, whom he met at a country dance, had taken their baby girl and left Rohan two months before.
As he lay abed in deep depression, he heard a voice say, “Gloria should have married Sandra’s father.” Sandra was his wife’s daughter from a previous liaison. “Tomorrow you will be honored and respected,” continued the voice. The final “revelation,” as Rohan would come to term it, concerned an augur, a 30-foot-long lift device he had been scheduled to transport the next day from the silo where he worked to another town 35 miles away. “Do not take the augur tomorrow,” the voice commanded.
Rohan found himself on his knees at the foot of the bed with his hands over his head in a posture of ecstasy as the voice died away. Electric-like shocks pulsed in waves from his head to the tips of his fingers and toes. “Thank you, Father,” he cried. “Thank you.”
The next day, Rohan tried to avoid taking the augur. But unable to offer a plausible reason, he finally gave in to the prodding of his fellow workers and hooked up the device to a truck. His colleagues, he knew, regarded him as a fool and laughed at him behind his back. He did not wish to provide them with more ammunition for scorn. Besides, he had begun to think that the voice he had heard might be the voice of Satan.
Two workers accompanied Rohan in the truck cabin.
Gripped by agitation, he could hardly keep his foot on the accelerator and he could not firmly grip the wheel.
Halfway to his destination he braked and turned back to Grenfell. At one point he stopped but the two others urged him on. As they drove, the augur fell off with a loud clatter. Rohan descended from the truck and managed to hook it back on. Three miles from Grenfell, he could control himself no longer. Slamming the brakes, he flung himself onto the roadway and cried, “Lord have mercy on me.” An invisible force struck him and blinded him as he knelt raving. The two men hauled him back to the truck, and one of them drove it back to the silo.
Rohan had quieted down when the silo manager called him into his office. The manager asked Rohan to be seated and spoke to him gently. “Denis, you are mentally sick,” he said. “I have just called your wife and father and they want nothing more to do with you. It seems as though I am the only one left to help you. I’ve made an appointment with a doctor. I want you to come along with me.”
Shouting “no,” Rohan bolted from the office and fled to his rented room. He lay on his bed thinking of the brush fires sweeping the country. Rohan blamed himself for the fires. He thought of himself now as Satan.
God was trying to destroy him but would destroy all of Australia in the process unless he killed himself first. He had tried vainly to do so the month before by taking pills. Before he could try again now, a policeman knocked on the door and entered. Leading him down to a waiting patrol car, he drove him to the Bloomfield Mental Hospital.
Rohan was confined for four months and then continued treatment as an outpatient. He was able to function well enough to earn a decent income as a left-handed sheepshearer and at odd jobs in hospitals.
In an attempt to understand what was happening to him, he began reading psychology books. He also joined the Church of God, a California-based sect whose brochure he happened to see one day and to which he began to tithe his income by mail. A mail-order religion which did not oblige face to face contact was the perfect vehicle for his dementia, and he avidly read the prophetic visions contained in its brochures.
The wealthy sect, which had founded Ambassador College in Pasadena, California, had a campus in England as well. Four years after his breakdown, Rohan sailed for England with the intention of enrolling. Instead, however, he took a job in a hospital in Middlesex and contented himself with listening to the sect’s “World Tomorrow” program beamed from Radio Amman in Jordan. He had planned to move on to Canada but the thought of stormy seas and Canadian snows led him to opt for Israel instead. It seemed a good place to study the Bible and promised clear reception of Radio Amman. A clerk at the Israel tourism office in London told him he might volunteer at a kibbutz, where he would work half the day and study Hebrew the other half.
In this offhand way, Rohan arrived in Israel by ship in March 1969 and traveled to Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon in the Sharon Valley between Haifa and Tel Aviv. Among the 40 other volunteers at the kibbutz was an American theology student named Arthur Jones, with whom Rohan had long discussions on the Bible. But while Jones stressed Christian love and forgiveness, Rohan spoke of law and commandment. He tried unsuccessfully to persuade Jones to observe the Jewish Sabbath with him.
Their Hebrew teacher was an attractive, willowy brunette named Zipporah. In class, Rohan would stare at her intently but could absorb little of what she was teaching.
After class one day, he boarded the bus she took from the kibbutz to the nearby city of Netanya where she lived. He sat down next to her, but could hardly reply when she good-naturedly asked where he was going.
He heard the voice again one night as he lay in bed at the kibbutz. It said: “Zipporah will be your wife.” To his mother, whom he had once beaten and whom he had hardly seen in years, he wrote, “Dear mum. At last I have found her. I hope she will be as good a wife and mother as you have been.”
The other volunteers regarded Rohan as weird but treated him sympathetically. He won their respect as a good worker who did not shirk the kibbutz chores. For most of them, life at the kibbutz was a return to childhood with camaraderie and little responsibility beyond performance of assigned duties. The atmosphere of acceptance was one that Rohan had never experienced. In its warmth, the precarious mental equilibrium he had maintained for the past few years began to dissolve. One day in mid-June, the class sang Hebrew songs with the accompaniment of an accordionist. Rohan was particularly moved by one song, “Hinei ma tov” (How goodly it is for brethren to dwell together). That night as he lay alone in his room he began to sing the song to himself but kept breaking into tears. He soon lost control and his wild shouts startled those in nearby rooms. A volunteer named Mary Ann entered to calm him. She found him sweating and rubbing his face. “What’s wrong, Denis?” she asked, sitting next to his bed.
“I’m Jewish, I’m Jewish,” he said.
“How do you know? Have your parents told you?”
“No, they never told me. For the past couple of weeks I’ve been thinking on this subject. I’ve been thinking that perhaps I’m Jewish.”
Although he could not grasp it yet, something was beginning to take shape in his mind. He spoke to Arthur Jones of the imminence of the Messiah’s coming and the construction of a new temple.
“What about the Dome of the Rock?” asked Jones, referring to the golden-domed Islamic shrine believed to occupy the site of the Israelite temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. The temple could not be rebuilt as long as the site was occupied by another structure.
“Who knows,” said Rohan. “Maybe it will be destroyed by an act of sabotage, maybe the Arabs will do it themselves for political reasons, maybe there’ll be an earthquake.”
On July 1, he traveled up to Jerusalem for the first time. It was his 28th birthday. It was also, he learned from the newspapers, the date England’s Prince Charles was being invested as Prince of Wales. The British royal family, according to the Church of God, was descended from the House of David. Rohan now believed that he was too. In the kibbutz, he had written, but not mailed, a letter to an English firm that traced lineages. In the letter he asked the firm to examine his own lineage. The coincidence of the royal investiture and his own birthday he saw as a clear portent, the first of many.
Rohan stayed in Jerusalem a week. The night before he was to leave he moved to the Imperial Hotel inside the Old City walls. As the desk clerk reached back for Rohan’s room key, his hand seemed to hesitate. He then detached a large, rusty key and handed it to the guest. Rohan took it and sat down in the lobby to ponder what he had seen. The key, he concluded, was the key of David, and the clerk’s hand had been divinely guided to it.
When Rohan returned to the kibbutz, he knew that his fate lay in Jerusalem although he could not yet see its shape. Two weeks later he left the kibbutz with his bags for Jerusalem. This time he came not as a pilgrim but as royalty, hiring a cab to take him the 50 miles from Netanya. Drawn by the appropriateness of its name, he ordered the driver to take him to the King David Hotel, which happened to be the most luxurious in the city. When informed that there was no room, he settled for the more modest Kings Hotel, which had room for a few days. He then reluctantly moved to the Rivoli Hotel in east Jerusalem. Although its name was devoid of symbolism, it was there that Rohan finally discovered who he was and what his mission was.
Leafing through a Catholic Bible he found next to his bed, he came upon a passage in Zechariah he had never noted before. “Behold the man whose name is the branch, for he shall grow up in his place and he shall build the Temple of the Lord. It is he who shall build the Temple of the Lord and shall bear royal honor and shall sit and rule upon the throne.”
As Rohan laid the Bible down, the meaning of his life came flowing in upon him. In one brilliant insight, that whole story suddenly fell into place. The branch was himself. It was he who would build the temple. “I came to understand,” he would later say, “that my life would have no meaning if I were not the branch.” The agony he had suffered since childhood had been designed to harden him – like passing steel through fire, he felt, or refining gold. He understood why he had been strictly disciplined as a child, why he had been rejected and despised. His past was purposeful and his destiny glowing. He was to build the temple and rule over Jerusalem and Judea. The beautiful Zipporah would be his queen. Gloria, his wife, was Catholic and therefore could not divorce him. But the voice at the kibbutz which informed him that Zipporah would be his wife plainly implied that Gloria was no longer his wife.
The calmness of certitude settled upon him and Rohan began planning his steps. To build the temple, he must first clear the temple site. The Temple Mount, which occupied a sixth of the walled city, was located on the hilltop site of a Canaanite threshing floor purchased 3,000 years before by King David. David’s intention, the Bible tells us, was to build on it a sanctuary to house the Holy Ark that had accompanied the Israelites during their wanderings in the desert, but his hands had been too bloodied by war for the task. It was his son, Solomon, who would level the hilltop and build the temple. Almost 1,000 years later, King Herod doubled the size of the walled compound and rebuilt the temple and its surroundings into one of the most magnificent architectural complexes of antiquity. Less than a century later, the Romans destroyed the Temple and banished the Jews from Jerusalem. The Temple Mount would remain a desolate waste until the Arab conquest in the seventh century. The Arabs cleaned the vast esplanade, sprinkled it with rose water, and consecrated it as the third holiest site in Islam. The Dome of the Rock, which they built on the presumed temple site in the center of the mount, was an architectural gem rendered ever more brilliant over the course of the centuries by mosaic decorations.
At the southern end of the compound the al-Aksa Mosque was built early in the eighth century. Capable of holding five thousand worshipers, the mosque was the principal place of prayer for Muslims in Jerusalem.
It was the al-Aksa Mosque that Rohan intended to destroy in the mistaken belief that it, not the Dome of the Rock, occupied the site of the temple.
For two weeks, Rohan visited the mount every day, wandering it for hours, often muttering to himself.
Sometimes he sat in the shade and read a newspaper.
Repeatedly, he returned to the mosque. He got to know the Arab guards and made a point of tipping them extravagantly. When the strange, crew-cut foreigner would approach, they greeted him with a jaunty “ahalan” (welcome, in Arabic). Sometimes he would lie down on the prayer rugs covering the floor of the mosque. The guards generally refrained from disturbing him unless their own superiors were nearby. Sometimes Rohan even fell asleep on the rugs.
He was still looking for a final, unmistakable sign confirming his mission. He would find it in an 18-year-old Arab youth, Munir, who approached him one day and offered his services as a guide. Rohan accepted and paid him 50 Israeli pounds, ten times the going rate, for a brief tour of the mount. Thereafter, Munir approached Rohan every time he appeared and was rewarded with even larger payments. Rohan did more talking than listening. Some of Munir’s friends had begun tagging along on these walks, drawing out the mad tourist. Rohan did not seem to mind. He spoke of his life and cast broad but mystifying hints about his identity and his mission. One day he said to Munir and his friends: “If you can tell me why I came to Jerusalem I will give you a thousand pounds [about $300].”
Munir copied down some of the things he remembered Rohan telling him, plus some passages in the Bible that Rohan had pointed out to him. He also included extracts from a letter sent him by an evangelical American Christian he had once guided, urging him to convert to Christianity. Munir went to Rohan’s hotel the next day to present him the results. Much of the writing was illegible but Rohan gave him 500 pounds and told him he would get more if he improved on it. A few days later Munir returned with a more legible version. It contained the sentence Rohan had been looking for – a sentence Munir had copied from the American’s letter. “The knowledge you have of the Temple site should make you a candidate to learn and be protected by the true God through the forthcoming destruction.”
For Rohan, this was the ultimate confirmation: a Muslim was saying that he, Rohan, was destined to destroy the Muslim holy place. Munir, after all, knew where the temple site was, and if he spoke of it in connection with the forthcoming destruction he must be speaking of the destruction of the mosque that occupied the temple site. Munir could not understand Rohan’s excitement but he pocketed the 500 pounds thrust on him.
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