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The ‘king of Jerusalem’ who almost burnt down Al Aqsa

46 years ago, a man claiming to be the next king of Jerusalem almost burnt down Al Aqsa mosque, fanning the falmes of cultural conflict.

46 years ago on this day, an Australian tourist suffering from severe mental illness, managed to enter the Al Aqsa mosque compound undeterred, set fire to the mosque’s stage, and fled the scene. The mosque quickly caught fire and incurred serious damage. Muslim worshippers immediately blamed the Jewish population, and soon there after clashes broke out in Jerusalem. The Australian tourist, Denis Michael Rohan, said that god had asked him to set fire to the mosque, saying he would be made a “king of Jerusalem.”

On the 21st of August 1969, at 7:20 AM a group of Muslim worshippers were making their way to the Al Aqsa mosque. The man responsible for temple security was among them, wearing a khaki uniform, standing at the entrance to the compound. Suddenly the calm was broken: A young man ran out of the mosque yelling “fire, fire.”

A group of men who were on their way to prayers ran into the mosque, and within minutes managed to remove as much as they could grab: carpets, dividers, prayer books, and furniture. In the meanwhile, a plume of black smoke billowed above the golden dome. The smoke emanating from one of Islam’s holiest sites was clearly visible from all over Jerusalem.

In a matter of minutes, hundreds of the old city’s Muslim residents, including many children and teens, arrived at the temple mount. The masses of people began yelling and screaming, and whether intentional or not, interfered with the firefighters attempts to control the flames. The crowd managed to shut off the fire truck’s water hoses. One individual went as far as breaking the only fire hydrant on the temple mount.

In a matter of minutes the six Jerusalem based fire trucks exhausted their water supplies, with the lack of immediate water sources at hand, the crews were forced to cease fighting the fires for a matter of time. As a result, the fire spread towards other wooden areas within the mosque.

Soon after the fire began spreading, the screams of the masses of Muslim worshippers reached a fever pitch, with some of the youths yelling curses against the “Jews who burned our shrine,” while others yelled “Arab Palestine.” At 8:30 AM a thunderous sound was heard from within the mosque, followed by a rising black cloud of smoke. A large portion of the wooden roof had collapsed as a result of the fire, falling onto the mosque floor. The crash led to yet another wave of hysterical screaming, as it was described, followed by a wave of pushing and violent outbursts.

yed6News clippings of the mosque the next day (Photo: Yediot archive)

The fury reached its peak when then Jerusalem mayor, Teddy Kollek entered the burning mosque. Police officers rushed to protect him from any possible injury, but where quickly repelled by the angry crowd, who began raising their fists to ward off the officers. Furious Muslim youths also managed to push high ranking military officials from the temple mount. The officers chose to not to push into the mount, preferring to leave through the Mugrahbi Bridge, and avoid sparking another outbreak of violence. Kollek followed the officers in leaving the compound. One of the officers barely managed to escape the wrath of an angry woman, who raised her shoe above her head, intending to hit the officer.

The firefighters finally managed to subdue the fire at 10 AM. Tensions among the Muslim population however, where not subdued, as dozens of youths began running towards the Damascus gate, clutching wood planks and iron beams. The police did not want the situation to devolve and quickly dispersed the youths by firing warning shots in the air.

About an hour after the fire was put out, then Defense Minister Moshe Dayan arrived at the scene. Later that afternoon, Prime Minister Golda Meir and her deputy Igal Alon arrived on the scene as well. Meir entered the mosque with her head bowed, and with sorrow hanging heavy on her face. Upon exiting, Meir said the arson would not affect relations between Jews and Arabs.

Sheikh Helmi Muhtaseb, Chairman of the Islamic Committee of Jerusalem, spoke to the journalists who escorted Meir into the mosque, saying that the fire was not started by a power cord shorting, but by targeted arson: “The guards noticed a suspicious figure walking around the mount in the early morning hours, who later escaped mere minutes before the fire erupted. The guards chased him, but were not able to catch him. We have an exact description of his face. We are sure he is not Palestinian. We demand an international commission of inquiry be established, including Arab engineers.”

Al Muhtaseb, called for the closure of the Mugrahbim Bridge, and the closing of the mount to non-Muslims. Concurrently, 27 Muslim countries called on the UN Security Council to hold an urgent session on the matter of the arson.

In the meanwhile, the Israeli police aired the possibility that the attack was perpetuated by a terrorist organization in an attempt to fan the flames against Israel. The responsibility for checking into the terrorism angel was placed squarely on the shoulders of the security forces. At the same time, a committee of inquiry led by Supreme Court justice Dr. Yoel Zussman was established in order to investigate the arson.

On Friday night at 8:00 PM, 36 hours after the arson, the police held a special press conference in which the chief of the southern district police, deputy commissioner Shaul Rozilio said that a 27-year-old Australian named Denis William Rohan was behind the arson.

22Golda in Al Aqsa (Photo: Yediot archive)


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