Biblical Archaeology Review 26:5, September/October 2000
Jerusalem Update

More Temple Mount Antiquities Destroyed

A personal view

By Suzanne F. Singer

Large-scale illegal construction on the Temple Mount and wholesale dumping of earth in the nearby Kidron Valley resumed this spring. The construction, which is being undertaken by the Waqf, the Muslim religious trust responsible for the Mount, is the continuation of work begun last winter to open what was supposed to be simply an emergency exit for the al-Marawani Mosque, located in an underground area popularly called Solomon’s Stables. Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, though pressed by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), Israel’s attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein and Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert, has signaled that he will not impede the Waqf’s activities.

Following a June 28 meeting, a spokesman for Barak announced that the prime minister will allow paving work to continue along 600 feet of what is now an exposed earthen area inside the eastern wall of the Temple Mount. Barak rejected any limits on the extent of the paving. He also vetoed a recommendation by Attorney General Rubinstein and the IAA that heavy machinery, trucks and tractors be prevented from entering the Mount. Barak called for “reasonable supervision” of truck traffic entering the Mount and gave vague instructions to allow IAA archaeologists onto the site to ensure that the paving does not evolve into more extensive construction.

The IAA is required by law to approve and supervise any alterations to sites with archaeological remains. The Temple Mount is, of course, sacred to three great Western faiths and is part of the world’s cultural patrimony. Here may lie remnants from the time of the First Temple of Solomon, the Second Temple built by Herod, the Byzantine period and the early Islamic eras. Israeli excavations around the exterior of the Temple Mount since 1967 have found remains from all these periods, but the Mount itself has been terra incognita, protected by an understanding between Israel and the Waqf that says no construction will take place there. Now Prime Minister Barak has given a green light to significant changes on the Mount, with only token supervision by archaeologists.

Last November, we reported that the Waqf, in the dead of night, had dumped hundreds of truckloads of earth from the Temple Mount into the Kidron Valley and municipal garbage dumps.a About 6,000 tons of earth were removed to open an authorized emergency exit for the al-Marawani Mosque, creating a huge hole about 200 feet long and 75 feet wide. The exit, enlarged beyond the approved width, has become, in the words of the police commander of the Jerusalem district, “a monumental entry gate.” Despite the flagrant disregard by the Waqf of the requirement for IAA supervision, there was no serious response by Israeli authorities. Today the dumped earth is unprotected and is being covered with garbage, making it unlikely that the IAA will ever act on its announced intention to salvage artifacts by sifting through the piles.

This spring and early summer, trucks and tractors returned to the Temple Mount, bringing building materials in and carting earth away through the Lions’ Gate, just north of the Temple Mount. For 200 yards along the inside of the Temple Mount’s eastern wall, from the al-Marawani Mosque’s new entrance to somewhat south of the Golden Gate, lie stacks of paving stones, scaffolding, wood and iron materials, along with large architectural fragments, such as pieces of ancient columns. Two small roofed buildings, thought to be storage sheds for contractors, have gone up near the Golden Gate.

The Waqf’s plans for building on the Temple Mount are contained in a detailed report given to Barak and revealed on June 18 by Nadav Shragai, correspondent for the newspaper Ha’aretz. Shragai writes that a master plan includes erecting another Muslim prayer area on the Temple Mount, “along the eastern wall, a smaller version of the Ka’aba Mosque in Mecca.”

Hardly mentioned in press reports is the fact that there already is another Muslim prayer hall on the Temple Mount, inaccessible to all but a few visitors and also prepared without archaeological oversight by the IAA. This mosque is located in the only intact Herodian structure remaining on the Mount, an underground area with magnificent domes covered by geometric and floral designs. The area is inside the passageway of the Double Gate, which 2,000 years ago served as one of the main southern entrances to the Temple Mount. Today the gate is sealed and partially obscured by a medieval tower attached to the southern wall. This unique remnant has deteriorated over the millennia and is in need of preservation.

The construction on the Temple Mount is only the latest, albeit perhaps the most egregious, example of the Waqf’s disregard for the protection of antiquities. In 1993 Israel’s Supreme Court found that the Waqf had violated the country’s antiquities laws no less than 35 times, with many of the violations causing the irreversible destruction of archaeological remains.b Ironically, the court said that nothing needed to be done because it was certain that in the future Israeli authorities would make sure that the Waqf caused no further damage on the Mount.

In the face of Barak’s inaction, a citizen’s committee has been formed to protest the Waqf’s activities. Spearheaded by Israel Caspi, a Tel Aviv lawyer, the Committee for the Prevention of the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount gathered 140 signatures from across the Israeli political spectrum on an open letter to the prime minister. Among them are current and former Jerusalem mayors Ehud Olmert and Teddy Kollek, 82 members of Israel’s parliament, Amos Oz and other well-known writers, former army chiefs of staff, university presidents, professors of archaeology and members of Israel’s law faculties. The letter states that “a serious act of irreparable archaeological vandalism and destruction is being carried out without archaeological supervision, while abrogating the Antiquities Law.”

Some might argue that paving an earthen area is a benign, nondestructive act. But as BAR demonstrated several years ago,c laying pavement without studying what may be beneath is tantamount to destruction. Historical information is obliterated, perhaps forever.

Due to Prime Minister Barak’s concern for negotiations with the Palestinians, no effective archaeological oversight is taking place on the Temple Mount. No one halts the work so that potential damage can be assessed and prevented; as a result, heavy equipment is free to move about the Mount for projects that are neither approved nor supervised. The frequently heard view is that a tough stance by Israel will enflame the Palestinians and set back the peace talks. But there are dissenting voices, such as that of Major General (reserve) Meir Dagan, who was the counterterrorism advisor to both Barak and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Dagan asserts that “the argument that any action taken to prevent illegal construction from being carried out will ignite the Muslims is simply nonsense.”