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Jerusalem's Temple Mount Flap Volume 53 Number 2, March/April 2000
by Kristin M. Romey

Construction at a mosque within Jerusalem's Temple Mount has sparked a fierce controversy between archaeologists, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), and the Israeli government.

According to Jerusalem District archaeologist Jon Seligman, the Waqf, the Muslim religious trust that oversees public works in the religious complex, determined last autumn that an emergency exit in the Marwani Mosque was necessary. (The New York Times had previously reported that construction of the exit was urged by Israeli police.) The mosque is located inside of the superstructure that supports the southeast corner of the Temple Mount, an enormous stone platform built by Herod the Great (73-4 B.C.) and known by Muslims as the al-Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary. Islam's third holiest shrine, the al-Aqsa mosque, is located atop the Temple Mount. Somewhere within the platform lie the remains of the Jewish Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70. Part of the western wall of the Second Temple complex is incorporated into the platform, and is the most sacred place of worship for Jews.

Israeli archaeologists were angered at the Waqf's use of bulldozers to reopen a twelfth-century Crusader entrance for use as an emergency exit for the mosque. "It was clear to the IAA that an emergency exit [at the Marwani Mosque] was necessary, but in the best situation, salvage archaeology would have been performed first," Seligman told Archaeology.

While the Israel Antiquities Authority has expressed concern over damage to Muslim-period structures within the Temple Mount, other archaeologists have charged that archaeological material dating to the First Temple Period (ca. 960-586 B.C.) was being destroyed. A group of archaeology students examined Temple Mount fill dumped by the Waqf in the nearby Kidron Valley and recovered ceramic material an d architectural fragments dating to this period and later. According to Seligman and former Jerusalem District archaeologist Gideon Avni, while the material recovered from the Kidron Valley contained pottery sherds dating from the First Temple to the Crusader (twelfth-thirteenth centuries) periods, it was originally unstratified fill and lacked any serious archaeological value. "It's the normal chronological sequence you encounter all over Israel," says Avni.

Not so, claims Zachi Zweig, an archaeology student at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan. Zweig presented some of the artifacts recovered from the Kidron Valley at a conference held at the university. Following the presentation, the anti-theft unit of the IAA asked Zweig to return material recovered from Kidron and sign an affidavit that he had no more material. During an interview with an anti-theft officer, says Seligman, it "became clear" that Zweig had material from other sites. A subsequent raid of Zweig's residence turned up additional material from the Temple Mount and other archaeological sites, as well as a metal detector, which is illegal to own in Israel without a permit. "They are trying to invent a case about me that I did some robbery excavation in some cave," Zweig told Archaeology, "This is a joke."

"The IAA to a large extent is helpless due to political considerations," says Aren Maeir, a professor of archaeology at Bar-Ilan, "I suppose they do not want this in any way to affect the peace process with the Palestinians."

Sources in the Israeli government have told Archaeology that what was originally intended as a simple emergency exit has become more of a 'refurbishment," with two large entrances under construction. In January, the Israeli High Court of Justice rejected a petition to halt all construction by the Waqf on the complex, arguing that the matter was political and should be left up to the government. Responding to a petition filed with the High Court in December by Yehuda Etzion, however, on February 2 the IAA gave the court a list of recovered artifacts.

Etzion, once jailed for plotting to blow up the Dome of the Rock, is the leader of the Chai Vekayam movement, whose mission, according to its literature, includes "the return of Israel to the Temple Mount." "[T]he Temple Mount stands today as a mini Palestinian State within Israel with the support of the Israeli government and its security forces," he wrote in 1997.

According to Helen Friedman, a member of the group "Americans for a Safe Israel," Etzion has been leading tour groups to the Kidron dump site to "rescue artifacts." "It's pathetic that [Etzion] had to count on wandering groups of Jews to dig for them," she said.

Right-wing opposition leader and Mayor of Jerusalem Ehud Olmert has asserted that allowing the Waqf to excavate without the supervision of state archaeologists undermines Israel's legal and moral claim to the Temple Mount.

"This is not just an archaeological issue," says Seligman, "it's also political and partisan," adding that there is always a danger when applying ethnicity to archaeological finds.

In 1996, the opening of an ancient tunnel alongside the Temple Mount sparked fierce Palestinian protest, allegedly fueled by the allegation that Jews were conspiring to seek control of the Temple Mount by literally undermining it. Ensuing gun battles in the West Bank and Gaza Strip killed 54 Palestinians and 14 Israeli soldiers.

Israel captured Arab East Jerusalem, including the Old City, from Jordan during the 1967 Middle East war. After the city's capture, Moshe Dayan, commander of the Israeli forces, promised Muslim leaders that they would retain administrative control of Islamic holy sites, including the Temple Mount. The Waqf does not formally recognize Israel's authority, although it generally cooperated with the government until the 1996 tunnel incident.

Waqf head Adnan Husseini stated that the Israeli government had no right to demand a halt to construction at the complex. "We never asked for permission from the occupation," Husseini said.

* While the Israeli public's attention has been focused upon the ongoing archaeological dispute at Jerusalem's Temple Mount, archaeologists charge that the "willful destruction" of a site in northern Israel crucial to our understanding of human evolution has gone virtually unnoticed by local and international press. See "Bulldozers in the Night," ARCHAEOLOGY Online, February 29, 2000.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America