Holy Land Pilgrimage with Gila




Ask Gila about Excavations on the Temple Mount

  • I am disturbed that relics of the Temple Mount are being handled poorly by the Waqf.  Why do they have control of this area anyway?  Can you give me a little history?  I don't want to ignite WW3 but I think the Israelis should not allow any construction on the Temple Mount without an archeological team present.  What are the politics of this?
    John Casey, San Diego, California
The politics of control of construction on the Temple Mount is very complex.  If you go back to the Bible, it says specifically that David bought the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite for 50 shekels of silver.  (II Samuel 24:24)  Ironically, this is one of the few passages in the Hebrew Bible where a deed of sale is registered.  (Other examples are Abraham buying the Cave of the Machpelah in Hebron as a burial plot for Sarah in Genesis 23 and Omri, King of Israel buying the hill from Shemer which became his capital, Samaria, in I Kings 16.)

Notwithstanding the fact that the Temple Mount was actually purchased, the normal way to gain sovereignty was through conquest.  The Temple compound built by David’s heir Solomon was conquered first by the Babylonian army and then was inherited by the Persians who conquered Babylon.  Following the Persians, the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, Arabs once again, Turks, British, Jordan Arab Legion and finally the Israel Defense Forces controlled the Temple Mount by dint of conquest.

Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

The Dome of the Chain (foreground) & Dome of the Rock, built in 691 A.D.

It was on the third day of the Six Day War, June 7, 1967, that the Voice of Israel, the national radio station, suddenly fell silent.  Then the air waves filled with the music of Naomi Shemer’s popular song “Jerusalem of Gold.”  Her lyrics included, “The cisterns are dry; the market squares are empty. And no one goes up to the Temple Mount in the Old City.”  (When she wrote these lyrics, a month or so earlier, the Temple Mount was “in Jordan” and no Israelis were allowed to visit.)  After the chorus “Jerusalem of gold, of copper and of light, Behold I am a harp for all your songs,” there was a dramatic announcement:

Har Habayit bi’yadaynu!!!! The Temple Mount is in our hands!!!

That was a rallying cry of ecstatic joy for Jews and evangelical Christians around the world.

A month later, however, Israel’s Minister of Defense, the photogenic one-eyed Moshe Dayan, voluntarily gave up administration of the Temple Mount to the Moslem Religious Trust.  To this day, administration of the Temple Mount – its cleanliness, opening hours, prayer times, volume of loudspeakers attached to the minarets, repairs, fundraising -- resides with the Moslem Religious Trust, called the Waqf. Security, however, is guaranteed by the Israel Police.

Tour the Temple Mount with Gila's MP3 audio tour in the company of Abraham and Isaac, David and Solomon, Jesus and the disciples, the angel Gabriel and Mohammed.  Meet many other luminaries, both real and legendary.

Gila's Temple Mount tour is now also available as a written 24-page PDF with a Temple Mount plan, guidelines for passing the security check and ten recommended reads on the Temple Mount from Gila's bookshelves.

After 1967, Israel’s archeological authorities began to excavate outside the western and southern retaining walls of the Temple Mount.  Today you can see the results at the Ophel where you can actually stand on the steps pilgrims once ascended to reach the Temple, view the Huldah gates and admire the inscribed stone which toppled over from the pinnacle.

While the archeologists were busy at the southern half of the western wall, rabbis in charge of the “Wailing Wall” surreptitiously began to tunnel under today’s Moslem Quarter, along the western wall towards the north.  They followed the flat-bellied Herodion stones all the way to the northwest corner.

From the late 1980s onwards, I remember crawling through parts of the tunnel with Jerusalem’s district archeologist who was showing us guides the discoveries and explaining their significance.

Worshippers at the public prayer area of the Western Wall

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Worshippers at the Western Wall public prayer area

Sometime in the mid 1990s the “Rabbinical Tunnel,” as it was nicknamed, was opened to the public.  The company I worked for was among the first to embrace this new attraction.  But it quickly became very popular, for all Israel came to Jerusalem to see the outer western temple compound wall that had just become visible, after being buried for two thousand years.

The tunnel is very narrow in some places, wide enough for one and a half persons to pass. In addition, there’s not that much air, when hundreds of people are walking through the narrow passageways.  The demand for tunnel tours was so great that our groups were being given reservations at 11.00 at night, or 6.00 in the morning. Those were tough hours to tour, even though the destination was so inspiring.

In the meantime, archeologists had discovered a Hasmonean water channel that predated the time of Jesus by a hundred years.  When they began to clear it out, there were suggestions that perhaps this would be an ideal solution for the crowded tunnel.  That is, they could make the Rabbinical Tunnel one way, by creating an exit through the Hasmonean channel out to the street above in the Moslem Quarter. (The exit is, in fact, opposite the beginning of the Via Dolorosa, at Station One.)

Dan Bahat, world renowned Temple Mount expert  is briefing my group about construciton on the Temple Mount

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Chief archeologist of the Western Wall Tunnel, Dr. Dan Bahat on the Temple Mount

To make a long story shorter, in 1997 at the close of the Yom Kippur fast, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert “opened” the Hasmonean tunnel.  The Waqf claimed that this was a one-sided move by Israel which harmed the “status quo” on the Temple Mount.  Palestinian Chairman Yasir Arafat showed fabricated maps claiming that the Jews were digging under the El Aqsa mosque. (The tunnel follows the western wall to the north, whereas the mosque is located way to the south.)

Just very recently I heard from a senior Israeli archeologist that there had been an agreement between the Waqf and Netanyahu and Olmert, to which he himself was privy.  Because the Moslem holy month of Ramadan took place in the winter of 1997, the Moslems wanted to use the Marwani Mosque under the El Aqsa for prayers – but there were only two doors and safety regulations stipulated they needed three doors. Initially, Israel did not give permission to use the Marwani Mosque.
Then there was an agreement for a swap: the Marwani Mosque would be allowed to open, and in return, the opening of the exit of the Western Wall Tunnel would go without incident.  This agreement was made with the highest Moslem authority, but secretly.  Arafat was also a party to the understanding, but used the tunnel opening to inflame the political situation to his advantage.

Riots broke out in Jerusalem and around the country with a high number of casualties: 6 Israelis and 70 Moslems dead.  Israelis then stopped visiting the Rabbinical Tunnel for which so much blood had been shed.  Eventually things calmed down.

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When Ehud Barak became prime minister in 1999, he began negotiations towards a permanent agreement with the Palestinians.  At the same time, his government ignored the new large-scale Moslem construction on the Temple Mount.

With foreign funds and donation of work-time by Moslems from the Galilee, the Waqf began building a mosque in the area called Solomon’s Stables in the southeastern corner of the Temple Mount.  The original building had nothing to do with Solomon – that was the Crusader name for their own stables.  The arched passageways were part of the underground structure of Herod’s Second Temple.  I was underneath a number of times in the 1990s (before the massive Moslem construction) and I could clearly see that the architecture was Herodion.

SE corner of the Temple Mount where Solomon's Stables were located

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

SE corner of the Temple Mount, location of the underground Solomon's Stables

During the winter, spring and summer of the year 2000, as I led group after group, week after week, up onto the Temple Mount to visit the Dome of the Rock and the El Aqsa, I found it hard to concentrate on my commentary.  I was counting tractors and small bulldozers which were noisily moving around on the Temple Mount removing tons of dirt.  I kept wondering to myself, “Hey -- What’s going on here?”

It seemed there was a conspiracy of silence.  Perhaps there was – for the Barak government at that time was negotiating with the Palestinian Authority over possible solutions to the century-old conflict.  Later I found out that a very prominent group of Israeli archeologists, writers and intellectuals had written a petition to the government, calling the lack of supervision on the Temple Mount an archeological crime.  They demanded that the government stop the Waqf’s excavations in front of the El Aqsa Mosque.  But there was no response.

As you imply, John, in your question, the relics found on or under the Temple Mount are part and parcel of our Judeo-Christian heritage.  In practical terms, the Waqf was given a free hand with absolutely no supervision.  At least seventy truckloads of dirt were taken out from Solomon’s Stables and dumped in the Kidron Valley.

Fortunately, archeologist Dr. Gaby Barkay, excavator of the Ketef Hinnom tombs where the Priestly Benediction was found, took the initiative. He raised money for a salvage expedition to move the dumped dirt into containers.  Currently they are being sifted and then the finds are sorted by size.  This is not what is called a “controlled” excavation where you can date the material according to which level it is found, but this is the best that can be done under the circumstances.

One of the important finds is a bulla, a round clay seal affixed to documents, from the First Temple period.  Dr. Barkay identified the seal as possibly belonging to a person named Galihu Ben Immer. The Ben Immer famly is mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah. Barkay told reporters, "This is the first time we have an artifact bearing an inscription from the First Temple period, whose source is incontrovertibly the Temple Mount."  He said in finding this artifact, it’s as if we received "greetings directly from the kings of the House of David."

According to an article in the Biblical Archeology Review, 10% to 20% of the finds are from the First Temple period.  Pottery shards include hand-burnished reddish pottery characteristic of the time of Solomon.  Over a hundred ancient coins were found and lots of fragments of jewelry from gold, silver, bronze and bone.  Several Second Temple period oil lamps were found decorated with the seven-branched menorah which once stood in the Temple.

“The Temple Mount,” says Dr. Barkay, “is terra incognita.  It is amazing.  To this day not one shard has been published from the Temple Mount.  There has never been a controlled, normal scientific dig within the Temple Mount.  We have controlled Jerusalem for more than 30 years, but we do not even have an archaeological
survey of surface data.  No one ever bothered, from the start of the researching
of Jerusalem, to collect potsherds inside the mount."

The reason for this, according to Gaby, is that "in Jerusalem everything you touch is political, and the Temple Mount is super-political, and people flee from it like a fire….The politics of Jerusalem scares them off. The politics of the Temple Mount is twice as scary.”

Copyright 2006, 20010  Gila Yudkin.  Permission needed for any reuse.

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