New archaeological site unveiled near Western Wall

Israel unveiled an underground archaeological site near the Western Wall on Tuesday, October 25, 2005, nearly a decade after the opening of an exhibit in the same area sparked widespread palestinian rioting.

The latest discovery included a ritual bath, or Mikveh, from the period of the second Jewish Temple, destroyed in 70 A.D., and a wall that archaeologists said dates to the first Jewish Temple, destroyed in 586 B.C. The findings strengthen Jewish ties to the shrine also claimed by Muslims.

The new tourist center snakes underground, adjacent to the path of the Western Wall, the last remaining retaining wall of the Temple. When the center is opened in a few weeks, visitors will be presented with a sound and light show of Jewish biblical history, highlighting recent discoveries of artifacts and infrastructure dating back thousands of years, including one of the world’s oldest aqueducts.

Israel has been conducting archaeological digs near the Western Wall since it captured east Jerusalem and its Old City in the 1967 Six Day War. The digs infuriate Palestinians and the Islamic Trust that oversees the mosque complex that now sits on the mountain that once held the biblical temples.

Known to Jews as the Temple Mount, the site is considered so holy that many observant Jews won’t go to the site for fear of defiling it. Known to Muslims as Haram as-Sharif or the Noble Sanctuary, the site is now home to the Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques and is revered by Muslims as the place where the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

The shrine, which is adjacent to the Western Wall, is one of the most sensitive in the Mideast conflict, and has often been the catalyst of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. Both Israel and the Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capitals.

In 1996, then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorized the opening of an archaeological tunnel alongside the compound, triggering Palestinian riots in which 80 people were killed.

In September 2000, then-opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, visited the mosque compound. The next day, violence erupted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, evolving into a nearly five-year-long Palestinian uprising.

Adnan Husseini, the head of the Waqf, or Islamic Trust, that oversees the compound, condemned the digs and Israel’s intention to open the site to the public as a “confiscation” of Muslim property.

“Anything they do in the place means deepening their attacks on the Islamic Waqf,” Husseini said.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the chief rabbi of the Western Wall, said he was not concerned violence would erupt after Israel opens the site because it does not extend underneath the mosque compound.

Jewish religious decrees forbid digging in the compound, for fear archaeologists would inadvertently enter the “holiest of holies,” the most sacred site in the temple, he said.

The latest findings and the high-tech center are meant to link the past with the future and draw more Israeli children to the Western Wall, Rabinovitch said.

“Any discovery brings great excitement,” he said. “It’s part of our Jewish heritage.”

Anyone hear about a “palestinian” archaeological discovery lately or years ago? I didn’t think so.

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