Associated Press, in Boston Globe
November 17, 2006
At Mideast holy site, what is treasure?
By Matti Friedman, Associated Press Writer
JERUSALEM --Off an East Jerusalem side street, between an olive orchard
and an abandoned hotel, sit a few piles of stones and dirt that are
yielding important insights into Jerusalem's history.
They come from one of the world's most disputed holy places -- the
square in the heart of Jerusalem that is known to Jews as the Temple
Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.
The story behind the rubble includes an underground crypt, a maverick
college student, a white-bearded archaeologist, thousands of relics
spanning millennia and a feud between Israelis and Palestinians which is
heavily shaped by ancient history.
Among finds that have emerged are a coin struck during the Jewish revolt
against the Romans, arrowheads shot by Babylonian archers and by Roman
siege machinery, Christian charms, a 3,300-year-old fragment of Egyptian
alabaster, Bronze Age flint instruments, and -- the prize discovery --
the imprint of a seal possibly linked to a priestly Jewish family
mentioned in the Old Testament's Book of Jeremiah.
And the finds keep coming. On a drizzly November morning, Gabriel
Barkay, the veteran biblical archaeologist who runs the dig, sat in a
tent near the mounds examining some newly discovered coins stamped by
various Holy Land powers: the Hasmonean dynasty of Jewish kings more
than 2,000 years ago, a Roman procurator around the time of Pontius
Pilate, the early Christians of the Byzantine Empire, two Islamic
dynasties and the British in the 20th century.
Considering the wealth of findings, it is odd, perhaps, that this is an
excavation that was never supposed to happen.
Jews revere the Mount as the site of their two ancient temples. Muslims
believe it's where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven during a
nighttime journey recounted in the Quran. Two mosques stand on the site,
as do some of the temple's original retaining walls, including the
Jewish shrine called the Western Wall, but there is no visible trace of
the temple itself.
The site has been the frequent arena of Israeli-Palestinian fighting,
and its volatility has prevented archaeologists from ever touching it.
In November 1999, the Waqf, the Muslim organization that administers the
site's Islamic holy places, opened an emergency exit to an ancient
underground chamber of stone pillars and arches known to Jews as
Solomon's Stables and to Muslims as the Marwani mosque.
Ignoring fierce protest from Israeli archaeologists who said priceless
artifacts were being destroyed to erase traces of Jewish history, the
Waqf dug a large pit, removed tons of earth and rubble that had been
used as landfill and dumped much of it in the nearby Kidron Valley.
The Waqf's position was, and remains, that the rubble was of recent
vintage and without archaeological value.
Zachi Zweig, a 27-year-old archaeology undergraduate at Bar Ilan
University near Tel Aviv, showed up at the dump a few days later. Though
Israel's archaeological establishment had shown no interest in the
rubble, Zweig was sure it was important, especially after a Waqf
representative told him to leave.
Zweig returned surreptitiously with friends, gathered samples of the
rubble and discovered a high concentration of ancient pottery shards. He
was charged by the Israel Antiquities Authority with stealing relics --
charges that were later dropped -- and finally convinced Barkay, his
lecturer at the university, that the rubble needed to be studied.
In 2004, after five years spent getting a dig license and raising funds,
they had 75 truckloads of rubble moved to a lot on the slopes of
Jerusalem's Mount Scopus.
The first coin they found, Barkay said, was one issued during the Jewish
revolt that preceded the Roman destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in
70 A.D., imprinted with the Hebrew words "Freedom of Zion."
The most valuable find so far, Barkay believes, is a clay seal
impression discovered last year. Its incomplete Hebrew lettering appears
to name Ge'aliyahu, son of Immer. Immer is the name of a family of
temple officials mentioned in Jeremiah 20:1.
Another important discovery is the many relics from the early Christian
era, which seem to disprove the notion that the site was abandoned in
those years as a symbol of God's abandonment of the Jews.
Stephen Pfann of the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem, best
known for his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, said moving the rubble
around has jumbled its contents and diminished its scholarly value.
But even so, "This is an insight into the life of Jerusalem, and
whatever they find will be very exciting," he said.
Archaeology here, however, is rarely just about providing insight into
Barkay's dig is funded by the City of David Foundation, a hard-line
religious group which spends most of its money settling Jewish families
in Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. It's part of a broader attempt
by groups affiliated with the settler movement to make the point that
Jerusalem is Jewish.
When it removed the rubble, the Waqf was trying to destroy evidence of
Jewish history on the Temple Mount, said Uri Ragones, a foundation
spokesman. "We are going back to Jerusalem physically, learning about it
and uncovering our past. We're touching our deepest roots as a people."
For its part, the Waqf says it wasn't destroying any evidence of Jewish
presence -- because there isn't any.
"I have seen no evidence of a temple," said the Waqf's director, Adnan
Husseini. He had heard "stories," he acknowledged, "but these are an
attempt to change the situation here today, and any change would be very
Such reactions don't surprise Israeli Historian Gershom Gorenberg, whose
book "The End of Days" documents the fight over the holy site.
"Dig a centimeter beneath the debate over antiquities," he said, "and
you hit the debate over whom the Mount belongs to, and a centimeter
beneath that is the war over whom the entire country belongs to."
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