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31 Jan
  • By Enrico Molinaro

Why Jerusalem’s Holy Places are so important

Why Jerusalem is so significant for so many people, and its Holy Places are so important and contested? What is the deep meaning of the expression Holy Place?

Throughout history, members of various communities around the world have associated the story and the narrative of particularly significant events with a specific site. Such a site was regarded as holy and was venerated in shared rituals and traditions that were passed on from generation to generation.

In Jerusalem, certain places are culturally and spiritually the locus of devotion for different groups. This explains why members of the local communities have long been competing for their possession, conditions of access, as well as worship rights.

Jerusalem and its Holy Places have seen many regimes come and go. From time to time, various communities have raised fierce controversies over worship rights, such as the Holy Sepulchre inter-Christian disputes, and the Har ha-Bait/Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary, hereinafter TM/HS) Israeli-Jewish/Palestinian-Muslim disputes.

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(Map of the Middle-East)

Presently, no major controversies exist between Jewish and Cristian denominations regarding the Holy Places of Jerusalem. Until 1967, large number of Israelis had neither heard of the Christian sanctuaries nor had they a clear notion of their significance, regardless of the fact that those sites witnessed the life and death of Jeshu/Jesus, the Jewish prophet of the original Judeo-Cristian sect, according to the Gospel.

On the contrary, the TM/HS compound in the Old City of Jerusalem, sacred to both Jews and Muslims, has long been the object of heated discussions between Israelis and Palestinians. Both parties have bitterly argued even over the name of the city where this compound is located: the Hebrew version is Yerushalayim, while the Arabs call it Al-Quds.

Additional terminological controversies have arisen over the name of the compound, whose Hebrew denomination is Har ha-Bait, the Temple Mount. Most Jews consider it to be the exact location of Mount Moriah, where the two Jewish Temples stood.

King Salomon built and inaugurated the First Temple in approximately 950 BCE, the Babylonians destroyed it in 568 BCE, and the Second Temple was rebuilt in 515 BCE. In 18 BCE King Herod restored the temple that was once again destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.

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(Second Temple rebuilt in 515 BCE)

The rectangular walled compound, with unequal sides at the southeastern corner of the Old City of Jerusalem, contains the holiest Jewish memories, the exact spot where religious Jews believe the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) dwells permanently. Most of the Israeli Chief Rabbis maintain that when the Messiah comes they will rebuild their temple and restore traditional rituals. However, until that event occurs, the Jewish Orthodox establishment has prohibited the entry of their congregations into the area for fear of its desecration.

This explains why, after the destruction of the temple, the Western Wall, which is the western section of the wall that once surrounded the temple compound  (also called Wailing Wall by many non-Jews), has, since the twentieth century, been the most important Holy Place for the Jews, and their main center of worship.

On the other hand, Muslims believe that the Prophet Mohammed ascended to Heaven from the same place. Therefore, towards the end of the seventh century, they began interpreting the Koranic verses about the Prophet Mohammed’s night journey from Mecca on his flying horse al-Buraq, lightening, to al-Aqsa, the extreme mosque. Thus, the Muslims commemorated these events by building two major shrines on the compound: in Arabic al-Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary.

In 691 CE, the Muslims constructed the Dome of the Rock, qubbat al-sakhra, whose name comes from the rock on which Mohammed allegedly left his footprint. Then in 705 CE they constructed the al-Aqsa mosque. While the former is a structure that glorifies the holy rock, as well as a place for private prayers, the latter is a mosque, a place officially designated for public prayer on Fridays and holidays.

This historical overview shed some light on the process explaining why and how Jerusalem and its Holy Places have become symbolic issues charged with emotional meaning for the collective identities and interests of the corresponding groups. In particular, two competing approaches to Jerusalem express its double conflicting significance: the Statalist/territorial and the Glocalist/transboundary models of collective identity.

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(Temple Mount)

According to the Statalist perspective, Israelis and Palestinians represent the main – or exclusive – relevant groups. In this Statalist context, the symbolic meaning of Jerusalem and its Holy Places is related to the development of the competing local national/ethnic Jewish and Arab – later Israeli and Palestinian – collective identities. Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt introduced the Statalist model to this area, developed more intensively after the 1930s.

Following the Glocalist interpretation, on the contrary, mainly – or only – Jews, Cristians and Muslims spread all over the world are the legitimate protagonist groups at stake. Such millions of faithful people, who are mostly living outside Jerusalem and the Israeli-Palestinian areas, consider the city and its Holy Places to be a locus for worship and spiritual devotion.

Awareness about these two Statalist/Glocalist opposite approaches to Jerusalem help to understand which groups, types of collective identities, and representative communities are entitled to raise claims to these places, what is the exact meaning of the expression Holy Places, and why this sensitive and complex issue is so frequently on the headlines of the international media.

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Enrico Molinaro holds a Ph.D. in international law and international relations from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.He is the Executive Director of the Italian Network for the Euro Mediterranean Dialogue (RIDE) within the framework of the Anna Lindh Foundation since 2015. He is the Founder & Chairman of the non-profit research center Mediterranean Perspectives and of the Jerusalem Holy Places Center (JHPC). Enrico has organized international conferences and led second track negotiations with the participation of Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian academic, diplomatic, religious and political authorities since 2006. He is a writer on the topics of: “status quo” in Jerusalem; “sovereignty” in terms of title, independence and jurisdiction in international law; models ofcollective identity in Europe, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the BRICS organisation. Enrico lectures at different University courses through English, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Italian in the Euro-Mediterranean area.