Up Front: Morning on the Mount
Matti Friedman

"Have you heard? The Temple Mount is in our hands!" exclaims the security guard, with a goofy grin and fervor straight out of the Six-Day War, as he runs my bag through an X-ray machine at the entrance to the Western Wall plaza. The chubby police officer on the ramp leading up from the plaza to the Temple Mount is also in high spirits: "It.s open, go wherever you want," he tells me with proprietorial pride as he checks my bag yet again. "Ahalan wa.sahlan," says a young man in the uniform of the Islamic Waqf standing at the top of the ramp and holding a walkie-talkie. "Welcome."

The Temple Mount -- known to Muslims as Al-Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary -- has been closed to non-Muslims for nearly three years, since late September 2000, soon after Ariel Sharon made his own visit to the site and the intifada broke out. Coincidentally, that was exactly when I first realized that I absolutely had to go. It was then that I began studying Islam and Middle Eastern history at Hebrew University, and on the Mt. Scopus campus it seemed that everywhere I looked I could see the golden flash of the Dome of the Rock, the focal point of Jerusalem.s landscape, the epicenter of its roiling religious topography. But the Mount was closed to non-Muslims, and for three years I studied the history and architecture of its great Islamic buildings and stared at them from classroom windows and for three years I had no choice but to leave it at that.

The government has now re-opened the site to non-Muslims -- with the tacit agreement of the Waqf, the Islamic trust that runs the Haram -- and this is why I can now walk past the man with the walkie-talkie and through the Mughrabi Gate onto the Temple Mount on this hot, sun-splashed morning. Trees and arches and small domes sprout from its stones, and above them all rises the half-sun of the Dome of the Rock atop its octagonal base of intricate tilework. It is spectacular, though a bit shabbier than it seems from afar, its tiles somewhat faded, the base of its dome enveloped by scaffolding. The Mount feels peaceful, almost sleepy. At first I cannot sense any of the tension that I know exists here, the explosive nature of what may well be the most volatile place on Earth.

Though the Mount is open, its buildings -- the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque -- are still closed to visitors. Near the entrance to al-Aqsa, a grumpy bearded man sits on a chair exuding bad karma. "The mosque is closed," he tells me abruptly, "and here is closed too" -- he gestures toward where I am standing, and then gestures for me to move away. I do. Another man sitting by the entrance to the Dome of the Rock, beneath the walls of colorful tiles, is somewhat more polite. When will the building be open? I ask. "It is always open," he replies. Ah. But to non-Muslims? "Now it is closed for political reasons. We hope soon it will be open for visitors. But it is always open."

I walk off the raised platform on which the Dome sits and onto a shady path lined with trees. Two high-ranking police officers saunter by. One of them, Effi, tells me that the decision to open the buildings has to be made by the Waqf, but that as far as the police are concerned, the site is open. "Anyone can come here," he says, and gives me a surprising example of just what "anyone" means: "Over there," he says, "you can find Yehuda Etzion. He hasn.t been allowed up here for 20 years, but now he.s back." Etzion is the convicted Jewish terrorist, arrested in 1984, who planned to blow up the Dome of the Rock to clear space for the rebuilding of the Third Temple.

I find Etzion, a white-bearded man in a blue sunhat and large glasses, with a group of about 20 religious Jews who clearly do not share the opinion of some rabbis that stepping on the Mount is forbidden. Most of them sport the long earlocks and large knitted skullcaps of the settler movement. One man is wearing a suit jacket, dress pants and plaid slippers -- the latter in deference to the halakhic injunction banning leather shoes on the Mount. There is one man in ultra-Orthodox garb, black hat and caftan: Rabbi Yossef Elboim, of the Movement for the Establishment of the Temple. Six or seven policemen with rifles and clubs hover around the group, along with a similar number of middle-aged, bearded Waqf representatives.

Now I feel a buzz of tension, an intimation of how with dizzying speed events here could spin out of control. Rabbi Elboim is speaking to the group and also, it seems, to the police. "We are not here as a provocation. We want peace between people, between governments." But the group wants to hold communal prayers here -- a clear violation of the rules governing the delicate peace. The police don.t oblige. (A week later, Etzion and two others are ejected from the Mount for bowing down in prayer.)

I strike up a conversation with a Waqf man in a blue checked shirt who has been nervously following Etzion.s group. "This entire site is a mosque," he tells me in polite, precise English, pointing to the smooth paving stones of the Mount. "This is a holy place for Muslims. Jews cannot pray here. This should all be under the authority of the Islamic Waqf, not of the occupation forces."

He waves at the police, who are in fact hustling Etzion.s people along. As he speaks, he keeps his eyes on the members of the group as they walk with the haughty confidence of landowners past the entrance to the al-Aqsa mosque. When they reach the Mughrabi Gate, they turn around and begin backing out, so as not to turn their backs on what was once the Holy of Holies. Before they are outside, they begin singing: "May the Temple be rebuilt, speedily in our days." The policemen firmly push the last ones through the gate, and the Waqf men relax.

I follow the group out, and on the ramp I catch up with two friendly teenage brothers from Kiryat Arba. Both have long blond earlocks past their shoulders.

How does it feel to be under the auspices of the Islamic Waqf when you visit Judaism.s holiest site? I ask the older one, who has a wispy, reddish beard and piercing blue eyes.

He answers without hesitation, shaking his head: "It feels like the Diaspora."