CAPITAL CONTEXT: Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives

The original Dome of the Rock was built at the end of the seventh century by the Umayyad ruler, Abd el-Malek.

A panoramic view of the Mount of Olives (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A panoramic view of the Mount of Olives
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
THE PROMENADE on the Mount of Olives offers a breathtaking view of the Temple Mount or Mount Moriah, the Old City, and the Judean desert to the east.
The Mount of Olives has 3 peaks, the highest of which is 826 meters above sea level. It is also called the “Mount of Ascent” (II Samuel 15:30; I Kings 11:7; II Kings 23:13; Ezekiel 11:23; and Zechariah 14:4) – where, according to tradition, the Messianic Age will begin to reveal itself.
One can easily identify familiar landmarks: The King David Hotel (which marked the border between Israel and Jordan before the Six Day War in 1967), the Leonardo Hotel, and the City Tower Hotel (at the top of Ben-Yehuda Street) with three dark columns of windows. The large gray dome in the Old City’s Christian Quarter is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection. On the southern side of the Old City, today called Mount Zion, are the Church of the Dormition and the Church of the Last Supper.
The golden “Dome of the Rock” on the- Temple Mount, is the place where Abraham brought Isaac to be sacrificed and where the First and Second Temples were built.
The focus of Jewish consciousness, it is the place that Jews face towards in prayer.
The smaller dark dome on Temple Mount to the south (the area which Muslims call Al- Haram al-Sharif – the Noble Sanctuary) is Al-Aksa (meaning “distant”) mosque, from where Muhammad is believed to have ascended to heaven and received the Koran.
When praying, Muslims face their holy cities, Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
The original Dome of the Rock was built at the end of the seventh century by the Umayyad ruler, Abd el-Malek. After conquering the city in 1099, the Crusaders replaced the crescent on top with a cross and called it the Templum Domini controlled by the Knights Templar. Saladin, the Ayyubid (Kurdish) ruler who conquered Jerusalem in 1187, restored these as places of Muslim worship. Additions were made during the Mameluke (1260-1516) and Turkish (1516- 1917) periods.
The Dome of the Rock is a shrine used for Muslims wishing to pray alone, while Al-Aksa is used for public prayers.
The Temple Mount is a large area, about 6 square acres in size, capable of containing about 15 football fields! The Kidron Valley below is the largest and most important valley in the area. Just below the Russian church of St. Mary Magdalene (built in the 1880s) with the golden onion-shaped domes is the Basilica of the Agony, or Church of All Nations (built in the 1920s on the site of a Byzantine-era church), the Church of the Assumption (traditional burial site of Mary) and the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is believed to have taught and was betrayed by Judas to the Roman authorities.
The Kidron Valley is also called the Valley of Jehoshaphat (“God has judged”) where, according to prophets Joel and Zechariah, the nations of the world will be judged. “Then shall the Lord go forth and fight against those nations and His feet shall stand in that day upon the Mount of Olives which is before Jerusalem on the east...” (Zechariah 14:13).
Midway along the eastern wall of the Temple Mount there is a double arched gate, the Mercy, Shushan, or Golden Gate.
Historically, this is the most important gate in the Old City because, according to Jewish tradition, the Messiah will enter the Temple Mount through this gate. Therefore, Christians used the gate for Easter ceremonies during the Byzantine periods.
It was closed by the Muslims, who built a cemetery around it thinking that the Messiah would be a priest who could not enter a cemetery, thus preventing the arrival of the Messiah. According to Jewish tradition, the Messiah will not be a priest, and anyway, priests could enter a non-Jewish cemetery.
During the First and Second Temple periods, this gate was used by the High Priest and his assistants to transfer the Red Heifer from the Temple Mount to the Mount of Olives. According to the Mishna (Taharot, Parah III, 6; Middot I, 3), a bridge was built “arches upon arches” – to take the cow over the cemetery to the “Mount of Anointing” (Mount of Olives) to be burned. The ashes of the Red Heifer were necessary to make people ritually pure in order to enter the Temple Mount.
According to the Mishna (Middot II, 4), the High Priest could see the gates of the Holy of Holies from the Mount of Olives while performing the ceremony.
Mercy Gate and the bridge were also used on Yom Kippur to take the goat of Azazel from the Temple Mount over the Mount of Olives into the Judean Desert wilderness.
The bridge is referred to in the reading of Parshat Parah, the extra Torah portion read before Passover.
Although no remnant of a bridge has been found, however, European artists hundreds of years ago included it in their maps of “Jerusalem at the time of King Solomon” because they knew that, according to the Mishna, there had to be a bridge there.
North of Mercy Gate, a road leads to Lions (or St. Stephens) Gate.
Jerusalem has been conquered from its eastern side only twice in its history: first, by King David (via the Gihon Spring), then via the Lions’ Gate, by the IDF in 1967.
Toward the bottom of the valley, in front of the circular wall, is a grave surrounded by a metal frame. This is the tomb of Rabbi Chaim Attar, known as the “Or Hahayim,” the title of his commentary on the Torah. He was born in Morocco in 1696 and after hearing that the famous kabbalist Rabbi Hayim Abulafia had revived the Jewish community of Tiberias, he decided to make aliya.
On the way, he traveled extensively throughout Italy and arrived in Acre in 1741. He moved to Jerusalem, where he died in 1743. A synagogue (and museum) in the Old City that bears his name is still used. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism, called him his rebbe because although they never met, Rabbi Attar had a great influence on him. Rabbi Attar died in the same year that Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (the “Ramchal”), perhaps the greatest kabbalist and philosopher of his day, arrived in Acre. He is buried in Tiberias.
Excavations along the southern wall of the Temple Mount revealed structures from the First Temple period and entrance gates from the Second Temple period. Steps near the wall are from the Second Temple period, since the main entrance and exit were from this side. The gates were named for Hulda, the prophetess.
Across the road (to the south) is the City of David, the original city of Jerusalem from the time of Abraham, when it was known as Shalem (Genesis 14), or Uru-salem in the Canaanite period. When King David conquered the city (Samuel II, 5), it was inhabited by a Canaanite tribe called Jebusites (Yevusi), whose king, Aravnah, sold Mount Moriah to King David. “So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver and David built there an altar to the Lord” (Samuel II, 24).
David’s son Solomon built the First Temple on that site (I Kings, 6). The Second Temple was rebuilt there during the 5th century BCE under the leadership of Ezra the Prophet and Nehemiah.
In the Kidron valley, obscured by the modern Arab village of Silwan, is the Gihon Spring, the main water supply for the city in ancient times and the place where the kings of Israel were anointed (I Kings 1).
The Gihon Spring is the beginning of Hezekiah’s Tunnel (II Kings, 20), built in the 8th century BCE, which cuts through the mountain and carries water to the other side. A major feat of engineering, details regarding the tunnel’s construction are still debated.
A wall of stones indicates excavations of the city that date from the Canaanite and First Temple periods. The fact that the Temple Mount is north of the City of David may explain a reference in Psalm 48 that is said on Mondays: “Great is Hashem and much praised in the city of God, Mount of His Holiness. Fairest of sites, joy of all the earth is Mount Zion, by the northern sides of the great king’s city...”
A small mosque at the bottom of the slope below was built on the grave of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the founder of the modern Hebrew language. A mosque and other illegal structures across the road were built recently.
THE JEWISH neighborhood Ma’aleh Hazeitim, built next to the police station in Ras al-Amud (“Head of Monuments” in Arabic) just above Silwan, is the oldest Jewish cemetery in the world, from the First Temple period. The site has been owned by Jews for over 100 years and remains of an ancient Sephardic cemetery can be seen in front of the Arab hotel.
A Franciscan monastery to the south may be the place where King Solomon built alters for his pagan wives (I Kings 9, 11) (II Kings 23) and therefore is called the Mount of Corruption.
Toward the east is Abu-Dis, where the Palestinian Authority built its headquarters, and the Arab town of el-Eizariya is southeast.
The PA was offered sovereignty over both towns in the hope that they would relinquish their claim on Jerusalem; they refused, demanding Jerusalem itself.
Gilo, on the southwestern horizon, is a neighborhood of Jerusalem built after 1967. On the southern ridge of the hills is the promenade (in East Talpiot) and Armon Hanatziv (Government House), which was the British High Commissioner’s Office and is now used by the United Nations.
Nebi Samuel, the traditional tomb of the prophet, is located on a distant northern hilltop.
The building was part of a church from the Crusader period, which was turned into a mosque. It overlooks the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Ramot and Givat Ze’ev, built after 1967.
During the Second Temple period, bonfires were lit on the northern ridge of the Mount of Olives, commonly known as Mount Scopus (where the Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital are located) to announce the beginning of the new month (Mishna Rosh Hashana 2:4).
The university and hospital’s buildings were destroyed in the War of Independence, but the IDF was able to maintain a presence, although completely surrounded by the Jordanian army. By agreement, bimonthly convoys were permitted to supply the Israeli position, but on several occasions convoys were attacked by Arabs and in one instance, a convoy of nurses and doctors was wiped out. The modern campus and hospital complex were rebuilt after 1967.
The Hebrew University’s campus contains tombs of Nicanor, a wealthy Alexandrian Jew who donated gates for the Second Temple, and early Zionist philosophers and leaders Y.L. Pinsker and M.M. Ussishkin.
A-Tur, the Arab neighborhood on the Mount of Olives contains a Greek Orthodox monastery, Al-Makassad Hospital and a small mosque built over the medieval Church of the Ascension. The Church of Eleona is one of the four Byzantine churches built by Queen Helena, the mother of Constantine, in the 4th century CE. It is also called Pater Noster because inside the church are the prayers “Our Father who art in heaven…” written in 150 languages.
The Seven Arches Hotel (formerly the “Intercontinental”) was built in the cemetery during the Jordanian occupation.
Tombstones were used for latrines and as paving stones.
The restoration of Jerusalem for all of its inhabitants and the world is a symbol of co-existence reflecting its history and its ancient name: Peace.
From Tel Aviv to Jerusalem
AFTER PASSING Ben-Gurion airport, you may continue to Jerusalem via Route 1 or drive via Route 443, passing Modi’in.
Via Modi’in, this is the area in which the revolt against the Greek/Seleucid Empire began, mentioned in the Book of Maccabees, an ancient document from the Second Temple Period. An ancient Roman road parallels the highway, apparently the way to Jerusalem, which passes Givat Ze’ev, al-Jib, an Arab town that is the site of ancient Givon, (Joshua 10:4,10, II Samuel 2) and a few kilometers later, what many consider to be the tomb of Samuel the Prophet (perhaps the ancient Rama, or Giva). A Crusader-built church and mosque were built at the site, and it is surrounded by Jordanian army trenches. Conquering this high point was critical in the 1967 Six Day War to liberate Jerusalem because it prevented Jordanian reinforcements from reaching Ammunition Hill and linking up with Jordanian units in the Old City. The museum and memorial at Ammunition Hill – where 182 IDF soldiers fell – tells the tragic and heroic story in a film and exhibits.
Via Route 1, you enter the Ayalon Valley, an ancient route to Jerusalem. It is mentioned in the Book of Joshua, when, more than 3,000 years ago in a battle with the Philistine invaders (from where the name “Palestine” is derived), Joshua prayed that the sun and moon would remain in place in order to complete the route of the Philistine army.
You will pass a British fortress at Latrun, site of a Crusader castle, where the Israeli army battled Jordanian and Arab armies in 1948. The IDF has a tank museum at the site.
Along the road approaching Jerusalem are remains of trucks that were used by the IDF to break through the siege around the city in 1948.
Convoys were attacked and destroyed.
The situation for Jews in the city was desperate.
A secondary dirt road was finally built to relieve the siege, under the direction of Col. Mickey Marcus, an American soldier who came to help. It was called the “Burma Road,” named after the road built by the allied armies during WWII.
Kiryat Ye’arim (Telz Stone) is an ancient site mentioned in I Samuel 7 and Judges 18. Today it is a modern religious community, which includes a facility for mothers to recuperate after birth, nearby TV studios and a telecommunications center.