Temple Mount in Jerusalem

    April 2001 Passover Edition            
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Special: The Temple Mount in Jerusalem

by Jacqueline Schaalje

A Fourth Mosque on the Temple Mount?


During the last weeks there are renewed construction activities on the Temple Mount. In Israel there is a feeling that control over the Mount is lost. There are rumors about the digging of a water sewer, a mysterious white building and a fourth mosque.

Mysterious New Building

Civil servant-archaeologist


Jon Seligman, district archaeologist of Jerusalem with the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA), sits grimly in his office one mile away from Jerusalem's Old City and the location of the Temple Mount. In his rather worn-out-looking study that is full of folders, dusty books and rolled architectural papers on a chaos of triplex tables, Seligman relates that he cannot execute his function anymore since the Intifada broke out in autumn last year.

Dressed in a cozy woolen sweater Seligman looks like a once enthusiastic teacher who has found out that his students are not interested in his subject. His voice sounds disappointed and a bit weary when he concludes that his work has been taken from him in a theoretical and practical sense.

Already since 1996, says Seligman, while he sits down at a desk and his hands fold a origami cap from a colored sheet, his task has been very difficult. Starting from that year archaeologists - any archaeologist, whether he is from the IAA or not - are not allowed to inspect the Temple Mount.

The Waqf, the religious Muslim endowment that rules the Temple Mount, decided to banish archaeological supervision after the 'Tunnel Riots' in September 1996, during the government of Benjamin Netanyahu. These riots were about the opening of a tunnel along the Temple Complex' Western Wall, to Muslim Quarter. During the fierce fight around 70 Palestinians were killed and 17 Israeli soldiers.

Since 1996 the function of the Temple Mount archaeologist, Seligman's job, is restricted to looking round and reporting his observations to the relevant authorities.

And that is exactly what Seligman did, from the moment he stepped in his function, 14 months ago. But then came the Intifada.

Since the Intifada II broke out last fall, admittance to the Temple Mount has been denied to him altogether. In the first place by the Waqf. After that also by the Israeli police who advises against a visit to the Temple Mount to non-Muslims.

It seems impolite to ask what Seligman hangs around for in his office the whole day, as he is not 'working.' Besides, he looks too serious and responsible. Every ten minutes he has to answer his mobile phone, an old-fashioned one, that does not play melodies but just beeps emphatically.

"I am not resigned," he answers after he has lain down his telephone and with his weary face ponders about his position. Quickly and pointedly he clarifies that he was hired in his function to preserve the antiquities on the Temple Mount. If any digging has to take place at all, he has to be present. To make sure nothing of value is thrown away. To make sure that no ancient wall is broken through.

Ancient Stones in Rubble Pile


Describing and photographing of the constructions is of crucial importance for an archaeologist. But since he cannot perform surveillance on the Temple Mount a lot of things have happened of which he does not have a photo or a report.

Seligman explains the archaeologist's principle once more and moves his origami cap close to a perforator. "It's like this," he says, "as an archaeologist I can interpret these two things as long as they are brought together." After that he brings the cap at a distance from the perforator. "And now the artifact," with which he means the cap, "had been removed from its context. It is worth next to nothing. To an archaeologist, that is." He smiles.

To demonstrate this he mentions some artifacts that have been found in the rubble that the Waqf excavated during some of their dig and construction sessions. The rubble had been dumped by tractors into the Kidron valley (the wadi on the east side of the Temple Mount). Most antiquities consisted of glass fragments, stone objects and pottery shards from different periods, but there were two really significant finds among them. They are stored in IAA's depot in the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem.

Rubble Pile on the Temple Mount


The first artifact is a silver ring from the Crusader period, the second is a cut stone that according to some specialists could be a part of a lintel from a Temple gate from the time of Herod (until 4 BCE).

According to Seligman we should not be too excited about the stone. It is still being studied. Both finds are still unpublished, this we can expect in the coming months in the IAA's newspaper, 'Atikot (Antiquities).'


Political digging


Digging on the Temple Mount is forbidden. Israel introduced the prohibition to spare 'Muslim sensitivities' after the infamous Tunnnel Riots of 1996, in other words at the same time that the Waqf decided to close off the Mount for supervision by Israeli archaeologists.

In the years before that, after 1967 and Israel's annexation of the Old City, there were regular excavations by Israeli archaeologists in and around the Temple Mount. The aims were without exception scientific. For instance one looked for remains of the time of King Herod, and older periods, for example that of the Hasmonean kings (second and first century BCE).

At the Temple Mount's south wall digging took place to uncover the Arabic Ummayad palaces and Crusader remains. This last area borders on the El Aqsa mosque. The Muslim administration also added some activities of their own, especially around the El Aqsa. Arguments about the excavations occured, the Muslims complained about the danger of collapse and cracks in the walls. The disputes were in general solved peacefully.

But Seligman's outlook on the current situation on the Temple Mount is more bleak. Though he has not completely lost the contact with his Muslim colleagues, they do not discuss the Temple Mount anymore. His latest visit to the Temple Mount was in September 2000, just before the Intifada.

Seligman: "Listen, I cannot at my own initiative order the police to stop the constructions. I myself cannot even enter the Temple Mount anymore. It has become a political issue, they eventually have to make the decision to take the matter in hand." But in the past the government has not interfered, even though intervention would have been legally possible.

What does he expect from Ariel Sharon, the new minister-president, who is known as a hard-liner and who is also the one who indirectly unleashed the Intifada by his visit to the Temple Mount last fall? Since he took office he closed the city Ramallah in the Westbank. To blockade the Temple Mount should be an easy task for him.

"Once more," warns Seligman, "I do not answer political questions. You know why. Politics is not my profession. What I expect from Sharon: nothing. All governments that I have experienced are the same: Netanyahu and Barak. I presume that Sharon will not be an exception."

Seligman does not want to confirm the real construction works on the Temple Mount. His superiors have instructed a policy not to talk about these matters. Whether they are building a fourth mosque, Seligman does not know. Although he receives reports from the Israeli police who are controlling the Temple Mount, they fall short as archaeological accounts. Seligman does not know therefore whether the pavement on the Temple Mount has been stretched to the eastern wall, although this has been officially confirmed by the Ministry of Public Security. In any case there is no evidence of a tunnel or sewer that would have dug between the Dome of the Rock mosque and the El Aqsa mosque in mid January, as has been reported by several media in Israel and the United States.

"There is no tunnel on the Temple Mount," claims Seligman. "That is nonsense."


Waqf: not home


In an attempt to hear a response from the Muslim administrators, we call Waqf and the head of the Waqf in Jerusalem, Adjan Husseini, at all possible office hours: mornings, afternoons and at night. Husseinis's mobile phis sometimes on, sometimes off, but he is never engaged. Messages are not answered.

Due to the current situation in the Palestinian territories it does not have to be inferred immediately that the Waqf is in hiding or that they do not wish to answer the telephone. Because of the roadblocks in Palestinian areas it is indeed hard to reach offices. In the case of Husseini's mobile he may have started a contract with another phone company.


The activist-archaeologist


Dr. Eilat Mazar, from the archaeology department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is a member of the 'Committee against the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount.' Her dainty, rather tense voice seems to belie that she has consented to speak on a quiet evening by telephone.

She jumps into our subject: the alarming damage to antiquities on the Temple Mount.

In contrast to Jon Seligman of the IAA she is convinced that there is a tunnel on the Temple Mount, or to be more correct: a 40 centimeter deep trench that connects a water sewer between the Dome of the Rock mosque and the El Aqsa mosque.

Ancient Stones from ? in Rubble Heap


Like Seligman she is forbidden entrance to the Temple; how then does she get her information? "By pictures made from the air," answers Mazar sturdily. They are being made by helicopter once per week or every two weeks, depending on the necessity. "It is very expensive," says Mazar, again her voice sounds unmistakably proud.

Does she have pictures of the sewer, can they be seen on the aerial pictures? "I have material that prove that there is a sewer. But as I am not allowed to visit the Temple Mount, I cannot show it now. But if I were allowed to enter the Temple Mount, I could indicate the sewer."

How does she get the photos: "From different corners and different sources."

Could she show us the photos too, perhaps: "They are secret."

The lobby group of which Mazar is a member was established last year. Subscribers are a colorful assembly of renowned archaeologists, ex-mayors of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, writers Amos Oz en A.B. Yehoshua, lawyers and former Mossad chiefs. Their aim is to attract the attention of the political arena.

Other resources seem to be exhausted. From the middle of the eighties the 'Temple Mount Faithful', another indefatigable association, undertook frequent legal proceedings against the construction and the destruction of antiquities on the Temple Mount by the Waqf and against the laxity of the Israeli government to avoid these. But in 1993 the Supreme Court decided that they could not make a decision. The Waqf was found guilty of 35 transgressions, but due to the sensitivity of the case it was referred to the national government to undertake further proceedings. The expectation was expressed that the Waqf would not break the rules again, but they were already being broken again at the moment of the verdict.

Tractor works on Temple Mount


Israel is in a difficult predicament concerning the Temple Mount. After it had conquered Jerusalem's Old City in 1967 and became sovereign over the Temple Mount, it decided not to change the 'Status Quo'. This consists of status about Israel's Holy Places dating from the Ottoman era. Later regimes have respected it, the English Mandate as well as Jordan, that ruled East-Jerusalem and the Old City until 1967.

The Status Quo says that Jews are not allowed to pray on the Temple Mount, but admittance is free for everyone. Further it decides that the Waqf administrates the Temple Mount and its mosque.

Israel added some rules of its own. Israeli police, in practice often Islamic policemen, together with the Waqf, is responsible for the site's security. Archaelogists of the IAA hold surveillance over the antiquities on the Temple Mount.

In addition, the general laws of Israel and the Municipality of Jerusalem are applicable, among which the Planning and Building Law and criminal law, which respectively consider building without permission and vandalism as punishable.

Mazar: "The Waqf obtained a permission for small maintenance activities from the Barak government. But since last year, and especially in the last months, the constructions continue to go beyond the original permits."

At the end of 1999 larger projects were embarked on with the building of an entrance to the Marawani mosque, the third mosque on the Temple Mount. It is located in the only existing construction from the time of Herod, the 'Solomon's Stables.' erHH They are not the real stables of Solomon, but they were interpreted so by the Crusaders who discovered the space in the Middle Ages and set it up as stables for horses. Solomon's Stables lie under the El Aqsa mosque, which was built later. To open the Solomon's Stables stairs and an entrance were needed.

The Waqf presented a request to build 6 entrances. The Barak government gave permission for two entrances, and that only as emergency exits. But last year they had become main entrances after all.

In front of the entrances stairs were constructed that led from the plaza on the Temple Mount. In order to build these a few tons of archaeologically rich rubble was removed. Observers counted 70 tractors leaving the Temple Mount last December, tells Mazar. A drill was used in order to remove stones. The rubble was dumped on municipal refuse dumps, from where it could not possibly be retrieved, and into the Kidron valley.

East Wall Reconstructin


Over the last weeks, again work has been done on the plaza on the Temple Mount. The pavement is being extended as far as the 'Golden Gate' in the eastern wall. In the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount a small white building has appeared, according to Mazar possibly a building shed.

Further excavations are taking place in the construction next to and north of the new Marawani mosque, possibly the location for yet another mosque. Here exists an underground hall which has never been inspected by archaeologists. According to Mazar the Waqf plans to pave the whole area between the current mosques and then cover it with a roof, resulting in a huge mosque with Mekka-like proportions. Has Mazar seen signs already of a roof on the aerial photos? Mazar: "No." And of the white building? Mazar: "Of the white building, yes."

At this moment there is another indictment in the court of justice, again by the persistent Temple Mount Faithful. Does Mazar expect anything from this?

"Of course," she says decidedly. "We cannot tolerate the situation on the Temple Mount. If this would happen on the Acropolis or in the Colosseum the world would be up in arms. A few days ago there was a fuss over the destruction of antiquities in Afghanistan by the Taliban. We are talking about one of most important locations in world history."

The Waqf has taken justice in its own hands. With a somewhat strong metaphor she says: "It is like a neighbourhood that has embarked upon criminal activities, stealing and destroying, and that once not has been warned, falls into greater evil. The situation on the Temple Mount resembles anarchy."

Asked whether she speaks with Muslim colleagues, she answers: "What for? If they behave like this?"

What does she propose to do concretely? Mazar: "It is up to the politicians to decide." Let us put it this way: does she have advice for Sharon? Mazar: "First the tractors have to be stopped from entering the Temple Mount. This is easy to execute as there is only one gate broad enough to let greater material pass. The use of a drill has to be forbidden."

But will the Waqf then not continue to work with buckets? Mazar: "Presumably." And? "It will be slower."

And what if the Waqf simply has other plans and does not plan to cooperate? Mazar remains cheerful: "Damaging antiquities is forbidden and has to be avoided. It does not matter of whom the antiquities are or from which era or which religion has erected them."


Letter from the Waqf


Again we try to call the Waqf fa commentary, and other Muslim experts at the Palestinian universities. It is not easy to find someone, several people decline cooperation. The Waqf does not answer the telephone.

On the Internet we find a letter by Adnan Husseini, head of the Waqf, froJuly 2000. The statement is still very interesting. It is a reaction to the American archaeology professor Hershel Shanks, who had written that the Waqf is damaging antiquities on the Temple Mount..

Husseini writes that the Waqf does not violate antiquities. Their activity is the removing of "dirt", that has been examined by Palestinian archaeologists of the University of Al-Quds and the chairman of the Department of Antiquities at the Waqf. "They have examined samples of the excavated dirt and found no structures, artifacts or archaeological remains from any era."

The allegations about destruction finds Husseini "ludicrous." Israel is guilty of the destruction to antiquities. Since the annexation of the Old City in 1967, Israeli authorities have taken numerous unilateral actions that disregard Muslim sensibilities. He mentions the destruction of the Maghrebi quarter from the 12th century that bordered on the Western Wall and made place for the 'Western Wall Plaza", and the use of bulldozers to excavate the Ummayad palaces.

Husseini does not deny that there are rather far-reaching construction activities on the Temple Mount. The reason is that there is little space on the Mount with a view to the thousands of pilgrims that will be able to visit the Temple Mount after the peace has been signed between Israel and the Palestinians.

This sounds a bit far away now, but Husseini wrote this at the pinnacle of the expectations towards a final peace accord, a few months before the Intifada.

Husseini ends his letter with a political admonition. He shoves the allegations about the destruction of antiquities on the Temple Mount from the table: "[the] unfounded accusations, combined with Israel's track record of heavy-handed unilateralist [sic] in Jerusalem, demonstrates all too clearly why Palestinian negotiators have insisted that Israeli end its occupation of this sacred city."


The civil servant-politician


Ami Gluska is head of a newly established inter-ministerial committee that studies the issues around the Temple Mount. Gluska reports to the Minister of Public Security, the newly installed Uzi Landau, a hard-liner of the Likud party. Last week the minister spoke with premier Sharon and with President Moshe Katsav about the destruction of antiquities on the Temple Mount. A few days after that Education Minister Limor Livnat spoke out for action against the destruction of antiquities on the Temple Mount.

Gluska does not readily answer to journalists. Only during a second conversation, after a detour via police speakers that took two days to review a list with questions, we are back with Gluska who is now ready to disclose more than an undeep babble.

Gluska's voice rasps dryly as of the proverbial official that tries to make exciting things sound as boring as possible. That is understandable as the Temple Mount is a subject about which a little controversy can be the fuse leading to a combustion. For a similar reason - to not disturb the peace process - the Barak government has not sounded a whistle at the Waqf's occasional placing of sandbags on the Temple Mount.

According to Gluska there is nothing concrete on the political table. He has transmitted his recommendations to the government, but it is yet too new and has not formed an opinion yet.

He is one of the few Israelis who still enters the Temple Mount, for instance, last week during a secret visit, that was not so secret after all, as it was reported in the newspaper the next day.

He describes the activities on the Temple Mount as not worse than before. They are the 'finishing touch' to the earlier construction of stairs and pavement that is being extended to the eastern wall. There is no sign of a fourth mosque, nor of a trench that has been dug. All excavations are restricted, according to Gluska, who has not received archaeological training, to the upper Muslim layers of the Temple Mount.

To the suggestion to close the Temple Mount for tractors he reacts vaguely: "It does not come into question to accuse the police of negligence that they do not control the gate." In other words, the command to close the Temple Mount can only by order of the government.


Action at last…


Last Wednesday Israeli radio reported a row between the Knesset members Abdel Malik Dehamshe of the United Arab List and Eliezer Cohen of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu ('Israel our Home') about the progress of the excavations on the Temple Mount that are done by the Waqf. Archaeologists had uttered suspicions about the building of a fourth mosque. Dehamshe claimed that the Temple Mount is completely Islamic. He was removed from the session when he refused to keep to the speaking time.


The case that was originally indicted by the Temple Mount Faithful is being treated by the High Court of Justice. A verdict is expected in the coming weeks.


from the April 2001 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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