According to the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”), the First Jewish Temple, also known as Solomon’s Temple or the Beit HaMikdash in Hebrew, was built during the period of the United Monarchy of the Kingdom of Israel (1042-930 BCE). Its construction was completed in 957 BCE.
The Temple served not only as a place of worship, but also as a place of general assembly. According to the Tanakh, King David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, which King Solomon later placed inside the Temple in the “Holy of Holies,” the sanctuary and most sacred area at the heart of the Temple. Only the High Priest of Israel was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, bringing incense and carrying the blood of a sacrificial lamb.
The Tanakh is incredibly detailed about the Temple’s architecture and design. Some archeologists surmise that the Temple was built according to Phoenician design, and as such, it might’ve resembled Phoenician temples. Archeologists have found other architectural features in Southwest Asia that resemble the Temple as it is described in the Tanakh.
The First Temple stood until the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Until recently, there was no real archeological evidence corroborating the existence of the First Temple; nevertheless, historians have long concluded that some sort of Temple did exist during this period, though its grandiosity, builder, and size are disputed.
In 539 BCE, the Jews exiled to Babylon were permitted to return to the Land of Israel. Though many stayed, others went back home. In 516 BCE, what was originally a modest structure was built atop the remains of the First Temple, on Temple Mount. During the period of the Herodian Kingdom of Judea (37 BCE-4 BCE), the Temple was refurbished, becoming much larger and more spectacular. For this reason, the Second Temple is sometimes called “Herod’s Temple.”
Many of the plundered items of Solomon’s Temple were long lost, and as such, were not present in the Second Temple. These items include the Ark of the Covenant, the divination items on the priestly breastplate, the holy oil, and the sacred fire.
The Second Temple also had a Holy of Holies, which contained a menorah; the “Lehem HaPanim,” which was a table with cakes or loaves of bread that was always present as an offering to G-d; and a golden altar of incense. According to the Babylonian Talmud, the Second Temple, unlike the first, lacked the shechinah (“divine presence of G-d”) and ruach hakodesh (“holy spirit*”).
The Second Temple is central to the story of Hanukkah, as the Maccabees rededicated the Temple to the Jewish G-d after defeating the Greek Seleucid Empire. The Second Temple was of great importance during the period of the (Jewish) Hasmonean Kingdom of Judea (140 BCE-37 BCE). For historic context, the Hasmonean period was the last time Jews had our own sovereign state until 1948. The Second Temple remained a pillar of Judean life until the Romans destroyed it in 70 CE.
*note that the Jewish concept and Christian concept of “Holy Spirit” are not at all the same.
FIRST TEMPLE DESTRUCTION
In 587/586 BCE, the Babylonian Empire conquered Jerusalem. According to the Tanakh, in August of 587/586 BCE, the Babylonians set Solomon’s Temple on fire. The royal palaces and “all the houses of Jerusalem” were also set aflame.
The Temple was plundered, and everything of value was taken to Babylon. In 597 BCE, 587/586 BCE, and 582/581 BCE, the Jews of Jerusalem were mass deported (i.e. ethnic cleansing) out of the Land of Israel and into Babylon. This deportation and the destruction of Jerusalem are thoroughly corroborated by archeological record.
According to Jewish tradition, the Temple was destroyed on the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, which is considered the saddest date in the Hebrew calendar. The Temple stood for over 400 years until its destruction.
SECOND TEMPLE DESTRUCTION
Between 66-73 CE, the Jews in Judea revolted against Roman rule for the first time. The revolt ended in disaster, with Jewish towns decimated, tens of thousands massacred, and the Second Temple destroyed.
In 70 CE, the Romans circled Jerusalem but were unable to breach its walls, so they set up camp around the city and began building trenches around the circumference of the walls. Anyone caught in the trenches attempting to flee the city was crucified; at one point, the Romans were crucifying 500 Jews a day.
For seven months, the Romans sieged Jerusalem, until the summer of 70 CE, when they were finally able to breach the city walls. Records of the time indicate that all of the besieged Jews — men, women, even children — fought to the death, preferring to die for the cause of sovereignty over survival if survival meant that the Romans would exile them from their homeland. Ultimately, the Romans ransacked and burnt the entire city. The Second Temple was destroyed once again on July 29 or 30 of 70 CE, which also fell on the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av.
The Romans pillaged the temple, taking with them its spoils to Rome. The looted Jewish treasures remained in Rome until the year 455, when vandals raided the city. After that, their whereabouts become murky. It’s likely that they were long melted down or used to construct any number of churches. There has long been a baseless conspiracy theory that the items, including the menorah, are hidden away in a Vatican basement.
“Temple denial” is the antisemitic conspiracy that the First and Second Temples did not exist or were located elsewhere. This conspiracy theory has long been advanced by numerous (though not all!) Palestinian politicians, intellectual leaders, religious figures, and authors, particularly in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
This, of course, is absolutely absurd. The existence and location of the Temples is extensively corroborated by archeology. The ruins of the Second Temple still stand today.
After Jordan conquered East Jerusalem in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, the Islamic Waqf (Islamic religious committee) in control of Temple Mount erased all references to Solomon’s Temple from its guidebooks (yet some 23 years earlier, the Waqf’s guidebooks had asserted that the fact that Solomon’s Temple was located at Temple Mount was “beyond dispute”).
During the Second Intifada (2000-2005), Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat claimed that the Temple had been located in Nablus. At another point, he asserted that it had been located in Yemen and that he’d “seen” its location.
In 1998, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem claimed, “There is not the slightest sign of the previous existence of the Jewish temple on this site. There is not a single stone in the entire city that refers to Jewish history [...] It is the art of the Jews to deceive the world. They can't fool us with that. There is not a single stone in the Western Wall that has anything to do with Jewish history. The Jews have no legitimate claim to this wall, either religiously or historically.” This, of course, is verifiably a lie.
Other figures that have engaged in Temple denialism include former titular major of East Jerusalem Zaki al-Ghul and the current Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, who claimed that there was never a Jewish Temple but that there had been a mosque on Temple Mount since “the creation of the world.”
Temple denialism can be understood in the context of Indigenous denial. Historians have identified various stages of Indigenous denial, starting with the first (“they didn’t exist”) and the second (“if they did [exist], they weren’t here”). Claiming that the Temples either didn’t exist or were located elsewhere is a denial of verifiable Jewish history and Jewish connection to the land.
The Indigenous-led United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues defines Indigenous Peoples as the following: (1) self-identification as Indigenous Peoples; (2) historical continuity with pre-colonial and pre-settler societies; (3) strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources; (4) distinct social, economic, or political systems; (5) distinct language, culture, and beliefs; (6) non-dominant groups of society; (7) resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities. Like it or not, Jews fit all of this criteria, as proved by 3000 years’ worth of archeology, genetic science, cultural tradition, and historical record.
The only way to deny Jewish Indigeneity according to the accepted definition of Indigeneity is to pretend that (1) the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel does not exist, or (2) claim that today’s Jews are not the descendants of the ancient Israelites (we, verifiably, are). By engaging in Temple denialism, people are stripping us from our ancestry, culture, spiritual beliefs, and history that we’ve fought tooth and nail to preserve for thousands of years. That is not only revisionist, but also inherently antisemitic.
The Arab Empire (also known as “Caliphate”) conquered the region of the Levant (modern-day Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and parts of Turkey) in the seventh century, some 1,600+ years after the construction of Solomon’s Temple. In November 636, the Arab army conquered Jerusalem. Beginning in 688, the Arabs constructed the Dome of the Rock and later the al-Aqsa Mosque atop the ruins of the destroyed sacred Jewish Temple. It was customary for conquering armies — including the Arab armies — to build religious monuments on top of the ruins of the sacred sites of those they conquered. To strip Jerusalem — and in particular Temple Mount — from its Jewish character is nothing but a continuation of this colonization.
Temple Mount has long been at the epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. For example, in the 1920s, the virulently antisemitic Grand Mufti of Jerusalem accused Jews of planning to take over Temple Mount, which incited anti-Jewish massacres. In 2000, future Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to Temple Mount was used as bogus justification for the Second Intifada.
Though Israel reunited — or captured, depending on who is telling the story — the city of Jerusalem in 1967, a Jordanian Islamic Waqf (religious committee) continues to oversee Temple Mount. It’s the Islamic Waqf that makes all decisions pertaining to Temple Mount, though Israel provides security and upholds the Waqf’s rulings, in light of the delicate political situation.
Though Temple Mount is significant to Jews and Christians, only Muslim prayer is permitted. Christians and Jews are able to visit, though tourists and Jews can only enter the site through the Mughrabi Gate during extremely limited hours.
For decades, “worshippers” at Temple Mount have used the sacred site as a vantage point from which to hurl Molotov cocktails, boulders, cinderblocks, and other items at Jewish visitors to the Western Wall or Israeli police. The Israeli police forces have often responded with tear gas or even deadly force.
UNESCO, which has repeatedly refused to designate Jewish sacred sites as “Jewish,” has condemned Israel for performing or attempting to perform archeological excavations near Temple Mount.
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