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Letter from Jerusalem: A Fight Over Sacred Turf Volume 54 Number 6, November/December 2001
by Sandra Scham

Who controls Jerusalem's holiest shrine?

A newly opened Israeli museum in the shadow of the hilltop known to Jews as the Temple Mount, and to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), aptly symbolizes the historical relationship between Israelis and Palestinians over that site. The museum is designed to give tourists the experience of being on the Mount during the time of Herod--the glory days of the Jewish Temple. The exhibits show the Israeli concept of the Temple Mount-Haram al-Sharif site, devoid of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, both built by the Umayyad Muslims in the seventh century A.D. Only the newest of many such reconstructions in Jerusalem, they would hardly be noteworthy were it not for the fact that the museum was constructed within the walls of an Umayyad palace. The age-old impulse to build on, and to some extent obscure, the remains of a past culture is still very much at work in this region.

Almost as soon as the Israeli flag was hoisted over the site in 1967, at the conclusion of the Six-Day War, Israelis lowered it on the orders of General Moshe Dayan, and invested the Muslim Waqf (religious trust) with the authority to manage the Temple Mount-Haram al-Sharif in order to "keep the peace." In the 30 or so years that have elapsed since then, the Waqf has remained relatively independent of Israeli control. Because of this informal understanding between Israel and the Waqf, Muslims have assumed that Israelis don't care very much about the place and their current interest is just another excuse to cheat Palestinians out of what is rightfully theirs. After all, the Haram al-Sharif, revered as the site of Mohammed's ascension to heaven, is one of the three holiest places in Islam (the other two being Mecca and Medina); Muslims would never simply "give" control of it to the followers of another religion. Nevertheless, the Temple Mount is Judaism's holiest site--so holy that many religious Jews will not set foot on the hill, lest they inadvertently tread on sacred and forbidden ground. Equally important, it is a site of great national significance. In the eyes of many Israelis, the "return to Zion" that Jews living in Israel believe they have effected was completed by the capture of the Temple Mount.

Against this backdrop of historical conflict, with hidden and not-so-hidden agendas, an archaeological drama has been unfolding. It incorporates many of the issues involved in the current battle over the Temple Mount-Haram al-Sharif. The seemingly mundane construction of an exit and stairway at the site, initiated by the Waqf, has become a reminder of the battle for control there. It is difficult to envision that Israeli participation in the Waqf's prospective decisions on maintenance or construction in the Haram could take place without a significant change in the archaeological management of the site, a change that would have to be preceded by a political agreement that is now more elusive than ever. Although no one would suggest that the current conflict in the Middle East is about the Temple Mount-Haram al-Sharif any more than it is about any other single issue, the site remains a powerful symbol of the past, the present, and possibly the future of Israeli and Palestinian relations.

Sandra Scham is an archaeologist who has been living and working in Israel since 1996. A former curator of the Pontifical Biblical Institute Museum in Jerusalem, she is currently affiliated with the department of anthropology at the University of Maryland at College Park.

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© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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