Biblical Archaeology Review 25:5, September/October 1999

Sacred Geometry: Unlocking the Secret of the Temple Mount, Part 2

By David Jacobson

We have already established the location of the Herodian Temple in Jerusalem and the altar that once stood in front of it (see the previous installment of this article in “Sacred Geometry: Unlocking the Secret of the Temple Mount, Part 1,” BAR 25:04). Echoes of these ancient structures are preserved today in two Islamic structures: the Dome of the Rock, which marks the site of the Temple, and, to the east, the Dome of the Chain, which marks the site of the altar.

Here we will go a step further: Other features of the Islamic platform seen today (called in Arabic al-Haram al-Sharif, “the Noble Sanctuary”) also duplicate elements of the Herodian Temple Mount, the platform rebuilt by King Herod the Great (37–4 B.C.E.) to support his Temple. These additional parallels tend to confirm the conclusions presented in the earlier installment.

As discussed in the previous article, the Temple Mount as we see it today is the product of two building phases: Herodian and early Islamic. In 20/19 B.C.E., Herod initiated a vast project to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple and double the size of the platform, the Temple Mount, on which it stood. The Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 C.E., after which the Temple Mount remained largely unoccupied until the seventh century C.E., when the Umayyad caliph ‘Abd al Malik and his successors reclaimed the site and established what we see today: the Dome of the Rock on a raised platform in the middle of the esplanade, and the al-Aqsa Mosque at the southern end. (In this article I will refer to the Muslim esplanade seen today by its Arabic name, al-Haram al-Sharif.)

The axial center of the Herodian Temple Mount as I have reconstructed it lies almost precisely under the Dome of the Chain. And that is where I have placed the Herodian altar. With that as our anchor, I would like to see if we can learn more about the sacred precinct that surrounded the Temple on the Herodian Temple Mount.

Both the Mishnaha and the writings of the first-century C.E. historian Josephus mention this holy area. The Mishnah calls it Har Habayit, literally, “Mountain of the House,” or “Mount of the Temple.”1 According to the Mishnah, this holy area, which included the Temple and its courts, was a 500 cubit square. The square of hallowed ground was bounded by a soreg (a balustrade) inside of which only purified Jewish worshipers were permitted. The stone soreg was 3 cubits high (4.5 Roman feet, or 4.6 modern feet)2 and had existed prior to Herod’s expansion of the Temple enclosure, possibly as its earlier boundary.3

At frequent intervals along the balustrade, stone slabs inscribed in Greek and Latin warned gentiles not to penetrate the sacred zone on pain of death.4 Two of these Greek inscriptions have miraculously survived and may be seen in the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem and the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul.

While the Mishnah describes this holy square as 500 cubits on a side, Josephus says that the Temple Mount enclosure (by which he seems to mean this sacred Temple precinct) is a Roman stade (or stadium) on each side, which equals 600 Roman feet, or 608 modern feet.5 At one and a half Roman feet to the cubit, this translates to 400 cubits. Given the small uncertainties as to the length of the cubit and the fact that both the Mishnah and Josephus are probably giving us slight approximations, it would appear that the holy area on the Herodian Temple Mount was somewhere between 400 and 500 cubits square.

Today, the Dome of the Rock and the Dome of the Chain sit on a raised platform of their own, which we may refer to here as the inner platform. None of its sides is precisely parallel to another or to the walls of al-Haram al-Sharif, but the southern and western edges run fairly parallel to the corresponding boundaries of the Haram enclosure.

If we measure the distance from the center of the Dome of the Chain to the northern and western edges of this inner platform, we find that both distances equal 324 modern feet, or approximately 213 cubits. If we assume an equal distance to the opposite edges, this would give us a square of 426 cubits, between Josephus’s estimate of 400 cubits and the Mishnah’s estimate of 500 cubits. The inner platform of al-Haram al-Sharif, I suggest, may retain features of the earlier sacred area on the Herodian Temple Mount.

On the south the situation is even more interesting. The southern side of the inner platform is much closer to the center of the Dome of the Chain (203 modern feet, or 133 cubits) than are the western and northern sides. Beyond the southern border, however, are several unusual features. About 121 modern feet south of the inner platform is a low terrace wall. South of this wall is a lower level. This wall is 324 modern feet, or 213 cubits, south of the center of the Dome of the Chain, again between the measurement of the Mishnah and the measurement of Josephus regarding the holy square of the Temple precinct. This length is also nearly equal to the distance from the center of the Dome of the Chain to the western and northern edges of the inner platform!

Does the line of this terrace wall mark the southern border of the Herodian Temple precinct? I believe it does. Several factors in addition to the distance from the center of the Dome of the Chain suggest this. The first takes me back to 1994, when Mr. David Tyrwhitt-Drake Clarke donated a collection of 19th-century photographs of the Holy Land to the Palestine Exploration Fund. Tyrwhitt-Drake Clarke was a descendant of Charles Frederick Tyrwhitt-Drake, a Cambridge scholar who had been a leading member of the British survey teams sent to map Sinai and Western Palestine in the years 1869 to 1874. Dr. Shimon Gibson, who in 1994 was serving as the photographic officer of the Palestine Exploration Fund, called me to have a look at the newly acquired photographs, two of which clearly show a flight of four monumental steps leading up to a southern terrace. Unfortunately, these monumental steps are no longer to be seen. But they were there in the 1870s, when these photographs were made. Indeed, these same steps appear on the survey maps of Charles Wilson and Charles Warren in 1866 and 1884. They can also be seen in an engraving published in 18846 and in a photograph taken by Mendel John Diness in the late 1850s.7 By 1887 the steps had vanished from view, as we know from the comments of the German explorer Conrad Schick and from later photographs.8

Further east, a rock cutting, below a continuation of the modern terrace wall, has been photographed by BAR editor Hershel Shanks. The plan shows the southern edge of the soreg extending along a line that includes both the steps photographed by Diness and the rock cutting in Shanks’s photo, which is the only trace of the ancient steps visible today. This would indicate that the ancient steps extended further to the east.

These monumental steps ran parallel to a Herodian staircase (leading up to the Double Gate) outside the southern Temple Mount wall and to the southern Temple Mount wall itself. This suggests that the steps were part of the original Herodian plan for the Temple Mount. Located just inside the soreg, the steps led up to the sacred Temple precinct.

A close-up of a man sitting on these steps in the Diness photograph, and some of Tyrwhitt-Drake’s photographs, enable us to estimate the rise of the now-lost stairs, while their tread can be measured from the maps published by Wilson and Warren. The tread is about 2.5 feet, and the rise is about 1.5 feet. This is too high to be comfortable to climb, but it resembles the measurements of steps leading up to classical Greek temples.

Classical temples stood on raised platforms that were surrounded by steps on all sides. This set of steps is called a crepidoma. Each of the steps tended to be rather massive, like the steps on the Temple Mount. For example, each of the three steps leading up to the Parthenon in Athens is just over 1.6 feet high, which makes them too steep to negotiate with comfort. Therefore, less steep, intermediate steps were inserted at the center of the crepidoma steps along the two shorter sides of the temple. This arrangement was generally followed throughout the Hellenistic period. Thus the temple of Apollo at Didyma, as rebuilt by the Seleucid kings, has a surviving crepidoma with seven steps, averaging 1.5 feet high and approximately 2.5 feet deep; a flight of smaller steps is inserted in the center of the crepidoma steps on the short, front side of the temple. These more easily ascendable stairs have a rise just half the height of the main crepidoma steps.

There are no remains of these intermediate steps on the Temple Mount, but they probably did exist at one time. Now we have only the crepidoma steps (or rather, photographs of them). But it is interesting to note that the rise of the steps in the broad, monumental staircase leading up to the Temple Mount from the south appears to be half the rise of the crepidoma steps in the old photographs—the same ratio found in classical crepidoma steps and the more easily ascendable steps in the center of the staircase. Remarkably, the height of the steps in the stairway south of the Temple Mount is three-quarters of a Roman foot, or half a cubit, which is precisely what the Mishnah specifies for the height of all the steps on the Temple Mount!9

In short, the steps that led up to the Herodian sacred Temple precinct appear to have functioned as a kind of classical temple crepidoma, which symbolized the entry into a sacred precinct. Josephus provides additional evidence of the connection between the steps and the sacred area inside the soreg. He states, “Within it [the first, outer court of the Temple] and not far distant was a second one, accessible by a few steps and surrounded by a stone balustrade [i.e., the soreg] with an inscription prohibiting the entrance of a foreigner under threat of the penalty of death.”10

A final factor strengthens the contention that these steps marked today by the low terrace wall were the southern boundary of the sacred precinct of the Herodian Temple. During their surveys of Jerusalem in the 19th century, Charles Wilson and Charles Warren identified two subterranean cavities beneath the Temple Mount as cisterns (numbered 36 and 6 on their plans). Each of these pools is shaped like the letter T, with the horizontal bar on the north side. Recently Ronny Reich, the leading Israeli expert on Jewish ritual baths, called mikva’ot (singular, mikveh), has identified these pools as mikva’ot rather than cisterns.11 As mikva’ot, their location is of prime importance: According to my calculations, they lie just south of the southern perimeter of the sacred Temple precinct, just outside the soreg.

Most pilgrims entered the Herodian Temple Mount through the Double Gate (the western gate of the so-called Huldah Gates) in the southern wall of the Temple Mount. A Herodian entry chamber (today partially preserved) inside the gate led to a tunnel through which the worshiper walked up to the level of the Temple Mount esplanade. The two mikva’ot are situated on either side of this tunnel’s exit. As Reich himself noted, the symmetrical position of these mikva’ot “on either side of the western Huldah Gates points to an interconnection between them and the gate.” These elements were part and parcel of the overall design scheme that we have been identifying in both installments of this article. The pools are oriented precisely on the same east-west axis as the Temple Mount and are parallel to the broad staircase outside the southern wall. In our scheme, the two mikva’ot would have provided the last opportunity for worshipers to cleanse themselves ritually before entering consecrated ground.

A final comment concerns the floor level of the Herodian Temple and its relationship to the outcropping of rock known as al-Sakhra that sits at the center of the Dome of the Rock, directly beneath the golden dome. Did al-Sakhra protrude above the floor of the Herodian Temple as it does today in the Dome of the Rock? Almost certainly not.

We know that the floor level of the Herodian esplanade was almost surely the same as the floor level of al-Haram al-Sharif because a great deal of al-Haram al-Sharif is set on bedrock. But there is another fact that supports this conclusion. As mentioned in the first installment of this article, square pilasters decorated the upper part of the outside of the Temple enclosure wall. A fragment of one pilaster has survived near the northern end of the western wall, and other fragments have been found among the debris from the wall in excavations outside the southwest corner of the Temple Mount. From this we can determine that the base of the upper pilaster course along the exterior face of the western wall is level with the esplanade at this point. A similar correspondence is observed between the level of the base of the pilaster course and the enclosed platform in the much better preserved Herodian enclosure at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Likewise, the plinths of the pilasters on the inner face of the wall of the internal courtyard of the temple of Apollo at Didyma, near Miletus, are level with its external platform (stylobate). All this suggests that the Herodian esplanade was at the same level as today’s al-Haram al-Sharif—at the base of the lowest exterior pilaster course.

According to both the Mishnah and Josephus, three sets of steps led up to the level of the Temple.12 Josephus states that 14 steps led up from the external platform of the sacred precinct to the terrace, or hel, surrounding the inner Temple (although the Mishnah gives the number as 12). Both sources then agree that there were 5 steps from the hel to the Court of the Priests and a further 12 steps from the Court of the Priests to the Temple, making a total of 31 steps, which is equal to 15.5 cubits, or a little under 24 feet, from the outer court of the sacred precinct to the floor level of the Temple itself.

This would place the level of the Temple floor above the top of the large outcropping of rock that sits at the center of the Dome of the Rock as it exists today. However, I believe that the rock has been cut down by at least 5 feet since ancient times. Earlier investigators have reached similar conclusions. Th. A. Busink has estimated that a 4.3-foot-high section of al-Sakhra has been lopped off. Even earlier, the pioneering investigator of ancient Jerusalem James Turner Barclay concluded that al-Sakhra was “not sufficiently elevated” for the floor of the Temple sanctuary.13 The cutting down of the summit must have occurred before the fourth century C.E., when the Bordeaux Pilgrim recorded seeing the lapis pertusus, or “pierced stone,” familiar to us today.14 The identification of the lapis pertusus with al-Sakhra is widely accepted, although this view is not without its critics. It is reasonable to assume that the cutting of the summit was carried out by Hadrian’s workmen, perhaps in preparation for his temple of Jupiter, which is referred to by the Roman historian Dio Cassius, who wrote his account around the late second and early third century C.E.15 In any event, even before it was cut down, al-Sakhra would not have extended above the floor of the Herodian Temple. The rock was underground. That is why it does not correspond to any particular feature of Herod’s Temple but simply marks the center of the mount, on which the sanctuary was built.

The site of the Temple itself has undoubtedly been stripped bare of virtually all ancient structural remains. Excavations there, if they were ever allowed, would likely prove fruitless. On the other hand, there are real prospects of finding remains of the outer courts, now that we have identified the broad stairway on the south side of the inner precinct (in view of the structural remnants noted long ago by Asher Kaufman in these pages).16

Until that time, we must weave together a number of strands—ancient traditions and still-visible remains, 19th-century explorers’ accounts and recent archaeological excavations, principles of Greco-Roman architecture and mathematical analysis—that allow us to at least fix the location of the great Herodian Temple, one of the wonders of the ancient world. Josephus likened it to “a snow-clad mountain; for all that was not overlaid with gold was of purest white.”17 According to the Talmud, “He who has not seen the Temple in its full construction has never seen a glorious building in his life.”18