Sunday, 18 November 2007
Temple Mount discovery leads to dispute in Jerusalem
Workers dig out stones for repair on the plateau of the Temple Mount area, where ancient Israelite remains were reportedly found. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Sunday, November 18, 2007
Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
Jerusalem -- Israeli archaeologists say that ancient remains from the era of Solomon's Temple were discovered last month for the first time on the holiest site for Judaism, reigniting a historical and political debate over an area that also is holy to Muslims.
While doing renovation at the famed Temple Mount, Israeli archaeologists discovered a sealed layer containing fragments of ceramic table vessels and animal bones. The items have been dated by Israeli scientists to the First Temple in the eighth century B.C. - roughly during the reign of the biblical King Hezekiah. The discovery includes fragments of bowl rims and bases, the base of a small jug used for ladling oil, the handle of a small jug and the rim of a storage jar. All are typical of Israelite vessels from that period, scientists say.
"These finds are important because it is the first time we have ever found a sealed archaeological level clearly dated to the First Temple period within the complex of the Temple Mount," said Jon Seligman, a senior archaeologist at the Israel Antiquities Authority. The group plans to present its findings to scientists in a series of seminars.
The Temple Mount is known not only for the First and Second temples, but also for the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, in reference to Jews mourning the destruction of the temple. Jews from all over the world come to pray by the wall.
But since the seventh century A.D., the Temple Mount has also been known to Muslims as the Haram Al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary for the al-Aqsa Mosque and the golden-roofed Dome of the Rock, the latter where Muslim tradition says the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
The discovery has met with skepticism from an archaeologist with Waqf, the Jordanian-controlled trust that manages the 36-acre compound. And it has not pleased some Muslim leaders, who regard the site as an exclusive Muslim preserve. Some have denied that the Jews ever built a temple there. Sheikh Ikrema Sabri, the former mufti of Jerusalem, recently told the Jerusalem Post that the temples of Solomon and Herod never existed.
"There was never a Jewish temple on al-Aqsa, and there is no proof that there was ever a temple," Sabri said. "Because Allah is fair, he would not agree to make al-Aqsa if there were a temple there for others beforehand."
Sabri also said the Western Wall, revered by Jews as the last remnant of a huge retaining barrier built by King Herod to support the vast plaza where the temple stood, has no historical significance for Jews.
"The wall is not part of the Jewish temple. It is just the western wall of the mosque," he said. "There is not a single stone with any relation at all to the history of the Hebrews."
Israel and the Palestinian Authority claim sovereignty over the site, which remains one of the most intractable problems delaying a settlement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some analysts say. Waqf has religious, economic, administrative and some security control. But only Israeli police can enforce the law on the site.
A few months before he was elected prime minister in 2001, Ariel Sharon arrived with hundreds of police officers, declaring that the complex would remain under perpetual Israeli control. The following day, Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli police confronted each other at the site. The years of violence that followed became known as the al-Aqsa intifada.
The complex on the summit of Mount Moriah forms the southeast corner of the Old City of Jerusalem. The earliest reliable historical record by the Roman historian Josephus identified it as the location of King Herod's Temple. Jewish tradition says an earlier shrine planned by King David and built by his son, King Solomon, was the Temple Mount's first permanent structure.
But there had been no archaeological evidence to support the concept that ancient Israelites had been present - until now.
"We have many finds from the First Temple era from all over Jerusalem, but never from this site," Seligman said.
Last month, workers laying an electrical cable under the auspices of Waqf dug a trench about 300 yards long in the southeast corner of the site. When they checked the trench, inspectors from the Israel Antiquities Authority said they found the ancient fragments.
However, Yusif Natsheh, a Waqf archaeologist, disputed the findings.
"I was present throughout this work and neither I, nor any Waqf official, recall seeing these items in the trench," said Natsheh. "I only heard about them in the press, weeks after the work was finished. If they were found, then why were they taken outside the compound?"
Natsheh said the trench was less than 3 feet deep and wondered how the Israeli archaeologists could hit a layer dating back to the First Temple without first slicing through the Byzantine and Roman periods, which logically would be above them.
"All of this archaeology and science in Jerusalem is manipulated for different political attitudes," said Natsheh. "It is not archaeology, it is not history, it is just spoiled politics."
Seligman dismissed Natsheh's accusation as "outrageous. Categorically, 100 percent of these findings came from the Temple Mount, and we stake our reputation on that."
Professor Seymour Gittin, director of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in East Jerusalem, said the discovery "definitely dates between the seventh and eighth centuries. They were pottery of the kind we normally associate with Israelite culture as distinct from the Moabite and other cultures close to Jerusalem at that time," he said.
Out of deference to Islamic shrines, very little archaeological research has been conducted on the mount. However, underground passageways beneath al-Aqsa show clear signs of Herodian decoration and link to a series of arched doorways in the southern wall that fit contemporary descriptions of the Roman-era entrance to Herod's Second Temple, most archaeologists agree.
Most archaeologists also agree that the Western Wall is typical of Herodian stonework, which can be seen at the shrine that Herod built over the Tombs of the Patriarchs in the West Bank town of Hebron - later transformed into the Al-Ibrahimi Mosque.
Meanwhile, the discovery has sparked anew the issue of who controls a site that is holy to Jews and Muslims.
Just this month, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened to withdraw his right-wing Israel Beiteinu Party from the coalition government if the issue is even discussed at U.S.-sponsored peace talks planned by the end of the year between Israelis and Palestinians in Annapolis, Md.
This article appeared on page A - 17 of the San Francisco Chronicle