“What do stalactites have to do with the Dome of the Rock?”, you may ask. I suppose that in general they don’t have anything to do with each other. The only thing that they have in common just now is that I experienced both this week.
The Stalactite Cave Nature Reserve
On Wednesday, I went on a field trip with Ariel University. They called it a Jerusalem field trip, and it featured sites such as the Western Wall. I have spent a lot of time in Jerusalem, and I wasn’t particularly interested in going on a tour of the city. One thing on the itinerary caught my eye, though. It was “The Stalactite Cave Nature Reserve.” Now, like I said, I have spent a lot of time in Jerusalem, and I had never heard of such a place. I like caves, and a stalactite cave sounded like something I needed to see. So, I signed up for the trip.
As it turns out, the cave was not in Jerusalem; it was near Beth Shemesh. It was the first stop on the tour, and it was well worth the visit. The guide at the visitor center explained that the cave first came to light when quarriers blasted the mountainside, creating an opening into the cave. At that point, they had to find a new quarry and the cave became a tourist attraction. However, they have been careful to conserve the cave, since humans breathe out carbon dioxide, which can interfere with the formation of stalactites. Now, they carefully monitor the air conditions in the cave and artificially adjust them as needed.
The cave is quite large and full of all kinds of stalactite and stalagmite formations. There are icicle-shaped stalactites hanging from the ceiling with domed columns rising from the floor to meet them. There are also formations in large sheets creating partitions in the space. Large columns stretch floor to ceiling with hundreds of individual stalactites hanging from them until there are stalactites upon stalactites upon stalactites. Some stalactites and stalagmites go sidewise or at an angle, suggesting that what is now vertical in the cave was not always that way. Perhaps seismic activity shifted the cave at some point.
The rest of the field trip included sites that I was familiar with in Jerusalem, but the cave visit made the trip worthwhile for me.
The Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque
The next day, I headed back to Jerusalem for a visit to the Temple Mount. This is the site of Solomon’s temple. Here the Jews returning from exile rebuilt the temple and King Herod later remodeled in into what is commonly known as the second temple. After the destruction of the temple in AD 70 by the Roman army under the command of Titus, several structures came and went. The Romans erected a pagan temple there. Later, a Byzantine church stood at the site. In AD 692, the Muslims built the Dome of the Rock there, which still stands today.
I have been on the Temple Mount multiple times, but this was a special trip because a friend had arranged for a tour of the interior of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque. Generally, tourists are not allowed into these structures, and I had never been inside before.
We met our guide by the Lion’s Gate and he took us from there onto the Temple Mount platform. I had to wear a long skirt, a long-sleeved shirt, and a scarf to cover my head. Our guide explained that although tourists usually understand the mosque on the southern end of the platform to be the al-Aqsa mosque, Muslims view the entire platform to be the al-Aqsa mosque. For them, the entire site is a holy place of prayer. Our guide did not like the term “Temple Mount,” since he assured us that there was never a Jewish temple there.
Our first stop was the Dome of the Rock. It is an octagonal building with a golden dome on top. It is decorated inside and out with colorful tiles. In the center of the structure is the rock. It is actually the bedrock that crops up to the surface at the highest point of the mountain. Stairs lead down to a cave in the bedrock, so in addition to seeing the rock from the top, you can also go under it. I am not sure if it was originally a natural cave, but I saw quarry marks in it, so it is at least partially man-made.
After we left the Dome of the Rock, we went to what is commonly known as the al-Aqsa mosque. Our guide explained to us that it is actually called the Qibli mosque and reminded us that the al-Aqsa mosque encompasses the entire site. The mosque, like the Dome of the Rock is also beautifully decorated.
We wanted to go into the so-called Solomon’s Stables, which are not stables and were not built or used by Solomon. It is the area under the Temple Mount, filled with arches that support the Temple Mount platform. Today, there is a mosque, the el-Marwani mosque there. Our guide took us to the entrance of the mosque and let us look in, but we couldn’t go in. The guide wanted to show us the museum that they have there, but he wasn’t able to get us in there, either. Thus ended our tour of the Temple Mount.