What is Beneath the Temple Mount?- page 2 | History | Smithsonian
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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)

What is Beneath the Temple Mount?

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

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(Continued from page 1)

Three years later, the Waqf, with the approval of the Israeli government, announced plans to create an emergency exit for the El-Marwani Mosque. But Israeli officials later accused the Waqf of exceeding its self-stated mandate. Instead of a small emergency exit, the Waqf excavated two arches, creating a massive vaulted entranceway. In doing so, bulldozers dug a pit more than 131 feet long and nearly 40 feet deep. Trucks carted away hundreds of tons of soil and debris.

Israeli archaeologists and scholars raised an outcry. Some said the Waqf was deliberately trying to obliterate evidence of Jewish history. Others laid the act to negligence on a monstrous scale.

“That earth was saturated with the history of Jerusalem,” says Eyal Meiron, a historian at the Ben-Zvi Institute for the Study of Eretz Israel. “A toothbrush would be too large for brushing that soil, and they did it with bulldozers.”

Yusuf Natsheh, the Waqf’s chief archaeologist, was not present during the operation. But he told the Jerusalem Post that archaeological colleagues had examined the excavated material and had found nothing of significance. The Israelis, he told me, were “exaggerating” the value of the found artifacts. And he bristled at the suggestion the Waqf sought to destroy Jewish history. “Every stone is a Muslim development,” he says. “If anything was destroyed, it was Muslim heritage.”

Zachi Zweig was a third-year archaeology student at Bar- Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, when he heard news reports about dump trucks transporting Temple Mount soil to the Kidron Valley. With the help of a fellow student he rounded up 15 volunteers to visit the dump site, where they began surveying and collecting samples. A week later, Zweig presented his findings—including pottery fragments and ceramic tiles—to archaeologists attending a conference at the university. Zweig’s presentation angered officials at the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). “This is nothing but a show disguised as research,” Jon Seligman, the IAA’s Jerusalem Region Archaeologist, told the Jerusalem Post. “It was a criminal deed to take these items without approval or permission.” Soon afterward, Israeli police questioned Zweig and released him. By that point though, Zweig says, his cause had attracted the attention of the media and of his favorite lecturer at Bar-Ilan—the archaeologist Gaby Barkay.

Zweig urged Barkay to do something about the artifacts. In 2004, Barkay got permission to search the soil dumped in the Kidron Valley. He and Zweig hired trucks to cart it from there to Emek Tzurim National Park at the foot of Mount Scopus, collected donations to support the project and recruited people to undertake the sifting. The Temple Mount Sifting Project, as it is sometimes called, marks the first time archaeologists have systematically studied material removed from beneath the sacred compound.

Barkay, ten full-time staffers and a corps of part-time volunteers have uncovered a wealth of artifacts, ranging from three scarabs (either Egyptian or inspired by Egyptian design), from the second millennium B.C., to the uniform badge of a member of the Australian Medical Corps, who was billeted with the army of British Gen. Edmund Allenby after defeating the Ottoman Empire in Jerusalem during World War I. A bronze coin dating to the Great Revolt against the Romans (A.D. 66-70) bears the Hebrew phrase, “Freedom of Zion.” A silver coin minted during the era when the Crusaders ruled Jerusalem is stamped with the image of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Barkay says some discoveries provide tangible evidence of biblical accounts. Fragments of terra-cotta figurines, from between the eighth and sixth centuries B.C., may support the passage in which King Josiah, who ruled during the seventh century, initiated reforms that included a campaign against idolatry. Other finds challenge long-held beliefs. For example, it is widely accepted that early Christians used the Mount as a garbage dump on the ruins of the Jewish temples. But the abundance of coins, ornamental crucifixes and fragments of columns found from Jerusalem’s Byzantine era (A.D. 380–638) suggest that some public buildings were constructed there. Barkay and his colleagues have published their main findings in two academic journals in Hebrew, and they plan to eventually publish a book-length account in English.

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About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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