Troubles Mount for Effort To Rescue Temple Artifacts

By Eric J. Greenberg

Published May 27, 2005, issue of May 27, 2005.
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Israeli archaeologists are threatening to pull the plug on a historic effort to rescue invaluable artifacts from Judaism’s ancient First and Second Temples because the project has run out of money.

Organizers and supporters of the rescue project are blaming the Israeli government for failing to fund the initiative, which marks the first time in history that archaeologists have been able to analyze materials dug up from the only excavation of the Temple Mount — Judaism’s holiest site and the third holiest site in Islam. During construction of a new mosque at the holy site six years ago, the Islamic Trust in charge of the Temple Mount dumped the artifacts — mixed in with 10,000 tons of rubble — at a Jerusalem garbage facility.

Archaeologists told the Forward that if they cannot quickly raise $60,000, the effort will be shelved — with 80% of the work still to be done — and potentially invaluable relics will be reburied, despite the fact that the six-month project already has yielded dozens of ancient artifacts, such as coins, rings, figurines and sacrificial animal bones. The finds include a coin from 2,000 years ago that bears the phrase “For the Redemption of Zion”; a fragment of a jar from the First Temple period that has Hebrew letters on it; Hasmonean coins bearing the inscription “Yehonatan High Priest, friend of the Jews,” and a seal that has a five-pointed star with ancient Hebrew letters that spell “Jerusalem.” The letters are spaced between the points.

The project’s funding crisis comes as Israeli officials struggle to defend the Jewish claim to Jerusalem without inflaming the Arab and Muslim worlds, where theories abound about how a Jewish-Israeli conspiracy exists to destroy the mosques located on the Temple Mount. Complicating the matter are the efforts by some Palestinian officials, including the late Yasser Arafat, to deny that ancient Jewish temples ever stood atop the Temple Mount, which was captured by Israel in 1967 during the Six Day War.

“The Temple Mount is a loaded matter,” said Bar-Ilan University archeology professor Gabriel Barkay, who is heading the effort to save the Jewish relics. “The Israeli government and various other bodies would prefer the Temple Mount to evaporate if possible.”

Barkay said that Israeli Prime Minister Sharon “is deadly afraid of the Temple Mount, that anything should happen there.”

The current Palestinian uprising was launched in 2000, after Sharon, then Israel’s opposition leader, visited the Temple Mount in an effort to underscore Jewish control of the site. This week, a former chief of Israel’s Shin Bet secuirty services, Ami Ayalon, reportedly warned that Israeli authorities must assume Jewish terrorists are planning attacks against Muslim sites on the Temple Mount.

For years, Israeli archaeologists — as well as a politically diverse range of Israeli luminaries — have criticized the government for failing to stop the Muslim digging on the Temple Mount, which they said has violated an Israeli law that calls for special permits to be obtained before any sensitive archaeological excavations can be carried out. They said that Labor and Likud governments failed to do something about the illegal excavation and the dumping, and the governments will not provide support for the rescue project.

“They ignored our requests” for funding, archaeologist and Temple Mount administrative director Zachi Zweig said. He also criticized the Israel Antiquities Authority for failing to initiate the project itself. “They should have asked the Prime Minister’s Office for special aid to do this,” he said. “The only national organization that [helped] us is the National Parks Authority, which gave us a field [in which] to do the [sifting] work.”

Zweig said Israel’s Ministry of Tourism initially wanted to grant money “but eventually took back their offer,” because of cuts in its budget. Eventually the archaeologists turned to private sources and raised about $60,000.

Israeli government officials did not return several requests for interviews to respond to Barkay’s comments.

Israeli leaders have come under harsh criticism, particularly from the Committee for the Prevention of Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount, a politically diverse coalition. The committee issued a statement demanding that the Israeli government stop the construction on the Temple Mount. The coalition was made up of archaeologists, writers, lawyers, justices and members of the Israeli security establishment, including former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, poet Chaim Gouri, and writers A.B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz. In a 2002 statement, the coalition declared, “History will not forgive us if we will not stop, even belatedly, the grave crimes occurring on Temple Mount with a goal to wipe out every vestige and testimony to the existence of Jewish history and archeology in that place.”

Many religious Jews consider the Temple Mount to be the holiest site on Earth — where God’s presence was said to reside inside the area of both of the ancient temples, called the Holy of the Holies. Ancient rabbinic sources state that the biblical story of the binding of Isaac took place at the summit of the Temple Mount.

Jews historically have believed that King Solomon built the First Temple there 3,000 years ago and that it was destroyed in 586 BCE. Scholars say that the Second Temple was built around 520 BCE and expanded by King Herod about 500 years later. The Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E.

In the seventh century, the al-Aksa mosque was built on the Temple Mount, which is known to Muslims as Al-Haram al-Sharif or the Noble Sanctuary. The site also houses the golden Dome of the Rock, which dominates many iconic images of Jerusalem. Islam teaches that the Temple Mount is where the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven. Christians also venerate the location because Jesus is believed to have walked and preached there.

“The Temple Mount occupies one-sixth of the total area of the heart, soul and spirit of the Jewish people, and it is one of the sites of the birthplace of Christianity,” Barkay said, “but it has never been excavated. What we are doing is saving the lost honor of that most important place on Earth.”

The excavation on the Temple Mount began in November 1999, when Islamic authorities authorized digging out a section of the Temple Mount known as Solomon’s Stable in order to build a new mosque entrance. Workers used bulldozers, dug a huge pit and then quietly carted off the rubble to an illegal Kidron Valley garbage dump, located east of the Temple Mount. Barkay said many of the Jewish and Christian artifacts dating to the Crusades and to the First and Second Temple have been covered up, destroyed or removed.

Much of the rubble was loaded onto trucks and taken to the city dump in the village of Azzariyeh and later to the Kidron Valley, where it remained for years. Some of the excavated earth was left in the eastern part of the Temple Mount near the new mosque entrance. Supporters of the project said that if Barkay and Zweig had not launched their effort, the rubble would have ended up in Jerusalem’s municipal garbage site.

Barkay launched the rescue effort six months ago, using private donations. The project is being conducted at Tzurim Valley National Park, situated on the western slope of Mount Scopus near Hebrew University. Archaeologists and volunteers, who heard about the project via e-mails or friends, use a mechanical sifter to separate the rubble by size; they then sift the materials by hand.

If no new funds are forthcoming, Zweig said, the majority of the unsifted rubble “will be buried for future generations to excavate.”

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