What’s Beneath the Temple Mount?

[Ed: This has been sitting in my Dashboard for like a month, which is why it’s about a month-old article in Smithsonian. It’s time to dust it off (ha) and post. Hopefully, it will be the catalyst for a string of summer blogging. But no promises.] 

There are lots of things of interest in this Smithsonian piece*, so I encourage you to read it for yourself. What most intrigues me about this story (vis-a-vis this blog) is my own experience sifting through some of this same dirt when I was in Israel.

First though, a quick summary of what I remember about Temple Mount archeological history: if you don’t know, the Temple Mount is simply a giant edifice (pictured above from the Mt. of Olives to the west) marking where the First and Second Jewish temples used to be. If you’re Jewish, according to tradition, the T.M. is additionally where God made Adam and Eve and where Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice in obedience to God (the latter is apparently plausible, FWIW). Of course, you would also value a remaining piece of the Second Temple  — part of its unshaped stone foundation called the Western Wall (the Jews claim its the section closest to where the Holy of Holies would have been even though it probably isn’t really).

Now if you’re a Muslim, you think the Temple Mount (called the Haram al-Sharif) is where Muhammad ascended to heaven. If you’re a Christian, it’s where Jesus spent some critical moments of his earthly ministry (e.g. where he cleared out the money changers and complimented the widow for giving her mite), and where he was questioned by the Sanhedrin on the night before he was crucified.

After the time of Jesus, the Second Temple (built by Herod the Great) was burned down in A.D. 70, followed shortly thereafter by the burning of the entire city and the banishment of Jews from it after Bar Kochba’s failed revolt in A.D. 135. The Byzantines lived there for several centuries, followed by the Muslims, who were ousted by Crusaders in the 13th Century. The Crusaders held it for awhile before giving way to Mameluks and eventually Ottoman Turks, the later holding the city until the British Mandate did for about forty years or so during the middle of the 20th Century.

Then David Ben Gurion happened and the city was split between the states of Israel and Jordan for about thirty years (1948-1967). In 1967, Jordan unwisely got entangled in the Six-Day War, attacking the west section of Jerusalem. The Israelis promptly drove the Jordanians out of Jerusalem and claimed the city for themselves.

So there’s some history on the Temple Mount. Lots of it. As such, there’s plenty of archeological interest in all that dirt beneath the Temple Mount, but the Muslims (who own it today) have built two massive mosques (Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock) and forbidden any digging.

You can get all that from the Smithsonian piece, I think.

What you can’t get from the Smithsonian piece is the first-hand experience I had doing roughly the same thing when I was in Israel two years ago. In fact, what Joshua Hammer describes as his “stint as an amateur archeologist” (sifting through the plastic black buckets of dirt, dumping its contents onto a metal sheet, rinsing it off, and looking for treasure) is pretty much the exact process I did, so for all I know it’s the same dig, same site, same everything. Which is cool.

Our group also spend a day excavating around the Gihon Spring (the entrance to Hezekiah’s Tunnel on the western slope of the City of David). Like, actually physically excavating. I was part of a bucket brigade that snaked from the dig site up to the surface (where trucks awaited the contents of those plastic black buckets, after they were passed from person-to-person), and I even got to pick-and-shovel at the site itself, which was tiring but memorable. I got lots of potsherds out of it, but one thing you realize in Israel is (a) potsherds are everywhere and therefore (b) nobody really cares about them. They exist for the excitement of three-week tourists, but for the rest (I was there for four months, so I’m proudly not a member of the tourist-y lot) the proper response to potsherds is: Meh.

*Like the Muslim archeologist Yusuf Natsheh discrediting Barkay’s discovery because it wasn’t found in the “original archeological layers in the ground.” Natsheh apparently thinks that Barkay’s scholarship is exclusively subordinate to “his politics and his agenda” to prove the Jewish heritage on the Temple Mount goes deeper than the Palestinian heritage.


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