Such disputes inevitably send ripples throughout the international community. Both the Jordanian and Turkish governments protested Israel’s plans for the new walkway. And in November 2010, the Palestinian Authority created a diplomatic kerfuffle when it published a study declaring the Western Wall was not a Jewish holy site at all, but part of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The study contended, “This wall was never part of the so-called Temple Mount, but Muslim tolerance allowed the Jews to stand in front of it and weep over its destruction,” which the U.S. State Department called “factually incorrect, insensitive and highly provocative.”
Today, the scene is calm. At various spots on the wide, leafy plaza Palestinian men gather in study groups, reading the Koran. We ascend steps toward the magnificent Dome of the Rock—which was built during the same period as the Al-Aqsa Mosque to the south, between A.D. 685 and 715. The Dome of the Rock is built on top of the Foundation Stone, which is sacred to both Jews and Muslims. According to Jewish tradition, the stone is the “navel of the Earth”—the place where creation began, and the site where Abraham was poised to sacrifice Isaac. For Muslims, the stone marks the place where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to the Divine Presence.
On the east side of the Temple Mount’s retaining wall, Meiron shows me the Golden Gate, an elaborate gatehouse and portal. Its provenance remains a subject of debate among historians, pitting the majority, who claim early Muslims built it, against those who insist it is a Byzantine Christian structure.
Historians who argue that the Byzantines didn’t build the gate point to ancient accounts describing how early Christians turned the Mount into a garbage heap. The Byzantines, scholars say, saw the destruction of the Second Temple as vindication of Jesus’ prophecy that “not one stone shall be left here upon another” and as a symbol of Judaism’s downfall. But other historians counter that the eastern entrance to the Mount, where the Golden Gate was built, was important to the Byzantines because their interpretation of the Gospel of Matthew holds that Jesus entered the Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives to the east when he joined his disciples for the Passover meal. And in A.D. 614, when the Persian Empire conquered and briefly ruled Jerusalem, they took back to Persia parts of the True Cross (believed to be the cross of the Crucifixion) from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Fifteen years later, after defeating the Persians, Heraclius, a Byzantine emperor, is said to have brought the True Cross back to the holy city—passing from the Mount of Olives to the Temple Mount, and then to the Holy Sepulchre. “Thus you had two triumphant entrances: Jesus and Heraclius,” says Meiron. “That’s enough to explain why the Byzantines would invest in building that gate.”
While Barkay is in the camp that believes the Golden Gate is an early Muslim structure, Meiron thinks the sifting project’s discovery of Byzantine-era crosses, coins and ornamental columns supports the theory that the gate was built by the Byzantines. “Now we’re not so sure the Temple Mount fell into disrepair,” Meiron says. In addition, Barkay has found archival photographs taken during renovations of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the late 1930s that appear to reveal Byzantine mosaics beneath the structure—further evidence that some sort of public building had been constructed at the site.
I visited Barkay at his modest apartment in East Talpiot, a Jewish suburb of East Jerusalem. The grizzled, chain-smoking archaeologist was born in Budapest in 1944, the very day the Nazis sent his family to the city’s Jewish ghetto. After the war his father—who had spent a year in a Nazi forced labor camp in Ukraine—established the first Israeli delegation in Budapest, and the family emigrated to Israel in 1950. Barkay earned his doctorate in archaeology at Tel Aviv University. In 1979, exploring a series of ancient burial caves in an area of Jerusalem above the Valley of Hinnom, he made a remarkable discovery: two 2,700-year-old silver scrolls delicately etched with the priestly blessing that Aaron and his sons bestowed on the children of Israel, as mentioned in the Book of Numbers. Barkay describes the scrolls, which contain the earliest-known fragments of a biblical text, as “the most important find of my life.”
Barkay and I get into my car and drive toward Mount Scopus. I ask him about Natsheh’s charge that the sifting project is infused with a political agenda. He shrugs. “Sneezing in Jerusalem is an intensely political activity. You can do it to the right, to the left, on the face of an Arab or a Jew. Whatever you do, or don’t do, is political.”
Still, some criticism of Barkay stems not from politics but from skepticism about his methodology. Natsheh is not the only archaeologist to raise questions about the value of artifacts not found in situ. The dirt excavated by the Waqf is landfill from previous eras. Part of that landfill, Barkay says, comes from the Mount’s eastern section, which the Waqf paved over in 2001. But most of it, he says, was taken from vacant parts of the Mount when an entrance to Solomon’s Stables was blocked, sometime between the reign of the Fatimid and Ayyubid dynasties. Collectively, he says, the landfill includes artifacts from all periods of the site.