A collection of neglected wooden beams from the Al-Aqsa mosque offer a glimpse at ancient Jerusalem — and possibly at the biblical temples themselves
collection of neglected wooden beams from the Al-Aqsa mosque offer a glimpse at ancient Jerusalem — and possibly at the biblical temples themselves
by Matti Friedman
Under a tarp in one little-visited corner of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem lies a pile of rotting timber that would hardly catch a visitor’s eye.
In a padlocked storage space under a building in the settlement of Ofra, in the West Bank, lies an even larger pile of similar beams, some with rusted metal nails. Still more of the same beams can be found in one of the rooms of the Rockefeller Museum, outside Jerusalem’s Old City.
Despite their unprepossessing appearance, the beams are unique and important to scholars because of their place of origin — the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount — and their age: Some were hewed from trees felled nearly 3,000 years ago.
The beams offer a fascinating historical record of Jerusalem, including Byzantine cathedrals, early Muslim houses of prayer and, not inconceivably, the ancient temple complex itself. But though there are signs of renewed interest in them — including an article this month in Biblical Archaeology Review, a US publication — the several hundred existing beams have never been subjected to a comprehensive academic study, and many are in danger of decay and disintegration.
The first iteration of Al-Aqsa was built in the late 600s CE on the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary. When the Muslim builders constructed the roof and supports they re-used timber that had been used in older structures nearby, common practice in the ancient world.
Those structures, scholars say, include not only materials dating to the time of the second Jewish temple in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago — but to the time of the first, as many as eight centuries before.
Many of the beams were removed from Al-Aqsa in the late 1930s, during a renovation that followed two earthquakes, and some were taken by British scholars to the Rockefeller Museum, where they remain. Other beams were removed in a later renovation of the structure’s dome under Jordanian rule in the 1960s.
In 1984, a scholar from Tel Aviv University, Nili Liphschitz, published a brief scientific paper looking at 140 of the beams in a Hebrew journal, Eretz Yisrael, along with two other scholars.
Liphschitz, a dendochronologist — a specialist in determining the age of trees — found that most of the beams she examined were of Turkish oak, with a smaller number of Lebanese cedars. There were also beams of cypress and several other types of wood.
By analyzing the tree rings and using carbon-14 dating, she found, unsurprisingly, that some of the wood was from the early Muslim period. One of the cedars, for example, was about 1,340 years old, or roughly the same age as Al-Aqsa. (The margin of error for the rather inexact dating process was 250 years.)
But others were older, dating to Byzantine times, and still others dated to Roman times, around the era of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
Even more striking were her findings regarding one of the cypress beams. The age of the beam “was found to be 2,600 years,” she wrote, with a margin of error of 180 years. That placed it near 630 B.C.E. — around 50 years before the destruction of the First Temple.
And one of the oak beams was even older: 2,860 years. That meant the tree had been cut down around 880 B.C.E, early in the First Temple period.
There was no evidence connecting the beams to the temple itself, and in her paper Liphshitz seemed less interested in the possible human or biblical connections than in what the beams related about climate changes in the region. The truncated size of some of the tree rings, she wrote, seemed to indicate that a heavy drought had struck the region in the 5th century C.E.
Her paper drew little public notice, but a lecture she delivered the same year happened to be attended by two residents of Ofra, one of the first communities established in the West Bank by Gush Emunim, the religious settler movement. One of the men was Ze’ev Erlich, today a well- known tour guide and historian. The other was Yehuda Etzion, a prominent settler leader and a fervent believer in the return of Jewish ritual to the Temple Mount.
“Yehuda walked out after the lecture and said — we have to get those beams,” Erlich recalled.
After the renovation of the 1960s, it appeared, the Waqf — the Islamic body still in charge of the day-to-day running of the holy site — had sold some of the beams as scrap to an Armenian dealer, Mussa Baziyan, who had a junkyard north of Jerusalem. Baziyan was selling the wood to carpenters. As it happened, the Ofra settlers had done business with the dealer, buying second- hand bunk beds from an insane asylum for use in a new dormitory.
Etzion arranged for the local government in charge of Ofra to pay, and had trucks ferry the 100 or so remaining beams from Baziyan’s yard to the settlement.
Later that year, Etzion was arrested as part of a Jewish underground that had killed Palestinian seminary students, maimed mayors of West Bank cities, planned to bomb Arab buses in East Jerusalem — and was plotting to blow up the Islamic shrines of the Noble Sanctuary to pave the way for the reconstruction of a Jewish temple on the mount.
The beams lay outside for a time. Later, Erlich had them transferred to an indoor storage space, where he showed them to a reporter this week. Six beams which were found to have carved decorations are stored at an undisclosed location elsewhere in the settlement. Samples from 14 of the beams at Ofra have been taken to the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot for carbon dating, and Erlich is currently awaiting the results.
Some of the Al-Aqsa beams include inscriptions in Arabic and Greek. One beam at the Rockefeller Museum, for example, bears the Greek words, “In the time of the most holy archbishop and patriarch Peter and the most God-beloved this whole house of St. Thomas was erected.” The Peter in question was patriarch of Jerusalem in the mid-500s C.E., and the beam must have been used in a Byzantine church of the time.
In a 1997 paper, Liphschitz and a second scholar, Gideon Biger, suggested that some of the wood for Al-Aqsa may have come from the ruins of the grandiose Byzantine church known as the Nea, destroyed by earthquake or war in the early 600s. Other beams might have come from an earlier wooden mosque that a 7th-century pilgrim described existing on the Temple Mount before Al-Aqsa was constructed.
Those structures also almost certainly used wood from earlier buildings. The story of the beams — moving from conqueror to conqueror and from one religion to another through the centuries — is the story of Jerusalem.
“The cypress timber, dated to the 1st century BC, was probably taken from a more ancient monumental construction, built in or around Jerusalem in that era,” the two scholars wrote. That was the time of Herod’s massive rebuilding of the Second Temple complex.
In this month’s article in Biblical Archaeology Review, Israeli archaeologist Peretz Reuven singled out another beam, among those currently kept on the Temple Mount, in a pile next to the Golden Gate. It was cataloged by British Mandate officials in the 1930s as number 13.
Beam 13, he wrote, not only has Roman-style decorations but also signs of columns at intervals of 10.8 feet. “There was a similar interval between the columns in Herod’s Royal Stoa, a magnificent basilica that stood on the southern end of the Temple Mount,” Reuven noted. That is where Al- Aqsa now sits.
Might some of the beams lying around Jerusalem and elsewhere be from Herod’s temple complex? “I believe the answer is ‘yes,’” Reuven wrote. “Some of the beams may even be from the Temple.”
It is unusual for wood to survive for thousands of years, according to archaeologist Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University. At Maeir’s ongoing excavation of the three-millennia-old Philistine city of Gath, for example, only carbonized wood fragments survive.
But it is different if wood is kept indoors and cared for, he said.
“Usually, wood does not survive in Mediterranean climate — save when beams are used again and again and are curated long after they would have normally survived,” he said.
These pieces of wood, he said, “were probably used repeatedly over the ages, as large beams would be in many cases. So they are definitely archaeological materials, though of course whether they are from the temple is another question.”