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What is Beneath the Temple Mount?

As Israeli archaeologists recover artifacts from the religious site, ancient history inflames modern-day political tensions

Non-Muslims use a wood ramp to enter the complex, home to the gilded Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine, and the Western Wall, holy to Jews. (Polaris)
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But Natsheh, the Waqf’s chief archaeologist, dismisses Barkay’s finds because they were not found in situ in their original archaeological layers in the ground. “It is worth nothing,” he says of the sifting project, adding that Barkay has leapt to unwarranted conclusions in order to strengthen the Israeli argument that Jewish ties to the Temple Mount are older and stronger than those of the Palestinians. “This is all to serve his politics and his agenda,” Natsheh says.

To be sure, the Mount is a flash point in the Middle East conflict. Israel seized East Jerusalem and the Old City from Jordan in 1967. While Israelis saw this as the reunification of their ancient capital, Palestinians still deem East Jerusalem to be occupied Arab land (a position also held by the United Nations).The Temple Mount is precariously balanced between these opposing views. Although Israel claims political sovereignty over the compound, custodianship remains with the Waqf. As such, Israelis and Palestinians cautiously eye each other for any tilt in the status quo. A September 2000 visit to the Temple Mount by the Israeli politician Ariel Sharon was interpreted by Palestinians as a provocative assertion of Israel’s sovereignty, and helped spark the second intifada uprising, which, by some estimates, claimed as many as 6,600 lives, as rioting, armed clashes and terrorist bombings erupted throughout the Palestinian territories and Israel. At its core, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict represents rival claims to the same territory—and both sides rely on history to make the case for whose roots in the land run deepest.

For the Israelis, that history begins 3,000 years ago, when the Temple Mount—believed by many biblical scholars to be the mountain in the region of Moriah mentioned in the Book of Genesis—was an irregularly shaped mound rising some 2,440 feet among the stark Judean Hills. The summit loomed above a small settlement called Jebus, which clung to a ridge surrounded by ravines. The Old Testament describes how an army led by David, the second king of ancient Israel, breached the walls of Jebus around 1000 B.C. David then built a palace nearby and created his capital, Jerusalem. At the site of a threshing floor atop the mountain, where farmers had separated grains from chaff, David constructed a sacrificial altar. According to the Second Book of Kings and the First Book of Chronicles, David’s son, Solomon, built the First Temple (later known as the Beit Hamikdash) on that site.

“The Temple Mount was the Parthenon of the Jews,” says Barkay, describing how worshipers would have climbed a steep set of stairs to get to it. “You would feel every step of the climb in your limbs and your lungs.”

Still, “we know nothing about the First Temple, because there are no traces of its physical remains,” says Benjamin Kedar, a history professor at Hebrew University and chairman of the board of directors at the IAA. Scholars, however, have pieced together a tentative portrait of the Beit Hamikdash from descriptions in the Bible and architectural remains of sanctuaries elsewhere in the region built during the same era. It is envisioned as a complex of richly painted and gilded courts, constructed with cedar, fir and sandalwood. The rooms would have been built around an inner sanctum—the Holy of Holies—where the ark of the covenant, an acacia-wood chest covered with gold and containing the original Ten Commandments, was said to have been stored.

Until recently, Palestinians generally acknowledged that the Beit Hamikdash existed. A 1929 publication, A Brief Guide to the Haram al-Sharif, written by Waqf historian Aref al Aref, declares that the Mount’s “identity with the site of Solomon’s temple is beyond dispute. This too is the spot, according to universal belief, on which David built there an altar unto the Lord, and offered burnt and peace offerings.” But in recent decades, amid the intensifying quarrel over the sovereignty of East Jerusalem, a growing number of Palestinian officials and academics have voiced doubts. “I will not allow it to be written of me that I have...confirmed the existence of the so-called Temple beneath the Mount,” Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat told President Bill Clinton at the Camp David peace talks in 2000. Arafat suggested the site of the Temple Mount might have been in the West Bank town of Nablus, known as Shechem in ancient times.

Five years after the Camp David talks, Barkay’s sifting project turned up a lump of black clay with a seal impression inscribed with the name, in ancient Hebrew, “[Gea]lyahu [son of] Immer.” In the Book of Jeremiah, a son of Immer—Pashur—is identified as chief administrator of the First Temple. Barkay suggests that the seal’s owner could have been Pashur’s brother. If so, it’s a “significant find,” he says—the first Hebrew inscription from the First Temple period to be found on the Mount itself.

But Natsheh—sipping Arabic coffee in his office at Waqf headquarters, a 700-year-old former Sufi monastery in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City—is dubious. He says he’s also frustrated by Israeli dismissal of Palestinian claims to the sacred compound where, he says, the Muslim presence—excepting the Crusader period (A.D. 1099-1187)—“extends for 1,400 years.” Natsheh won’t say if he believes in the existence of the First Temple, given the current political climate. “Whether I say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ it would be misused,” he tells me, fidgeting. “I would not like to answer.”


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