In the Eye of the Beholder, Temple Mount Photography Through the Ages

He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” Genesis 22:2 (The Israel Bible™)

The Temple Mount, a place of deep holiness for Jews, Christians and Muslims must be one of the most photographed buildings in the world…ever. Now, a fascinating new exhibit will shortly open at Jerusalem’s David’s Tower Museum, which charts some of the life of the Temple Mount from the earliest days of photography.

The Tower of David Museum is an ideal place to host the exhibit, given its unique ability to tell Jerusalem’s story. Remnants from several of the city’s historical periods have been unearthed there – and the rooftop lookout commands stunning 360-degree views of Jerusalem. There is a particularly clear view of the Temple Mount.

When visitors walk into the exhibition room via a medieval corridor, they are met with real-time footage of the Temple Mount. There are also interactive tables that allow the visitor a deeper understanding of the site in question.

Dr Shimon Lev, the exhibition’s curator explained that the images seek to show – in a chronological way – how and why the Temple Mount became a main focus – not just of the three monotheistic Abrahamic faiths – but also of the world. And all of the images have explanations in three languages; Hebrew, Arabic and English.

It took more than a year to collate the images and Lev described major challenges in building up the curatorship.

The Temple Mount must be one of the most photographed buildings in the entire world – and despite its Islamic roots – is often seen as a symbol of Jerusalem. Lev sourced images from photographers across the world and needed to look for photographs that would help tell the story of this most seemingly well-known location. The other main challenge was how to write the text explaining the images, “[I tried to] make it as balanced as possible…without whitewashing.”

“[The Temple Mount] is the most interesting site in the Middle East,” said Lev, “but also the most pessimistic.”

Photography’s development in the latter half of the nineteenth century also coincided with Christian tourism, explorers, archaeologists, missionaries and Orientalist photography. It’s striking that the earliest images show a “monumental view” – using the relatively sparse number of people to show the grandiosity and scale of the buildings upon the Temple Mount.

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One of the most successful and interesting aspects of the exhibition is in how it deals visually with the transformation of the site from an oriental curiosity steeped in mystique to a national symbol for Jews and Arabs.

Part of the impetus for the 1929 Arab riots, which left hundreds dead on both sides, was an Arab fear that the Jews had transformed the Kotel (Western Wall) to a national symbol – and that they saw the change of status as a threat. Earlier in the decade, previous riots encompassed the first signs of Palestinian Arab nationalism.

People in front of the Dome of the Rock by Khalil Raad. (Credit: Buki Boaz Israeli photograph collection, Mevasseret Zion)

The exhibit showcases photographers from this fraught time, including Khalil Ra’ad, one of the first Palestinian Arabs working in the field.

A section entitled “Victory and Reality” investigates the period from 1967- 1987. It starts with Israel’s dramatic and swift victory in the Six Days War when Israeli paratroopers expelled Jordanian soldiers from the Temple Mount. This section ends with the outbreak of the First Intifada, where the Temple Mount again became a focal point for violence.

The final period, from 1987 to the present day is entitled “The Mount and the Volcano,” charts the increasingly fractious and volatile conditions at the Temple Mount. Obviously, this includes Ariel Sharon’s visit in the fall of 2000, which was used as the pretext for starting up the Second Intifada, which claimed hundreds of Israeli lives.

For those non-Muslims curious about what the inside of the Dome of the Rock looks like, the exhibit does provide its piece de resistance. Through the use of a virtual reality (VR) headset, visitors can experience what it is like to “take part” in Friday prayers during Ramadan. Just by swiveling one’s head, you can see the thousands of worshipers – even the piles of shoes, removed before prayer could begin. In addition, it is also possible to stand on the even shtiya (foundation stone) on which Jews believe that God created the world. Looking up allows the viewer to take in the interior of the famous golden dome outside.

According to Eilat Lieber, Tower of David Museum Director and Chief Curator, the exhibit comes at an important and interesting time. “The Temple Mount has become more political than strictly religious. There has been renewed interest in it among Jews, many of whom don’t realize that it is a place that one can actually visit. We want to open a dialogue; between different peoples and between people and the Temple Mount – but to do it in a peaceful way,” she said.