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Descriptive Geography and Brief Historical Sketch of Palestine

By Rabbi Joseph Schwarz, 1850

Moriah, The Temple Mount הר הבית.

This mount, which rises 141 feet above the valley of Kidron, and 2280 above the level of the sea, appears as a mount only on the east and the south sides, on which it is bounded by the valleys of Kidron and Rephaim; but on the north and west sides it is level with the other ground near it. This is owing to the many destructions which Jerusalem has had to endure, which caused the depressions on these two sides to be filled up with rubbish and ruins.

According to Middoth, ii., § 1, it was 500 cubits, say 1000 feet long and broad. But I found, by actual measurement, the present breadth from east to west 995 feet, and the length from north to south 1498 feet. The discrepancy is, however, easily accounted for; since the present place includes the space once occupied by the fort Antonia, which was to the north, and which being now united and included in the temple mount, makes this a third longer than it originally was.

This mount, therefore, now forms on its summit a flat and roomy place of the above dimensions, i.e. 1498 feet long by 995 in breadth. It is called


That is, the site of the ancient temple, in Arabic, Al Charim, "The Holy." It is enclosed on all four sides with a high wall and buildings; and the southern and eastern parts of this enclosure form, at the same time, the city wall in these directions. The western part is the well-known and revered fragment of the wall of the holy temple mount, and is named the כותל המערבי Kothel Hama'arabi, i. e. the west wall. It is sixty feet in height, and has twenty-three rows of stone. The nine lower rows consist of large stones, three to four cubits long, and two cubits broad and high. The upper fourteen rows, however, consist of smaller stones; and hence it would appear that this upper part belongs to a later period, and was perhaps built by Caliph Omar. It is also called "the mourning wall," since thousands of Israelites constantly deplore there and weep for the fall of Jerusalem. It is touching to see how every Jew bends his head, moaning and reverentially, at the foot of this holy wall, and lifts up his tearful eyes to heaven, and exclaims, sobbing, "How long yet, O Lord!"

This spot is visited by travellers of all nations; and no one can ever quit the place unmoved, and with indifference. It is no vain fancy! I have indeed often seen there non-Israelitish travellers melt into tears. No one can describe the feelings experienced on this sacred spot. One paints to himself in spirit the former exalted state of the Israelitish people in the highest degree, and then feels suddenly that it is sunk into the dust and robbed of its glory; but his imagination places again before him the future exaltation--he feels himself inspired, and exclaims, "Surely this is the gate of heaven!" (Gen. 28:17.)

This wall is visited by all our brothers on every feast and festival; and the large space at its foot is often so densely filled up, that all cannot perform their devotions here at the same time. It is also visited, though by less numbers, on every Friday afternoon, and by some nearly every day. No one is molested in these visits by the Mahomedans, as we have a very old firman from the Sultan of Constantinople that the approach shall not be denied to us, though the Porte obtains for this privilege an especial tax, which is, however, quite insignificant.

In the midst of this plain מרום המקדש is a square platform, fourteen feet in height, in the middle of which stands the large mosque Al Sachra, i. e. the hard stone, referring to the אבן שתיה which is in the midst of it. It was built in 4397 (637) by Caliph Omar. This octagonal building is sixty feet in length, and has on four sides entrances and outer halls. On each of these four sides there are six windows, but seven on the other four. A large cupola is extended over the whole building, and is ninety feet high and forty in diameter; it is covered over with square leaden plates. In the walls, near the windows, there are introduced glazed bricks, green, red, black, and whitecoloured, which reflect in many beautiful rays the solar light, and give the building a magnificent appearance. The inner walls are painted white; and there are in the interior twenty-four columns, each twenty feet in height, and sixteen of which support the great cupola. The interior middle portion of this mosque is enclosed and barred off by means of an iron railing. The Mahomedans go as far as this railing to perform their devotions, with their faces turned to the south. Within this railing is a small wooden enclosure, wherein is the Temple Stone אבן שתיה Eben Shetiyah, or "foundation stone" (Yoma v., § 2). It is a large, round, white stone, which is about thirty feet in circumference, and is covered over with red satin cloth. It is only fastened to the floor on one side, and is propped up below with pieces of wood, that it may not fall down; but beneath it the soil is dug away, and it appears to hang in the air. Its elevation from the floor is about ten feet. (Compare with Yoma v., § 2, where it is said that it was elevated but three fingers' breadth from the floor, which affords, therefore, a clear proof that the temple mount has been dug down about ten feet.)

The Mahomedans reverence this stone as a holy object, alleging that it came from the garden of Eden, and that Abraham sat upon it when he was about sacrificing his son Isaac. They even go so far as to point out the traces of five of Abraham's fingers. Beneath this mosque there are in all directions subterraneous caverns and passages; but no one ventures to investigate, or even to enter them.* One large subterranean passage leads from this mosque to that of Al Achsa, i. e. The Farthest, the most northern mosque, since the Arabs have three especially sacred mosques, one in Mekka, the second in Medina, and the third in Jerusalem, which is the farthest to the north. Under the term Al Achsa, or the most northern mosque, that of Al Sachra is included, as they are considered to form but one mosque. Al Achsa is situated in the southern end of the temple place, and is a large and very long building, and is called by the Jews מדרש שלמה "the School of Solomon," though I could not ascertain whence the name is derived. Near this mosque is a very large cavern, wherein are found columns and ruins, equalled only by those of Baal-bek and Tadmor (Palmyra). There is also met with there a large stone sarcophagus, having a large and broad stone cover. No one knows what it contains, and none have yet ventured, or rather been able, to open it. It appears that all these ruins and remarkable monuments of antiquity date from the period of King Solomon.

* If we note carefully the position of the mosque Al Sachra, we shall find that it is situated nearest to the west end of the temple mount, somewhat more distant from the northern end, farther yet from the eastern, and the farthest from the southern part of the same. See Tosephoth Yome Tob to Middoth, commencement of chap. ii.

On all sides of the temple place, are seen Mahomedan dervishes, who come from Barbary, in Africa (who have this prerogative above all the dervishes, owing to a distinction which they once obtained in a siege and battle at Jerusalem), armed with spears, standing sentinel day and night, to prevent any profane person, i. e., any one but a Mahomedan, from entering on this holy spot.

The Mount of Olives or Olivet הר הזתים also הר המשחה Arabic, Djebl Tur, forms the highest elevation of the whole environs of the holy city, from which it is separated only by the valley of Kidron. It is 2555 feet above the level of the sea, and it has three summits. On the acclivity of the southern summit, near the village of Selivan, which part is called in Scripture הר המשחית "The mount of vexation or corruption" (2 Kings 23:13), is a spot which the Arabs call Beth-Hana, probably the בית הינא Beth-Hina, of Pesachim, 23a, also called כפר הינו Kefar, i.e. village of Hinu, in end of Ketuboth. Some consider the village Azaria, which is half a mile southeast from the Mount of Vexation, as Beth-Hina or Bethaniah; but it is unquestionably the same with Azal,* as I have stated in the description of Benjamin; whereas BethUhana marks more correctly the ancient Beth-Hina. Not far from this Beth-Hina (Bethania) was Beth-Pagi, which partly belonged yet to the city, as appears clearly from Pesachim, 63b, and Menachoth, 95b, and Sanhedrin, 14b; and that the city wall extended partly also as far as this spot, was said already above. A spot a little to the south of this is called, by the Bedouins and Arabs who reside there, Dir Zini, probably identical with the Zini of the "iron mount" of Sukkah iii., § 1, referring to a species of palm which grew there on the Mount of Olives, and synonymous with Caphnatha, also denoting a palm tree, as was also stated above. According to the passage cited from Talmud Sukkah, there grew also a species of hard palm ציני הר ברזל near the valley of Ben-Hinnom.

* This gives me an opportunity to explain a passage in the Bible which many learned men have attempted, but not succeeded to elucidate satisfactorily. It is Zechariah 14:5, ונסתם גיא הרי כי יגיע גי הרים אל אצל ונסתם כאשר נסתם בימי הרעש בימי עזיה מלך יהודה We find in several Oriental copies instead of וְנַסְתֶם Venastem, "you will fly", וְנִסְתָם Venistam, "and it shall be stopped up." Jonathan has the same reading, and explains it in the same manner in his Chaldean Paraphrase (see also Kimchi). If this be assumed, however, we cannot explain the גיא הרי "valley of my mountain," nor what relation the splitting of the Mount of Olives in twain has to do with the earthquake in the time of Uzziah. But I think I have found the key to this passage, and will quote for this end the following passage from Josephus, Antiq., book 9., chap. 10., being a part of the history of Uzziah: "The king was highly nettled at this, and threatened to put them to death if they spoke a word more. Immediately the earth trembled, and the roof of the temple opened, through which a beam of the sun darted full upon the face of the king, who from that instant became a leper. This prodigy was followed by another: near a certain place before the city, named Eroge, the one half of a mountain that looked westward was torn from the other half, and rolled for the space of four furlongs, till it stopped to the eastward of it, by which means the road was blocked up, and the king's gardens covered with rubbish." I do not doubt but that this remarkable event is alluded to in Zechariah, and that גיא הרי Ge Harai, is by transposition nothing else than the Eroge for Ge-ore, of Josephus, Hebrew Ge Harai, or that it was called both Ge Harai and Harai Ge; and I actually once saw an edition of Zechariah which read ונסתם הרי גיא, and if we could depend on this, it would argue in favour of the correctness of Josephus' legend of the mountain of Eroge, i. e. Harai Ge having been split and closed up the king's gardens. We should then translate: "And it (the way) shall then be closed up through Ge­Harai; for Ge-Harai shall come to Azal; and it (the way) shall be blocked up as it was blocked up in the days of the earthquake, in the days of Uzziah, King of Judah." Azal is, as said above, the modern Azaria, and the distance from Olivet agrees exactly with Josephus' legend; 4 furlongs, stadia, being half a mile, which is the distance between Eroge on Olivet and Azal, to which it was carried by the earthquake.

At the foot of the central Mount of Olives, just opposite the temple mount, and where the Jewish burial-place is, there is pointed out an uncommonly large square stone, covered over with a roof, supported on columns, which marks, according to popular opinion, the grave of the prophet Zechariah (2 Chron. 24:21). I could, however, find nowhere any proof for the correctness of this tradition, which appears to me the more singular, since this monument appears to belong to the Gothic style of the middle age, and not to that gray period of antiquity. Near this is found a large cave with tall columns, which represent windows, by which I mean that through the space between the columns, which are placed close to the sides of the cave, the light is shed into the interior from without. This cave is called בית החפשית, English version, the "several house" of 2 Kings 15:5. Near this, again, is a very handsome square structure, hollow within, and cut out of the rock; the upper part gradually diminishes till it forms, so to say, a pointed roof. It is called יד אבשלום "Absalom's Monument" (2 Sam. 18:18); but I can scarcely adopt this traditional nomenclature; since the "King's Valley" עמק המלך where Absalom actually constructed his own monument, was not near Jerusalem, but in the plain of Jordan, as, according to Bereshith Rabbah to Genesis 14:7, the valley of Siddim, Sukkoth, ha-Melech (King's), and Shaveh, are all one and the same, or the modern Al Gor; wherefore we must look for Absalom's column in that neighbourhood. I also found in Josephus, Antiq., book 7., chap. 9., that this monument was a marble column in the King's Valley, and two stadia* from Jerusalem. But this monument, now called that of Absalom, has nothing in common with that of Josephus, for it is neither a column nor is the material marble.

* I presume it ought to read two hundred, and Al Gor is actually 200 stadia or 25 English miles from the holy city.