In the 14th century B.C. Jerusalem was important enough to be mentioned in the Amarna Letters, the diplomatic correspondence of the Egyptian pharaohs Amenophis III and his son Akhenaten with other Near Eastern rulers. According to the Bible, David captured Jerusalem around 1000 B.C., renamed it the City of David, and made it the Israelite capital. He later built an altar to the Israelite god Yahweh above the city on Mt. Moriah (in Jewish tradition, this was “the land of Moriah” where God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac [Genesis 22:2]). David’s son Solomon extended the city walls to encompass Mt. Moriah (see drawing above). With the assistance of Phoenician artisans from Tyre, in modern Lebanon, Solomon built the First Temple near David’s altar to house the Ark of the Covenant. For 350 years Solomon’s Temple was the focus of Israelite religion—the central place where sacrifices were offered to Yahweh and the major Israelite pilgrimage site. In 586 B.C. the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem, took its population into slavery and destroyed the First Temple.

The Babylonian Exile came to an end when Cyrus the Great, ruler of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, defeated the Babylonians and took control of the Near East. In 538 B.C. Cyrus issued a proclamation permitting Israelites to return to Judea and rebuild their Temple, which was completed and dedicated in 516 B.C. Herod the Great (37–4 B.C.) expanded the Temple Mount (see model above) at its southern, northern and western sides, creating the 1,600-foot-long Temple Mount we see today (see photo of Temple Mount in “The Holiest Ground in the World”). He also rebuilt the Second Temple much more elegantly than the returning exiles had been able to do. A number of gates gave access to the Temple Mount, sometimes from underground tunnels. At the southern side of the Mount was an elaborate colonnaded portico. Adjacent to the northwestern corner of the platform sat the Antonia Fortress. In 70 A.D., after the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, Jerusalem was destroyed and the Second Temple was completely dismantled by the Roman general—and later emperor—Titus.

After the First Revolt, Jerusalem lay in ruins, inhabited only intermittently by Roman soldiers. In 130 A.D. Emperor Hadrian (above) converted Jerusalem into a Roman colony, called Aelia Capitolina, which Jews were not permitted to enter. This prompted the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (132–135), in which Judean Jews sought—but failed—to liberate Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. Hadrian and his successor Antoninus Pius (138–161) erected statues of themselves on the Temple Mount, symbolizing Roman authority. In the fourth century, the Roman Empire became Christianized under Constantine I (306–337), who built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which became Christianity’s holiest site. (On the sixth-century mosaic map [above] from Madaba, Jordan, the Holy Sepulchre is shown prominently, though upside down, at the center of Jerusalem.) For centuries, however, Byzantine Christians left the Temple Mount, the site of the old Jewish Temple whose destruction was prophesied by Jesus, in ignominious disuse.

In 638 the Muslim caliph Umar Ibn el-Khattab conquered Jerusalem. It is said that Umar, on entering Jerusalem, proceeded directly to the Temple Mount and had it cleared of the refuse that had accumulated there during Byzantine rule. The great Muslim structures on the Temple Mount—which the Arabs called the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary—were erected by the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750), who renovated Jerusalem’s walls and built several splendid palaces just south of the Temple Mount, using stones the Romans had dismantled from the mount. The crowning Umayyad achievement was the Dome of the Rock (above), built by Caliph Abd al-Malik in 691—on what he (following Jerusalem’s Jews) believed was the site of Solomon’s Temple. In the early eighth century, the Umayyads built the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the southern end of the mount. Jerusalem’s later Muslim masters—the Abbasids (750–969), the Fatimids (969–1071) and the Seljuks (1071–1098)—altered little of the city. The Temple Mount encountered by the Crusaders in 1099 was the creation of Herod the Great and the Umayyad caliphs.

The Temple Mount was as sacred to the Crusaders as it had been profane to Byzantine Christians—and for the same reason: It was the site of the Jewish Temple mentioned in the New Testament. Had not the young Jesus visited the Temple, where he was recognized as the Messiah (Luke 2:22–38)? The Crusaders immediately christianized the Muslim structures: The Dome of the Rock became the Templum Domini; the Al-Aqsa Mosque became the Templum Salomonis; a smaller domed structure just east of the Dome of the Rock, the Dome of the Chain, became the tomb of Jesus’ brother James, who was martyred by being thrown off the Temple Mount. The Crusaders simply adapted the existing buildings in this sacred precinct for their own use. Inside the Dome of the Rock, for example, they built a marble casing around es-Sakhra (the rock outcropping that gives the structure its name) to function as an altar. They also filled the Templum Domini with sacred statuary and affixed a gilt iron cross atop the dome.

After the Abbasid leader Saladin conquered Jerusalem in 1187, he removed the iron cross crowning the Dome of the Rock, dragged it through the city and melted it down. Saladin’s successors, the Ayyubid Dynasty, ruled Jerusalem until 1250, when the city was conquered by the Egyptian Mamluks. The Ayyubids dismantled Crusader structures and used the elements in their own buildings. Like the Crusaders and the Ayyubids, the Mamluks, who ruled until the Ottoman Turks captured Jerusalem in 1517, made few significant changes to the Temple Mount. They added the elegant Pulpit of Burhan ad-Din (which incorporated a Crusader tabernacle; see photo of Pulpit of Burhan ad-Din in “The Holiest Ground in the World”) and the Fountain of Qa’itbay, whose waters were carried to the Mount in aqueducts from Solomon’s Pools (actually Herodian), south of Bethlehem. The Mamluks also built minarets (above) at the corners of the Temple Mount. Jerusalem changed vastly during the Ottoman period (1517–1917), but most of these changes were performed outside the Temple Mount. The Ottomans did, however, restore the aging structures on the Temple Mount. The gleaming blue tiles covering the facade of the Dome of the Rock, for example, were added by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the mid-1540s (these tiles were replaced by copies in the 1960s).