The Jews believed that God literally dwelt in the Beit Elohim, or House of God, and such houses – what we call temples – were built in Siloh, Bethel, Dan, Gilgal and other towns. But in an effort to concentrate worship and stamp on heresy and paganism, Solomon built the Bait ha-Migdash, “home of the Sanctuary”, which contained the Ark of the Covenant and its two tablets of stone given by God to Moses. Dedicated in 964 bc, it was thereafter regarded as the only legitimate place of sacrificial worship, and the artificial mount on which it was built gave it a high profile.
The original temple, about which we know only from detailed descriptions in the Bible, was smashed up by the Babylonians in 586 bc, restored as the Second Temple 70 years later, looted and desecrated by the Syrians in 169-7 bc, again restored and then completely rebuilt by Herod the Great.
He constructed what was one of the largest and most magnificent buildings in the entire Roman world (of which, be it noted, Jews formed 10 per cent of the population). This vast temple, in turn, was de stroyed by the Romans in ad 70, during the fourth century occupied by Christian cults, seized by the Muslims, who build the Dome of the Rock on it in about ad 700, plus the superb El Aqsa mosque, and then occupied by Crusaders in the 12th century. They produced the Knights Templar, who guarded the site, collected the money donated by pilgrims, became international bankers, and were suppressed by the French for their cash in the 14th century.
Thereafter, Arabs, then Turks, held sway until in 1917 General Allenby destroyed the Turkish army and entered Jerusalem on foot as the humble conqueror. When Israel was founded in 1948, the Arabs held east Jerusalem, which included the Temple Mount, and it was not until the Six Day War in 1967 that the Jews finally got the Temple back.
However, for complex reasons of religious ritual, Jews are not allowed on the Temple Mount itself, being confined to the Wailing Wall at the bottom, and even archaeology (begun in 1967) operates under severe restrictions. So many mysteries remain, not least the whereabouts of the Ark, presumably buried somewhere in the bowels of the Mount.
This complex history, fraught with religious undertones and frissons, has inspired waves of passion for three millennia, and some knowledge of its history is essential to understand the complexity of the Arab-Israeli conflict today and the intransigence on both sides. That is one reason why Professor Goldhill’s concise account is so useful. However, he has much else to tell us about the way in which the Temple has impinged on our lives.
It was thought, for instance, that the tomb of St Peter’s in Rome had been marked by 12 twisted white marble columns, brought to Rome by Constantine, who had looted them from the Temple. When Bernini came to build the canopy over the high altar of the new St Peter’s in the 17th century, he combined the idea of twisted columns with the great bronze monsters, Jachin and Boaz, which guarded the porch of the Temple, to produce his magnificent Baldacchino.
This captured the imagination of Archbishop Laud and in the 1640s he got his carver Nicholas Stone to make two magnificent twisted columns for the Baroque porch which was added incongruously to the Gothic church of St Mary’s in Oxford. Those infuriated the Puritans at the time (and helped to get Laud executed) and have puzzled visitors ever since.
The Temple also inspired the strange and powerful cult of freemasonry, an 18th-century invention in its modern form and an extraordinary combination of credulous myth and hard-headed mutual self-advancement. Masons argue that King David, the Temple’s inspiration, was the first patron of Masons, and details of the Temple, its measurements and references to Jachin and Boaz, play major roles in Masonic rituals and passwords: “in strength – pass, Boaz” is one of them.
Our Protestant Hanoverian royal family adopted freemasonry in a big way as a protection against Catholicism (George VI was a lifelong Mason) and Catholics, here and in Europe, evolved huge conspiracy theories against what they saw as a vicious secret society, a putative form of international terrorism.
Now the Muslims have taken over, and woven Masonic misdeeds into their skein of anti-Semitism. Their academic “research” has uncovered the “fact” that freemasonry was founded by Jews in the first century ad and was instrumental in creating Communism, Nazism and Zionism, striving “to spread sexual anarchism and moral disintegration”. And, come to think of it, the new American imperialism is the product of masonry too: “a close look at the US dollar bill would reveal the first letter of the word Zion engraved between the two pillars of Boaz and Jikin [sic]”.