Hershel Shanks: Israeli and Palestinian authorities are failing to protect the Temple Mount

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Shanks is editor of Biblical Archaeology Review and author of the forthcoming "Jerusalem's Temple Mount -- From Solomon to the Golden Dome" (Continuum).]

Within the last few days, a trench two-feet deep -- starting from the northern end of the platform where Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock sits -- has begun working its way toward the southern end of the Temple Mount. The work is being done without any regard for the archaeological information or treasures that may lie below. Destruction is particularly great in places where bedrock is no deeper than the trench. Some of the digging is being done with mechanical equipment, instead of by hand as a professional archaeological excavation would be conducted.

I don't know who are worse: the Muslim religious authorities digging up Jerusalem's Temple Mount, or the Israeli authorities who are allowing it to happen.

That the Waqf, the Muslim religious trust that serves as custodian of the site, should wish to install new electric and telephone lines is understandable -- provided that the necessary trench is first dug as a professional archaeological excavation. That is the required procedure everywhere in Israel before work can be undertaken at sites with archaeological significance. At the Temple Mount, even more care is required. This is the holiest site in the world to Jews, where the deeply religious fear to tread lest they step on the Holy of Holies: Solomon's Temple and the Second Temple built by Herod the Great once stood on this site. The site is sacred to Muslims as well: Known in Arabic as the Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, it is presently graced with the magnificent Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque.

The Waqf is not acting illegally. According to one report, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has quietly granted permission for this destructive dig (otherwise the excavation would be a clear violation of Israeli law). The Israel Antiquities Authority, when queried about the matter, replied: "No comment." So the dig is proceeding without interference from Israeli authorities. Perhaps their attitude is a product of fear; otherwise, it is inexplicable. Significant remains -- pottery, tesserae from ancient mosaics, tiles and even architectural fragments -- have already been observed in the soil from the excavated part of the trench.

As they have in the past, Palestinian leaders claim that neither Solomon's Temple nor Herod's Temple ever existed on the site. In a recent interview, Palestinian Justice Minister Taysir Tamimi stated: "About these so-called two temples, they never existed, certainly not on the Haram al-Sharif."...

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