Page last updated at 12:32 GMT, Monday, 1 June 2009 13:32 UK

Disputed facts under ground in Jerusalem

Tunnel under Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary (photo: Tim Franks)
In 1996 riots over the opening of the tunnel left 80 people dead

By Tim Franks
BBC News, Jerusalem


Broadcast journalism does not just depend on accuracy and impartiality. Unfortunately, it also demands concision.

And, so pity the reporter who has to deal with a story about that - albeit important - bit of Jerusalem "known to Jews as the Temple Mount, and to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary". That's five seconds of what may be your 40-second news piece for radio.

Said Rabieh
There is no proof of a temple here. None at all
Said Rabieh, Palestinian guide

The reason for this circumlocution is what we politely call "competing narratives".

If Jerusalem is the crucible of the Middle East conflict, then the Old City is the crucible of the crucible, and the area "known to etc," is the crucible of the crucible of the crucible.

Which is what led me to take two tours, on consecutive days, of the Western Wall tunnel. One was led by a Palestinian man, the other by an Israeli woman.

The Western Wall was built by King Herod, 2,000 years ago. Jewish tradition - and western scholarly consensus - holds that it was one of four walls which supported the huge plaza on which the Second Temple was rebuilt.

The part which you can see is imposing enough. But in fact the wall is much deeper and wider than what is visible, these days, at ground level.

You get a measure of the scale of the project from the tunnel which has been excavated alongside. Those excavations were started by British explorers 140 years ago; Israeli archaeologists continued the work after the Old City, along with the rest of East Jerusalem, was captured in the war of 1967.

Not everyone agrees that the wall is the only remaining part of the Temple complex, destroyed by the Romans in AD70.

Al-Quds University states, on its website, that "the Al-Aqsa compound (ie the Haram al-Sharif - site of al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site in Islam) cannot possibly be in the same place as the first or second temple".

The first tour I went on was organised by al-Quds University's Centre for Jerusalem Studies. The organiser, Rasmieh Ali Tabaki, told our group that "every day we are under threat", and that she was often "harrassed" by the Shabak (the Israeli internal intelligence service). "They tell me that we do is political. For me it's cultural."

Basha Zusman
Wherever we dig, we find history
Basha Zusman, Israeli guide

In this part of Jerusalem, dividing lines are rarely neat, between culture and politics.

Our Palestinian guide, Said Rabieh, cited descriptions of the Second Temple from ancient Jewish literature, but cautioned: "There is no proof of a temple here. None at all."

Pressed whether he himself believed the Second Temple was on this site, he said, "Maybe… but I don't have archaeological evidence."

Shortly after you enter the tunnel, you walk across thick glass, which has been cut into the stone floor to reveal, deep beneath you, a staircase leading to a carved space in the stone. Said told us that Jewish archaeologists were claiming this to be an ancient "mikveh" (ritual bath).

Said looked profoundly sceptical. "I don't know: you tell me what you think. I don't know how they can be so sure. It's just a space."


The following day, on the tour organised by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, our guide held a rather different view of this "space".

Basha Zusman wears a wig, in the style of a highly religious Jewish woman. Every sentence she uttered finished not just with a full stop, but a full stop and a smile.

Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount
Different faiths find themselves in close proximity in the heart of Jerusalem

She may have imparted this information a thousand times before, but she infuses her words with apparent joy and wonder.

"Wherever we dig, we find history," she told the group.

"Eighteen months ago we dug down… and found this mikveh. It's the largest ritual pool to date found outside the Temple Mount. It may have been used by the priests."

When asked what made her sure it was indeed a mikveh, she said, "the dimensions meet those set out in Jewish law".

Later, she brushed off those who dispute the existence of the temple on this site. She compared them to people who deny the Holocaust despite the welter of irrefutable evidence.

The tunnel itself is a point of deep contention. When, in 1996, the then Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, opened an exit from the tunnel at the Via Dolorosa, in the Muslim quarter, there were riots, in which more than 80 people, mostly Palestinians, died.

The Palestinians contend that the excavations have, at the very least, undermined the Muslim quarter of the Old City - and at the worst, have been a plot to undermine the Haram al-Sharif itself.

But, Said told our group, "there's been no reaction from the international community or the United Nations to these 'facts under ground'".

On our slow walk down the 400m long tunnel, we stopped in a square room with the sign, "Medieval Cistern".

"This is the well of the house (in the Muslim quarter) above," Said explained. "This is a breach of international law. In 1992, it still held water."

"One day, the family in the house went to get water and found their well had been blocked."

On the official tour, the next day, the group whisked through the "Medieval Cistern" without stopping.

All of which underlines that those who hold the microphone hold the power.

Said told us that when he first applied, in 1980, to be a tour guide, sanctioned by the Israeli authorities to visit the key sites, he was told that there was no law against his application, but that he was whistling in the wind.

He quoted the famous, and possibly apocryphal saying of Moshe Dayan, Israel's celebrated former Minister of Defence, and amateur archaeologist: "I'd rather a Palestinian train as a fighter pilot than a tour guide."

In the end, Said received his badge of accreditation 12 years ago.

Basha, who lives in the Old City, has been guiding groups through the tunnel for the last eight years.

During that time, she says she has had just two Muslim groups. "They were wide-eyed with wonder. I wish we had more."

Here is a selection of your comments on Tim Franks' diary:

I have read Aryeh's comments on the "divider" on the steps of the Mikvah. I have studied the laws & customs of a Mikvvah for 14 years but do not recall any reference to a "divider". Can he enlighten me.
Moshe, London UK

It is my fondest wish that both sides would put away their hostilities long enough to study beneath the Dome of the Rock to determine precisely what IS there. It does not mean they must change the management of the site, just work together for once. Why on earth can't we respect one another's beliefs and do true archaeological research? The two are not mutually exclusive.
William C Fields, Dacula, USA

Thank you for your balanced coverage of this archaeological dispute. Another serious issue involves the "City of David" and the Silwan district, just south of the Old City. The Israeli government has entrusted an important excavation project to a group of Israeli settlers. Just how objective can their explorations be? Please write an article about this issue.
Carole, Silver Spring, Maryland, USA

Fortunately, the words of biased guides are not the same as fact. In truth Temple denial is not dissimilar to holocaust denial, people with a definite axe to grind standing as lone voices in the face of all serious academic understanding. By all means allow these people to express their views, but let's expose them for what they are - political propaganda - only worthy of treating as such. Maybe Mr Franks would like to do an equally balanced report from the Flat Earth Society.
Peter Cook, Bristol

I think this article just goes to show how archaeology can be spun to support either side of a story depending on interpretation of the findings. People need to keep this in mind and look at things as objectively as possible and not use archaeology to support political ends. If you wanted to look at it from a legal perspective, it would be like trying to admit hearsay as solid evidence.
Blake Alex, Chatham, USA

So 'there is no evidence of a temple at all' - it's just a shame that the Romans left so much information about their destruction of the temple, not to mention Josephus Flavius' detailed descriptions. The Romans left the Temple of Jupiter on the Temple Mount, the Christians built a church and then the Muslims built the Dome of the Rock. Each trying with their new construction trying to erase the memory of the one before. There is nothing but archeological evidence that the Temple was there.
Jason, Modiin, Israel

If Mr. Franks had also spoken to Dr. Gaby Barkai and visited the sifting operation he supervises, he would have been presented with scientific information that in the dirt the Muslim Waqf removed from within the Temple Mount compound were found artifacts from the First and Second Temple periods attesting to the buildings and activities that existed there.
Yisrael Medad, Shiloh, Israel

I've taken many tours in the Old City area. One of the defining marks of the Mikva (Ritual Bath) is that the stairs leading down have a low divider. When using the baths one should keep to the right of this divider. This way the impure who are entering will not touch the newly 'pure' who are leaving. Does the Mikva described above have such a divider?
Aryeh, Formerly, Jerusalem

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