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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 Israeli archaeologist Danny Bahat told the Jerusalem Post that, since the dirt was filler, the layers do not represent a meaningful chronology. “What they did is like putting the remains in a blender,” adds Jerusalem region archaeologist Seligman about the Waqf excavation. “All the layers are now mixed and damaged.” Archaeologist Meir Ben-Dov, a specialist on the Old City, has raised doubts as to whether all the landfill even originated on the Temple Mount. Some of it, he suggests, was brought there from Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter.

Barkay, not surprisingly, rejects this suggestion, citing the frequent finds of Ottoman glazed wall-tile fragments from the Dome of the Rock, dating back to the 16th century, when Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent repaired and beautified the shrine. And, though the excavated soil is not in situ, he says that, even if one were to discount the scientific value of the artifacts by 80 percent, “we are left with 20 percent, which is a lot more than zero.”

Barkay identifies and dates the artifacts through “typology”: he compares his finds with similarly made objects in which a timeline has been firmly established. For instance, the opus sectile pieces Barkay found in the soil were precisely the same—in terms of material, shape and dimensions—as those that Herod used in palaces at Jericho, Masada and Herodium.

We arrive at Barkay’s salvaging operation, and he greets a handful of staffers. Then he leads the way to a worktable and shows me a sampling of a single day’s efforts. “Here’s a bowl fragment from the First Temple period,” he says. “A Byzantine coin here. A Crusader arrowhead made of iron. This is a Hasmonean coin, from the dynasty that ruled Judah in the second century B.C.” Barkay tells me that volunteers by the hundreds arrive each week to help with the sifting—even ultra-Orthodox Jews, who traditionally oppose archaeological excavations in the Holy Land. “They say all the evidence is in the [scriptural] sources, you don’t need physical proof. But they’re willing to make an exception, because it’s the Temple Mount.” Barkay pauses. “If I look at some of the volunteers, and I see the excitement in their eyes, that they with their own fingers can touch the history of Jerusalem, this is irreplaceable.” He admits the project has attracted “very few” Palestinians or Arab Israelis.

Leading me outside the plastic-covered building, Barkay squints into the sunlight. We can see the Temple Mount in the distance, the sunlight glinting off the golden-topped Dome of the Rock. “We’ve been working for six years, and we’ve gone through 20 percent of the material,” he says, pointing to huge heaps of earth that fill an olive grove below the tent. “We have another 15 to 20 years to go.”

Joshua Hammer wrote about the Bamiyan Buddhas in the November 2010 issue. Kate Brooks is an Istanbul-based photojournalist who has worked in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan.


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