The stone-paved platform known to Jews and Christians as the Temple Mount, and to Muslims as the al-Aksa mosque or the Noble Sanctuary, sits high above the noise and tension of earthbound Jerusalem. It holds an ancient mosque, a gold-topped shrine and fountains gurgling in the shade of cypress trees.
On most days the peace there is almost celestial.
"But in a moment it can turn into hell," said Isam Awwad, the chief architect in charge of the sacred space.
Hell was unleashed after Ariel Sharon, then a right-wing opposition leader and now Israel's prime minister, visited the site on Sept. 28, 2000, in the company of hundreds of heavily armed policemen. Palestinians seized on the visit to riot. Israeli police killed unarmed protesters the next day after Friday prayers. Pictures of blood spilled on hallowed ground, the site of Islam's third-most sacred shrine, sent Muslims into a frenzy of pain and anti-Israeli hatred. Arabs in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel proper as well as thousands around the Muslim world took to the streets to protest the brutality of the police crackdown and the "defilement" of their mosque by Sharon. A new uprising, or intifada, was born.
"Israeli police forces had not learnt the consequences of deaths on al-Aksa, that they reverberate far beyond deaths elsewhere," said Gershom Gorenberg, the Israeli author of "The End of Days," a book on fundamentalists and the struggle for the Temple Mount. "It was the worst possible place to lack nonlethal means of crowd control."
Many Palestinian grievances have fueled the past year's conflict in which more than 800 Palestinians and Israelis, most of them civilians, have been killed: frustration with a peace process that failed to bring Palestinians the dignity and independence they craved; a daily life of humiliation at Israeli-manned checkpoints; and the hope that violence modeled on the actions of Hezbollah, the Iran-backed guerrillas who drove Israeli troops from southern Lebanon last May, would bring Palestinians greater rewards than diplomatic negotiations.
But religion, co-opted for nationalist goals, has also played a decisive role in the Palestinian struggle against Israel, and it is no coincidence that the current conflict has been baptized the "Al-Aksa Intifada."
"They use the Islamic symbols, the Islamic terminology, but the intent is nationalistic," said Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian political analyst. "Palestinian society is very traditional so it's extremely effective to use religion."
If Sharon's visit to al-Aksa provided the initial spark for the conflict, incendiary sermons delivered from the pulpit of the Jerusalem mosque have kept the fire going. Sheikh Ikrema Sabri, the mufti of Jerusalem, who routinely encourages the faithful to fight, was questioned two weeks ago by Israeli police for calling for the destruction of Israel, the United States and the United Kingdom. (In the same sermon, delivered in August, the sheik allegedly said that the White House, with God's help, would turn black.) Victims of Israeli fire and suicide bombers alike are called "martyrs for al-Aksa." And when Palestinians, exhausted by casualties, economic sanctions and a tight Israeli siege, run out of fighting spirit, the idea of a Zionist threat to al-Aksa reemerges in speeches and editorials to revive flagging spirits.
"Al-Aksa is in danger," one of the intifada's favorite slogans, refers to the belief that Jews are trying to undermine the mosque by digging tunnels that weaken its foundations so that it will eventually topple. According to this theory, Jews will then say the mosque's destruction was an act of God and build a temple in its place. The conspiracy theory, by all accounts ludicrous, is nonetheless a set belief for some, capable of unleashing strong feelings of wounded religious honor and rallying Muslim extremists to the Palestinian cause.
Ironically, many Jews are also convinced that the site they revere as the Temple Mount is under serious threat. Since Palestinians and Israeli police clashed there last fall, the walled compound has been off limits to non-Muslims and shrouded in rumors and paranoia. Israelis insist that "archeological terrorism" is being perpetrated behind closed gates and no amount of technical argument or third-party reassurance seems able to allay those fears.
"This is where we act out our myths," said Gorenberg. "The insane psychodrama of the Middle East is played on the stage of the Temple Mount."
For the past few years, the main drama up there has focused not on people but on dirt -- big piles of dirt, excavated from the compound with a bulldozer by Muslim authorities, dumped into a nearby valley and methodically surveyed by anxious Israelis, looking for artifacts from ancient Jewish civilizations.
According to Jon Seligman, the Jerusalem regional archeologist for the Israeli Antiquities Authority, the rubble contained "bits of buildings, ceramics, coins. Nothing spectacular."
Most of the debris was from the period that followed the Islamic conquest of Jerusalem in the seventh century when the site, in ruins since the Romans destroyed King Herod's Temple in 70 A.D., was transformed into a Muslim sanctuary.
Despite Seligman's assessment and numerous police reports that minimize the importance of the work carried out, many Israelis are convinced that Muslims are deliberately destroying significant artifacts from the periods of the First and Second Jewish Temples in order to erase 3,000 years of Jewish history -- and, by extension, Israel's connection to the land.
The rumors are difficult to check. Even before Palestinians barred non-Muslims from visiting the esplanade, observant Jews heeded the rabbinical ban on setting foot on the mount for fear of treading near the temple's inner sanctum. And although Israel claims Jerusalem as its eternal and indivisible capital, in practice Israeli archeologists have no authority to control or prevent work on the site. Inaccessible and majestic, the mount is a natural habitat for conspiracy theories.
Some Jews are fatalistic about the damage. "For thousands of years, they've tried to get rid of us and they haven't managed to," said Devorah Fastag, an ultra-Orthodox woman on her way to pray at the Western Wall, a remnant of the Second Temple's retaining wall. While her 8-year-old niece Esther peered through binoculars at the mount's closed compound, Fastag added: "When God wants, the Temple will be rebuilt."
But many religious and secular Zionists find cause for worry. "If anything is sacred to secular Zionists, it's archeology," explained Gorenberg. "It provides an essential link between today's Israelis and the ancient Jews."
The most controversial deed, from an archeological point of view, was committed in 1999, when the Wakf, the Muslim trust that administers the holy site, decided to dig a staircase leading from the esplanade to a vaulted underground room known since the time of the Crusades as the Solomon Stables. The Wakf had decided three years earlier to convert the unused structure into a prayer room large enough to shelter roughly 6,000 worshippers from winter rain and summer sun. During holidays such as Ramadan, up to 100,000 Muslims press into the compound at prayer time, according to Adnan Husseini, the head of the Wakf. The staircase, finished in March 2001, was designed as an emergency exit.
When news surfaced that major excavations were taking place on a spot where Israelis have never been allowed to dig since the mount is in Muslim hands, a nonpartisan Committee for the Prevention of Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount was formed by prominent Israelis, including lawyers, archeologists and prestigious left-wing authors like Amos Oz. Hell was raised in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, and petitions sent out to "save the Temple Mount." Articles about "what is really going on" up there, complete with sketches and clandestine pictures, still appear regularly in the Israeli press. And a bill to preserve the site from alleged Palestinian desecration was even introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican congressman, in July.
Eilat Mazar, an archeologist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University and a founding member of the committee to preserve the Temple Mount, compared the damage done by the Waqf to the acts of vandalism committed by the Taliban Islamic fundamentalists against ancient Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. "Here you also have Islamic fundamentalists destroying the antiquities of other religions and recognizing just Islam," said Mazar.
Whether construction work in the southeastern corner of the 35-acre compound amounts to a real loss for historical understanding is hotly debated. The Wakf of course denies that any harm was done. Pointing to photographs of his work, Awwad said that the dirt removed to accommodate a staircase was simply filling, mixed up over the centuries and impossible to analyze layer by layer. Meir Ben-Dov, an Israeli archeologist familiar with the area of the mount, also believes the accusations made by the committee are "a big lie." But dissenting voices have been lost in the brouhaha.
"In any event, archeological damage as such doesn't create this kind of storm," emphasized Gorenberg, the Israeli author. "The reason such a storm erupted is that [the Palestinians] were asserting that the site is exclusively Muslim and that Jewish history doesn't exist there."
Implicit in these archeological disputes is the question of sovereignty over Jerusalem and its holy sites, a question that has been left dangling since 1967, when Israel annexed East Jerusalem (which includes the Old City), stormed onto the mount and then, in an act of restraint remarkable for the Middle East, handed over the daily administration of the site to the Wakf. Attempts to modify this ambiguous status quo at a U.S.-led summit at Camp David last summer failed when Palestinians rejected the idea of shared sovereignty over the holy precinct.
Even raising the issue proved explosive. Ehud Barak, then Israel's prime minister, came under fire for bargaining over a site Jews consider central to their faith and their right to the land of Israel. (He eventually lost his job to Sharon, a right-wing politician who styled himself as the fearless defender of Jewish sovereignty on the mount.)
When it was rumored that the Israeli delegation had asked that part of the mount be reserved for Jewish prayer, fear spread among Muslims. The idea of sharing the mount gave new currency to the old slogan that "Al-Aksa is in danger."
Indeed, Muslims consider the whole compound one mosque, the "Farthest Mosque" (al-Masjid al-Aksa), described in the Quran as the place where Mohammed alighted after a miraculous night flight from Mecca and from which he ascended to heaven. Minarets on the high walls of the compound call Muslims to prayer. Clerics deliver their addresses from within a silver-domed building that has stood there in one form or another for nearly 1,400 years. Worshippers pray on carpets indoors or outdoors, depending on weather and space. Muslims consider the Dome of the Rock, the famous golden dome of postcard fame that covers an outcrop of rock where Abraham is believed to have offered his son in sacrifice, a shrine, not a separate mosque. And the Wakf calls the converted Solomon Stables "a prayer hall."
Muslims have long been wary of Israeli intentions toward the mount. In fact, fear was one of the reasons the Wakf worked at breakneck speed -- and ignored standard archeological procedures -- on the Solomon Stables in the first place. When Muslims heard in 1996 that extremist Jews were drafting plans to transform the room into a synagogue, they acted first, in a preemptive strike known in the region as "establishing facts on the ground."
"The whole compound is an Islamic site. We're not in a position to give parts of it away," said Husseini, the head of the Wakf. Awwad, the architect, does not hide the fact that part of the impetus for developing and renovating the Noble Sanctuary is to solidify the Islamic claim to the site. "It means that we are closing the chance for Israel to get anything up there. That's why they are opposed to our work and say we are destroying antiquities," said Awwad.
Fear of a takeover is not entirely baseless. There have been repeated attempts by Jewish and Christian extremists to blow up or burn down al-Aksa. Muslim paranoia also seizes on small details: posters sold in the Jewish quarter that show an aerial view of the Old City in which the mosques have been airbrushed out and a Jewish temple sketched in; a golden menorah, recently displayed by the Temple Institute in anticipation of the building of the Third Temple; a cornerstone ceremony organized near the mount year after year by the Temple Mount Faithful, a handful of aging Jewish extremists who want to rid the compound of its mosque and build a temple instead.
Most of the temple mania is either religious kitsch or symbolic of long-term Jewish aspirations. Jews who want to rebuild the temple without waiting for the Messiah are a tiny minority and have no official support. But as Husseini said, "under the symbolic stone [of the Temple Mount Faithful], there is a bomb. Muslims will not accept this plan even if it's a dream."
Politicians are in large part responsible for fanning the flames of righteous anger. Israeli leaders have used archeology to justify Israeli conquests, from the hills of Hebron in the West Bank to the Golan Heights. Palestinian nationalists, for their part, have used the slogan "Al-Aksa is in danger" as a rallying cry since the 1920s, when only a religious issue seemed capable of stirring largely rural and apolitical masses.
The day after Sharon's controversial visit to the mount, Sheikh Hian Al-Adrisi whipped up the crowds at al-Aksa by saying "Today the Jews recruit the world against the Muslims and use all kinds of weapons. They are plundering the dearest place to the Muslims, after Mecca and Medina ... They want to erect their temple on that place. The Muslims are ready to sacrifice their lives and blood to protect the Islamic nature of Jerusalem and al-Aksa!" And blood indeed was spilled.
It's unclear how much Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, a secular nationalist, manipulated his people's religious passion and appetite for martyrdom to advance his political goals. Arafat begged Barak to prevent Sharon's visit to avert a catastrophe. On the other hand, Voice of Palestine, his official radio, exhorted people to go defend al-Aksa. There is also evidence that the Palestinian Authority had planned an uprising even before Sharon set foot on the disputed site.
Mayhem was easy to foresee: The hot spot has caused riots since 1929 and most recently in 1996, after Israel opened a tunnel beneath the Muslim quarter along the compound walls. Militant Islamic groups like Hamas have successfully championed the al-Aksa issue for years. And it has become mainstream for Arabs from Cairo to Damascus to deny Jewish history on the Temple Mount.
Asked whether he believes Solomon's Temple once stood where the Dome of the Rock now shines, Husseini responded evasively. "I've been working there 31 years and I never saw the temple. But every day I see the mosque. Our agenda is taking care of what exists." Awwad, the architect, promised to help Jews build their next temple if the Messiah comes. "We'll help you put up scaffolding, " he said. "But until then, keep out."