Within the last few days, a trench two-feet deep — starting from the northern end of the platform where Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock sits — has begun working its way toward the southern end of the Temple Mount. The work is being done without any regard for the archaeological information or treasures that may lie below.
Destruction is particularly great in places where bedrock is no deeper than the trench. Some of the digging is being done with mechanical equipment, instead of by hand as a professional archaeological excavation would be conducted.
I don’t know who are worse: the Muslim religious authorities digging up Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, or the Israeli authorities who are allowing it to happen.
That the Waqf, the Muslim religious trust that serves as custodian of the site, should wish to install new electric and telephone lines is understandable — provided that the necessary trench is first dug as a professional archaeological excavation. That is the required procedure everywhere in Israel before work can be undertaken at sites with archaeological significance. At the Temple Mount, even more care is required. This is the holiest site in the world to Jews, where the deeply religious fear to tread lest they step on the Holy of Holies: Solomon’s Temple and the Second Temple built by Herod the Great once stood on this site. The site is sacred to Muslims as well: Known in Arabic as the Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, it is presently graced with the magnificent Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque.
The Waqf is not acting illegally. According to one report, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has quietly granted permission for this destructive dig (otherwise the excavation would be a clear violation of Israeli law). The Israel Antiquities Authority, when queried about the matter, replied: “No comment.” So the dig is proceeding without interference from Israeli authorities. Perhaps their attitude is a product of fear; otherwise, it is inexplicable. Significant remains — pottery, tesserae from ancient mosaics, tiles and even architectural fragments — have already been observed in the soil from the excavated part of the trench.
As they have in the past, Palestinian leaders claim that neither Solomon’s Temple nor Herod’s Temple ever existed on the site. In a recent interview, Palestinian Justice Minister Taysir Tamimi stated: “About these so-called two temples, they never existed, certainly not on the Haram al-Sharif.”
The Waqf has a long history of ignoring Israel’s antiquities laws, and Israel has a long history of ignoring these violations. As early as 1970, the Waqf excavated a pit without supervision that exposed a 16-foot-long, six-foot-thick wall that scholars believe may well be the eastern wall of the Herodian Temple complex. An inspector from the antiquities department saw it and composed a handwritten report (still unpublished) before the wall was dismantled, destroyed and covered up.
Presiding over a lawsuit against Israel’s government and the Waqf to prevent such depredations, Israel’s Supreme Court found in 1993 that the Waqf had violated Israel’s antiquities laws on 35 occasions, many involving irreversible destruction of important archaeological remains. The court declined to enter an injunction, however, expressing its confidence that in the future Israeli authorities would correct their past errors. This confidence has proved unfounded.
In 1999, to accommodate a major expansion of an underground mosque into what is known popularly as Solomon’s Stables in the southeastern part of the Temple Mount, the Waqf dug an enormous stairway down to the mosque. Hundreds of truckloads of archaeologically rich dirt were dug with mechanical equipment and then dumped into the adjacent Kidron Valley. When archaeology student Zachi Zweig began to explore the mounds of dirt for antiquities, he was arrested at the behest of the Israel Antiquities Authority — for excavating without a permit.
For over two years Prof. Gabriel Barkay of Bar Ilan University (together with Mr. Zweig) has been engaged in a major sifting operation of this dirt, after he obtained a permit from the Antiquities Authority. Finds have included thousands of artifacts from all periods going back more than 3,000 years. They include a seal impression of a probable brother of someone mentioned in the Bible, Babylonian arrowheads dating to the destruction of Jerusalem in the 6th century B.C. (as well as other arrowheads from battles on the Temple Mount), thousands of coins (many dating to the Great Revolt against Rome), beautiful jewelry and even an ancient Egyptian scarab.
Protests against these Waqf excavations have been lodged by prominent Israelis from every point on the political spectrum, including from the late mayor Teddy Kollek, author Amos Oz, archaeologists Ephraim Stern (currently head of Israel’s Archaeological Council), Ehud Netzer (who recently discovered the tomb of Herod the Great), Eilat Mazar (who is excavating what may be King David’s palace in Jerusalem), Prof. Barkay (who, in a long career, discovered the oldest Biblical text, dating to about 600 B.C.) and the nonpolitical Committee for the Prevention of the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount — all to no effect.
The international community must be mobilized to stop this demolition of history. While the Waqf would never allow a professional archaeological dig on the site, its own destructive excavations continue unabated.
Mr. Shanks is editor of Biblical Archaeology Review and author of the forthcoming “Jerusalem’s Temple Mount — From Solomon to the Golden Dome”