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Jerusalem Letter / Viewpoints

No. 483     23 Av 5762 / 1 August 2002


THE DESTRUCTION OF THE TEMPLE MOUNT ANTIQUITIES

Mark Ami-El


The Holiest Site of the Jewish People / Islamic Disregard for the Heritage of Others / The Temple Mount in 1967 / Muslims Change the Status Quo / The Pit / The Debris and the Artifacts / A Plan to Bring "Holy Water" from Mecca / Public Calls to Stop the Destruction / The Southern Wall is About to Fall / What Needs to Be Done


The Holiest Site of the Jewish People

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem represents the greatest point of sanctity for the Jewish people. King Solomon established the Temple, or Beit Ha-Mikdash, on Mt. Moriah. The Temple had a section known as the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant, containing the Ten Commandments and the Torah, was housed. While it stood, Jews were required to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year. After the First Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE by the Babylonians, Jewish exiles returned to Jerusalem in 538 BCE and completed the construction of the Second Temple in 515 BCE. Even after the Temple's destruction by Roman armies in 70 CE, the site of the Temple remained the direction of Jewish prayer.

The purification of the Temple in Jerusalem is the central theme in the holiday of Hanukkah. Thus, according to Jewish tradition, the sanctity of the Temple Mount area remains intact despite the Temple's destruction. Indeed, Rabbi A.I. Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the pre-state Yishuv, confirmed that the eternal sanctity of the Temple Mount continues to exist.1


Islamic Disregard for the Heritage of Others

The Taliban's destruction of ancient Buddhist cultural treasures in the Bamian Valley of Afghanistan during 1998 should have sounded a warning throughout the world over radical Islam's disregard for the religious heritage of others. The Taliban's extremism was partly a result of the influence of their guest, Osama bin Laden, and their Saudi Wahhabi paymasters more generally.2

Israel has witnessed a similar and more widespread pattern of actions by Islamists in support a pre-eminent, if not exclusive, Islamic claim to the Holy Land:

  • In Nazareth, Muslim zealots have sought since 1997 to construct a large mosque that would dwarf the Christian Basilica of the Annunciation.3

  • On October 7, 2000, after constant attacks by Palestinian mobs, the Jewish holy site of Joseph's Tomb in Nablus (Shechem) was sacked and burned, and later converted into a mosque. Five days later, the ancient Shalom Al Yisrael synagogue in Jericho was sacked and burned by Palestinians.4

  • Rachel's Tomb at the Jerusalem-Bethlehem border has come under repeated Palestinian sniper attack.

  • In April 2002, Palestinian Tanzim gunmen from Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement took over the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and controlled the site for weeks at gunpoint.

However, the activities by the Muslim Waqf and the Israeli Muslim movement on the Temple Mount represent an unprecedented attempt to deny any legitimacy to the ancient Jewish heritage in Jerusalem.

After September 2000, the Muslim Waqf closed off the Temple Mount entirely to any archeological oversight by the Israel Antiquities Authority. Then, in order to complete new underground mosques at the site, it removed to city garbage dumps some 13,000 tons of rubble from the Temple Mount that included archeological remnants from the First and Second Temple periods.

The intention is to turn the entire 36-acre Temple Mount compound into an exclusively Muslim site by erasing every sign, remnant, and memory of its Jewish past, including the destruction of archeological findings that are proof of this past.

In a country where construction projects may be held up for months out of concern for the preservation of antiquities, the free hand given the Muslim Waqf to destroy Jewish artifacts at Judaism's holiest site is hard to comprehend.


The Temple Mount in 1967

As a result of the Six-Day War in 1967, Jerusalem once again became a united city. On June 27, the Knesset passed an amendment to the Law and Administration Ordinance that extended Israeli sovereignty to the eastern part of the city of Jerusalem, including the Old City where the Temple Mount stands.5

At the same time, the Knesset also passed the Safeguarding of the Holy Places Law, which states: "The holy places shall be safeguarded against desecration and any other harm, and from anything liable to impede freedom of access of members of religious denominations to the places sacred to them or to their feelings regarding those places." In other words, freedom of access of the various religious denominations to their holy places is anchored in the laws of the state and in decisions of the High Court of Justice.6

Soon after its capture, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan handed the keys to the Temple Mount to the Muslim Waqf authorities of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in a gesture of respect for the rights of Muslims at the site.7

In August 1967, the Chief Rabbis of Israel, Isser Yehuda Unterman and Yitzhak Nissim, in concert with other leading rabbis, asserted that "For generations we have warned against and refrained from entering any part of the Temple Mount." As a result, most observant Jews refrain from entering the Temple Mount. Instead, they pray en masse at the Western Wall.8 However, in a later period, Chief Rabbis Mordechai Eliahu and Shlomo Goren expressed the view that Jews should be allowed to enter and pray in parts of the Temple Mount where the Temple was not situated, notably in the northern and southern expanses of the Mount.9

After Israel implemented the 1993 Oslo Agreement with the PLO, the newly established Palestinian Authority (PA) of Yasser Arafat began to set up offices in Jerusalem which, according to the agreement, remained under Israel's sole jurisdiction. In fact, the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty of October 26, 1994 (Article 9) declared that "Israel respects the present special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Muslim Holy shrines in Jerusalem. When negotiations on the permanent status will take place, Israel will give high priority to the Jordanian historic role in these shrines."10 Yet, after Oslo, PA penetration of Jerusalem deepened and included the appointment of a Palestinian minister for Waqf affairs, Hasan Tahbub, and a Palestinian mufti of Jerusalem, 'Ikrimi Sabri.

During this period, Jordan steadily withdrew its religious authority over the Temple Mount, ceding control to Palestinian-appointed officials. By the time Yasser Arafat launched his intifada violence against Israel in September 2000, the Palestinian takeover of authority on the Temple Mount was complete. As a result, the Israel Antiquities Authority has been prevented from entering the Temple Mount area, since the Waqf, as the practical custodian of the site, was empowered to decide who was permitted entry and who was forbidden.

The Antiquities Authority admits that the situation on the Mount is serious and that antiquities have been disturbed. Yet Islamic clerics deny any non-Moslem connection to the Temple Mount and prevent archeologists from investigating the site, one of the world's most prominent ancient treasures. While Israel has accepted its present inability to actively explore the Temple Mount, it is one thing to prevent exploration and quite another to bulldoze through ancient structures without any archeological supervision.


Muslims Change the Status Quo

In 1996, Palestinian Islamic clerics changed the accepted status quo that had been preserved for generations and converted two ancient underground Second Temple period structures into a new large mosque. Both structures, known as Solomon's Stables and the Eastern Hulda Gate passageway, were never mosques before. The new mosque extends over an area of 1.5 acres and has become the largest mosque in Israel, able to accommodate 10,000 people.

In 1997, another ancient underground Second Temple period structure, known as the Western Hulda Gate passageway, was converted into another new mosque.

In November 1999, the Islamic clerics opened what they called an "emergency exit" to the new mosque. Over three days and nights, the "exit" expanded into a gaping hole, 18,000 square feet in size, and up to 36 feet deep. Thousands of tons of ancient fill from the site, subsequently found by Israeli archeologists to contain artifacts dating as early as the First Temple period, were dumped into the Kidron Valley.

In February and March 2001, an ancient arched structure built against the eastern wall of the Temple Mount enclosure was razed by bulldozers in order to further enlarge the "emergency gate" of the new mosque at Solomon's Stables.

Furthermore, without any archeological supervision, approximately 6,000 square meters of the ancient surface level of the Temple Mount were dug up by tractors, paved, and declared to be open mosques. The previous director of the Antiquities Authority has called this "an archeological crime." No Israeli official has seen any plans or has set limits on the work being carried out.

While Israel government officials declared they would close the gates of the Temple Mount to heavy equipment, such as trucks and tractors, and that building materials and construction equipment would not be allowed into the Temple Mount, and no earth or rubble would be allowed to be removed for dumping, building materials such as stone blocks, paving stones and masonry, wood planks, steel reinforcement rods, and scaffolding continued to flow into the Temple Mount. A large area of approximately 15,000 square meters (15 dunams) in the eastern part of the Temple Mount appeared like one gigantic construction site for a length of 250 meters, from the gateway to Solomon's Stables up to the Gate of Mercy. Similarly, the removal of earth and rubble continued, that included rare archeological finds that are forever lost to science and culture.

The Muslims claim that the Temple Mount is an ancient mosque dating from the time of Adam and Eve. Thus, their goal is to turn the entire area into one giant mosque, and into an exclusively Muslim area. They have been working diligently to erase and destroy every archeological remnant and finding that may testify to any Jewish spark or connection to the place. Their intention is to change the status quo of the place by turning all the areas of the Mount into Muslim holy places, mosques, and prayer areas, with the intention of preventing any Jewish presence whatsoever in the future.


The Pit

During October 1999-January 2000, a huge hole -- 50 meters long, 25 meters wide, and 12 meters deep -- was dug in the Temple Mount north of the underground substructure known as Solomon's Stables. This structure is a row of subterranean halls located at the southeastern corner of the Temple Mount and is enclosed by the external wall of the Mount.

This structure was last used by the Crusaders during the medieval era. The system of halls was improved in the twelfth century by the knightly Order of Solomon's Temple (the Templars), whose members, fighting monks, gave them the name of "Solomon's Stables." The Crusader King Baldwin handed the place over to the Knights Templars, and they turned it into stables for their horses. After a major earthquake in 1033 CE, the top of the structure was rebuilt, but no one can confidently date its original construction.

It is not clear what is under Solomon's Stables. We do know about an underground corridor lying below the level of the Single Gate (which once led to Solomon's Stables) that is constructed of Herodian-style blocks. The corridor ends at its northern extremity before a doorway leading to a structure situated below Solomon's Stables. Most scholars suggest that it was founded in the Second Temple period. King Herod built this substructure when he leveled the platform of the Mount.

Policemen on the Mount reported observing the dismantling of a water channel with arches on the western side of the pit at a depth of 2-3 meters, an ancient structure built some time between the Second Temple period and the Muslim period.


The Debris and the Artifacts

The material in the dumps in El-Azaria and in the Kidron Valley both have the same texture, which is a dusty gray soil. The earth contains a mixture of many stones from different periods. Also found were many ancient masonry stones, some carbonized, and many modern blocks and floor tiles, which are probably fragments of the current Temple Mount floor. At first glance it seems that the earth contains no pottery shards, but after a good rain it can easily be seen that the earth is full of shards.

Antiquities found in the dumps include a pillared figurine leg from the time of the First Temple; pottery from the First Temple -- the earliest identified shard is from the eighth century BCE; and pottery from the Second Temple -- including the Hellenistic and Early Roman periods.

According to a Waqf worker who participated in the construction in 1996, stones with decorations and inscriptions were recut so that markings were destroyed. He said he saw writing on the stones in ancient Hebrew. He also saw 5-pointed star symbols on the stones, which we know was a Hasmonean symbol commonly found on handle seals from the second century BCE.

In the recent digging on the Temple Mount, hundreds of trucks were seen removing earth. The trucks were traced to Jerusalem's municipal garbage dump, where the material was mixed with the local garbage, making it impossible for any archeological examination. When the manager of the dump was informed that the trucks contained earth with archeological value, he directed them to a clean area, but after redirecting four trucks, they stopped coming to the dump. The very next evening, around midnight, they dumped tons of truckloads of excavated material into the Kidron Valley.

The following day, archeologists arrived at the new dumpsite and took samples of pottery. Dr. Dan Bahat dated at least half of it to the Second Temple Era. Material collected from the garbage dump was also examined by archeologists Dr. Gabi Barkai and Dr. Aren Maeir.


A Plan to Bring "Holy Water" from Mecca

Sheikh Rayadh Salah, the head of the Israeli Islamic movement and an Israeli citizen, is the force behind all the activities in the past few years. Salah stands behind the ambitious project to clean and renovate 37 empty underground spaces, some of which include large halls, each encompassing 100 square meters, with heights of more than ten meters. He has arranged funding and donations from throughout the Arab world to support these efforts.

Extensive work continues to clean ten water holes for storing water from the holy Zamzam River in Mecca, thereby increasing the holiness of the Temple Mount in the eyes of the Muslims and increasing its importance as a special central area for prayer in the eyes of the entire Muslim world. The hidden agenda of the Islamic movement is to elevate the sanctity of Jerusalem in Islam, to place it on a par with Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

All of the underground spaces of the Temple Mount are ancient, some possibly Canaanite, and others date from the period of the First Temple, from the days of the Hasmoneans and Herod. Some served as ancient gates to the Temple Mount, and others as purifying baths for priests who became impure. These underground spaces present a most important archeological connection for our knowledge of the Temple Mount and for research of its origins. It is impossible to imagine any kind of work in these cisterns being done without archeological supervision.


Public Calls to Stop the Destruction

Somewhat belatedly, public efforts within Israel galvanized to demand a stop to the modern construction and destruction on the Temple Mount. Urgent letters were sent to the prime minister and other ministers warning of "a serious act of irreparable vandalism and destruction carried out without supervision, while abrogating the law."

An open letter to the prime minister protesting the destruction was signed by numerous highly-respected individuals including former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek and current Mayor Ehud Olmert, authors Amos Oz and Haim Gouri, and 82 members of Israel Knesset. Israelis are appalled that the law requiring the preservation of all holy places is brazenly ignored on the Temple Mount.

The Committee for the Prevention of the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount was founded in January 2000 to preserve the antiquities there. It is a volunteer group with no political, national, or religious affiliation, made up of well-known Israeli public figures, archeologists, writers, lawyers, jurists, and members of the security services.

The Committee demanded that the Israeli government:

  1. Stop the destruction on the Temple Mount.

  2. Open the Temple Mount to Israeli and international media.

  3. Enable the Antiquities Authority to fulfill its duties and guard the antiquities in the State of Israel.

  4. See that the status quo on the Temple Mount is kept and that all changes be undertaken in a way that would not destroy ancient remains.

In a petition on this matter to the Supreme Court in March 2001, the Committee presented the opinions of four premier security experts, among them a former minister of internal security and two former senior officials of the General Security Services, as well as a previous advisor on terrorism to two prime ministers. All testified that it is possible to stop the work of the Waqf and the Muslim movement.

Eventually, the government did decide to stop certain projects, such as the paving, and prevented the introduction of construction equipment necessary to continue the work.


The Southern Wall is About to Fall

While the large-scale destruction of artifacts has now stopped, and the trucks have stopped carting away tons of valuable debris, there is still no supervision whatsoever on the Temple Mount. Furthermore, an increasingly dangerous buckling is now evident in the southern wall of the Temple Mount, which might collapse if left without any oversight or attention by government officials.11

According to Hebrew University archeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar, author of The Complete Guide to the Temple Mount Excavations, "We have no way of knowing what is going on underground in the large caverns, where the Waqf is making major changes. The southern wall is beginning to buckle because of the destruction carried out by the Waqf. It is about to fall -- within a matter of months, and possibly even weeks; I have trouble believing it will last the entire winter, and it could fall on those standing below."

The bulging of the wall is clearly visible, but nothing is being done about it since Israeli authorities are barred from entering. "These walls were not built to support tractors and loaded trucks. The path of the rainwater has also been changed in the process, and water is trickling down the walls and eating away at them. The Waqf has placed some scaffolding there to try to hold up the wall, but is doing no work to repair it. Once a catastrophe happens, Israel will be blamed, and perhaps justifiably so, since we are doing nothing to stop it," said Dr. Mazar.

"The only thing that will solve this problem is a public outcry against the continued destruction of the Temple Mount," Dr. Mazar concluded.


What Needs to Be Done

The Committee has a detailed proposal to prevent further destruction of antiquities on the Temple Mount:

  • Stop immediately all construction, digging, stone cutting, and work on the underground spaces, including "the cleaning" of the water cisterns that the Muslim Waqf and the Israeli Muslim movement are carrying out.

  • Prevent the introduction of construction equipment and material, including tractors, trucks, and heavy machinery, as well as spare parts and fuel for the equipment.

  • Immediately remove the tractors, the large stone cutters, the large amount of construction material in the area of the Mount, and all the other equipment and material related to the work.

  • Prevent the removal of stones, earth, and refuse without full supervision by the Antiquities Authority.

  • Inspect all those entering and leaving the Mount, including all vehicles, to prevent the smuggling of antiquities outside the area.

  • Immediately return the inspectors of the Antiquities Authority to supervise the Temple Mount and position there a permanent inspector with full authority, as is accepted and established by law for every other place in Israel.

  • Significantly expand the power of the police on the Temple Mount and alter the unit's composition (today only a small part of the unit are Jews) so that its members would not be vulnerable to pressures. Strengthen the supervision and patrols by the police on the Mount in every place and at all times.

  • Establish an administrator responsible for all permits for work on the Temple Mount, in the framework of maintaining the status quo, as well as preventing all work not permitted by the administrator.

  • Investigate and tighten the law against the destruction of antiquities, particularly in light of the work carried out on the Temple Mount.

  • Open the Temple Mount to full, free, and regular examination by the national and international media, as is accepted among the democratic and cultured nations of the free world.

In addition, although the damage is irreversible, a rescue excavation should be undertaken on the Mount, even though most of the pit is already covered by cement. All the special stones and artifacts that were kept on the Mount after the Waqf had sifted the dirt should be examined. Waqf officials are currently preventing any access to these stones. Finally, all of the debris dumped in the Kidron Valley should be examined. This could be done in a few weeks with special machinery. Since this debris was not filtered, it is high probable that it contains important small artifacts with inscriptions and seals.

Future generations will not understand how, while under Jewish rule, we allowed the destruction of our antiquities. History will not forgive us if we do not stop, even belatedly, the crimes that have occurred on the Temple Mount, whose goal is to wipe out every vestige and testimony to the existence of Jewish history and archeology at the site.

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Notes

1. Dore Gold, Jerusalem in International Diplomacy (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2001); http://www.jcpa.org/jcprg10.htm.

2. Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: The Story of the Afghan Warlords (London: Pan Books, 2001), p. 139.

3. Raphael Israeli, "The Anti-Millennium: The Islamization of Nazareth," Jerusalem Viewpoints, No. 428 (April 16, 2000).

4. Statement of the Government of Israel to the Sharm El-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee (Mitchell Commission), December 28, 2000; http://www.mfa.gov. il/mfa/go.asp?MFAH0jcb0.

5. Netanel Lorch, ed., Major Knesset Debates, vol. 4 (Lanham, Md.: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and University Press of America, 1993), p. 1608-1614.

6. Ruth Lapidoth and Moshe Hirsch, eds., The Jerusalem Question and its Resolution: Selected Documents (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Mirtinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1994), p. 465-466.

7. Michael B. Oren, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 307.

8. Lapidoth and Hirsch, p. 466.

9. Yoel Cohen, "The Political Role of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate in the Temple Mount Question," Jewish Political Studies Review, vol. 11:1-2 (Spring 1999); http://www.jcpa.org/jpsr/s99-yc.htm.

10. Treaty of Peace between the State of Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, October 26, 1994; http://www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/go.asp?MFAH00pa0.

11. Etgar Lefkovits, "Olmert Warns Temple Mount Wall in Danger of Collapse," Jerusalem Post, August 27, 2002; http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename= JPost/A/JPArticle/ShowFull&cid=1029920558669.

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Mark Ami-El is managing editor of Jerusalem Viewpoints. This article was prepared with the assistance of the Committee for the Prevention of the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount (http://www.har-habayt.org), Dr. Eilat Mazar, Zachi Zweig, and Sarah B. Tannenbaum.


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The opinions expressed by the authors of Viewpoints do not necessarily reflect those of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.