The Noble Sanctuary
الحرم الشريف הר הבית

An aerial view of the Noble Sanctuary.
From the Matson Collection

An aerial view of the Noble Sanctuary from the south. The Dome of the Rock is in the center, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque is in the foreground.

In the year 637 A.D., the forces of the Eastern Roman Emperor Heraclius were on the verge of surrendering Jerusalem to the Arab forces of Khalif Omar. Omar came from Medina to negotiate the surrender. He generously allowed Christians to continue practicing their faith, and then went to the site of the Jerusalem temple, which had been built by Herod and later destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. The site, dormant for over 500 years, had been used for refuse by Jerusalem's Christian residents, possibly motivated by the reputed role of Caiaphas and the temple priests in the Crucifixion of Jesus.1,2

There was a massive rock among the ruins and trash where the temple had been. It was some fifty-eight feet long, fifty feet wide, and more than four feet thick. It had been used as an altar for animal sacrifices, in ancient times, and channels could be traced on it - conduits for the animals' blood.3 According to legend, this was the rock on which Abraham had been prepared to sacrifice his son, and had been saved from doing so by God.4

Omar placed his mantle over the massive rock and began to clean it. He was quickly imitated by his followers.5

Since then, the temple area has been devoted to the Moslem religion, and by 715 A.D., the Moslems, who revered both David and Jesus, had built the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and so created the Noble Sanctuary.6

1 Victor Guérin, La Terre Sainte, Son Histoire, Ses Souvenirs, Ses Sites, Ses Monuments , (Paris, E. Plon, Nourrit, et Cie, 1884), 122
2 The Gospels are unanimous in describing the temple priests as the instigators of the Crucifixion:
1When the morning was come, all the chief priests and elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death: 2And when they had bound him, they led him away, and delivered him to Pontius Pilate the governor.
Matthew 17:1-2
1And straightway in the morning the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council, and bound Jesus, and carried him away, and delivered him to Pilate.
Mark 15:1
1And the whole multitude of them arose, and led him unto Pilate. 2And they began to accuse him, saying, We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, saying that he himself is Christ a King.
Luke 23:1-2
28Then led they Jesus from Caiaphas unto the hall of judgement: and it was early; and they themselves went not into the judgment hall, lest they should be defiled; but that they might eat the passover. 29 Pilate then went out unto them, and said, What accusation bring ye against this man? 30They answered and said unto him, If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him up unto thee.
John 18:28-30
3 Jack Finegan, Light From the Ancient Past , (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959), 179-180
4 Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, VII, xiii, 4
5 Guérin, 122
6 Smithsonian, Apr2011, Vol. 42 Issue 1, 40-41, MasterFILE Premier



The ground of the Noble Sanctuary had a long, long history. Some sixteen hundred years before Khalif Omar's arrival in Jerusalem, about 1000 B.C., King David himself bought the land on which the first temple, and its sucessors, would be placed.1 The first temple would be destroyed by the forces of Babylon, the last - the one that Jesus knew - would be destroyed by Romans.

יא וַיְהִי, דְּבַר-יְהוָה, אֶל-שְׁלֹמֹה, לֵאמֹר

יב הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה בֹנֶה, אִם-תֵּלֵךְ בְּחֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי תַּעֲשֶׂה, וְשָׁמַרְתָּ אֶת-כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹתַי, לָלֶכֶת בָּהֶם--וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת-דְּבָרִי אִתָּךְ, אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתִּי אֶל-דָּוִד אָבִיךָ

יג וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְלֹא אֶעֱזֹב, אֶת-עַמִּי יִשְׂרָאֵל

יד וַיִּבֶן שְׁלֹמֹה אֶת-הַבַּיִת, וַיְכַלֵּהוּ

מְלָכִים א פֶּרֶק ו

11And the word of the Lord came to Solomon, saying:

12"Concerning this house which thou art in building, if thou wilt walk in my statutes, and execute my judgments, and keep all my commandments to walk in them; then will I perform my word with thee, which I spake unto David thy father:

13And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake my people Israel.

14So Solomon built the house, and finished it.

Kings I 6:11-14

The City of David and the Noble Sanctuary.
From the Matson Collection

This photo of the City of David in the foreground and the Noble Sanctuary behind indicates how the original temple area was a northern extension of ancient Jerusalem.

Solomon's Temple

After King David had conquered Jerusalem, and was nearing the end of his life, he planned for the construction of the first temple.1 He bought land around the large rock on the top of the hill behind the City of David, and planned that the temple should be built around this rock.2 He also accumulated the money and resources that would be needed to build the temple, but the actual construction was left to his son and successor, Solomon.3

The rock, which sat at or near the altar of Solomon's Temple
From the Matson Collection

The rock, which was on the land bought in the tenth century B.C., by King David, and sat near the altar of Solomon's Temple, now resides under the Dome of the Rock in the Noble Sanctuary.

The temple took more than seven years to build, and would have been an imposing building.4 In size and shape, something like the Lincoln Memorial, about twice as wide as it was tall, and very opulent - highly decorated with gold. It was made of stone, roughly five stories high, with a roof and interior of cedar.5,6

The anonymous author of the Old Testament Book of Kings, presumably a temple priest of a later generation, assures us that God himself told Solomon, during the temple's construction, that if Solomon fullfilled all His commandments, He would never forsake the Israelites.7,8 Clearly the tissue of ideas relating human virtues to the good will of a single, all-powerful God, was in full development, and the mixture of history, legend, and folklore that became part of the minds and imaginations of Jesus and Muhammad, and in turn much of the world, would be thought and written by people who came and went across the few acres of ground surrounding the Jerusalem temple.

The same anonymous writer is fullsome in his description of the temple's interior, and in fact, Solomon seems to have gone all out: the interior cedar paneling was carved with flowers, cherubim, and palm trees; much of the interior was covered with gold; the walls of the room which contained the Arc of the Covenant - the chest containing the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed - were covered with gold, two statues of cherubim were carved out of olive wood and covered in gold...9

Solomon's Temple stood for some four hundred years, but was wrecked when the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem in 586 B.C.10 Many Israelites were taken captive, and led away to Babylon. When they returned, they built another temple in the same place - the Temple of Zerubbabel.11


The Israelite's notion of sanctity also had a darker side, and in company with the Ark of the Covenant, the ornaments, and the smells of incense and cedar, the temple built by Solomon would periodically resound with the screams of animals ritually killed, and be permeated by the smell of their blood.

Sacrifices punctuate the Old Testament. The Israelites, like many other Bronze Age peoples, offered sacrifices - killed animals - to propitiate their notion of Divinity. Before the first temple, the sacrifices were performed at various locations, but once the temple had been built, its altar became the location in Jerusalem where the temple priests would ritually kill the animals offered to the God of Israel.12

At the dedication of Solomon's Temple there was a hecatomb of sacrificed animals: over a hundred thousand sheep and twenty thousand oxen - far too many to be sacrificed in the temple itself.13 According to Josephus, on this day the ground around the temple was wet with blood and drink, and the smell of incense and blood was overpowering.14

At least some part of the ceremonies involving the sacrificed animals was meant to be watched. Solomon ordered that the altar be moved close to the door of the temple, so that when it was open, spectators could see the "richness of the sacrifices.".15,16

Josephus wrote that sacrifices were a daily occurence17, and it's easy to imagine, that to the people of Jerusalem, the sounds of fear and pain of the animals must have created peculiar and chilling associations with the ornate building on the hill - an explicit expression of the power of Israel's kings and the temple priests.

The Noble Sanctuary viewed from the City of David
From the Matson Collection

The Noble Sanctuary seen from the City of David. The apparent elevation of the Noble Sanctuary as seen from the site of the ancient city of Jerusalem gives some idea of how visually impressive Solomon's Temple must have seemed to the city's inhabitants.

The Temple of Zerubbabel

After the return from exile in Babylon, the temple was gradually rebuilt. The Old Testament Book of Ezra describes much of the process of construction, and the politicking between the Jewish returnees and their adversaries.18

The Temple of Zerubbabel was completed in 515 B.C.,19

In 19 B.C., Herod rebuilt the temple, creating the "Second Temple". It would take forty-six years to build, and would be the scene of many of the most important events of the Gospels.20,21

...Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves; and would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple. And he taught, saying unto them, "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer?' but ye have made it a den of thieves."

The Jefferson Bible

Herod's Temple

When Herod began construction of the Second Temple in 19 B.C., Jerusalem was much larger than in Solomon's time, had encompassed the temple area on the west, and was probably something over half the size of the current Old City.22

Once again, the temple was built over the rock that had been bought by David almost a thousand years earlier, and again the altar for sacrifices was placed on or near the rock.23

Josephus, the Jewish historian, was born about the time of the Crucifixion, and he not only was familiar with the temple, but since his father was descended from the Jerusalem's religious aristocracy, was probably familiar with the temple's daily life, and he offers an almost passionate description of the temple complex. Even taking into account the possibility of exageration, the temple built by Herod, and described by Josephus was enormous for the time - on the order of ten stories tall, almost as long as it was tall, and covered in gold. It probably stressed the materials and construction techniques of the time, and Josephus writes that it partially collapsed during Nero's reign.24

The Western Wall
From the Matson Collection

The Western Wall is a section of the west retaining wall of the Noble Sanctuary. Whether it was part of the Second Temple complex is disputed, but it's generally acknowledged to be at least similar in appearance to the wall that surrounded the temple, courts, and walkways built by Herod.

Jesus went unto the Mount of Olives. And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him: and he sat down and taught them. And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, they say unto him,

"Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?"

This they said, tempting him, that they might accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them,

"He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. Amd they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.

The Jefferson Bible

The temple was surrounded by cloisters - covered walkways supported by pillars - and there were separate, segregated areas where only certain people could go: men, priests, Jews, and non-Jews.25

The whole complex covered around ten acres: most of today's Noble Sanctuary.26 Bridges and walkways were also built to lead from the temple complex to the rest of the city.27

Herod's temple was the most short-lived of Jerusalem's three temples, and was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.28

1 Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, VII, xiii, 4
2 Josephus, VII, xiii, 4
3 Josephus, VII, xiv, 1-2
4 The Bible, Kings I 6:2
5 Kings I, 6:2-22
6 The dimensions of the temple are given in cubits in Kings I. There were two kinds of cubit - long and short, and the long cubit, about one foot and nine inches, was used for matters considered sacred.
Avraham Negev, Editor, The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land, (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1990), "Weights and Measures"
7 Kings I, 6:11-13
8 Tacitus, in his History, commented a thousand years later that the princes of Israel encouraged Judaism in order to appropriate to themselves an association with Divinity, and so lend legitimacy to their political power.
It's hard not to see a symbiosis in the relationship between the Hebrew kings and temple priests: the priests acquired certain resources and privileges, while the kings acquired an association with the sacred that made them less vulnerable to attack.
See Tacitus, History, V viii
9 Kings I, 6:5-35
10 Smithsonian, Apr2011, Vol. 42 Issue 1, 40-41, MasterFILE Premier
11 Negev, "Temples"
12 Josephus, VIII, iv, 1
13 Kings I, 8:62-63
14 Josephus, VIII, iv, 1
15 Josephus, VIII, iv, 1
16 The practice evidently continued for centuries. The Apostle Luke wrote that when Jesus was brought to the temple as a baby to be "presented to the Lord," either a pair of pigeons or doves were sacrificed.
The Bible, Luke, 2:21-24
17 Josephus, VIII, iv, 1
18 The Bible, Ezra, Chapters 4,5, and 6
19 Smithsonian
20 Negev, "Temples"
21 Smithsonian
22 Negev, "Jerusalem"
23 Jack Finegan, Light From the Ancient Past , (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959), 320-326
24 Josephus, XV, xi, 3
25 Josephus, XV, xi, 3-5
26 Finegan, 323
27 Josephus, XV, xi, 3-5
28 Smithsonian