Several years ago the Waqf, the Islamic religious authority that controls the Temple Mount, excavated in an area called “Solomon’s Stables” and turned it into mosque. That area has nothing really to do with Solomon, and although some lower courses of stone are Herodian, much of the structure dates from Crusader times.
During the construction, tons of soil and debris were removed and dumped in the Kidron Valley outside the Old City walls (see my report in Archaeological Diggings2001-2). Ten months ago two Israeli archaeologists, Dr. G. Barkai and Mr. Z. Zweig, started a project of sifting that debris, in hope of finding artifacts that could illuminate the history of the Temple Mount.
The finds so far consisted mostly of pottery shards, but some of the finds are unique and mysterious. One item is especially interesting—a cross-shaped bronze pendant, 1 cm sq.
It bears various symbols, but especially noticeable is a chalice (large cup) in its center. The artifact ignited imaginations and speculation has been rife, especially in relation to the best selling novel The Da Vinci Code. According to this fictional account, the “holy grail”, or cup, used at the Last Supper by Jesus and his disciples, had a hidden meaning—it was the symbol of Mary Magdalene and the son they say she bore from a secret affair with Jesus. According to the book, the name of the holy grail in French, “San gréal” was a spelling mistake and should read “sang real” – royal blood. Furthermore, according to the novel, the documents for the true meaning of the term “holy grail” were hidden under the Temple Mount but were discovered by the Crusaders and thereafter kept by the Templars, who had their headquarters on the Temple Mount.
And this is exactly where this mysterious artifact came from! It was found in debris that originally was deposited in “Solomon’s stables” which were under the control of the Templars in the Crusaders period (!)
Could this be proof for Dan Brown’s theory??
Tempting as it may sound, the cross-shaped artifact under discussion can hardly be associated to this theory for the simple reason that it is not from the Crusader period. It is about 100 years old, at most. And may I remind you that The Da Vinci Code is a novel, not a documentation of factual history..
What is the artifact then? Perhaps it is a pendant of a Christian (a Jesuit?) that visited the Temple Mount in the early 20th century and possibly dropped it during a visit in “Solomon stables”. At the moment Mr. Zweig is contacting local Christian organizations to see if they can identify the piece. The enigmatic bronze pendant is just one of a few mysterious pieces found by the team in the sifted debris.
Another such enigmatic find is a marble pine cone. It is also waiting to be properly identified and understood.
During December 2005 the excavators plan to exhibit their finds in the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem. Hopefully this will advance the study of the artifacts, and raise funds to continue the excavations of the debris.
Masada in Danger of Melting
Masada is one of the most important archaeological sites in Israel, and although located on an isolated cliff in the Judean desert, it is also one of the most popular tourist destinations in Israel. Some 2000 years ago king Herod fortified the site, and later 960 Jews favored death to Roman slavery and committed suicide on the top ofMasada. Masada was always known for being very hot and dry, and accordingly even organic materials were found in its excavations, but that seems to be changing now.
In the last 5 years the amount of rainfall has increased steadily, from 2.6 mm in the year 2000, to 47 mm in 2004. Since it is in the desert, the rain comes in sudden showers, like a flash flood. The heavy rains penetrate the walls of the ancient buildings and destabilize their earth cores. In addition, the conserved and reconstructed buildings are designed to divert the water to the centre of each room where it is slowly absorbed in the floor and evaporates. But this technique cannot handle large quantities of rain at once. As a result, the foundations of the conserved monuments have also been weakened. Recently the Israel National Parks Authority (INPA) has conducted an extensive study of the new phenomena and the steps that must be taken to prevent additional damage to the site. A four-year conservation plan has been set out and emergency operations have already begun. The INPA has also launched a fund-raising campaign to cover the costs of the project. I hope they manage to raise the funds in time, but I must admit it is a bit strange that Masada, the most financially profitable site for INPA, requires a campaign to sponsor its preservation. Almost every tourist who comes to Israel visits Masada and almost all use the cable car, together costing US$13. Masada, in fact, sponsors IPNA’s activity in the rest of the country. I sense some hypocrisy in IPNA’s request for external funds to preserve their most profitable site.