From Judaism to Islam and William Blake to the Freemasons, the physical structure and idea of the Temple of Jerusalem have been at the forefront of religious, political, artistic and literary expression for 3,000 years.
The heartbeat of the House of the Lord has lived on in the dreams and despair of the world's three great religions and a string of empires since Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Solomon's First Temple in 586BC right up to Ariel Sharon's sparking of the second intifada by visiting the Temple Mount in 2000.
The history of the Temple Mount and its changing symbolism are vividly evoked in three very different new books. The Temple of Jerusalem , written by the Cambridge University scholar Simon Goldhill, offers a historical overview of the holiest place on earth. Thankfully, this is not yet another indoctrinated diatribe into cubits and the endless quest for the precise location and size of the Temple, choked by forests of biblical quotes. In Goldhill's balanced world, the size of the monument is immaterial; rather the fluctuating symbolism of the Temple offers fertile ground for examining patterns of peaceful and fanatical human behaviour.
This is history of the most skilful order, cleverly packaged to make vast knowledge of literature and art accessible and meaningful to modern society. Ordered chronologically, the beauty, spirituality, stupidity and sadness of the Temple are all evoked by Goldhill without any specific religious or political axe being explicitly ground.
The rich and enduring impact of the Temple is highlighted by a bizarre Old Testament "sin-purification" ritual that marked the end of the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. At this time, two male goats would be led to the high priests of Jerusalem, who drew lots from wooden boxes inscribed "For Azazel" and "A sin offering for the Lord". The goat chosen "For Azazel" was exiled into the desert to die under the transferred weight of the sins of the community, giving birth to the image of the "scapegoat" common in most modern European languages.
However, it is the power of fantasy that has emerged from a yearning for a lost golden Temple age that is especially striking. The zealous drive to possess the Temple has always brought out the worst in civilisations. When the pious Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099, according to Radulph of Caen, "our troops boiled pagan adults in cooking pots". The Crusaders seized the 8th-century Dome of the Rock mosque on the traditional site of the altar of Solomon, where Mohammed also rose to receive the rules of Muslim self-discipline (in the seventh layer of heaven - hence the "seventh heaven" of modern terminology). The mosque was renamed Templum Domini (Temple of Our Lord) and a Christian cross was raised above it. The supposed Solomonic Temple reproduced throughout Renaissance art, for example in Raphael's Marriage of the Virgin , thus inaccurately replicated a Muslim mosque.
The perennial dream of a Third Temple flows off the pages of Asher Selig Kaufman's The Temple Mount: Where is the Holy of Holies? Kaufman is a physicist who has been obsessed since 1974 with the exact location and ground plan of the ancient Temple of Jerusalem. Although he is a man of science, his lack of background research and of a rigorous methodology is profoundly disturbing.
His initial attempt to rediscover the Temple involved a bizarre scheme to trace backwards sacrificial blood that in Roman times streamed from the altar of sacrifice into the Kidron Valley. After Kaufman realised that the modern watercourse of the Kidron is unrecognisable from its 2,000-year-old configuration, he turned to ancient metrology. Landmarks and orientations were matched to an obscure story of a heifer sacrifice on the Mount of Olives (to purify the Temple foundations with blood) cited in the Jewish text Middot .
Through this process, Kaufman sensationally claims to have found the ancient "holy of holies", today forgotten on the Temple Mount under the Muslim Dome of the Spirits. This spot lies outside its traditional location within the Dome of the Rock, which allows the author to propose a religious solution to the nationalistic Temple Mount debate, in which Judaism and Islam share ownership of the most sacred spot on earth.
Without labouring my point, Kaufman's expensively produced volume, heavy with measurements and new maps of the Second Temple, is precisely the dangerous kind of dream born of a lifetime's overzealous obsession. "Divine inspiration together with scientific methodology accepted in the natural sciences" may have guided his investigation, but regrettably the end product is a mirage.
In the perennial dream to rebuild Zion, the Temple has proved more powerful as a symbol of loss than when it existed. Once Titus destroyed the House of the Lord in AD70, the concept of physical sacrifice at a centralised Jewish cult site as the dominant form of communication between man and God was silenced. Decentralised prayer and the intellectual study of the Temple symbol in thousands of synagogues replaced it, and the modern structure of Judaism was born.
Although Rome was left with no alternative but to seize the Temple in order decisively to decapitate the Jewish revolt, does this make the Roman Empire institutionally racist? Benjamin Isaac of Tel Aviv University, a Dutch Jewish immigrant living in Israel (thus both an outsider and an insider), is perfectly placed to assess this heavyweight issue. The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity pores over substantial textual evidence to confirm that both the ancient Greeks and Romans possessed nationalistic tendencies.
For us in Britain, obsessed with the weather, it is curious to find that the great minds of antiquity believed that the character of races was determined by climate and geography. Just as 20th-century racist theory was inspired by Darwin's belief that a species cannot produce fertile offspring when crossed with a representative of another species, the concept of the "sub-species" was also championed in the 5th century BC. Thus, for Aristotle, all biologically perfect creatures reproduce themselves, whereas the imperfect were generated spontaneously from the earth or were the product of the fusion of rotting matter.
If, for Herodotus, the creativity and brilliance of Greece was the result of his homeland's being "more beautifully tempered (than any other country)", the Roman Vitruvius regarded "the truly perfect territory, situated under the middle of the heaven" as "that which is occupied by the Roman people".
Isaac portrays a "softer" historical underbelly to Roman foreign policy, proposing that it relied on client kings to keep the peace of conquered provinces, and so allowed taxes and trade to flow unhindered against a backdrop of gradual acculturation. However, with the Jews of Israel, Rome was left with no choice but to act brutally. While Cleomedes labelled the Jews "much lower than reptiles", Diodorus' advice was "to wipe out completely the Jewish people, since they alone of all nations avoided dealings with any other people and looked upon all men as their enemies".
One could say that just as Hamas today represents only a minority of Palestinians, so, 2,000 years ago, a small Jewish fanatical faction was responsible for the fall of Israel in the 1st century AD.
A contentious issue is Isaac's conclusion that the societies of classical antiquity were "proto-racist". Since "racialism" as a term appeared in print only in 1907, inspired by the ideology of the Enlightenment, Isaac argues that antiquity had no grasp of nationalism in the modern sense.
Instead, a "lighter" range of prejudices and hostilities towards specific groups of foreigners prevailed. Is this not a little too generous? Even if the literature of upper-class Greece and Rome reveals mere proto-racism, surely this is because of the fragmentary nature of surviving texts. Racism is really a universal form of human behaviour that has existed in primitive and complex forms at least since territorial borders were conceived by Neolithic farmers laying out fields. Would an analytical reading of the Bible and cuneiform texts not expose a comparable mode of expression long before the efflorescence of literature in classical Greece?
Goldhill's work is learned but has a broad appeal that bridges academia and the high street. Kaufman's years of toil can only serve as a lesson about the intellectual fantasy that the dream of Zion continues to inspire.
Isaac's book is seriously academic and will long remain an essential standard tool for debate.
Sean Kingsley is managing editor, Minerva: The International Review of Ancient Art and Archaeology.
The Temple of Jerusalem
Author - Simon Goldhill
Publisher - Profile
Pages - 193
Price - £15.99
ISBN - 1 86197 603 8