A Hole Deep in the Heart of the Temple Mount


No one really cares. But that puts me in an elite group: It includes two of Israel's most prominent Jerusalem archaeologists (Gaby Barkay and Eilat Mazar) — and me. And a few religious or Zionist kooks. That's about it.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Wafk goes on tearing up Jerusalem's Temple Mount, where the Jewish Temple stood. The week before last, they hit an ancient wall that might be the foundation of a wall from the Second Temple complex built by Herod the Great.

It's an old/new story.

For the past 35 years, the Muslim religious authority known as the Waff, to whom Israel has given custody of the Temple Mount, has been periodically digging it up — illegally.

That's the Israel Supreme Court's characterization.

Several years ago, for example, the Wafk used mechanical equipment to dig a huge hole for a wide stairway down to a greatly expanded underground mosque, dumping hundreds of tons of dirt from the mount into the adjacent Kidron Valley.

When Zachi Zweig, a graduate student of Barkay's, started looking for antiquities in the Wafk dump, the Israel Antiquities Authority had Zweig arrested for digging without a permit. Since then, Barkay has obtained the permit and, with Zweig, they have engaged in a multiyear project sifting this archaeologically rich dump.

They have found thousands of ancient artifacts going back 3,000 years, including a seal impression of a probable brother of someone mentioned in the Bible.

Now, the Wafk wants to lay new telephone and electric lines on the mount. All well and good, perhaps, but under Israeli law, in an area that might contain antiquities, the trench must first be excavated by professional archaeologists. The same holds true for construction: Such areas must first be professionally excavated, most often by the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Yet the Wafk simply ignores this law. A few weeks ago, it began digging a utility trench almost five feet deep, often going down to bedrock. Worse still, the workmen were using mechanical equipment — anathema to any professional archaeologist in such a site.

It's certainly all right if the Wafk deems it necessary to lay new telephone and electrical lines. But there's no reason why the trench could not be excavated by professional archaeologists, who dig by hand and with great care to uncover and document the context of all discoveries — no reason at all except the Wafk's unwillingness to recognize Israeli law.

This summer, on July 18, to be precise, I had an opinion piece published in The Wall Street Journal about all of this, headed "Biblical Destruction," which went on to explain the predicament and which protested the Wafk excavation.

It has had no effect. On the contrary, since then, the excavation has been extensively expanded.

Observers have reported seeing numerous antiquities in the excavated dirt and in the trench, including mosaic tesserae, a quantity of pottery vessels (some of which had been freshly broken by the tractor scoop), and carefully carved and decorated building stones typical of the Second Temple period. Last week's excavation hit part of an unusually wide wall that has now been destroyed. It could well have been part of the Temple complex.

Barkay and Mazar continue to protest vehemently and publicly. But they have mostly been met with silence.

The archaeological community as such has not raised its collective voice, either. Each archaeologist is concerned with his or her own dig, not someone else's violation of the antiquities law. Why jeopardize a career by making trouble when all the well-known political names and faces remain silent?

A few newspaper articles have appeared, but nothing serious. The Antiquities Authority has been queried on several occasions about this violation of Israel's antiquities laws — on Judaism's holiest site — but the response has always been the same: "No comment."

This thundering silence perhaps best explains why the Israeli Embassy in Washington has not provided any account or explanation of this depredation on the Temple Mount.

After all, why raise questions and create a problem when nobody really cares?

Hershel Shanks is editor of Biblical Archaeology Review.



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