September 15th, 2013
07:54 AM ET

Jerusalem's 5 most contested holy sites

By Daniel BurkeCNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

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(CNN) -  Heaven and Earth are said to meet atop Jerusalem’s sacred mounts, but the city’s stony streets have seen more than their share of violence.

King David subdued the Jebusites, the city's Canaanite founders. The Babylonians and Romans routed the Jews. Muslims booted the Byzantines. Christian Crusaders mauled Muslims and were, in turn, tossed out by the Tartars.

The Ottomans followed, then Britain, then Jordan, before finally, in 1967, the city came nearly full circle when Israel annexed East Jerusalem. That sparked another cycle of violence, this time between Israelis and Palestinians.

“It’s easily the most contentious piece of real estate in the world,” says Anthony Bourdain, who visits Jerusalem in the season premiere of “Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown,” which debuts Sunday night on CNN.

“And there’s no hope - none - of ever talking about it without pissing someone off.”

MORE FROM CNN: Exploring Jerusalem's Old City 

Why would people argue about a holy place?

You might call it the Jerusalem Paradox: If the city wasn't considered so sacred, there'd be nothing to fight about.

But since the days of the Jebusites, more than 3,000 years ago, the otherwise unremarkable place has been called a portal to paradise, and everyone elbows for a closer look.

After all, how many places can list God on their guest registry?  And Abraham, David, Solomon, the Virgin Mary, Jesus and the Prophet Mohammed as well.

“The city is chockablock full of places that have historical meaning for different groups of people - and they are all contested,” said Samuel Heilman, a professor of Jewish Studies at Queens College in New York and author of “A Walker in Jerusalem.”

“Everybody’s story is just one of many,” Heilman said. “And so they not only try to make their story the right story, they try to delegitimize everyone else’s.”

Some Muslims say Jerusalem never housed a Jewish temple; some Jews argue that Mohammed never visited the sacred city, and the argument runs on and on … for centuries.

And it’s not just Muslims, Christians and Jews fighting each other. Sometimes the most serious squabbles erupt within the faith themselves. Want to see Christian monks fist-fight? Go to Jerusalem.

The good news is, all three Abrahamic faiths teach that the Messiah will eventually return to Jerusalem and sort the whole thing out.

Until then, here are the sacred city’s five most contested sites:

1. The Temple Mount

This broad platform in Jerusalem’s Old City is said to have hosted an almost unimaginable series of sacred events.

The rabbinic sages say that God gathered dust from this spot to create Adam, the first man, before setting him loose in the Garden of Eden.

Jewish tradition holds that the Temple Mount also contains Mount Moriah, where Abraham, the Hebrew patriarch, is said to have nearly sacrificed his son - under God’s orders - before an angel intervened.

Later, Solomon constructed the first Jewish Temple on the mount, including the Holy of Holies, a room that kept the Ark of the Covenant, which was said to contain the tablets on which God wrote the Ten Commandments.

Only the Jewish high priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, where tradition holds he met with God on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Rabbis say that Jews are still forbidden to step on the Temple Mount, for fear of intruding on the Holy of Holies.

The Temple was destroyed twice, first by the Babylonians and then by the Romans. Religious Jews pray the Third Temple will be built by the Messiah himself.

Since 1967, the Temple Mount has been an almost constant source of tension because it is also home to the …

2. Haram al-Sharif

Muslims call the Temple Mount "Haram al-Sharif" (the Noble Sanctuary), and it's home to one of the most sacred sites in Islam: the al-Aqsa Mosque.

Muslims believe that the Prophet Mohammed was carried on a flying steed from Mecca to al-Aqsa during his miraculous Night Journey, said Muqtedar Khan, an expert on Islam and politics at the University of Delaware.

“It’s all about al-Aqsa,” said Khan. “That’s why all Muslims are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.”

According to Islamic tradition, the night journey took Mohammed to the same Jerusalem rock on which Abraham nearly sacrificed his son, where the Muslim founder led Abraham, Moses and Jesus in prayers as the last of God's prophets.

That rock is now said to sit in the Dome of the Rock, whose golden roof gleams above the Old City skyline.

Since its construction in the seventh century, the Haram al-Sharif,  now controlled by an Islamic trust, has been an almost constant source of tension between Muslims and Jews.

In the 1980s, Jewish radicals plotted to blow up the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa, believing that it would lead to a spiritual revolution and usher in the messiah.

In 2000, the Second Intifada – a five-year-long Palestinian uprising - was sparked, Palestinians say, after Ariel Sharon, then a candidate for Israeli Prime Minister, visited the compound surrounding al-Aqsa.

Sharon insisted that his visit was not intended to provoke Palestinians, but many saw it as an attempt to underline Israel’s claim to Jerusalem’s holy sites.

3. The Western Wall

Israeli soldiers wept when they saw the Western Wall in 1967, after seizing East Jerusalem from Jordan.

“We have returned to our most holy places,” said one Israeli general. “We have returned and we shall never leave them.”

Located at the foot of the Temple Mount, the 62-foot-tall stone wall once supported the courtyard of the ancient temple, the center of Jewish spiritual life for centuries.

For Jews, the wall is one of the last remaining links to that time, and they gather before it to hold religious services, to pray or to slip notes into its cracks.

“There's a tradition that notes put in the wall are like notes transmitted to heaven,” Heilman said, “since this is as close as Jews were able for generations to get to the Temple Mount where they believed God dwelt on earth.”

How close Jews get - and which kind of Jews - has been a subject of fierce debate in recent years.

The praying area is divided into men’s and women’s sections, and ultra-Orthodox men have hurled chairs at women who sing and pray at the wall or try to enter the men’s section, accusing them of violating Jewish law.

In response, a group called Women of the Wall has launched a highly publicized protest campaign to win the right to wear prayer shawls, lead prayers and read collectively from the Torah at the holy site.

4. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

In the fourth century, after converting to Christianity, Emperor Constantine launched what historian Karen Armstrong calls “one of the first recorded archaeological excavations in history.”

He was looking for Jesus’ tomb and thought he found it in Jerusalem. Constantine asked his mother to oversee the construction of a magnificent church on the site.

Originally called the Church of Resurrection, it was destroyed by a Muslim caliph in 1009, but later Muslim leaders allowed Christians to rebuild the church.

Now called the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it is believed by many Christians to house a piece of the cross on which Jesus was crucified, his tomb and the site of his resurrection.

Under a centuries-old agreement, the church is shared by six Christian communities, but they squabble over every stone, sometimes coming to blows over perceived slights.

In 2008, for example, Israeli riot police broke up a melee between Greek Orthodox and Armenian monks. Ethiopian monks reportedly sneaked into the church's rooftop monastery during Easter prayers in 1970 and changed the locks, evicting the its former owners, the Copts.

The six Christian communities at the Holy Sepulcher don’t even trust each other with the church keys. A Muslim family has held them, opening the church every morning and closing it every night since the 12th century.

5. The Garden Tomb

Not all Christians believe that Jesus was buried and rose again at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

In the 19th century, doubts crept in about Constantine’s site, said Robert Wilken, a professor of Christian history at the University of Virginia.

“What it really boils down to is that Protestants came to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the 19th century and were appalled that it was an Orthodox church,” Wilken said. The icons and incense were apparently too much for Protestants more austere sensibilities.

In 1867, British Christians unearthed what they believe was the garden of Joseph of Arimathea, outside the Old City's Damascus Gate, where they believe Jesus was entombed.

The Gospel of John says that Jesus' tomb was near a garden, and the British Christians who run the Garden Tomb say their site matches the Bible’s descriptions perfectly.

The tomb is carved from solid rock, it sits near an escarpment that looks like a skull (Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, means “place of the skull,”) and most importantly, they say, the tomb is empty, signifying a resurrected Jesus.

READ MORE: 10 things to know before visiting Israel, the West Bank and Gaza

So, is there any chance the battle for Jerusalem will end before the End Times?

Muqtedar Khan says yes, if the traditions that trace their history to Abraham - Jews, Muslims and Christians - start seeing themselves as part of the same sacred lineage, rather than three separate religions.

"If there were willing to share this identity," Khan said, "perhaps they'd be more willing to share Jerusalem."

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown • Belief • Christianity • Greek Orthodox Church • History • Houses of worship • Interfaith issues • Israel • Israel • Jerusalem • Judaism • Middle East • Muslim • Religious violence • Sacred Spaces

soundoff (453 Responses)
  1. Lawrence of Arabia

    Jews believe that the Messiah will build the Third Temple? No, the anit-christ will build the third temple. Haven't they read Daniel 9?

    September 16, 2013 at 8:11 am |
    • Richard Cranium

      What difference does it make. Another temple to fight over yea !...If you would just drop this religious ridiculousness, we could concentrat4e on building communities rather than temples. Temples help to seperate communites. The whole land is dirt, not special dirt, just dirt.

      September 16, 2013 at 8:17 am |
      • Lawrence of Arabia

        Actually, the reason to care is that if they read scripture rightly, then they wouldn't be in such a hurry to rebuild the temple.

        September 16, 2013 at 8:22 am |
        • Doc Vestibule

          But they ARE in a hurry.
          You'd be surprised at how many Dispensationalists there are.
          Groups like Christians United for Israel lobby to fund the Jewish settlements, throw out all the Palestinians, and stage a pre-emptive invasion of Iran in order to bring Russia into a war against us causing World War III followed by Armageddon, the Second Coming and The Rapture.
          In a recent Time/CNN poll, over one-third of those Americans who support Israel report that they do so because they believe the Bible teaches that the Jews must possess their own country in the Holy Land before Jesus can return.

          September 16, 2013 at 8:33 am |
      • Richard Cranium

        "Read scripture rightly" How do you read something rightly, that is part of your problem, everybody reading it differently, but thinking they are reading it rightly. Better no one reads it, since it was written by men so long ago, it is pointless. Put down beliefs in ancient myths and ALL will benefit.

        By the way, everything written is scripture...this is scripture. The Harry Potter books are scripture.

        September 16, 2013 at 8:32 am |
  2. slick willi


    September 16, 2013 at 6:20 am |
  3. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    September 16, 2013 at 3:55 am |
  4. Walid Joulani

    Mr. Bourdain, Thank you for a great show tonight featuring the true facts of life in Palestine and Israel . My family and I have always enjoyed watching your show . Tonight we were very touched and impressed with your courage to show the wall and living conditions without adding or spinning facts. I was born in Jerusalem and I have lived in Texas for 30 years . I love to travel with my family and your show has giving us so much pleasure when you cover so many amazing places that we have seen or plan to see in the future.
    We would like again to thank you and thank CNN for your show and we look forward to another season.

    September 15, 2013 at 10:33 pm |
  5. Crazy

    A bunch of nonsense. The fact that the Jewish Temple exsisted in Jerusalem is based on hard archaelogical evidence. To believe that Mohamed traveled to Jerusalem would require one to believe in flying steeds.

    The three Abrahamic religions are not one religion and will never see themselves as such

    September 15, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
    • Now now

      Did you say archeological evidence? If so, then why is Jerusalem still a divided city?

      Dear, there is no "evidence," and Israel would take that as an advantage .... if it existed that is. What is quite sad is all the "evidence" you have is printed in a fictional account and rather a disgusting piece of ancient garbage the Tanakh. Take that and go build your temple in Auschwitz, and i can assure you that there is some evidence there and history there. lol

      September 15, 2013 at 10:49 pm |
      • Uncouth Swain

        "Dear, there is no "evidence," and Israel would take that as an advantage"

        1. Southern steps of the Tmeple Mount date back to the 2nd Temple
        2. Mikveh have been found on the site from the 1st century. Do you know what a mikveh even is?

        Anyway, yes..the temple did exist and it did stand on what is called shockingly the Temple Mount.

        September 16, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
  6. John Pinkard

    More people have been killed "In The Name of god" than for any other reason known to man. You are ALL a bunch of ignorant murderers. go kill each other for your fantasies. I'd rather be fishing !

    September 15, 2013 at 10:14 pm |
    • Emily

      Man is the only creature that kills for fortune and kills his own brother for the sake of fortune. Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. Lets kill ourselves, shall we?

      Don't blame it on God, religion, scripture. Blame is on man, he is the only not using his rationality rationally.

      September 15, 2013 at 10:52 pm |
      • George

        He's not blaming it on God; he is blaming it on religion, scripture, and man.

        September 16, 2013 at 11:14 pm |
  7. Tatiana Covington

    Just demolish all that religious junk and start from scratch.

    September 15, 2013 at 10:13 pm |
    • Emily

      Oh yeah? and how exactly are you planning to do this?

      If its not religion, it'll be something else. Believe me, war is a human thing even before religion.
      Europeans destroyed a whole nation to build the USA. Not the religion's fault, only man's

      September 15, 2013 at 10:54 pm |
      • Robert

        There were a lot of religious undertones in the start of the USA w.r.t. Europe and religion. That was old divisions in the Christianity.

        September 15, 2013 at 11:01 pm |
  8. Yara

    As a Palestinian, I have to say unfortunately the more both parts continue to get radical the more blood will be shed...
    Thanks for being somehow neutral regarding both parties, and I say "somehow" only coz there are a lot of details other than the wall that affect our life as areas A, B and C, control of water resources, dependency of economy, borders control not only for gaza but also for the West Bank and many other issues...
    Thanks Anthony bourdain for considering Palestine not only Israel...

    September 15, 2013 at 10:12 pm |
  9. jossefperl

    I started watching Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown about Jerusalem and got nausiated after 20 minutes; as a typical North American liberal Jew in the media, for Bourdain it is all about the Israeli occupiers and the Palestinians victims. Bourdain introduced the settlements with the words "after the 1967 war" etc.; apparently he did not have the time to state that this was a defensive war after three Arab neighbooring countries amassed their militaries at Israel borders and openly declared their intention to destroy Israel. Simliarly, Bourdain presented the separation wall in Judea and Samaria and the impact it has on Palestinians, but he did not have the time to tell viewers about the suicide bombers who blew up Israeli buses and restaurants, that caused the need for this wall. In all his interviews with both Israelis and Palestinians the questions were always about the "bad Israelis" who inflict pain on the poor Palestinians; to Bourdain the graffities and property damage caused by "Price Tag" is the real terrorism not the suicide bombers from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Israelis have add enough of the shows by liberal North American Jews media types like Bourdain and Simon (60 Minutes) who go to Israel to produce shows with flagrant anti-Israel bias and distortions.

    September 15, 2013 at 10:06 pm |
    • Randa

      You are racist.....btw.

      September 16, 2013 at 7:04 am |
  10. myrtle may

    And I've never understood (nor has anyone else) why any human being who loves God/Allah/Jesus/Mohammed soooo much that they would give their life for their beliefs has absolutely no problem trashing a holy city every single freakin' day for thousands of years. One would think that the only arguments would involve people pushing each other as they crawled around polishing cobblestones & artifacts & picking up litter & touching up signs...but nooooooo. Insist that the place is sacred & a gift from heaven by spilling blood all over the streets & screaming filth in the holy places. Insanity.

    September 15, 2013 at 10:01 pm |
  11. Thought Purification

    Muslims call the Temple Mount "Haram al-Sharif"; lol!!

    for those people who are not familiar with the Islamic words; Haram is a curse word like Kaffer. Calling someone harami is equivalent of calling him b a s t a r d.

    September 15, 2013 at 10:00 pm |
    • mp

      That is not correct. Harami means thief in Arabic.

      September 15, 2013 at 10:12 pm |
      • Yara

        Haram means holy its another word for a place where prayers take place

        September 15, 2013 at 10:14 pm |
    • Mind

      Just another ridiculous fool! Are you serious? Learn some arabic first you lout!
      Haram is حرام and it means forbidden, while Hrram حرم means holy. Al hrram al sharif, is the sacred and purest place of all.

      Just shut up and eat your fries you fat American.

      September 15, 2013 at 10:38 pm |
  12. Thought Purification

    If Mohammed ever visited the Jerusalem, SO WHAT? He was a construction worker back then and went to Jerusalem looking for work!! People should not entertain claims by newly formed religions, especially violent one.

    September 15, 2013 at 9:54 pm |
    • Mind

      Mind some education you ignorant fool?

      Islam is not a new religion, in fact it contains teachings from Abraham, Moses, Jesus and many more.
      Don't be typing nonsense just because you can hide behind a screen. We are in a world where the educated and knowledgeable is appreciated, and then there is you.

      September 15, 2013 at 10:41 pm |
  13. tuliplady

    Mr. Bourdain, you have out-done yourself – and say this as a child of the Universe, and nothing more. Thank you for fearlessly sharing your remarkable insight and journeys.

    September 15, 2013 at 9:47 pm |
  14. carl

    Why don't we just nuke it flat, then there's nothing to argue over

    September 15, 2013 at 9:46 pm |
  15. charles

    My guess is if there really was a Jesus, he regrets the day he picked that area to walk.

    September 15, 2013 at 9:13 pm |
    • carl

      There really is a Jesus, he's my gardener!

      September 15, 2013 at 9:48 pm |
  16. Hooligan

    barren dirt covered in blood and misery both literally and metaphorically.

    There is nothing sacred about these places.

    September 15, 2013 at 9:09 pm |
  17. trevor bryant of flagstaff az

    Just nuke it all. No one will try to fight over the ashes. Who would stick around, if the air was toxic to breathe? If you can't play nice with your toys, they gets destroyed. It would have to be an anonymous nuking, so no blame could be levied. How is this not a good solution? I would say do the same to the Kabah, Muslims shrine, but then, of course, blame would be levied no matter what, but making it uninhabitable seems a good way to keep people from venerating objects in stead of ideas.

    September 15, 2013 at 9:07 pm |
  18. observer1776

    Bourdain needs to stay in the kitchen and not try to write about things he knows little about.
    The article reads like it was written by a snot-nosed atheistic high school freshman.

    September 15, 2013 at 9:00 pm |
    • Janaiba

      The article wasn't written by him. This article was written by Daniel Burke. Have you ever read what he has written?

      September 15, 2013 at 9:32 pm |
      • Robert

        LOL too funny. I was wondering how long it would take for the many idiots posting here to realize that they person they attributed to the article had nothing to do with it and was just a related reference. Typical ... people get all riled and have no idea why!

        September 15, 2013 at 9:35 pm |
  19. Cambodian


    Please Help Cambodian People.

    September 15, 2013 at 8:55 pm |
  20. molly

    watching it right now. Awesome

    September 15, 2013 at 8:51 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.