What is the Temple Mount and why is Jewish prayer forbidden there?

This landmark is of deep religious significance to both Judaism and Islam, which is why it has been the focal point of the conflict for decades (and centuries before modern Israel).
A Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (Photo: Noam Chen via Twitter)

First, let’s unpack some key terms you need to know. There are many names associated with this area. What does each refer to and who calls it what?

Jews refer to the site as the Temple Mount (or Har Habayit, “Mount of the House,” or Beit Hamikdash, “Holy House,” referring to the ancient Temple). Muslims call it Haram al-Sharif, which is Arabic for “the Noble Sanctuary.” These terms refer to the entire, 35-acre compound (including the Western Wall) which is surrounded by stone walls.

Within this area are a few important structures:

  • The Dome of the Rock / Golden Dome — This is the iconic, Islamic shrine that is Jerusalem’s most recognizable landmark. Built in the seventh century, it actually was only covered in gold in 1962.
Dome of the Rock (Courtesy: Getty Images)
  • Al-Aqsa (“The Farthest”) Mosque — This is the smaller, lead-covered dome located south of the Dome of the Rock, believed to have been completed in the eighth century.

Al-Aqsa
  • The Western Wall / Kotel — This is the relatively small portion of stone wall on the western side of the Temple Mount.

People pray at the Western Wall (Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

What the Temple Mount means to Jews and Muslims

This landmark is of deep religious significance to both Judaism and Islam, which is why it has been the focal point of conflict for decades (and centuries before modern Israel).

For Jews, the Temple Mount is the holiest place, as the site of the two holy Temples that were destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and by the Romans in 70 C.E. It is also the anticipated site of the third Temple in the Messianic era.

Jewish tradition holds that the very world originated here, with a “Foundation Rock” located beneath the Temple (hence the “Dome of the Rock” which is believed to have been built on top of the Foundation Rock).

The Western Wall is often mistaken as the holiest site in Judaism, but it is merely a remnant of the outer walls of the Second Temple — a reminder of the great edifice that once stood and the closest Jews were able to come to the Temple Mount for centuries.

For Muslims, this is the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is considered the third-holiest shrine (after Mecca and Medina). They believe Muhammed was miraculously transported from Mecca to the mosque in one night, before ascending to heaven.

According to both Judaism and Islam, the Temple Mount is where Abraham performed the binding of his son, Isaac, according to the Torah, and Ishmael, according to Islamic tradition.

Why is Jewish prayer forbidden on the Temple Mount?

After Israel lost the Old City in the 1948 War of Independence, from 1948 to 1967, Jordan blocked their access to the Western Wall, and certainly to the Temple Mount as well. Then, in 1967, Israel captured the Temple Mount from Jordan in the Six-Day War, and this is where things got complicated.

In 1967, as the war began, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol sent a message to King Hussein of Jordan, promising that if Jordan did not join the war with the other Arab nations, no Israeli action would be initiated against Jordan.

However, that request was ignored, and later that day, the Jordanian offensive began with fronts all over the country. Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan ordered the iconic Israeli paratroopers to enter the Old City.

As Colonel Motta Gur snaked his way through the alleyways, he declared on the radio that epic line, “Har Habayit biyadeinu,” “The Temple Mount is in our hands!” The holiest place in the world for all Jews, the place where all Jews faced in daily prayer, was now under Jewish control for the first time in 2,000 years.

A few moments later, the Israeli flag was fastened to the top of the Dome of the Rock, but this excitement was immediately toned down, when Defense Minister Dayan essentially said, “Are you crazy? You are going to bring the entire Middle East into a war!” 

So, the Israeli flag was removed, and something wilder happened next. Just at the moment that the Jewish people had reconnected with their holiest site, Dayan struck a deal with the Jordanian Muslim Waqf, who had been in control of the site.

In this deal, Jews could finally visit the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, to which they had been denied access for centuries. Officially, the Temple Mount would be under Israeli sovereignty and security.

But in an effort to bring down the hostility and minimize the conflict, Israel relinquished governance of the site to the Waqf and allowed them to decide who could pray there and who could not.

Since this moment more than 50 years ago, in what is known as the status quo agreement, Jews have not been allowed to pray at the Temple Mount. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summarized the longstanding policy this way: “Muslims pray on the Temple Mount; non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount.” 

(But this status quo appears to be changing, as recently, there have been reports of Israeli police turning a blind eye to Jewish prayer at the site, and Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai recently warned of a “deterioration” of the agreement. Israel says it is committed to preserving the status quo.)

Israelis still vehemently argue over whether Dayan made the right decision and whether it was an act of wisdom or weakness.