Islamic Conquest of Jerusalem
In the thousands of years of its existence, Jerusalem endured many wars. But not all of these wars were pivotal. The war that destroyed Jerusalem’s Second Temple and transformed the city into Aelia Capitolina was one such war. Another was the war in 638 A.D., in which Christian Jerusalem fell into the hands of the Muslim conqueror Caliph Umar. Now Jerusalem was to become a center of Islam, and the Temple Mount a home to Muslim holy sites, as it remains even until this day.
When at last the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Sophronius of Jerusalem was forced to surrender in 638 A.D., Umar is believed to have traveled to Jerusalem personally in order to receive the surrender. Umar had become the second caliph following the death of Abu Bakr, making him one of the earliest successors of Mohammed himself. His procession into the city was a humble one: the caliph was clad in simple attire, leading a camel. His conquest of Jerusalem, once the city had surrendered, was marked by its lack of further killing and destruction. The Christian holy sites were one and all left intact.
But the caliph was most curious to see the Temple of Solomon, of fabled magnificence. He was horrified to discover that the Temple was in ruins, and the Temple Mount itself had become a rubbish heap in which the city garbage was regularly dumped.
Building on the Temple Mount
It was at this moment that Temple Mount’s identity as a site holy to Islam began to take shape. Umar commanded his men to clear the rubbish from the platform. He then had a rough-hewn wooden mosque built at the southern end of the platform, the first incarnation of what is known today as Al Aqsa.
The Temple Mount was at that time the logical place for a mosque: It had been the site of the Jews’ Holy Temple, which the Muslims revered, and was not sacred to Christianity. The repercussions of Umar’s decision to build a mosque on the holiest site to Judaism would not yet be felt in his lifetime, nor for many years to come.