Jerusalem’s Old City, founded around 4,000 BC, is an area of great significance to people from the three monotheistic religions: Islam, Judaism and Christianity. It is divided into four quarters (Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian) and is surrounded by walls. Eleven gates lead into the Old City, and seven of these are open today.
Inside the Old City, a World Heritage site, lies al-Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary, a 35-acre compound that comprises Islam’s third holiest site, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, al-Aqsa mosque. The compound is also home to the Dome of the Rock, a revered site believed to be where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
Since Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip in June 1967, the affairs of the Noble Sanctuary have been run by an Islamic trusteeship, supported by the Jordanian government, known as the Waqf. Israel still maintains what it believes to be its right to sovereignty over the area after it annexed the eastern part of the city.
In addition to running schools and charities in Jerusalem, the Waqf maintains guards at the entrances to the compound, with the exception of the Mughrabi Gate. This gate (also known as Bab al-Magharbeh or Dung Gate) is connected by a bridge to an open-air plaza that was created when Israel demolished the Mughrabi (Moroccan) Quarter in 1967.
This plaza lies in front of the Western (Wailing) Wall, which Jews believe is the last remnant of the Second Temple, a place of Jewish worship that was destroyed by the Roman rulers of Jerusalem centuries ago. Jewish tradition maintains that a Third Temple will be rebuilt on the Noble Sanctuary, referred to in Judaism as the Temple Mount.
The Noble Sanctuary compound is currently allowed for Muslim prayer alone, but Israeli soldiers regularly escort Jewish Israeli visitors to the site. These incursions are often performed under armed guard, and provoke violent clashes between the Israeli security forces and Palestinians. The Israeli authorities also regularly impose strict rules on Palestinian access to the Noble Sanctuary, frequently forbidding all men under 40 (at times under 50) years of age from entering.