Whether you realize it or not, or understand it or not, events there are destined to affect the lives of every person on earth.
Why does the Middle East dominate the headlines so often? One obvious answer is oil, the lifeblood of modern economies. Without oil to run factories, heat homes, fuel transportation and provide energy and raw materials for thousands of uses, the economies of many nations would grind to a halt. The crucial importance of oil alone ensures that the Middle East will remain in the headlines for years.
But there's more that keeps the Middle East in the news. It is the birthplace of the world's three great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Too often it has not been just their birthplace, but their battlefield, with adherents warring against each other for control of territory they consider holy.
Nowhere are these conflicts more obvious than in Israel, and specifically in Jerusalem. If you've never been to Jerusalem, it's hard to imagine how so much history, religion and culture can collide and stand in literal heaps. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Temple Mount, flash point for many a conflict over the centuries.
The site first came to the attention of Israel's King David, who bought a threshing floor and built an altar on it, intending it for the site of the temple (1 Chronicles 21-22). The Temple Mount is so named because it is the location of the temple built by David's son Solomon (destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.) and its replacement built by Zerubbabel and later enlarged by Herod the Great (ultimately razed by the Roman general Titus in A.D. 70).
Here Jesus of Nazareth worshipped, taught and confronted the money changers, scribes, Pharisees and other religious authorities. After His death and resurrection, Christianity was born in the temple's shadow. His followers continued to worship and teach there for several more decades until the legions of Rome crushed a Jewish rebellion and carted away most of the Jewish population they hadn't killed. A later Jewish rebellion, in 132-135, led to a Roman decree that no Jew was to set foot in Jerusalem on pain of death.
Centuries later, in 638, Muslim Arabs took the city. In 691 Muslims built the Dome of the Rock on that same Temple Mount, enclosing the spot from which, Muslims believe, Muhammad ascended to heaven. Today Muslims consider it the third-holiest site in Islam, after Mecca, where Muhammad was born, and Medina, where he found refuge and died.
Several more centuries passed before the Crusaders captured Jerusalem, slaughtered Muslim and Jew alike and converted the Dome of the Rock into a church. Their hold on the city lasted less than a century before Muslims recaptured it. Jerusalem changed hands three more times before Muslims took control of the city and held it from 1244 until 1917, when the Ottoman Empire lost its hold in World War I and the city came under British administration.
In 1948 the modern state of Israel was born, and in the 1967 war the Israelis gained control of all of Jerusalem, though leaving the Temple Mount under Islamic authority.
Today one can watch Muslims praying at the Dome of the Rock atop the Temple Mount, Jews praying at the Western Wall barely a stone's throw below and Christians praying along the Via Dolorosa and at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher a few hundred yards to the north and west. And all around one sees the rubble of the centuries of conflict over this holy place.
Who will write the next chapter in the history of this troubled city? Believe it or not, the final chapters are already written—prophesied centuries ago in the pages of the Bible. Ominously, they mesh remarkably well with today's headlines. In the following pages we provide you with an overview of the past and the headlines of tomorrow.