Muslim religious body snubs Israeli law, archaeological concerns
Bulldozers have been carting away huge mounds of earth from underneath the
Temple Mount in Jerusalem, one of the most revered sacred sites in the world,
drawing the ire of Israeli archaeologists who say Muslim authorities are
damaging the inside of the Mount’s eastern retaining wall and destroying
possibly priceless historical information in the process.
The furor stems from a construction project undertaken by the Waqf, the
Muslim religious authority that controls the Temple Mount, to create a second
entrance to the al-Marawani mosque, located under the southeastern quadrant
of the Mount in an area popularly, but mistakenly, known as Solomon’s Stables.
The huge underground mosque at times attracts thousands of worshipers, so
there was no question that a second entryway was needed for safety reasons.
But the Waqf’s decision to simply haul material from the area and to dump it, in
the dead of night, in the nearby Kidron Valley has been attacked as
irresponsible destruction of an archaeological site.
Israeli archaeologists say the area should first have been subjected to a
controlled excavation. Now personnel from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA)
can only sift through the dump in the Kidron Valley in hopes of gaining some
raw, but contextless, data about ancient Jerusalem.
Solomon’s Stables served as a storehouse and stable in the 12th century
A.D. for the Crusaders, who assumed that King Solomon had used the vaulted
cavern in the same way. But the site actually dates to the reign of Herod the
Great (37-4 B.C.), who greatly expanded the Temple precinct.
“It is one of the most important sites in the country, and they’ve gone at it with
a bulldozer,” Jon Seligman, Jerusalem region archaeologist for the IAA, told
BAR. Seligman was appointed to his position at the very end of 1999, in the
midst of the controversy.
“Dropped into the boiling oil,” as he put it; though he had served as
Jerusalem district archaeologist since 1994.
Seligman said that the IAA has been examining the dumped remains, primarily
pottery sherds, coins and even some nails. About 40 to 45 percent dates to the
Byzantine (fourth to seventh century A.D.) and early Islamic (seventh to eighth
century A.D.) periods; about two percent dates to the late First Temple period
(seventh to sixth century B.C.);
“The background noise of Jerusalem archaeology,” in Seligman’s words.
Seligman added that the dump was not his primary concern. “The issue is the
Temple Mount,” he said. “The dump is a side issue.”
“This was an opportunity to learn about the site,” Ronny Reich, an IAA
archaeologist and a specialist on the history of ancient Jerusalem, told BAR.
Now, according to Reich, that chance has been lost forever.
Reich added that the material hauled away from the Mount might even
have contributed to the debate on whether Jerusalem was a significant city in
the tenth century B.C., the era of King David.
By destroying the historical context of the remains, the Waqf’s action
violates Israeli law, which requires the IAA to conduct excavations before
construction can begin at any historically significant site.
Relations between the Waqf and Israeli authorities have been greatly
strained, however, since 1996, when a decision by then-Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu to open an exit at one end of a tunnel running alongside
the western wall of the Temple Mount led to widespread and deadly rioting by
Israel’s attorney general, Elyakim Rubenstein, admitted that law enforcement
authorities had lost de facto authority over the Temple Mount.
“The remnants of the history of the Jewish people are being trampled,”
he said. “The Waqf must be told that we have tolerance for their worship, but
they will not be allowed to kick aside our history.” Rubenstein acknowledged
that “the issue there is a very sensitive one. Every Muslim home boasts a
photograph of the Al-Aksa Mosque .”
Given the volatility of the situation, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel’s internal
security minister, announced in December that no forceful means would be
employed to seal the new entrance. “I don’t want to put on a show of force
that will cause the entire city to burn,” he said.
Indeed, on December 6, Ahmed Tibi, an Arab member of the Knesset
(Israel’s parliament) and a confidant of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat,
“If someone has the nerve to close the entrances, he is declaring
war on the Muslims!”
At press time, the situation had become quieter, thanks in part to the
Muslim holy month of Ramadan and to heavy rains that have hampered
construction activity. Seligman told BAR that the work at Solomon’s Stables
was near completion in any case. But it seems only a matter of time before the
issue flares up again elsewhere on the Temple Mount.
This is not the first time the Waqf has destroyed archaeological features
on the Temple Mount. In the 1980s, an unauthorized trench dug to relocate
utilities uncovered an ancient wall thought by an archaeologist who briefly saw
it to be from the time of King Herod. It was probably a wall of one of the
courts of the Second Temple. The wall was 6 feet thick, and a length of over
16 feet of it was exposed, but it was quickly removed and the area covered
before it could be studied.
In 1993 the Israeli Supreme Court handed down a decision in a case that had
been brought to prevent the Waqf from continuing to destroy archaeological
features of the Temple Mount (see Stephen J. Adler, “The Temple Mount in
Court,” BAR, September/October 1991 ; and “Israeli Court Finds Muslim
Council Destroyed Ancient Remains on Temple Mount,” BAR, July/August
The court found the Waqf guilty of 35 violations of the antiquities law
that involved irreversible destruction of important archaeological remains. Even
during the pendency of the lawsuit, however, the Waqf continued to destroy
ancient features on the Temple Mount.