My stint as an amateur archaeologist began one morning on the southern slope of Mount Scopus, a hill on the northern outskirts of Jerusalem. Inside a large hothouse covered in plastic sheets and marked “Temple Mount Salvage Operation,” a woman from Boston named Frankie Snyder—a volunteer turned staffer—led me to three rows of black plastic buckets, each half-filled with stones and pebbles, then pointed out a dozen wood-framed screens mounted on plastic stands. My job, she said, was to dump each bucket onto a screen, rinse off any soil with water from a garden hose, then pluck out anything of potential importance.
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It wasn’t as easy as it sounded. A chunk of what looked like conglomerate rock turned out to be plaster used to line cisterns during the time of Herod the Great, some 2,000 years ago. When I tossed aside a shard of green glass I thought was from a soft-drink bottle, Snyder snatched it up. “Notice the bubbles,” she told me, holding it up to the light. “That indicates it’s ancient glass, because during that time, oven temperatures didn’t reach as high as they do now.”
Gradually, I got the hang of it. I spotted the handle of an ancient piece of pottery, complete with an indentation for thumb support. I retrieved a rough-edged coin minted more than 1,500 years ago and bearing the profile of a Byzantine emperor. I also found a shard of glass from what could only have been a Heineken bottle—a reminder that the Temple Mount has also been the scene of less historic activities.
The odds and ends I was gathering are the fruits of one of Israel’s most intriguing archaeological undertakings: a grain-by-grain analysis of debris trucked out of the Temple Mount, the magnificent edifice that has served the faithful as a symbol of God’s glory for 3,000 years and remains the crossroads of the three great monotheistic religions.
Jewish tradition holds that it is the site where God gathered the dust to create Adam and where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac to prove his faith. King Solomon, according to the Bible, built the First Temple of the Jews on this mountaintop circa 1000 B.C., only to have it torn down 400 years later by troops commanded by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, who sent many Jews into exile. In the first century B.C., Herod expanded and refurbished a Second Temple built by Jews who had returned after their banishment. It is here that, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus Christ lashed out against the money changers (and was later crucified a few hundred yards away). The Roman general Titus exacted revenge against Jewish rebels, sacking and burning the Temple in A.D. 70.
Among Muslims, the Temple Mount is called Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary). They believe it was here that the Prophet Muhammad ascended to the “Divine Presence” on the back of a winged horse—the Miraculous Night Journey, commemorated by one of Islam’s architectural triumphs, the Dome of the Rock shrine. A territorial prize occupied or conquered by a long succession of peoples—including Jebusites, Israelites, Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, early Muslims, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans and the British—the Temple Mount has seen more momentous historical events than perhaps any other 35 acres in the world. Nonetheless, archaeologists have had little opportunity to search for physical evidence to sort legend from reality. For one thing, the site remains a place of active worship. The authority that controls the compound, an Islamic council called the Waqf, has long forbidden archaeological excavations, which it views as desecration. Except for some clandestine surveys of caves, cisterns and tunnels undertaken by European adventurers in the late 19th century—and some minor archaeological work conducted by the British from 1938 to 1942, when the Al-Aqsa Mosque was undergoing renovation—the layers of history beneath the Temple Mount have remained tantalizingly out of reach.
Thus the significance of those plastic buckets of debris I saw on Mount Scopus.
Today the Temple Mount, a walled compound within the Old City of Jerusalem, is the site of two magnificent structures: the Dome of the Rock to the north and the Al-Aqsa Mosque to the south. In the southwest stands the Western Wall—a remnant of the Second Temple and the holiest site in Judaism. Some 300 feet from the Al-Aqsa Mosque, in the southeast corner of the compound, a wide plaza leads to underground vaulted archways that have been known for centuries as Solomon’s Stables—probably because the Templars, an order of knights, are said to have kept their horses there when the Crusaders occupied Jerusalem. In 1996, the Waqf converted the area into a prayer hall, adding floor tiles and electric lighting. The Muslim authorities claimed the new site—named the El-Marwani Mosque—was needed to accommodate additional worshipers during Ramadan and on rain days that prevented the faithful from gathering in the open courtyard of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.