The Key to the Temple

The Mugrabi Gate is the key entrance to the holiest site in the Jewish world.

Temple Mount 521 (photo credit: ESTEBAN ALTERMAN)
Temple Mount 521
(photo credit: ESTEBAN ALTERMAN)
HENRY MORGENTHAU, Sr., was appointed American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in 1913. He gained fame for discovering the murder of the Armenian people during the First World War and bringing it to the attention of the world through his writings.
His visit to Israel, which was at the time one of the outlying provinces of the Empire, is less known. Being Jewish, Morgenthau wished to visit holy Jewish sites such as the Temple Mount and David’s Tomb. He needed, and received, special permission for this from the sultan, because entrance to many of the sites was forbidden to non- Muslims. In his memoirs, Morgenthau describes the conversation he had with the sheikh from the al-Dajani family that was responsible for David’s Tomb. The sheikh looked over the permission slip that the sultan gave Morgenthau and said to him: “It says here that you’re allowed to enter – but it doesn’t say you’re allowed to exit.”
Morgenthau took the hint, said his thanks and made his exit.
This story is relevant to the current situation at the Mugrabi Bridge, which abuts the Western Wall, because any matter connected to the bridge is ultimately related to the permits and prohibitions surrounding the entry by non-Muslims to the holiest site, the Temple Mount.
The current affair also sheds light on the political struggle over control of the area where the Temple once stood. Control over the entrance is a sign of sovereignty over a place, and certainly with regard to a holy site. Whoever holds the keys to the doors of a property is the owner. This theme has been clearly expressed in the centuries-old fights between the Christian communities over who would hold the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City. The quarrels between the three major groups – Catholics, Orthodox and Armenians – led the Muslim leader at the time (according to tradition, it was Saladin) to refuse to grant the keys to any Christian. Instead he gave them to a Muslim, a son of the Nusseibeh family, one of the well-connected and venerable families of Jerusalem. To this day, a son of the Nusseibeh family sits at the gate to the church, opening the front entrance prior to dusk and closing it late at night.
It would not be an exaggeration to declare that the bridge to the Mugrabi Gate is the key to the entrance of the Temple Mount area. Whoever holds the bridge, builds or renovates it and protects it is the one who possesses it.
The Temple Mount plaza and al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock mosques are under the sovereignty of the State of Israel. However, based on past arrangements and understandings between Jordan and the Palestinians, the Waqf is in charge and responsible for everything that goes on in the holy site.
From the mid-19th century and on, the Ottomans had determined that foreigners, that is, non-Muslims, would be allowed to visit the Temple Mount only during the hours between Muslim prayers. This arrangement was generally kept even after the 1967 war, when Israeli police were stationed next to the Waqf guards at the entrances to the Temple Mount.
The eight gates, all at the northern and western sides of al-Aqsa, have become a matter of contention. There are other, older gates at the southern wall of the Temple Mount (the Huldah Gate) and at the eastern wall (the Golden Gate), but these have been closed for generations. The masses of Muslim worshipers that visit the mosques every day enter and exit through the Lions’ Gate in the northeastern corner of the mountain, the Majlis Gate, the Cotton Merchant’s Gate and the Chain Gate, at the Western Wall.
According to arrangements established after 1967 by then-defense minister Moshe Dayan, Israeli soldiers and police officers are stationed at the Mugrabi Gate adjacent to the Western Wall, from where Jews are allowed to enter. But not all Jews are prepared to enter the Temple Mount at all. Indeed, next to the Mugrabi Gate there is still an old sign from the Rabbinate that forbids Jews from entering the site “because of its holiness.” This is based on traditional Jewish law, which prohibits entrance to the site because all Jews are defined as “impure through contact with the dead” and might step on holy ground without being purified. Jews can be purified only through the ashes of a red heifer. Furthermore, once the practice of animal sacrifices came to an end, Jews no longer ascended the Temple Mount.
Over the past decade, Zionist rabbis have begun to permit ascension to the Temple Mount, although they have made it clear that any Jew visiting the site should not come too close to the Dome of the Rock because that is most likely the site where the Temple and Holy of Holies stood. A number of researchers, most of them Jews who observe tradition, have been engaged in measuring and marking the area around the Dome of the Rock in order to establish exactly where Jews are forbidden to approach.
Furthermore, a number of Jewish religious associations and groups are preparing themselves for the renewal of the Temple. These are Jews who believe in the coming of the Messiah and they are carefully studying the laws related to the sacrifices and purity. Some are preparing the clothes for the priests, building the menorah and other vessels used in the Temple. In the past, there were even rabbis and seminary students who attempted to carry out the Passover sacrifice on the Temple Mount, and two underground groups who tried to blow up the “desolate abomination,” otherwise known as the Dome of the Rock (one group was called Lifta, and the other came from the ranks of Gush Emunim, the primary settler movement. Members of these groups were caught and tried 30 years ago).
Due to the great sensitivity of the Temple Mount, the Israelis have put a strict security system in place for both Jews and Muslims. During the mass prayers on Friday, the police forbid any Muslim under the age of 45 to ascend the mount. This is in response to incidents in which young demonstrators threw stones at the Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall. No Jewish groups are allowed to pray in the plazas surrounding the mosques or to provoke the Muslims.
THE FACT THAT ISRAEL IS IN complete control of even one of the gates, the Mugrabi Gate, angers the Waqf, leading to protests from Muslims in the region and throughout the world. Indeed, the visit by Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount 11 years ago was one of the factors that ignited the bloody al-Aqsa intifada. As the intifada subsided, the Waqf decided, with the tacit approval of the Israeli government, to completely forbid the entrance to any non- Muslim.
That prohibition lasted four years (2000- 2004). But there has been a gradual increase in the numbers of Jews and foreign tourists who do wish to visit the Mount – although no significant Israeli leader has done so since Sharon’s visit – and they are allowed to do so only from the Mughrabi Gate, where they undergo meticulous security checks by Israeli police.
Over the years the entrance through the Mugrabi Gate has become complex and dangerous. This is because of the development work that is taking place in the Western Wall plaza and archeological digs that have been ongoing on both sides of the path that lead to the gate itself. The path was built on ruins of ancient buildings, and it is in danger of collapsing. A temporary wooden path that leads to the gate was built on top of the ruins, under the guidance of the Israeli government.
Anyone who has a chance to visit will discover that that temporary bridge is one of the ugliest structures imaginable. It’s also, according to claims, a structure that is in danger of collapsing or catching fire. The events surrounding the bridge in early December are well-known. Engineers from the Jerusalem Municipality issued an order to demolish the bridge and to build a permanent stone structure in its stead. The Jordanian government, the Palestinian Authority and dozens of organizations and political agents in the world have appealed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to refrain from building the bridge.
The tremendous international anxiety stemmed from publications that showed the bridge would also be suitable for police, soldiers and equipment, in the event that they would need to ascend the mount to disperse riots and stop violent incidents. Muslims and Arabs are also suspicious that a permanent bridge will lead to a permanent presence, which would mean full Israeli control on one of the entrances to the holy site. In response, the prime minister issued an order to leave the rickety bridge in its place and close the Mugrabi Gate. But the order lasted only a day or two, and then the prime minister changed his mind, ordering repairs on the ugly, dangerous bridge and opening of the gate.
The reason was clear: giving up the bridge and control over the Mugrabi Gate means giving up Jewish/Israeli claims of ownership on the site of the Temple. Prime Minister Netanyahu wouldn’t want, of course, to be the Jewish prime minister that gave up the keys to the entrance of the holiest site in Israel •