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Where was the Temple of Herod?

Utah State University anthropologist says Dome of the Rock is not location of Herod's Temple.

By Richley Crapo
Utah State University

Some time ago a conversation with a colleague about the absence of archaeological information on the Temple Mount or, as it is called in Arabic, the Haram al-Sharif, and the unlikelihood that permission will be granted for a thorough archaeological investigation of the area in the near future led me to wonder whether it might be possible to learn enough from ancient sources to at least make an educated guess about where within the Haram the Jewish Temple is likelihood. My goal was to see if a "virtual archaeology" could be constructed with sufficient detail that one might give good advice about where to begin excavating, were an archaeologist given permission to do so.

One of the first things I discovered was that archaeologists' speculations about the original site of the Temple were not typically based on the hard evidences that one usually associates with archaeology. Perhaps because of the relative lack of hard, artifactual evidences or perhaps because the topic has strong religious significance even to archaeologists who are interested in biblical times, arguments for various placements of the Temple are often grounded more in symbolism than on pragmatic evidences.

Articles on the topic often rely heavily on judgments such as "The location of the Dome of the Rock, being the highest spot within the Haram, was the most appropriate place for the Jews to have built the Temple of their God" or assumptions such as the idea that the Temple surely must have been built in the middle of the sacred, walled precinct (Solomon's five hundred cubit, walled square that surrounded the Temple) that surrounded it-the middle assumedly being more appropriate than some less symmetrical placement. But as any anthropologist knows, what seems symbolically "appropriate" in one culture may not be in another, and symbolic ideals frequently take a second seat to practical considerations that must be dealt with when erecting any large piece of architecture. My goal was to avoid such symbolic second guessing about what the Jews of antiquity might or might not have found aesthetically or symbolically appropriate, and to stick to what hard evidence might be found.

To my surprise, I did discover one voice crying in the wilderness of symbolism for a more practical, hard-evidence approach to the question, and I must give him credit at the outset for most of what I will present, since I have only added a bit to the basic arguments that he had already proposed. Tuvia Sagiv is an Israeli architect, and it is perhaps because of his lack of credentials as an archaeologist that his more pragmatically minded approach to the question has failed to reach the venues that are usually read by those interested in biblical archaeology. On the other hand, Mr. Sagiv's training as an architect predisposed him to look at questions about the placement of the Temple from the practical mind-set that his profession requires. I will present his basic arguments here along with my own, small additions (mainly, point 6, below) which, I believe, strengthens his argument somewhat.


Mount Moriah is actually a north-south trending ridge rather than a mountain peak. It rises from its southern end near the entrance to David's City just north of the Hinnom Valley and gets progressively higher until it reaches the spot where the Dome of the Rock now stands. The rock that is sheltered by the dome is bedrock that simply rises above the surface about this point. It stands about five feet higher than the surrounding surface. North of this, the ground was relatively level, although it actually dipped slightly before rising again where the Moriah ridge narrows just south of Mount Bezetha.

What people currently think of as the Temple Mount is a roughly rectangular area on the ridge. This rectangular court is bounded by walls that were built in relatively recent times on the ruins of earlier walls. The ruins include both Herodian and Hasmonean masonry.

It is generally recognized that the eastern wall of the current courtyard occupies the same location on which Solomon built a retaining wall to level the area east of the First Temple. This feature is called Solomon's Porch and included a roofed colonnade. Solomon did not otherwise modify the north-trending ridge of Mount Moriah. Herod extended Solomon's Porch to the north and south when he "doubled" the size of the Temple Mount. The entrance to Solomon's Temple Mount courtyards was through gates that rested directly on the ridge itself.

The Hasmoneans made an addition to the south of Solomon's Porch and created an east-west retaining wall along the southern extremity of their extension to create a larger, level courtyard to the south of the Temple. This retaining wall was higher than the original southern gates (the Hulda Gates), so that they thereafter connected to the floor of the courtyard by underground passages. Herod more than doubled the size of the Temple Mount courtyards by extending the eastern wall again, both to the south and the north, and by adding similar retaining walls on the east and north ends of the rectangle. He built his great Stoa (where the Sanhedrin met and where sacrificial animals were sold--the scene of Jesus' overturning of the moneychangers' tables) on his southern extension. Hadrian may have made additions to the walls of the Temple Mount as part of his building program in AD 135+, but the specifics are difficult to document.

What Was Within the Walled Precinct?

The Temple Mount contained more than just the Temple. In Solomon's day, it already contained several other features: Solomon's palace (to the south of the Temple), a hall of justice (called the Forest of Lebanon) and other administrative buildings (possibly to the west of the Temple). The northern wall included the Tadi Gate (through which sheep were brought to the Temple), a Prison Gate (which led into a prison), and a defensive tower called Hananeel (at the northwest corner). Just beyond the northern wall outside the northwest corner was a fosse or waterless moat that cut across the ridge at a narrow point. Hananeel Tower and the fosse formed an important military defense structure, since the northern route down the Moriah ridge was the easiest invasion route for foreign armies, which is why the Romans invaded from that point when they took the Temple in AD 70.). Moriah also contained a "high place" where Astoreth had been worshipped from ancient times.

In Herodian times, the site of Ashtereth's high place was dominated by an eight-sided tower called Strato's Tower (the name being a corruption of Astoreth, which was written as STRT in the unpointed Hebrew of the time). We know from Josephus that Strato's Tower lay to the north of the Temple and south of Baris. Later, a military fortress and tower, called the Akra, was built to the south of the Temple Mount by Antiochus after he destroyed the walls of the Temple. The Akra, a military installation, was offensive to the Jews because it afforded a view into the Temple area. It was therefore destroyed by Simon in the later Hasmonean period.

When the First Temple was rebuilt after the Babylonian captivity, Solomon's palace and the Forest of Lebanon were razed and the ground was leveled where they had stood. The stone was used in rebuilding the Temple and its walls.

From the above, we can see that in Herodian times the Temple Mount had two basic precincts, one sacred (the Temple and its courts) and one secular (the pagan high place of Strato's Tower and the defensive fortress to its north. The latter occupied the northwest quadrant of the Temple Mount, leaving the sacred area as an irregular shape that occupied the three other quadrants.

The Temple precinct

The Temple area had two major components, the so-called Court of the Gentiles that surrounded it and a sacred platform on which the Temple rested along with the walled Women's Court, Court of Israel, and Priest's Court. This Temple precinct was originally 500 cubits square and occupied only part of the Herodian Temple precinct, although it too was missing a notch in its northwestern corner where the pagan site of Asteroth lay. Josephus cites an old prophesy that if the Jews ever "squared the Temple", it would be destroyed, and he asserts that doing so was the cause of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. That is, Herod razed Strato's Tower and the old Baris fortress and built a new Baris (Baris Antonia) on the northeast corner of his enlarged Temple Mount. This made a nice, square sacred area around the Temple platform but violated God's injunction by incorporating the idolatrous site of pagan worship into its design.

Where Was the Temple?

The Temple was not located on the high spot currently occupied by the Dome of the Rock. The Dome was built on the most imposing location, the situation of the former Strato's Tower, a pagan place of worship. It incorporated the eight-sided design of Astoreth's place of worship into its architecture, a feature of the Dome that is unique in Islamic architecture. The actual location of the Temple was to the south of the Dome of the Rock at the approximate location of the Al Kas fountain which is north of the current location of the El Aksa mosque at the south end of the current Temple Mount. This places the Temple directly to the west of the Western Wall (a.k.a. Wailing Wall).

Reasons for This Placement

The evidences for the southern placement are as follows:

(1) Baris Antonia was built to defend Mount Moriah against invasion from the north--the only easy route to the Temple. The east and west slopes were steep and the city lay to the south. The most defensible place for the location of the fortress was just south of the narrow constriction between the ravines that ran into the Kidron Valley on the east and the Valley of the Cheesemakers on the west. In fact, these two ridges were joined at the top by a man-made moat which would have made an attack on the Baris even more difficult. (The moat was noted in Wilson's survey of Jerusalem, so its position is known.) This is the arrangement described by Josephus. Had the Temple been located on the Sakhra (the Rock), then there would have been insufficient room for both Strato's Tower and the Baris to have fit between the Temple and the Moat. The northern placement favored by the Temple Mount Faithful leaves no room for even the defensive tower, Baris, to be situated between the Temple and the fosse.

(2) A Dome of the Rock location for the Temple would have made it impossible to supply running water to the Temple, a necessity for the High Priest's mikvah and for the cleansing of blood from the Temple platform. According to the Mishnah, the way that blood was washed rom the floor of the Priest's Court where sacrifices were performed was to open the floodgate of the aqueduct directly into the court . This means that the aqueduct that brought water to the Temple Mount had to have been above the level of the raised floor of the court. In fact, part of the aqueduct is still in existence, and it lies over 20 meters below the level that it would have to have occupied to service a Temple at the level of the Dome of the Rock. The proposed northern placement is also too high to have received water from the aqueduct. In fact, remains of the aqueduct itself show that after entering the Temple Mount across Wilson's Arch, it turned to the southeast towards the Al Kas fountain and its associated cisterns. The Moriah ridge at this location is low enough that the aqueduct could have served the Temple as described by the Mishnah at this location south of the Dome of the Rock.

(3) Josephus says that the hill to the north of the Temple (Bizita Hill) obscured the view of the Temple from the north. If the Temple had rested on the Sakhra, they it would have been so high that the view from the north would not have been obscured. In fact, it would have been visible from as far away as Ramallah.

(4) According to Josephus, King Herod Agrippa built a dining room in his Hasmonean Palace from which he and his guests could watch the sacrifices at the Altar. That palace was located near the Citadel at the Jaffa Gate on Mount Zion to the west of the Temple Mount, and the Temple itself would have blocked its view of the Azarah if the Temple had sat atop the Dome of the Rock site. No buildings existed in that era that were high enough to have made the view possible. However, a placement of the Temple at theAl Kas fountain location to the south of the Dome, being over 20 meters lower makes a straight-line view of the Azarah possible along a line of site between the Temple and the southern wall of the Temple.

(5) The Mishnah says that the Temple was not at the highest spot, but that it resided "between the shoulders"--that is between the Rock to its north and the small hill on which the Selucid fortress Akra was built to the south of the Temple.

(6) A southern placement with the Holy of Holies just northeast of the Al Kas fountain is the only one that allows there to be an underground cistern under the Laver in which the priests washed their hands and feet each morning and under each of the parts of the Temple in which there was amikvah (with the exception of the mikvah used by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement, which was in a second-floor room and supplied with flowing water from the aqueduct). thereby allowing water to be directly accessible for each of the mikvah sites. No other placement I know of associates water sources with the various mikvahs and the Laver.

(7) After Hadrian destroyed the Temple in AD 135, he built a temple to Jupiter on the site. The standard pattern for such temples, as exemplified at Baalbek, was an entry through an octagonal portico, a plaza with an altar, and the temple proper. The Baalbek temple's walls surround a double row of pillars. So do the walls of the contemporary El Aksa Mosque on the south end of the modern Temple Mount rectangle. This construction, like the octagonal shape of the Dome of the Rock, is unique within Islamic architecture. If the Baalbek temple plans are superimposed on the Haram with the temple situated where the El Aqsa Mosque is and the octagonal portico where the octagonal Dome of the Rock is situated today, then Herod's Temple would have been situated within the plaza, under the Roman altar where sacrifices were performed to Jupiter--a perfect way of making the Temple location inaccessible to the Jews. The Mishnah describes the Holy of Holies as having been located where the statue of Hadrian was in the plaza, just west of the altar to Jupiter.