What is the future of the Holy of Holies?

Last week I was fortunate enough to revisit Jerusalem. It was nearly two decades since my last visit and much has changed in the interim, though equally much has not.

Previously, security was tense in the holy city. It was not possible for me to visit the Temple Mount at that time. I’m not entirely sure if it was even possible for devout Muslims to do so. This time, during one of the designated hours for non-Muslims, and via the sole route permitted to non-Muslims, I was fortunate enough to visit what is probably the most sensitive and contested site on Earth.

Temple Mount

The site itself is a plaza constructed on the top of the ancient mount Moriah. It features the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the third most sacred site in Islam. It is equally the most sacred site in Judaism, having been the location of both King Solomon’s temple and the Second Temple, built by Herod and destroyed by the Romans in the first century CE.

Not to be left out, there is a Christian claim here too, somewhat less significant than those of their fellow monotheists, but real nonetheless. The Crusaders left their mark here, and while Christianity reveres the Church of the Holy Sepuchre nearby rather than Temple Mount itself, nevertheless the site retains importance for Christianity, in particular the Well of Souls, a cave located beneath the Rock, as well as the Muslim Al-Aqsa mosque, which was previously the site of a Templar church.

This one small location, approximately the size of 20 soccer pitches, is therefore highly significant to the more than half of the world’s population who adhere to one of the Abrahamic monotheisms.

One might ask, especially if one is not an adherent, why this is so? Taken in chronological order, the Jewish claim is the earliest. For Jews, it is the site where King Solomon built a temple for the Jews where they could gather regularly to be in the presence of God. For those of the Jewish faith, this site, and the subsequent second temple, was the sole location on Earth where God would descend to be present among his chosen people.

The exact site, or temenos, was known as the holy of holies, קֹדֶשׁ הַקֳּדָשִׁים in Hebrew, and access was limited to the high priest alone, on very limited occasions. This model was replicated in the second Herodian temple, which was built following the return of the Israelites to Jerusalem after their Babylonian exile. Notably, almost none of either temple remains today, and hence it is impossible to know the exact site of the holy of holies. For this reason, devout Jews refrain from setting foot on the mount, for fear of stepping inside God’s sacred space.

As if this were insufficient, the site is also traditionally believed to be the location of the binding of Isaac. Additionally, modern historians suspect that the site was chosen in part because it was likely already a sacred location for the Jebusites, whom King David displaced from Jerusalem.

Of course, the choice of location is a blend of both Bronze Age beliefs and canny realpolitik. King David’s unification of the twelve tribes of Judaism required a capital which would be acceptable to all the tribes, and not solely his own. Hence the choice of Jerusalem, an otherwise poor choice for a capital city, given its limited fresh water supply and low terrain which was difficult to defend.

We might say likewise about the Islamic claim to Temple Mount, which emerged early in the Islamic era and helped to inspire the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem. According to Islamic belief, Temple Mount designates the location from which the prophet Muhammed ascended into heaven to consult the prophets, having flown there from Arabia on a flying horse as part of his night journey.

Of course, by the time of the Islamic conquest, Mount Moriah had already served as a sacred location intermittently for over a millennium. Given Islam’s descendancy from Judaic faith as an Abrahamic monotheism, it was perhaps inevitable that a claim over Jerusalem and Temple Mount in particular would emerge. Notably, it is never stated in the al-Isra sura of the Quran that this was indeed the site of Muhammed’s ascendance into heaven. This is a result of interpretation and tradition, primarily in the Hadiths, and perhaps also some realpolitik.

The Crusaders came later, and built a Templar Church on the Mount, which after the retaking of Jerusalem by Muslim forces was transformed into the Al-Aqsa mosque. The Christian claim to Temple Mount is thus much less acute than those of Islam or Judaism, but the site’s proximity to the more revered Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as well as its domination of the Old Jerusalem skyline, no doubt made it a critical location for the Crusaders.

The current political situation on Temple Mount is therefore hugely complex and sensitive, as one might expect. Following the Israeli capture of Jerusalem during the 1967 war, the site is now administered by a Muslim religious council, but secular power rests with the Israeli defence forces. Though this is itself a somewhat tense arrangement, it seems to work adequately on the ground, as it were. Muslim religious police will confront visitors to insure they dress and act appropriately, and will request the intervention of the Israeli soldiers if they are not obeyed.

While I was there, pondering these centuries of worship, contestation and sensitivity, I began thinking about the future of the site, and the future of sacred spaces in general. Temple Mount has passed through the hands of many polities during its existence, and perhaps the sole continuity, as buildings rose, fell or were repurposed, has been its primary role as a sacred location, perhaps the most sacred location on the planet.

In short, what is the future of the Holy of Holies, the sanctum sanctorum, the al-Ḥaram al-Šarīf?

One could speculate about any number of potential futures, from the contentious building of a third Jewish Temple, to a restoration of Islamic rule over the territory. But primarily I’m wondering about issues which are more likely to develop, and indeed are already emerging.

Some five decades into the space age, technological development continues to issue complex challenges to Bronze Age beliefs. Careful consideration had to be made, for example, to define how devout Muslims in space might pray in the direction of Mecca. The further we progress from the period of religious emergence, the more difficult it becomes to translate their behavioural proscriptions or miracle-based narratives into contemporary human experience.

Closer to home than near Earth orbit, we have the rapid emergence of the internet’s evolution into a virtual reality environment, the metaverse. How will sacred spaces emerge in such a virtual state? In what manner will they be sanctified, and how will religious devotees prevent them from being hacked or erased? How will their emergence affect existing religious practices? Already it is possible for people to attend religious services online. Is it possible to envisage a digital hajj or other pilgrimages too?

And what of the metaphysical ramifications of the metaverse? Which pixels or bytes will be sanctified by God’s presence? Could a third Temple of the Jews be constructed in cyberspace? Would a digital Mecca offer password-protected access only to the world’s growing population of Muslims?

It’s not far-fetched to consider such possibilities, as we migrate further and further into an existence bifurcated into physical and online activities. And, in an optimistic vision of mankind colonising the solar system, such as we see in The Expanse and other SF depictions of the future, where would that leave physical temenoi such as Temple Mount?

For around three millennia, the site on top of Mount Moriah has served as a physical location of worship for the ancient Jebusites, for the Jews, and for Christians and Muslims alike. Perhaps technological development might finally sever the connection between place and belief, or perhaps it might merely serve to provide additional modes of religious contestation.