The Temple is/was considered to be the most holy institution of Judaism. Its major significance was that it was the permanent home of the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the two tablets of stone given by G-d to the children of Israel at Mount Horev. The first permanent home for the Ark had been at Shilo in the East.
The Journey of the Ark: Shilo to Jerusalem
During the time of Samuel the prophet, the Israelites were at war with the Philistines. At the battle of Aphek, The Israelites were getting beaten so badly that they brought out their secret weapon: The Ark of the Covenant. They believed that G-d’s power, given because of the presence of the Ark, would ensure them victory. The Israelites were overjoyed, and the Philistines were afraid, but in the end, the victory went to the Philistines, with around 30,000 losses on the Israelite side. According to the Bible, the Philistines then took the Ark back to one of their chief cities, Ashdod, and placed it in the shrine of their god, Dagon. The next morning, they found the statue of Dagon bowing down before the Ark. They replaced the statue, but the same thing happened several times. G-d then sent a plague down on the Philistines, and they placed the Ark on a cart drawn by cows, and let the cows ride back to the Israelites. When the Ark got to Bet Shemesh, it was recovered by the Israelites, but unfortunately only the priests were allowed to touch the ark, and so it was taken to the house of a righteous man called Abinadab who was a Levite, where it remained for twenty years.
Twenty years later, King David decided to bring the Ark to Jerusalem, and so he went to the house of Abinadab with all of the priests, and loaded it onto a cart, and together they brought the Ark back to Jerusalem, preceded by David playing the harp. David recognised that he would not be able to be around the Ark for long since he was not a holy man, and so he brought it to the house of a righteous man called Obededom who was a Levite. David decided that this was not a fitting place for the Ark of the Covenant, and asked the prophet Natan for permission to build a Temple. Natan was told by G-d that David would not be able to build a Temple, because he was a warrior and had blood on his hands, but that his son, Solomon would be able to build a Temple after David’s death.
Later, David wanted to hold a census, to find out how many Israelites lived in his land. Unfortunately, he did not observe the Jewish law for making a census, i.e. that you should not count each person, you should collect ‘Machatsita Shekel’, or a half a shekel from each man, and count how much money you have. G-d became angered at David’s disobedience, and sent a plague. When 70,000 people had already died, David prayed to G-d to punish him alone, and spare the people. G-d stopped the plague, and told the prophet Gad to go to David and tell him to establish an altar on the threshing floor of Aruanah the Jebusite. Aruanah wished to gift the threshing floor to the king, but David insisted on buying it, and paid fifty shekels. It so happened that this threshing floor was at the very top of Mount Moriah, where Avrahamtried to sacrifice Yitzchak (or Ishmael in the Muslim tradition), and so this was where the Temple would be established.
The Construction of the First Temple
Just before David died, he gave his son, Solomon, gold, silver and treasure that he had set aside for the building of the Temple, and then crowned him King. In the fourth year of his reign, Solomon began to build the Temple.
He imported cedar and cypress timber from Tyre and stone from Jerusalem, and brought skilled workers from Tyre and Phoenicia. The building was built of white marble, 20 cubits wide and 60 cubits long (roughly 9.2 metres by 27.6 metres in metric measurement, or 30 feet by 90 feet in imperial measurement). It stood two stories tall and had a courtyard at the front surrounded by 30 smaller interconnected rooms.
At the entrance to the Temple stood two Bronze pillars, one called Boaz (on the left of the entrance) and the other called Yachin (on the right of the entrance). There are discrepancies in the Bible as to the exact construction of these two pillars. Chronicles says that they were both 35 cubits (16.1 metres or 52’ 6”) high, with a five cubit (2.3 metres or 7’ 6”) ‘chapiter’ on top. I Kings says they were 18 cubits (8.28 metres or 27 feet) high with 5 cubit chapiters, whilst II Kings says they were 18 cubits with 3 cubit (1.38 metres or 4’ 6”) chapiters. Each was adorned with a chain from which hung 100 pomegranates.
In the courtyard stood the bronze altar on which sacrifices were made. Next to the altar was a giant basin made of brass, so large that it was known as ‘The Bronze Sea’, which was supported by twelve calves, three facing in each direction. This was for the priests to wash their hands and feet before making sacrifices. The roof of the Temple was made of the Lebanon cedars from Tyre.
The interior was divided into two rooms, the outer chamber and The Kodesh Kodashim, or Holy of Holies, which was the holiest area of the Temple. The outer chamber contained the golden altar on which incense was burned, as well as ten thousand candlesticks, one of which was always kept lit. The outer chamber also contained a large number of tables, many of which contained the gold and silver vessels, numbering in their thousands, along with the one gold table, on which were placed the loaves that had been dedicated to G-d. Between the outer chamber and the Kodesh Kodashim hung a veil of blue, purple and scarlet.
The Kodesh Kodashim, the holiest site in Judaism, contained two statues of cherubim (one of the choirs of angels) fashioned of solid gold and standing in the same direction. The wings of the statues were extended so that the wing of one touched the northern wall, and the wing of the other touched the southern wall. The centre wings touched each other, acting as a cover for the Ark of the Covenant itself, which resided underneath the touching wingtips. The Kodesh Kodashim was the exact site of the rock of the binding of Yitzchak/Ishmael, which was also said to be the rock from which creation exploded, the rock on which G-d stood during the creation and the dwelling place of Adam when he left the Garden of Eden. It was only to be entered by one man, the Kohen HaGadol, or High Priest, and then on only one day of the year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The Kohen HaGadol would spend the whole day preparing himself, including bathing several times, to ensure that he was ritually the most pure that anyone could possibly be, and entered the Kodesh Kodashim to perform the most holy prayers, amongst them pronouncing the proper name of G-d, commonly referred to today as the tetragrammaton.
The exterior was decorated with several porticoes and colonnades, along with musicians playing 200,000 trumpets and 40,000 stringed instruments.
Destruction and Rebuilding
In the tenth year of Zedekiah’s reign, Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, finally conquered Jerusalem after an eighteen month siege. Nebuzaradan, Nebuchadnezzar’s general, was ordered to plunder and set fire to the Temple and the king’s palace, on the Jewish date of the 9th of Av. He then razed the city to the ground, and took the leaders of the people to Babylon. In the ensuing years, the Babylonians were conquered by the Persians, who allowed the Israelites to return to Israel, although on a side-note, not all of them did, with many staying behind to begin a long Jewish tradition in Babylon. 42,462 returned from Babylon to rebuild the Temple with the aid of the Persian ruler, Cyrus.
According to Josephus, Cyrus had read the prophesies of Yishiahu (Isaiah), given 210 years earlier, which said that the Temple would be rebuilt by a man named Cyrus. With this in mind, he declared that the G-d of Israel was the one true G-d, returned to the Israelites the vessels which Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from the Temple, and instructed his Satraps to provide the Israelites with enough gold and silver to rebuild the Temple. According to the Tanach, however, the primary mover was Zerubbabel, who had the permission of Koresh. The Temple was then rebuilt in its rightful place, but work got delayed and it wasn't finished until Ezra and Nechemya's time. Over the ensuing period of time, the Temple was enlarged and extended.
The Persians were eventually conquered by the Greeks. Many of the local populace became Hellenised, with Hellenised Jews going so far as to establish a gymnasium on the Temple Mount, even going so far as to encourage young priest boys to exercise there naked. The Greeks were eventually thrown out of Israel by the Israelites themselves, led by the Maccabee family, who then proceeded to restore the Temple to its former glory. Their dynasty ruled Israel, getting progressively worse until the forth generation of Hasmoneans, who fought over who should be king. They asked the local power broker to decide who should rule, but unfortunately the local power broker was a Roman General who promptly came in and conquered Israel. The Romans eventually installed a puppet King to rule over teh Jews, Herod.
In the 18th year of the reign of king Herod, he decided to curry favour with the Israelites by totally refurbishing the Temple. Before the time of Herod, the Temple had been on the top of a mountain, and it required considerable effort to ascend to the top. On Herod’s orders the Temple was deconstructed, the foundations were taken out, and a walled structure was built all the way around Mount Moriah, with a flat roof to the structure at the top of the mountain, creating a large flat surface for a bigger and more grandiose temple. The stones used to build the new mountain were white and ornately carved at great expense. The Temple itself was rebuilt on top of the new mountain, along with the king’s new colonnade along the southern end, which served as a smaller palace for Herod. At the southern end of the new mountain stood the steps which had to be climbed to gain access. Each step was constructed to be a slightly different height, so that the worshipper had to concentrate on the journey up to the sacred sanctuary, as a way of concentrating the mind.
The construction of the Temple was much grander than the original, incorporating two outer courtyards that were not present before. The entrance of the Temple was covered by purple hangings and a golden vine with grape clusters adorned the area below the cornice. The Temple had a ‘modern’ look, as evidenced by the introduction of 162 Corinthian columns surrounding the Temple. Beyond the first courtyard was the second which contained an inscription prohibiting foreigners from entering on penalty of death. The sacred courtyard, which women were forbidden to enter, was contained within the second courtyard, and beyond the second courtyard was the third courtyard, which contained the Temple, designed to similar specifications as the original. Only the priests were allowed to enter the third courtyard, and in the northwest corner was contained the citadel of the Kohen HaGadol.
There are two interesting stories about this rebuilding of the Temple. The Temple itself (i.e. the third courtyard) was built in a year and a half by the priests, who were aided by G-d, who caused all the rain to fall at night during that period, so that work would not have to be stopped by the weather. Another story says that during construction, one worker who was standing in one of the courtyards collapsed dead. The area where he died was excavated, and underneath that spot was found the original Kodesh Kodashim. The new Kodesh Kodashim was preserved, and the site of the original was barricaded off, although this story is not accepted by the bulk of the contemporary Jewish historians.
Decline and Fall
The Roman era was not good for the Israelites, as many harsh taxes and laws were placed under them. At various points during the Roman rule of Israel, the Temple was defiled in different ways. Both Hadrian and Caligula wanted to erect statues of Jupiter in the Temple, although some accounts say that Caligula's statue would in fact have been of himself, and the conquering Pompey apparently forced entry to the Temple and barged his way into the Kadosh Kadoshim.
At this point, Israelites live in three main factions, Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes. Sadducees were, by and large, the richer and upper class, for example the Kohen HaGadol was a Sadducee. The Sadducees believed in Torah above all else and, for the most part, rejected the Oral Law. The Pharisees hold the support of the common masses, believing in Written Law and Oral Law. In the early part of the first century CE, two new divisions arose, Zealots and Nazarenes, Zealots being militant anti-Romans.
Strongly goaded on by the Roman governor, Florus, the Zealots organised a revolt, which came to be known as the Great Revolt. Despite many early victories, the revolt was eventually crushed, and the Romans burned the Temple to the ground on the 30th of August, 70 CE, on the Jewish date of the 9th of Av, exactly 702 years since it had first been destroyed.
Into the Modern Age
In the 6th and seventh century, Muslim warriors conquered much of the Arab peninsula, even getting as far as Southern Spain. Upon conquering the ancient kingdom of Israel, Jerusalem was cemented as a Muslim holy city with the foundation of two Holy structures, the Al-Aqsa mosque, built on top of what was once the King's colonnade, built by Herod, and the Dome of the Rock, a shrine built to house the Rock of Creation, which was built on top of the Kadosh Kadoshim. After several wars, various parts of the Temple mount became buried and destroyed, and, for the most part, very little remains of the Second (Herodian) Temple, and almost nothing of the First (Solomonaic) Temple. The one part of the Temple mount that remained visible was the western wall, and consequently this was largely destroyed, and rebuilt using local stone.
In 1967, when Israel conquered that part of Jerusalem, efforts were made to conserve the area. The area underneath the western wall was cleared, leaving two layers of Herodian stone visible at the bottom of the wall, and the southern wall, along with Robinson’s Arch, has been excavated at the south western corner of the mount.
Jewish Antiquities, Josephus Flavius
Ancient Jewish History Lectures, Steve Israel, Machon L’Madrichei Chutz L’Aretz
Second Temple Lectures, Jared Goldfarb, Machon L’Madrichei Chutz L’Aretz
World English Bible Glossary (Cubit conversion), http://ebible.org/bible/web/glossary.htm
Those Mysterious Pillars: Boaz and Jachin, http://www.freemasons-freemasonry.com/larsonwilliam.html