Off an East Jerusalem side street, between an olive orchard and an abandoned hotel, sit a few piles of stones and dirt that are yielding important insights into Jerusalem’s history.
They come from one of the world’s most disputed holy places — the square in the heart of Jerusalem that is known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.
The story behind the rubble includes an underground crypt, a maverick college student, a white-bearded archaeologist, thousands of relics spanning millennia and a feud between Israelis and Palestinians which is heavily shaped by ancient history.
Among finds that have emerged are a coin struck during the Jewish revolt against the Romans, arrowheads shot by Babylonian archers and by Roman siege machinery, Christian charms, a 3,300-year-old fragment of Egyptian alabaster, Bronze Age flint instruments, and — the prize discovery — the imprint of a seal possibly linked to a priestly Jewish family mentioned in the Old Testament’s Book of Jeremiah.
And the finds keep coming. On a drizzly November morning, Gabriel Barkay, the veteran biblical archaeologist who runs the dig, sat in a tent near the mounds examining some newly discovered coins stamped by various Holy Land powers: the Hasmonean dynasty of Jewish kings more than 2,000 years ago, a Roman procurator around the time of Pontius Pilate, the early Christians of the Byzantine Empire, two Islamic dynasties and the British in the 20th century.
Considering the wealth of findings, it is odd, perhaps, that this is an excavation that was never supposed to happen.
Jews revere the Mount as the site of their two ancient temples. Muslims believe it’s where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven during a nighttime journey recounted in the Quran. Two mosques stand on the site, as do some of the temple’s original retaining walls, including the Jewish shrine called the Western Wall, but there is no visible trace of the temple itself.
The site has been the frequent arena of Israeli-Palestinian fighting, and its volatility has prevented archaeologists from ever touching it.
In November 1999, the Waqf, the Muslim organization that administers the site’s Islamic holy places, opened an emergency exit to an ancient underground chamber of stone pillars and arches known to Jews as Solomon’s Stables and to Muslims as the Marwani mosque.
Ignoring fierce protest from Israeli archaeologists who said priceless artifacts were being destroyed to erase traces of Jewish history, the Waqf dug a large pit, removed tons of earth and rubble that had been used as landfill and dumped much of it in the nearby Kidron Valley.
The Waqf’s position was, and remains, that the rubble was of recent vintage and without archaeological value.
Relics amid the rubble
Zachi Zweig, a 27-year-old archaeology undergraduate at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, showed up at the dump a few days later. Though Israel’s archaeological establishment had shown no interest in the rubble, Zweig was sure it was important, especially after a Waqf representative told him to leave.
Zweig returned surreptitiously with friends, gathered samples of the rubble and discovered a high concentration of ancient pottery shards. He was charged by the Israel Antiquities Authority with stealing relics — charges that were later dropped — and finally convinced Barkay, his lecturer at the university, that the rubble needed to be studied.
In 2004, after five years spent getting a dig license and raising funds, they had 75 truckloads of rubble moved to a lot on the slopes of Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus.
The first coin they found, Barkay said, was one issued during the Jewish revolt that preceded the Roman destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D., imprinted with the Hebrew words “Freedom of Zion.”
The most valuable find so far, Barkay believes, is a clay seal impression discovered last year. Its incomplete Hebrew lettering appears to name Ge’aliyahu, son of Immer. Immer is the name of a family of temple officials mentioned in Jeremiah 20:1.
Another important discovery is the many relics from the early Christian era, which seem to disprove the notion that the site was abandoned in those years as a symbol of God’s abandonment of the Jews.
Stephen Pfann of the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem, best known for his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, said moving the rubble around has jumbled its contents and diminished its scholarly value.
But even so, “This is an insight into the life of Jerusalem, and whatever they find will be very exciting,” he said.
Archaeology here, however, is rarely just about providing insight into the past.
Funded by hard-liners
Barkay’s dig is funded by the City of David Foundation, a hard-line religious group which spends most of its money settling Jewish families in Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. It’s part of a broader attempt by groups affiliated with the settler movement to make the point that Jerusalem is Jewish.
When it removed the rubble, the Waqf was trying to destroy evidence of Jewish history on the Temple Mount, said Uri Ragones, a foundation spokesman. “We are going back to Jerusalem physically, learning about it and uncovering our past. We’re touching our deepest roots as a people.”
For its part, the Waqf says it wasn’t destroying any evidence of Jewish presence — because there isn’t any.
“I have seen no evidence of a temple,” said the Waqf’s director, Adnan Husseini. He had heard “stories,” he acknowledged, “but these are an attempt to change the situation here today, and any change would be very dangerous.”
Such reactions don’t surprise Israeli Historian Gershom Gorenberg, whose book “The End of Days” documents the fight over the holy site.
“Dig a centimeter beneath the debate over antiquities,” he said, “and you hit the debate over whom the Mount belongs to, and a centimeter beneath that is the war over whom the entire country belongs to.”