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Wakf Allows Journalists to Enter al-Aksa

reprinted from The Jerusalem Post
Nov. 19, 2008

The Wakf (Islamic Trust), which administers the Temple Mount, opened the doors of al-Aksa Mosque Wednesday for a rare visit by a group of about 40 journalists, mostly from the foreign press.

But Muhammad Abu Aktesh, the group's guide, said the Wakf had no plans to lift the general prohibition against non-Muslims visiting al-Aksa or the Dome of the Rock imposed eight years ago following then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount and the eruption of the second intifada.

Tourist demand to visit the Temple Mount compound is high; the line to enter the compound via the ramp to the Mughrabi Gate stretched for hundreds of meters at mid-morning on Wednesday. But once atop the mount, visitors are barred from the mosques.

The rare visit Wednesday was facilitated and accompanied by Amir Cheshin, late Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek's longtime adviser on Arab affairs, and organized by INFO-Mishkenot, a forum which initiates meetings between foreign journalists and Israeli news makers.

Abu Aktesh told the group that the Haram al-Sharif Compound was "holy Muslim land" and that he hoped peace would be attained here soon. Showing the group around al-Aksa, he concentrated mainly on the architecture and religious significance of the building and its interior. He also paused at a scarred column to point out what he said were Israeli bullet marks, and at a glass-fronted case containing spent tear-gas canisters and other material, some of it bearing Hebrew writing, which he said had been fired by Israeli troops in the mosque area.

Before ascending the mount, Cheshin briefed the group from a vantage point above Robinson's Arch, near the junction of the Western and Southern Walls. He described the archeological history of the site, highlighted discoveries relating to the era of the Jewish temples and pointed out the cleared Herodian pavement at the corner of the walls below. He said the best archeological evidence of the Herodian temple was an eight-ton stone, now housed at the Israel Museum, which was unearthed by archeologists at that corner and bore the inscription: "Belonging to the place of the trumpet blowing" - which accords with accounts of priests sounding trumpets from the Temple at the beginning and end of Shabbat.

Abu Aktesh, however, adamantly maintained that "the Jews had nothing here."

Speaking as the group walked around the Dome of the Rock, he said that Muslim rulers had given Jews permission to pray at what he called the "Western wall of al-Aksa" as an act of goodwill - an apparent reference to the dispensation by Suleiman the Magnificent in the late 16th century.

The group was given permission to photograph freely inside the two mosques. Inside the Dome of the Rock, extensive reconstruction work is under way, with scaffolding reaching from the rock itself to the ceiling of the Dome.



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