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Last Updated: Friday, 9 February 2007, 16:10 GMT
In Jerusalem archaeology is politics
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Israeli police at Dome of the Rock
Israeli police at Dome of the Rock

The very stones of Jerusalem are political weapons in the age-old struggle for possession of the Holy Land.

And nowhere is more sensitive than the great platform built by King Herod, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to the Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary.

To understand the current row over excavation and repair work just outside one of the gates onto the compound, it is important to know that here history, religion and politics meet. Nothing in Jerusalem can be understood without all three.

The history

It was where Herod the Great ('Great' because of his buildings) constructed, or re-constructed, the Second Temple - and where King Solomon had probably built the First Temple, destroyed by the Babylonians.

The Old Testament story of Abraham offering his son Isaac for sacrifice is placed here by tradition.

For the Jews, it was once the centre of their world - and the place to which they always promised themselves in exile that they would return.

Even today, Jews pray at the nearest point they can reach to the Temple Mount, its Western Wall, once known as the Wailing Wall. Most are content to leave the eventual reconstruction of the temple to the future - and to God.

Religious Jews will not even go onto the Temple Mount for fear of stepping on some holy place.

Christians know it as the temple where Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers.

The Romans knew it as a place of Jewish rebellion and, under Titus, demolished it in 70 AD (the Common Era) after the Zealots' revolt, which also saw the siege and fall of Masada.

SACRED TO JEWS: Site of first and second Temples and the rock on which Abraham offered his son as a sacrifice. As the visible remnant of the Temple, the Western Wall is the holiest site in Judaism
SACRED TO MUSLIMS: First direction of prayer for Muslims, site of Prophet Muhammad's ascent into, home to al-Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock

After the Roman empire developed into the Byzantine, it lay largely empty for centuries. Christians were more interested in the site of Jesus' crucifixion. The place was a rubbish dump.

Then in 638, the Muslim army of Omar, Commander of the Faithful, conquered Jerusalem.

There was then built one of the most beautiful edifices in the world, the Dome of the Rock, followed by the al-Aqsa mosque nearby.

The Dome became, in Muslim eyes, holy because they believe that it was from this rocky outcrop that the Prophet Muhammad in a night journey ascended into heaven on his horse Buraq to receive commandments from God.

The al-Aqsa ("The Furthest") was built to commemorate the furthest mosque to which Muhammad states that he travelled from Mecca in his dream.

It has become the third most holy place in Islam, after Mecca and Medina.


One now has to roll forward until 1967. When the Israelis captured the Old City from the Jordanians, the question as to the future of the compound obviously arose. Political realism prevailed. A compromise was reached.

Israel allowed the Muslim religious authority known as the Waqf to administer the whole compound. But the Israelis claimed the right to enter it at will to keep security control. They enforce this claim regularly.

They do so by entering the compound through a small gate known as the Mougrabi or Moors' Gate.

The gate

It is this gate that is at the centre of the current controversy.

Because the gate is high up in the wall (it overlooks the Western Wall,) it has to be reached by either an earth mound or a walkway.

Building work near Dome of the Rock
The Dome, the Western Wall and the bridge to the gate

Last year, the earth mound collapsed after a rainfall. So a temporary wooden structure was put up. The current work is designed to replace this with something stronger and more permanent.

This entails removing the remains of the earth mound down to bedrock in order that there can be secure foundations for the new walkway or bridge.

The observer

An independent observer, Father Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, from the French institute the Ecole Biblique in East Jerusalem, said that the work was "completely routine".

"This work is not inside the Haram. It is outside, leading to the Moors' Gate. The earth ramp fell down and has to be replaced," Father Murphy-O'Connor, author of an Oxford University guide "The Holy Land", told me.

"I do not know why the Palestinians have chosen to make an issue out of this. It is a recognised Jewish area under the arrangements that prevail in the Old City.

"One can contrast this to the extensive excavations just round the corner in a Muslim area where huge pilgrim hostels from the 8th Century were revealed, with no protest. There has also been no protest over digs at the City of David nearby.

"There is absolutely no danger to the foundations of the al-Aqsa mosque since that is built on the huge Herodian blocks that are still there."

The reason for the protest does not really have much to do with archaeology in fact. It is a protest about presence. The Palestinians and the wider Muslim world have an objection to anything the Israelis do that touches on the Haram.

Such work is seen as symbolising a threat to Palestinian and Muslim identity and a rallying point for Palestinians to express their desire for their own space, their own state.

In this atmosphere, the arguments of the archaeological academics do not carry much force.

The Moors' Gate is perhaps even more sensitive than other sites, as it is the only gate to the compound for which the Israelis hold the key. They do so, Father Murphy-O'Connor said, under an agreement reached in 1967 between General Moshe Dayan and the Waqf.

In 1996, the Israelis tunnelled further along the Western Wall, prompting riots and unrest. Again, the issue was not so much the actual dig as the concept.

Israeli digs

But it has not only been the Palestinians who have linked archaeology and politics.

Over recent years, Israelis have accused the Waqf of deliberately removing evidence of Jewish remains on the Haram/ Temple Mount and dumping them in rubbish fills.

Especially after 1967, the Israelis, among them the amateur archaeologist (and illegal hoarder) Moshe Dayan himself, made a concerted effort to dig into history to provide evidence that the Jews had been there and had a right to be there still.

"They were digging for God and country," says Father Murphy-O'Connor. "Though it has to be said that those days are over. The younger Israeli archaeologists just dig. They have for example been leading the way in researching the monasteries of the Judean wilderness."

But in Jerusalem, you cannot "just dig". There, every stone counts.



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