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Temple Mount destruction stirred archaeologist to action

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Gabriel Barkay’s excitement over new discoveries at the Temple Mount — the Jerusalem site that carries great significance to the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths — is tempered by the destructive events that led to them.

Barkay, professor of archaeology at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, visited to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary for a Jan. 27 lecture sponsored by the seminary’s Center for Archaeological Research.

“In November 1999, the Islamic authorities carried out a huge excavation of [the part of the Temple Mount known as Solomon’s Stable],” Barkay said. “They built a modern entrance to the building instead of the existing entrance, and they dug a huge pit with the help of bulldozers and 300 [dump trucks] that removed the dirt from the earthen fills of this spot.”

Barkay showed pictures of tractors demolishing structures dating to the Twelfth Century Crusades. The demolition went on without any regulation or archaeological supervision, he said. Builders at the Temple Mount took many of the ancient stones from earlier Jewish buildings and cut them down to make modern stones.

“Who knows how many inscriptions we lost in this way?” Barkay said. “Who knows how many decorated stones were defaced in this manner? The earth was saturated with ancient materials, and it was dumped in the Kidron Valley to the east of the Temple Mount.”

Many of the Jewish and Christian artifacts dating to the Crusades and to the first and second temples were covered up, destroyed or removed. In view of these developments, Barkay began to act.

“We formed a committee for monitoring what goes on at the Temple Mount,” he said. “We take weekly aerial photos of it. Today there is much less activity. We’re doing our best to protect every grain of dirt.”

Just two months ago, Barkay put his archaeological know-how into action; he got a license to excavate the dumping grounds in the Kidron Valley.

“We began a project of collecting the dirt from the dumping areas. We moved the piles of dirt to a well-protected area,” he recounted. “We covered them with plastic sheets. Each pile was marked with the exact place of origin and exact depth we could estimate from which it came.”

His team used sifting machines to separate stones from more delicate items. Then they began searching through the material by hand.

“This effort already yielded some scores of coins,” he said. “We have coins from the 12th century, the 19th century, up to the first century B.C. We have some second-century B.C. Antonian coins. We have some Herodian coins.”

Among the other things, the team found a Christian charm bearing the image of John the Baptist with an infant Jesus and the Jordan River in the background. They found an alabaster dish from the Persian Period and an ivory comb from the Second Temple period. Though much had already been lost, the substance of what they are finding is encouraging amid the delicate and unfortunate situation.

What occurs at the Temple Mount is not merely an Israeli affair or a Jewish issue, noted Steven Ortiz, director of the Center for Archaeological Research. Christians have a connection to the situation as well.

“Christianity is a religion based on a God who acts,” Ortiz said. “Because of that [the Temple Mount] takes on a sacredness, not because of the space it occupies but because it provides tangible evidence for the historical events associated with the life of Jesus.”

Barkay prefaced his account of current events at the Temple Mount with an overview of its historical and religious significance.

“The Temple Mount is the most important part of Jerusalem,” Barkay said. “No doubt the Temple Mount is the most delicate, the most disputed, the most fragile point of the current conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.”

After a pause, he continued: “Actually, the Temple Mount represents the whole conflict in a nutshell.”

Similar to the clashes between Israelis and Palestinians, the tension surrounding the Temple Mount springs from a question of ownership. Which group’s account of its history takes precedence?

Muslims believe the Temple Mount is the place where Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, ascended to heaven. On the other hand, for Jews and Christians, the Temple Mount is the place where the Jewish temple once stood and is the “center of spiritual and religious national aspirations of the Jews in Israel,” Barkay said. In addition, the Temple Mount was where Jesus taught and overturned the moneychangers’ tables.

Jewish tradition holds that rock at the summit of the Temple Mount was the first rock laid down as the foundation of the rest of creation, Barkay said. The tradition holds that creation of the world began there. It is also at the summit of the Temple Mount where Jews believe Abraham, by faith, bound Isaac when God commanded him to sacrifice his only son.

On that same bedrock, Solomon built the First Temple in the 10 century B.C. That temple stood 400 years before it was burned by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon (2 Kings 25).

“After several decades, the decree of King Cyrus brought the [Jews] back from Babylonian captivity to Jerusalem, and in 515 B.C., the Second Temple was inaugurated on the same spot,” Barkay said.

About 400 years later, King Herod the Great initiated the next major building project on the Temple Mount. The present-day size and shape of the Temple Mount is a result of Herod’s decades-long building plan.

“Herod took the huge dome-shaped hill and put it in a large box,” Barkay said. “The gap between the walls of the box and the slopes of the mountain [were] filled in with an artificial fill, thus more than doubling the area of the Temple Mount.”

The Islamic claim to the Temple Mount originated in 638 A.D. when Omar, leader of the armies of Islam, entered Jerusalem. Omar built a wooden mosque on the Temple Mount, and the present-day Dome of the Rock is considered to be the third most holy site for Muslims, behind Mecca and Medina.

While all three religions — Christianity, Islam and Judaism — have ties to the Temple Mount, Barkay said unfortunately the remains of Jewish, and thus Christian, structures on the Temple Mount are being destroyed and removed.

A year ago, Barkay spoke at NOBTS on his historic 1979 discovery of two tiny, silver amulets containing the earliest fragments of Scripture found to date. The miniature scrolls, uncovered just outside the Old City of Jerusalem, bore the blessing from Numbers 6:24-26.

    About the Author

  • Michael McCormack