Rebuilt & Re-Destroyed

The Temple Mount

Sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, the otherwise obscure hill known as the Temple Mount has been the object of worship, warfare, and encounters with God. It has also seen complex building programs, from Solomon’s Temple to temples dedicated to Jupiter to the golden Dome of the Rock. Its buildings have been built by one group and destroyed by another, only to be rebuilt and re-destroyed by yet another. From this multifaceted history, author Alan Balfour, Dean of the College of Architecture at Georgia Tech, gives a clear narrative with his book Solomon’s Temple: Myth, Conflict, and Faith.

Balfour expresses a desire to “bring life to past realities” by assembling the “surviving texts and images that have sustained the idea” of the Temple Mount across the centuries. The book therefore begins with the history of Solomon’s Temple, from Genesis to its destruction by the Babylonians in 597 BC. Chapter 2 addresses Herod’s building program on the Temple Mount, with its hundreds of stone columns and complex porticoes. Chapter 3 follows, discussing the appearance of the Temple in the New Testament and ends with its destruction by the forces of the Roman Empire. Chapter 4 chronicles early Christian Jerusalem, notably the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, while chapter 5 addresses the construction of the great Muslim shrine known as the Dome of the Rock. Chapters 6 and 7 describe the Crusades, their effects upon the city of Jerusalem, and the Temple Mount as the object of lore, imagination, and speculation. Finally, the last two chapters in the book address the founding of modern-day Jerusalem. A sprinkling of black and white maps and photos as well as a color photo prove very helpful in understanding the history of Jerusalem in each period.

The book’s strength lies in its readable delineation of the Temple Mount’s historical timeline. Many primary sources weave together to provide different views of the same historical events as told through the eyes of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. A compact synopsis handy for the reader interested in an introduction to the complex cultural forces of Jewish law, Hellenization, the conflict between Romans and Jews, and the emergence of Islam, it draws from hard to find texts and frequently proves useful for understanding biblical narratives. The Temple as object of the Christian imagination in the time of the Renaissance also proves extremely useful as an architectural typology very little discussed by architectural historians.

Much of the book relies on relatively few sources, however, as the entire first and second chapters cite nothing but Scripture and the writings of Josephus, and the text repeatedly offers un-footnoted sweeping generalizations. The closing chapter summarizes the recent political history as taken only from the New York Times, as the author acknowledges (293), and it reads as a bit of an afterthought. Perhaps the greatest lacuna in the work is a complete absence of the mystical meaning of the Temple. Nothing is said, for instance, of the Temple’s interior as an image of heaven and the New Garden, or of the Temple’s veil as the image of Christ’s body as written in the Letter to the Hebrews. Here the extensive writings by Margaret Barker or Brant Pitre could have opened up the Temple’s meaning. Moreover, the text offers occasional theologically imprecise phrases and dubious religious assertions.

More disturbing is the author’s apparent disdain for Christianity. When speaking of the removal of a statue from a Roman temple, he asks the reader to “imagine the sumptuous image of Jupiter being hauled carelessly through the temple doors…” (96), only to follow up by describing the Christian succession as one which “greatly diminished the richness of earthly, lived experience” (107). He speaks of the prophecy of the destruction of the Temple as “Christ’s wishful thinking,” and uses phrases like and “Christ’s imagined conflict with the Devil” (111). Praise is lavished upon the Muslim Dome of the Rock for being a “physical manifestation of the singular nature of this God,” in contrast to the “confusing Christian position of God in three persons” (130). Jesus is labeled God’s “so-called son” (134) and Christian worship is described as “devious religious practice” (152) and as “seductive magical performances at the altars, noisy processions, chanting and the endless tolling of bells” (153). While Balfour could be trying to indicate the medieval Muslim view of Christians in order to give the reader a sense of the region’s religious strife, this is not indicated in the text, and he states these positions as if they are his own.

If the Christian reader can hold his nose, Solomon’s Temple is worth a read as an introductory historical narrative. Scholars of the Temple’s theology, and not merely its history, will then move on to other sources to fill out what is missing in this work.

Denis R. McNamara is Associate Director and Associate Professor at the Liturgical Institute of Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago. He is the author of Heavenly City: The Architectural Tradition of Catholic Chicago and Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy.