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Wednesday, 20 March, 2002, 13:27 GMT
Eyewitness: Inside al-Aqsa
Interior of al-Aqsa Mosque
Only Muslims are allowed near the mosque
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Martin Asser
By Martin Asser
BBC News Online correspondent in Jerusalem

An Anglo-Saxon face is pretty much the last thing people expect to see at al-Aqsa mosque, which stands on an escarpment in Jerusalem's old city known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary).

The mosque compound - once on every tourist's sightseeing agenda - has been closed to non-Muslims since Ariel Sharon's controversial visit there in September 2000, at the beginning of the Palestinian intifada against Israeli rule in the occupied territories.

al-Aqsa Mosque
Al-Aqsa Mosque
  • Islam's third holiest site
  • Was the direction for prayer before Mecca became the focal point of worship
  • Building finished in 705 AD on the site of an earlier wooden mosque
  • Known as a centre for worship and learning

      Click here for Jerusalem's holy sites

  • So it took considerable effort to get past the Israeli guards lounging outside the Disciples' Gate (or Lion Gate) on the north-east corner of the walled compound.

    A declaration of Islamic faith - "I bear witness that there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah" spoken in Arabic - was not sufficient, given my unusual appearance.

    So more prosaic means - certain details in my passport, and the urging of Muslim security officials inside - were used to get me into the Islamic world's third holiest site.

    Suspicions aroused

    If the Israelis outside were languidly obstructive, as I approached the sacred buildings inside people were positively bristling with suspicion.

    Everyone knows about the Muslims-only regulations and any Western-looking person (not that there are any) is immediately assumed to be an intruder, possibly with nefarious intent.

    Map showing Jerusalem's holy sites

    Memories are long here, and one of the major events of recent history was when Australian Christian fundamentalist Michael Rohan tried to burn down al-Aqsa in 1969, causing considerable damage.

    The Israeli army and police are there to prevent any similar attempt, which conventional wisdom says, if successful, could spark a war dragging in the whole Muslim world.

    But fortunately for me, a middle-aged Palestinian who had seen my remonstrations with the soldiers drew alongside me and warded off several challenges by telling people I had been "examined at the gate".

    As for me, I gave anyone who caught my eye the conventional Islamic greeting, "as-sallamu alaikum" - which when uttered in a certain way can be as revealing as a Freemason's handshake.

    Islam's first masterpiece

    Leaving aside the intense religious significance of this place, it must be said that it is one of the most gorgeous spots in the Middle East, with magnificent views of the Mount of Olives to the east and over the old city's rooftops to the west.

    The Dome of the Rock
    The stunning dome covers the spot from where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven

    The gold and turquoise Dome of the Rock dominates the scene - Islamic architecture's first masterpiece dating back to only a few decades after the emergence of Islam in the 7th Century.

    South of the Dome, pointing towards Mecca, is the al-Aqsa building itself - a more conventional congregational mosque with a smaller charcoal-coloured dome and a broad arcade leading to its cavernous interior.

    Muslim belief holds that the eponymous rock under the Dome is where the Prophet Muhammad rose to heaven after his miraculous night-journey from Mecca, and al-Aqsa marks the spot where he first prayed.

    For Jews, the Temple Mount is the most sacred place on Earth, where Solomon is believed to have built the Jewish Temple in ancient times. The rock is where Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son Isaac on God's command.

    Political minefield

    It is these non-negotiable religious concepts which put this place at the epicentre of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

    Captured by Israel in the 1967 war and occupied since, sovereignty over the site has continued to be one of the key issues that have persistently defied resolution during past peace negotiations.

    It is not surprising therefore that, when mingling with the Muslim faithful after prayers, conversation quickly turns from religious matters to political ones, though admittedly in this region the two are seldom far apart.

    As far as these people are concerned, not one centimetre of the Haram will be surrendered, and many profess a willingness to lay down their lives - as others have done before them - to fight for that exclusivity.

    They are angry that, although it has been relatively calm at the Haram since September 2000, Israel has seldom let Palestinians from outside Jerusalem through the checkpoints to pray at the holy site.

    There is also a strong suspicion among those present that the whole Israeli state - and not just the few Jewish extremists who say it openly - wishes to demolish the Islamic monuments and replace them with a new Temple.

    They point to archaeological excavations by the Israelis, accusing them of trying to undermine the foundations of al-Aqsa.

    Sharon's visit

    Some mosque regulars were present when then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon made his extraordinary Haram al-Sharif walkabout 18 months ago - an event which triggered Muslim riots that grew into what we now know as the al-Aqsa intifada.

    Men emerge from prayer at al-Aqsa Mosque
    Hundreds of Palestinians gather at the mosque every day to pray, and assert their presence

    Mr Sharon arrived under a banner of Israeli sovereignty "with a message of peace" and "to see what happens... in the holiest place of the Jewish people".

    Those who were there showed me how he progressed, surrounded by a small army of soldiers and police, from the west side of the compound to the east and back again, with shouts of "Allahu akbar" and "Murderer, get out" ringing in his ears.

    Within months, the violent spiral of events catapulted Mr Sharon into the prime ministership, as Israelis chose a hardliner who they hoped could extinguish the intifada.

    Since then Mr Sharon has not shown any interest in returning to the Jews' holiest place to assert Israel's sovereignty - and every day hundreds of Palestinian Muslims gather to deter him.

    See also:

    28 Sep 00 | issues
    Holy Jerusalem: The key to peace
    28 Sep 00 | Mideast Peace Process
    Jerusalem: Eternal, intractable
    29 Jul 01 | Middle East
    Violence erupts at Jerusalem holy site
    19 Jul 01 | Middle East
    Rabbis urge Temple Mount visit
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