Violence Sparked by Archaeological Projects in Jerusalem

Mati Milstein in Jerusalem
for National Geographic News
February 12, 2007
Archaeological excavations have incited violence at a Jerusalem holy site sacred to Jews, Arabs, and Christians—the man-made plateau known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews and Christians as the Temple Mount.

But two other, more obscure archaeological projects have the potential to fan the flames even further.

The Temple Mount covers the hill where Christians, Jews, and Muslims believe Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac at God's behest. Muslims also believe Muhammad ascended to heaven there to receive prayers from God before returning to Earth.

The hill's rocky peak protrudes from the center of the complex's paved surface and today is sheltered by Islam's Dome of the Rock.

Friday's skirmish between Muslim protesters and Israeli police was related to a bulldozer-assisted excavation near the complex.

The project is designed to determine whether the construction of a new walkway to replace a collapsed earthen ramp would disturb artifacts that may be under the site. But Muslim leaders across the Middle East have voiced concerns that the Israeli endeavor may harm sacred sites.

Today Jerusalem's mayor decided to postpone construction work. The search for artifacts continues.

The walkway project is joined in controversy by an archaeologist's claim that he has found the location of the ancient Jewish temple on the mount, and by the Israeli excavation of an ancient site in an Arab section of Jerusalem.

Arab Neighborhood, Israeli Dig

A few months ago archaeologists discovered a road south of the mount that may have been Jerusalem's main street during the Second Temple period (about 515 B.C. to A.D. 70). The Second Temple was the reconstruction of King Solomon's temple, which had been destroyed decades earlier.

Despite the ancient road's sensitive location—partly in the Arab neighborhood of Silwan—Israelis have continued digging an excavation tunnel.

"The dig has revealed remains from the Second Temple period which were previously unknown," said Gideon Avni, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority's excavations and surveys department.

"We knew from sources that there was a large reservoir—the Shiloah Pool—in the southern part of the City of David [ancient Jerusalem]. But we didn't know until now how big it was or how monumental it was," Avni said.

"We have learned that in this part of Jerusalem, which was then very much the outskirts of the city, there was very impressive public construction—both this pool and a system of roads that resembles those uncovered next to the Temple Mount," Avni said.

But Khaled Meshal, the exiled leader of the anti-Israel political and militant group Hamas, has condemned the Silwan excavations. He says they are an attack on the Noble Sanctuary's al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third holiest shrine.

"I have a stern warning for the enemy," he told reporters in Damascus, Syria. "Israel knows what its violation of the holy Aqsa will bring. It is playing with fire."

Avni, of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said the Silwan excavations have nothing to do with the Temple Mount or the al-Aqsa Mosque.

"The Temple Mount is almost half a kilometer [a third of a mile] from the Silwan excavations," Avni told National Geographic News. "It's an entirely different part of the city."

Lost Temple

Meanwhile, a Hebrew University archaeology professor has pinpointed what he says is the exact location of the Second Temple—possibly solving a centuries-old mystery.

The general site of the long-gone Second Temple is now occupied by the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque.

Though conventional archaeological wisdom places the Second Temple over this mountaintop, archaeologist Joseph Patrich says it isn't so.

Patrich, of Jerusalem's Hebrew University, compared an underground water reservoir—originally mapped in 1866 by a British engineer—with third-century A.D. descriptions of Second Temple rituals including daily washing related to purification and animal sacrifices.

Patrich says the cistern's characteristics match written accounts of the temple's configuration, and believes the structure was to the southeast of the commonly accepted location.

"It is most certainly an interesting theory," the antiquities authority's Avni said.

"But in my opinion, you must stick with the majority. … It is very difficult to take one architectural feature existing today [the cistern]—we don't know how many times it was altered since it was constructed, and we are not 100 percent certain it is from the same period—and to build a hypothesis upon it."

Border Disputes

The Temple Mount was Jordanian territory until the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel conquered Jerusalem's Old City. Israel left responsibility for the administration of the compound to a Muslim religious trust, while Israeli police took responsibility for general security.

The centuries-old ramp whose excavation sparked the recent violence leads to the Temple Mount's Mugrabi Gate ("moor's gate"). It collapsed three years ago after a snowstorm and earthquakes. The walkway was replaced with a temporary bridge that is now unsound.

Israel seeks to either rebuild the ramp or construct a permanent bridge. Israeli law dictates a salvage dig prior to any construction in Jerusalem's Old City.

The bridge excavations elicited condemnations from Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, the Arab League, the Palestinians, and Israel's own Islamic Movement. Israeli police firing tear gas and stun grenades faced off against Palestinian stone throwers in violent protests last week.

Avni said these most recent archaeological developments should not affect the Jewish-Muslim status quo on the mount.

"These projects have no influence on the political situation," Avni said. "Under no circumstances do we dig on or near the Temple Mount. Even the [Mugrabi] excavations they are fighting about now are located 50 to 60 meters [160 to 200 feet] from the compound."

The recent events are not the first time archaeology and politics have combined to spark violence here.

In 1996 Israel opened a new exit to an archaeological tunnel running alongside the Temple Mount. Palestinians angered by the new door rioted, and the ensuing violence left 69 Arabs and 16 Israelis dead. (See "Jerusalem Tunnel Linked to Bible" [September 11, 2003].)

Will continued excavations in Silwan and near the Mugrabi Gate fuel further violence?

"I have no idea," Avni admitted. "What are driving the protests are neither archaeological nor professional factors but rather all sorts of political interests."

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