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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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According to contemporary accounts, the Babylonian Army destroyed the First Temple in 586 B.C. The ark of the covenant disappeared, possibly hidden from the conquerors. Following the conquest of Jerusalem by the Persians in 539 B.C., the Jews returned from exile and, according to the Book of Ezra, constructed a Second Temple on the site.

In the first century B.C., King Herod undertook a massive reshaping of the Temple Mount. He filled up the slopes surrounding the mount’s summit and expanded it to its present size. He enclosed the holy site within a 100-foot-high retaining wall constructed of limestone blocks quarried from the Jerusalem Hills and constructed a far more expansive version of the Second Temple. “Herod’s attitude was, ‘Anything you can do, I can do better and larger,’” says Barkay. “It was part of his megalomania. He wanted also to compete with God.”

Barkay says he and his co-workers have turned up physical evidence that hints at the grandeur of the Second Temple, including pieces of what appear to be opus sectile floor tiles—elements of a technique in Herod’s time that used stone of various colors and shapes to create geometric patterns. (Describing the temple, the ancient historian Jo­sephus wrote of an open-air courtyard “laid with stones of all sorts.”) Other discoveries might offer glimpses of daily religious rituals—notably ivory and bone combs that could have been used in preparation for a ritual mikvah, or purifying bath, before entering the courts’ sanctified interior.

On a cloudless morning, I join historian Meiron for a tour of the Temple Mount. We enter the Old City through the Dung Gate and then arrive at the Western Wall plaza. When the Romans destroyed Herod’s temple in A.D. 70, they knocked the retaining wall down piece by piece. But the stones from the top tumbled down and formed a protective barrier that preserved the wall’s lower portions. Today, hundreds of Orthodox Jews are gathered in devotion before the remnant of that wall—a ritual that perhaps first occurred in the fourth century A.D. and has been practiced continually since the early 16th century, after the Ottoman conquest of Jerusalem.

During the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate, this area was a warren of Arab houses, and Jews who wanted to pray here had to squeeze into a 12-foot-wide corridor in front of the Herodian stones. “My father came here as a child and he told me, ‘We used to go through alleys; we entered a door; and there was the wall on top of us,’ ” Meiron tells me. After Israel claimed sovereignty over East Jerusalem in 1967, it demolished the Arab houses, creating the plaza.

Meiron and I climb a “temporary” wooden walkway that leads above the Western Wall to the Mughrabi Gate, the only entry point to the Temple Mount for non-Muslims—and a symbol of how any attempt to change the site’s geography can upset the delicate status quo. Israel erected the wooden structure after an earthen ramp collapsed in 2004, following an earthquake and heavy snowfall. In 2007, the IAA approved the construction of a permanent bridge that would stretch from the Old City’s Dung Gate to the Mughrabi Gate.

But members of both the Jewish and Muslim communities opposed the plan. Some Israeli archaeologists raised an outcry over the bridge’s proposed path through the Jerusalem Archaeological Park—the site of excavations conducted in the Old City—saying the construction could damage artifacts. The late Ehud Netzer, the archaeologist who discovered King Herod’s tomb in 2007, argued that moving the entrance ramp could effectively cut off the Western Wall’s connection to the Temple Mount, thereby undermining Israel’s claims to sovereignty over the sacred compound. And the Israeli activist group Peace Now warned the project might alarm Muslims since the new route and size of the bridge (three times the original ramp) would increase non-Muslim traffic to the Mount.

Indeed, when Israel began a legally required archaeological survey of the planned construction site, Palestinians and Arab Israelis joined in a chorus of protest. They claimed the Israeli excavations—although conducted several yards outside the walls of the sacred compound—threatened the foundations of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Some even said that it was Israel’s covert plan to unearth remains of the First and Second Temples in order to solidify its historic claim to the Mount. For the time being, non-Muslim visitors continue to use the temporary wooden bridge that has been in place for seven years.


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