January 24, 2014
In recent years, not only have the relevant government agencies failed to prevent acts of vandalism and destruction by the waqf on the Temple Mount, but they have also prevented the public from being informed of new archaeological discoveries there.
by Nadav Shragai
The summer of 2007 was a tumultuous one on the Temple Mount. Time after time, it became clear that the attorney-general and the political echelon were tying the hands of the Israel Antiquities Authority by denying its experts the opportunity to supervise the activities of the waqf due to the political sensitivity of the issue. Many ancient artifacts and treasures were harmed, vandalized, destroyed, and stolen.
Most of the media and public attention was devoted to the lapses in the authorities' supervision of the Temple Mount. That includes the police, the Jerusalem municipality, the IAA, the attorney-general, and the political echelon. In 2008, the state comptroller wrote scathing reports about this series of mishaps and the tremendous damage caused to antiquities on the mount. These reports are still classified despite the fact that their contents were released abroad.
For those individuals who are well-versed in the details, it is hard to shake the impression that the shroud of secrecy has less to do with maintaining state security, public order, and Israeli foreign relations, and more to do with covering the tracks of the authorities.
Not only have the relevant government agencies failed to prevent acts of vandalism and destruction on the Temple Mount -- acts which have been written about in the press for years -- but they have also prevented the public from being informed of new archaeological discoveries that came to light as a result of unauthorized, unfettered, and unchecked excavations by the waqf and Muslims on the Temple Mount.
This is not the kind of publicity that the Antiquities Authority was hoping for. It usually wants press attention whenever it unearths a valuable historical item. Now, however, it is walking around the Temple Mount on its tiptoes with its hands tied. All of the relevant authorities in charge -- whether it has been the Israelis since 1967; the Jordanians from 1948 until 1967; and even the British since 1917 -- have refrained from conducting excavations on the Temple Mount.
The Muslims have consistently quashed any attempts to dig there. Nonetheless, thanks to routine construction and maintenance of structures which was carried out at the site by Muslims, hundreds of artifacts and treasures were accidentally unearthed, some of them truly historic which were documents by the authorities as well as researchers and scientists.
Most of this material is buried in the files of the IAA as well as the Mandate-era archives. It has not been released to this day primarily so as not to embarrass the Muslims in confirming a Jewish and Christian historical presence on the Temple Mount, which the findings indeed do. To this day, Muslims deny that there was ever a Jewish link to the site, so much so that the Jewish Temple is referred to as al-Maz'um ("the imagined entity" or "the false entity").
Years ago, noted archaeologist Tzachi Dvira published an impressive essay which included new information from various excavations on the Temple Mount in the previous century. The essay ran in Bar-Ilan University's scientific journal titled Hidushim B'Heker Yerushalayim ("New Revelations in the Study of Jerusalem"), but the news media ignored it.
Dvira poured through the British Mandate archives and found a treasure trove of material. He discovered piles of photographs and documents that were accumulated by Robert Hamilton, the director of the Mandate Antiquities Authority, during the period in which the waqf performed extensive renovations on Al-Aqsa mosque. The mosque had suffered damage due to the earthquakes that struck the area in 1927 and 1937.
In Hamilton's comprehensive book about Al-Aqsa mosque, which was published in the mid-20th century, there is no mention of these items. Hamilton simply "overlooked" them. Dvira notes that all of these revelations are similar in that they "precede the early Arab period." Then, as now, the documentation and the studies were dependent upon the good will of the waqf. That is why the British scientist declined to release findings that proved the existence of historic buildings at the site before there was ever a mosque.
One discovery made by Hamilton was an ancient water pit with a tiny staircase leading to it underneath the mosque's eastern entrance. This water pit was most likely used as a Jewish ritual bath (mikveh). Hamilton also discovered a Byzantine-era mosaic underneath the mosque. This was most likely a remnant of a church that existed prior to the mosque's construction.
This finding seemingly undermines modern scientists who have a tendency to assume that the Temple Mount was abandoned territory during the Byzantine period. Hamilton also mapped out the water pits and unidentified space, particularly in the "double gate" region; the underground passages that were built during the Second Temple period and which provided a direct route to the Temple Mount plaza entrance to the south.
In Hamilton's photographs, one can notice a tunnel which was dug into rock. Part of the tunnel is covered with stone plates measuring 15 meters long and 1.2 meters wide at a height of 2 meters. There is also a staircase that leads eastward. One possibility is that the tunnel was used as a passageway connecting the foyer of the double-gate region with another underground passage.
Nonetheless, Hamilton wasn't the only one who declined to make his findings available for public consumption. The Israel Antiquities Authority is very careful in releasing "random" findings that were dug up as a result of work by Muslims. Not only is it loathe to embarrass the waqf, but it is also eager to avoid doing anything that would cause waqf officials not to release similar findings. There are many examples of this. Instances stretch as far back as the initial years following the Six-Day War, and they continue to this day.
In 1970, when the waqf dug an emergency pool used to extinguish fires in the wake of the attempted arson of Al-Aqsa mosque by Michael Rohan, a Christian man from Australia, a large pit was discovered. Next to it was a canal as well as an ancient wall whose stones were reminiscent of the Herodian era. These findings were documented by the IAA, but they were revealed to the public just eight years afterward by Temple Mount researcher Asher Kaufman.
One of the most enduring mysteries surrounding the Temple Mount is the so-called "Eliyahu's room" that lies east of the double gate. It was first documented by Meir Ben Dov, and then by Dan Bahat. The documentation and the pictures which were taken later revealed a massive space that hid behind the northern wall of Eliyahu's room, an area that was never excavated.
In August 1989, the police commander in charge of the Temple Mount at the time, Superintendent Tziyon Ezra, warned of construction work done in the double-gate area that was being extended in order to connect it to Solomon's Stables. In January 2001, the committee charged with preventing the defacement and destruction of artifacts on the Temple Mount was notified of the existence of this vast space by an east Jerusalem resident.
Newspaper articles that relied on witness accounts and information indicating that the waqf was planning to connect the two underground mosques that were dug up underneath Al-Aqsa and Solomon's Stables were adamantly denied by the police.
The summer of 2007 also provided a number of revelations. During that period, the waqf dug two canals stretching hundreds of meters long in the most sensitive area of the Temple Mount -- the elevated region upon which the Dome of the Rock sits and where many researchers believe once stood the Jewish Temple.
The most explosive finding, which was only partially revealed by the IAA thanks to special approval given by then-prime minister Ehud Olmert, was a number of artifacts from the time of the First Temple, including china, utensils, and animal bones. The announcement didn't include a great number of details about the essence of the discovery. It only stated that the artifacts were being examined by a team led by Professor Ronen Reich of Haifa University, Professor Yisrael Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University, and Professor Sy Gitin of the Albright Institute.
The main importance of this finding was the fact that it set a precedent. This was the first time in which a sign of life from the First Temple period had been discovered on the Temple Mount. It also provided archaeological insight as to the possible contours of the Temple Mount complex during the First Temple period.
These findings raise more questions regarding the lax inspection and supervision of excavations done by the waqf. Who knows what other findings the Jewish people and world culture missed out on as a result of the disorganized diggings by the waqf, the inadequate oversight by the Israeli authorities, and the vandalism and damage caused to many artifacts that were ensconced in the Temple Mount area?
Nonetheless, there are some positives which withstood the supervisory mishaps and the waqf activities. These positives were examined by two researchers, an Israeli and a Hungarian. The Israeli scientist is Dr. Orit Peleg-Barkat of Hebrew University. Her doctoral thesis dealt with cupolas and the Hulda Gate. During the Second Temple period, particularly during the time of the three pilgrimage festivals, tens of thousands of visitors would enter the Temple through this area.
The engravings on the cupolas could be found in the Temple Mount area just past its southern wall in a section known as "Al-Aqsa al-kadima" (ancient Al-Aqsa). The archaeological delegation led by Benjamin Mazar documented these areas in the 1970s, and Peleg-Barkat visited there again in 2004 and took pictures.
In her work, she tackles the issue of whether this passage is a remnant from the time of the Umayyad caliphate. The designs of the engraving on the cupolas and their style offers hints that similar works of art date back to the time of the Second Temple.
This study "decisively proves that this structure was built during the time of Herod."
"The credit for the planning and design of the entrance to the gate belongs to the artists and architects that worked for King Herod," Peleg-Barkat said. "The decorated foyer of the double gate and its four cupolas is therefore the most intact remnant that has been preserved from the Herodian period at the Temple Mount."
Peleg-Barkat photographed and studied another rare, architectural item which somehow found its way to the northern side of the southern edge of the Western Wall inside Solomon's Stables. Today, it's a mosque. It is a piece of the outer rim of a structure which is decorated with geometric patterns and designs which was used in the construction of the stables.
Relying on the observations of Josephus, Peleg-Barkat believes it to part of a royal portico built by Herod along the southern edge of the Temple Mount plaza. The part that is visible to human sight and which today is a mosque belonged to the upper part of the rim that is adorned with two stripes.
Another discovery is preserved in the Museum of Islam which is managed by the waqf atop the Temple Mount. Access to the museum is very limited to Israeli researchers. The museum is holding onto a stone board which is a remnant of a plague with Latin writing on it. The plague bears the name of the man who destroyed Masada, Lucius Flavius Silva, the Roman general and governor of Judea.
This discovery was first revealed by Hungarian scientist Tibor Grull in the official publication of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research. Grull first saw the plague years before during his visit to the Temple Mount. When he took an interest in the artifact and expressed his interest to the waqf, officials told him that it was found in a large excavation carried out by Muslims on the Temple Mount in 1999. That was when a new access point leading to Solomon's Stables was dug up.
Gabi Barkai, the archaeologist who has studied the Temple Mount extensively and who jointly manages the dust filtering project atop the Temple Mount together with Dvira, weaved Grull's discovery into an article that he wrote in a journal about the Land of Israel entitled "Ariel."
"This is the only testimonial we have about the victory rainbow or memory rainbow that the Romans built on the Temple Mount after the destruction of the city and the temple," Barkai said. "This is a unique testament to the rehabilitation of the city which began with the Roman army immediately after its destruction, and 50 years before its establishment as Aelia Capitolina."
What about the remnants of the past?
What is most bothersome to Barkai and Dr. Eilat Mazar, two experts who are also members of the committee to prevent the destruction of ancient artifacts on the Temple Mount, are the discoveries that haven't been revealed and which were vandalized or stolen from the site. There are also discoveries to be made on the site that remain untouched.
Both experts note that there are still ancient wooden ceilings that were dismantled from the roof of Al-Aqsa mosque. They remain exposed to the elements and the weather. Some of the wooden ceilings and rooftops which found their way outside of the Temple Mount grounds date back to the time of the First Temple. There are also extensive discoveries of marble fragments that appear to have been part of a church, destroyed china which has yet to be traced back to a source, fragments of pillars that no one knows where they were taken from, and other shattered pieces.
Barkai bemoans the fact that much of the work being done on the Temple Mount is not being documented or supervised in an orderly fashion. "Then again, the IAA's hands are tied," he said.
"We, as members of the committee, are trying with what little leverage we have to document what is taking place there," he said. "We have people representing us who are working there. We are also monitoring the aerial photographs of the Temple Mount and collecting testimonials of various visitors who are informing us of any change."
"The fact that after everything we know today we still have tractors and equipment on the Temple Mount and that we can only do work from time to time is scandalous and its unfathomable," he said. "There is no more important place from an archaeological standpoint than the Temple Mount, but because of what I think are ulterior motives, the authorities are treating these artifacts and remnants of the past in a bewildering manner that raises difficult questions."