The Theological and Spiritual Significance of Jerusalem
Axis Mundi, or Axis of the world in Latin, refers to a sacred site being the center of the world both historically and religiously. I will turn to Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane, as well as the Hebrew Bible; specifically passages in Genesis, 2 Samuel, 2 Chronicles, 1 Kings, Psalms, and Ezekiel to illustrate the ways in which Jerusalem is portrayed as Axis Mundi. I will unpack Eliade’s descriptions little by little and then turn to the biblical imagery.
Eliade states in The Sacred and the Profane, “The capital of the perfect Chinese sovereign is located at the center of the world; there, on the day of the summer solstice, the gnomon must cast no shadow. It is striking that the same symbolism is found in regard to the Temple of Jerusalem; the rock on which it was built was the navel of the earth” (1987, 39).
This is very poetic, or mytho-poetic imagery with which to describe Jerusalem. With regard to Jerusalem, Eliade is referring to the Dome of the Rock, a shrine built by the Umayyad caliph ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Marwān in the late 7th century. It so happens to be the oldest Islamic monument still standing, and is known as Arabic Qubbat al-Ṣakhrah. Clearly, it is a holy space to both Muslims and Jews, explaining why there is an Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is going on today; in addition to Iranian Zarathustranism.
Obviously, “navel of the earth” is very dense in signification. For one, there is a believed geological significance with regard to the site where the shrine was built, and the city atop it. It is where the sun casts no shadow, perhaps because it is at its zenith when it passes over the rock. This would mark the site as very unique or special. Eliade also states, “The Icelandic pilgrim, Nicholas of Thverva, who visited Jerusalem in the twelfth century, wrote of the Holy Sepulcher: “The Center of the World is there; there, on the day of the summer solstice, the light of the Sun falls perpendicularly from Heaven. The same conception occurs in Iran; the Iranian land (Airyanam Vaejah) is the center and heart of the world. Just as the heart lies at the center of the body, “the land of Iran is more precious than all other countries because it is set at the middle of the world” (40).
Clearly, there is a lot of comparative religion in Eliade. If a site was that special Objectively in a number of religions, as in Zoroastrianism, in addition to being special for the Christians and Jews, the Muslims and the Chinese. The site of the Dome of the Rock is also the site of Temple Mount, where King Solomon, the son of King David as well as the wisest king in history according to God’s own bestowed gift, chose to build his own temple. Clearly, a wise king would choose the best site in the world to build his home and center of his kingdom.
Eliade describes the Dome of the Rock as the in-between site of two cosmic planes, ‘the assimilation of temples to cosmic mountains and their function as links between earth and heaven, the names given to Babylonian sanctuaries themselves bear witness; they are called “Mountain of the House,” ‘House of the Mountain of all Lands,” “Mountain of Storms,” “Link between Heaven and Earth,”’ (40).
Specifically, Eliade mentions the ziggurat structure of the temples or Temple Mount built on top of the Dome. The ziggurat is an ancient formation constituted by a series of terrace steps, built to resemble the design of the heavens themselves as portrayed in monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Islam, which are influenced by Mesopotamian beliefs.
The design of the heavens is as follows. It consists of seven realms concentrically arranged within each other. The seventh Heaven (Araboth) is represented by the innermost and highest or most elevated terrace. It is where God, the Lord resides. It is made of divine light, and it is where he resides with his angels of awe and grace, as well as fear (the Ophanim [Wheels] and Seraphim are. Araboth (ערבות ) mean deserts in Hebrew. The sixth Heaven is Makhon, where Moses, who led the Jews to the Promised Land, resides. It is constructed of garnets and rubies. Machon (מכון ) means city or established place. The fifth heaven (Ma’on) is visited by the prophet Zephaniah, and is where Abraham, the knight of faith, lives with the Avenging Angel. It is called the Universe’s Courthouse and it is where cosmic wrongs and injustices are addressed. Ma’on (מעון) means refuge. The 4th heaven is Zebhul. Constructed of white gold, it is where Enoch lives with the Angel of Tears, Cassiel. Zebul (זבול) means habitation. The 3rd Heaven (Shehaqim) is where Joseph resides, in a palace made of pearls and other dazzling gems. Shehaqim (שחקים) = means clouds in Hebrew. 2 Corinthians 12:2: “I knew a man in The Messiah more than 14 years ago, whether in the body or without the body, I do not know, God himself knows, who was snatched up unto the third Heaven.” The 2nd Heaven is of gold, and is where Jesus Christ and John the Baptist reside. It is called Raki’a ( רקיע ) meaning expanse or canopy. It is the penultimate terrace, second up from the ground. The 1st Heaven (Shamayim is the outermost edge of the heavens. It is where Adam and Eve reside, with the angels of each star, and it is composed of silver. Vilon (וילון) means veil or curtain and is significant in imagery concerning the afterlife, where people are said to “pierce the veil” when dying and going beyond the realm of the living.
Eliade also states of the ziggurat, “The Gate of Apsii and the rock containing the “mouth of the tehiim” designate not only the point of intersection-and hence of communication-between the lower world and earth, but also the difference in ontological status between these two cosmic planes” (42).
In other words, if the ziggurat appeals only as Vilon, or the veil in its outermost wall, to outsiders and human beings, the priest inside the ziggurat would serve as the intercessor of two worlds, the earthly and godly. The imagery here is also extremely profound in that it penetrates the depths of the underworld as well as reaching up to the height of heaven. The massive ziggurat represents the entirety of the cosmos and God’s creation represented in Genesis 2, the heavens and the earth, and Eden in between created as a tribute. Hence, the Ziggurat (and more specifically the Dome it is built upon) represents the center of the worlds, both physical (on Earth) as well as cosmic. It is the bridge of two realms, the worldly and mortal and spiritual or immortal. It is no coincidence that a ziggurat represents the central site of Jerusalem, which is in turn Axis Mundi.
Eliade explains the navel analogy thus: “A universe comes to birth from its center; it spreads out from a central point that is, as it were, its navel. It is in this way that, according to the Rig Veda (X, 149), the universe was born and developed-from a core,, a central point” (44). In other words, the navel of the ziggurat, or the space of the Axis Mundi is the heart of the temple, representative of Araboth. God had created the universe like an embryo, which is nourished by and grows out of the navel as its center. Thus, the center of the cosmos is the navel, likened to the swirling void “without form” of the Tehome described in Genesis 1:2. God finishes creating the Heavens and Earth on the second cosmic day. The primordial deep of the tehome is like a sea, which is similar to the way that the cosmic seed or navel is described in the Hindu Rig Vedas. Eliade says the universe developed out “of a core, a central point” (44). It is rather astonishing that Western and Eastern traditions share similarities, especially with the Babylonian religion preceding that of the Indo-European or Sanskrit Vedic beliefs that grew to hold this conception of the originary formlessness of the cosmos.
The center is obviously the most protected spot because it is the most spiritual. It is nourished spiritually, by God himself, and is God’s sacred dwelling place on Earth, which only the priest can visit because he is free enough of sin. We have seen how the ziggurat holds a number of functions. Founding a city like this in the middle of the desert was an obvious risk. This is why the ziggurat also had a protective function, being walled and consisting of seven protective layers that housed the most cherished and special layer at its peak or hardest to reach spot. This represents the kernel of a seed with its protective layer. The design of the ziggurat’s architecture and the civil plan of Jerusalem is not only reflective of the cosmological order but also of the biological.
I will address the imagery of the Axis Mundi further in the Bible. I had mentioned how n Genesis 2 and 3, God builds the Garden of Eden. Paradise, too, is walled like the ziggurat temples in the city. Although we do not know where Paradise is, exactly, in terms of its geographic location, we can state that the ziggurat, with its gate, serves a similar function of being a protected and sacred center. In 2 Samuel 24, Jerusalem is the only city that is spared by God’s wrath, while a number of surrounding cities are smited by God. This means that God takes favor upon Jerusalem as a holy city and its Axis Mundi.
Jerusalem is a religious center and thus a center politically. The world’s geography is constructed politically; hence we can say Jerusalem, with the infighting of monotheists of various religions today, is still the Axis Mundi, however turbulent. It is in the Middle East, and the center of the Middle East as well.
In 2 Chronicles 2-5, King Solomon builds his temple in Jerusalem. According to the New International Version, “He overlaid the inside with pure gold. 5 He paneled the main hall with juniper and covered it with fine gold and decorated it with palm tree and chain designs. 6 He adorned the temple with precious stones. And the gold he used was gold of Parvaim. 7 He overlaid the ceiling beams, doorframes, walls and doors of the temple with gold, and he carved cherubim on the walls”. One can note the similarity of the interior of gold with that of the second heaven as well as the white gold of the fourth heaven discussed. This serves as a habitation as well as an expanse or canopy. Solomon builds the temple as a towering tribute to God, and is bestowed wisdom as a gift from the divine.
The temple holds the Ark of the Covenant, perhaps the most holy relic in the Bible. The Ark is housed within the temple’s innermost room, a subatomic sanctum. Jerusalem is called Zion, city of David. The priests who are allowed to enter the room must be free of any sin whatsoever, as any normal mortal will die because God is present in the room. Inside the ark are the two tablets of Moses from the time that he had led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land. Amongst some of the people who had encountered God in the ark were Melchidezek, the High Priest.
We have discussed at length the significance of Axis Mundi, especially in terms of its spiritual significance and religious meanings across monotheism, from Christianity to Judaism, and in Islam as well as Zoroastrianism and Hinduism. The Axis Mundi that Jerusalem’s special temple represents is supposed to be reflective of a cosmic center, an origin point or navel as well as a seed. This dense significance is important architecturally. The city of Jerusalem and the design of its buildings are specially said to reflect the Cosmos, and be the meeting point or intercession of man and God. The ziggurat from the times of the Old Testament has been described and discussed in terms of cosmogony.
In terms of both its location and function, Jerusalem is special not only as a tribute to God, but in some cases, the very home of God himself. Jerusalem is in some respects, to Jews, heaven on earth, and not just a holy site, as it is to Christians and Muslims. The uniqueness of Jerusalem as Axis Mundi is important because its design reflects its site’s purpose as a sacred place both aesthetically, in form, as well as in essence, in terms of its designation by God himself and by Solomon.
Cite this Essay
To export a reference to this article please select a referencing style below