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More on the Temple Mount (2007)

One of the most fascinating issues in the archaeology of the Holy Land is the archaeology of Jerusalem, and especially that of the Temple Mount. The place where by tradition Isaac was almost sacrificed by Abraham became the mountain on which Solomon built the Israelite temple, and where in Roman times Jesus protested against priestly corruption, and predicted soon-coming end of days.

Indeed a few decades after Jesus was crucified the end came to the Temple Mount, as it was dismantled and erased by the Romans. Since the late 7th century CE a Muslim edifice known as “The Dome of the Rock” adorns the mountain, and is one of the most famous landmarks in Jerusalem. For a long time archaeologists have been trying to trace remains of the Jewish temple on the Temple Mount, but because it is held by the Muslim religious authority (the Waqf), this task was seemingly impossible. From the Muslim point of view the site was not developed before Omar (the Muslim conqueror of the Holy Land), and there was never any other shrine at the site. The Waqf also does not permit any archaeological excavations on the summit.

Nevertheless, 4km north of the Temple Mount, an exciting new find related to the Temple Mount was revealed by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).  “RamatShlomo” (Shlom Heights) is a new suburb that has been developed in northern Jerusalem in the last decade for ultra orthodox religious Jewish groups. The most recent project in this neighborhood is a plan to construct a new elementary school. However, when its location was inspected by the IAA, indications of antiquities were documented, and so the plan was halted and the IAA launched an archaeological expedition to excavate the site and decide on its fate. Most archaeological sites discovered during salvage excavations are documented – and subsequently covered over. Rarely are the finds of such importance that the site is preserved and the road or building are re-located.

The site revealed in Ramat Shlomo might be one of these exceptions. The site, whose full size is not yet known, proved to be an ancient quarry. Many ancient quarries are known in Israel, but this quarry was different. The trenches left at the site indicated the stones extracted here were of colossal size, some 8 meters long! Such stones could not have been used for private dwellings, and were obviously intended for a very large and ambitious building project.

The small finds found in the dig were all clearly from the first century CE. All of this leads to an obvious conclusion – the stones quarried at Ramat Shlomo during the time of king Herod the Great, or shortly after, were meant to be used for the construction of the Temple and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Visiting the site the day after this information was published in a press conference, I was puzzled by it. Indeed the quarry had been used for exceptionally big stones, but it is a long way from the temple! I truly could not understand why they would choose such a far site for quarrying stones for the temple. Was it perhaps because the stones here were considered “more pure”, or “more sacred”? or perhaps the stone were simply of higher quality for constructions.

One thing makes sense – the site may be far from the temple, but it is 80 meters higher then the temple mount. Once they were fixed into a large circular device, the stones could be rolled down along the main highway which is nearby.

Another anomaly that was “discovered” at this site is the surprisingly positive attitude of the local ultra orthodox religious community to the excavation. Ultra orthodox Jewish communities are known for their hostile attitude towards the IAA, because often the IAA excavates ancient tombs, and the Ultra orthodox are strongly opposed to disturbing the remains of the dead. Yet during my visit to the site, besides media crews, I saw a Hasid with his two children scouting the site, and the father proudly explaining to his sons that “this is the site where the stones for the temple were made!”.

An ultra Orthodox Hasid with his two sons visiting the newly exposed quarry in his neighborhood

An ultra Orthodox Hasid with his two sons visiting the newly exposed quarry in his neighborhood. In the background above them, a media crew is making a report on the quarry for some foreign media organization. The giant steps created in the bedrock indicate the stones extracted from here were of colossal size. Most likely they were intended for the construction of the Temple and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in the time of King Herod the Great. © D Herman

Could this site be the beginning a new positive relationship between the Ultra Orthodox and archaeologists? It is the Holy Land after all. Miracles can happen here..

And perhaps a “mini archaeological miracle” can be reported to have happened at the Temple Mount as well. For quite some time I have been reporting on the damage caused by the Waqf at the temple mount. Some years ago it turned an “emergency exit” in “Solomon’s stables” into a palatial entrance, with no archaeological documentation during the construction work. Recently the Waqf dug a long trench under the floor of the Temple Mount to lay electric cables. Again, no archaeologists were allowed to record the work, and an attempt to photograph the trench nearly ended with the arrest of one of my colleagues. Recently I visited the Temple Mount to see the trench for myself, but it was almost completely covered over. Ancient walls and small finds, if they were found, were not documented and preserved, and this highly valuable information is now lost.

Two Muslims approaching the Dome of the Rock at the Temple Mount

Two Muslims approaching the Dome of the Rock at the Temple Mount. On the side of the road remains of the trench can be seen. If any antiquities were recovered during the creation of the trench, they were not recorded. © D Herman

Yet in the basement near “Solomon’s stables” a fellow researcher of the Albright institute, T. Grull, recorded in 1999 a fragment of a Latin inscription recovered during the construction of the “emergency exit” in the south-eastern corner of the temple mount, the area of “Solomon’s Stables”. Surprisingly the Waqf did not dismantle it, and Mr Grull was lucky to notice the inscription, and to be granted permission to document it. Recently a preliminary report of this inscription was published in the local newspaper of the Albright Institute. The inscription was probably originally placed in a triumphal arch, and it may have documented a triumphal event of the Romans. But which one? The inscription mentions Flavius Silva, who was one of the Roman generals during the Jewish Rebellion (66-73 CE). In fact it was Silva who commanded the attack against the fortress of Masada, an assault which ended with the Jewish rebels favoring a “noble death” by suicide to Roman slavery. This epic is known to many because of the 1980 TV show “Masada” with Silva played by Peter O’Toole.

Was the inscription part of a triumphal arch that was placed on the Temple Mount itself? This is possible, but as long as no excavations are conducted on the TempleMount we will not know.

The inscription found in the temple mount, recording Roman General Flavius Silva.

The inscription found in the temple mount, recording Roman General Flavius Silva.