In 1927, an earthquake struck Jerusalem, killing 130 people, wounding 450 and destroying or heavily damaging about 300 buildings, including Al-Aqsa mosque. The Muslim waqf, led by Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini, began restoring the mosque. Robert Hamilton, the director of the antiquities department during the Mandatory period in pre-state Israel, spotted an opportunity in the midst of disaster.
Hamilton took advantage of this unexpected window of opportunity to reach an agreement with the waqf that would allow archaeological investigation on the Temple Mount, for the first time ever, in the area where the mosque had collapsed. Hamilton documented the reconstruction work done by the waqf, photographed, sketched, excavated, analyzed and wrote about a series of findings, some of them surprising.
But this unprecedented cooperation between the British archaeologist and the Muslim clerics was not without a price. In the book that Hamilton later published, he makes no mention of any findings that the Muslims would have found inconvenient. It was no coincidence that these findings came from two historical periods that preceded the Muslim period in Jerusalem: the Second Temple era and the Byzantine era. These findings were hidden deep in the Mandatory archives department (which today is part of the Antiquities Authority archives in the Rockefeller Museum). These days they are finally coming to light.
Eighty years later, Hamilton’s hidden findings are providing support for similar findings unearthed by two Israeli archaeologists, Dr. Gabi Barkai and Zachi Dvira. For the past seven years, Barkai and Dvira have been working on a unique project: sifting tons of earth that the waqf removed from the Temple Mount in the dead of night about 13 years ago. This earth is filled with tiny archaeological findings.
Some important background: In 1999, during preparations to install the gates of Al-Marwani mosque in Solomon’s Stables at the southeastern corner of the Temple Mount, the Muslims brought in bulldozers and dug a pit deep and wide. This scandal, which has already been described in the most condemnatory terms possible, led recently to a comprehensive report by the State Comptroller’s Office — a report that is, unfortunately, classified. Still, some good has come from the bad.
Archaeological science was given the extraordinary opportunity to examine the earth of the Temple Mount. Unlike what happens during a proper excavation, this earth is being examined “out of its context” (with no way to determine which layer a particular finding came from or to make sure that the remaining ruins are not damaged). The Temple Mount Sifting Project has discovered hundreds of thousands of small items that teach us a great deal about Jerusalem’s past and confirm information that Hamilton and the waqf kept from the public for decades.
Beneath the floor of Al-Aqsa mosque, which had collapsed in the earthquake, Hamilton discovered the remains of a Jewish mikveh [ritual pool used for purification] that dated back to the Second Temple era.
Apparently, Jews immersed in this mikveh before entering the Temple grounds.
Barkai and Dvira found a multitude of small items from the periods of the First and Second Temples. Among these items were fragments of the small columns used in a hypocaust — a space under the floor of a room, used to heat the room above — and tubuli - hollow square bricks through which heated air passed, heating the space. Barkai believes that these are remnants of the heating system that the pilgrims, or perhaps the priests, used after completing the ritual immersion.
About half a meter (1.5 feet) under the floor of the damaged mosque, Hamilton discovered the remains of a Byzantine mosaic. When Dvira saw the photographs of it, he immediately recalled hundreds of thousands of mosaic stones and fragments of column capitals, marble used to cover stalls, and marble used for the grating of a church, all from the Byzantine period (324-638 C.E.) that had been found amid the earth taken from the Temple Mount.
These findings have brought about an important revolution in the way we view the history of that period. They suggest that contrary to everything that has been written in the history books, the Temple Mount contained structures — a church or churches — during the Byzantine period. It was not empty and desolate, as was believed until now.
“We have an enormous amount of findings from the Byzantine era,” says Dr. Barkai. “They are mainly ceramics, rare coins — including a coin of the last Byzantine emperor, Heraclius — and even a Byzantine lamp with an inscription that refers to Jesus. The people writing the history of the Temple Mount definitely have to reassess their work on this particular era.”
Sifting to win
Sifting earth by placing it on horizontal screens and then pouring water on it might look odd to professional archaeologists. But the multitude of findings, the first ones from the soil of the Temple Mount, which were not excavated directly from the Temple Mount, and which are so small, have amazed many people. The wet sifting method was adopted by many other archaeologists and led to many significant discoveries. For example, archaeologist Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah, who excavated near the Western Wall plaza, used the methods developed by the Temple Mount Sifting Project in Emek Tzurim and unearthed five seals from the First Temple era.
The bulla (a small clay seal) discovered in the City of David, which provides the earliest archaeological evidence, in ancient Hebrew script, of the existence of the city of Bethlehem, was also discovered during wet sifting of buckets of earth brought to Emek Tzurim from the City of David. Other archaeologists have brought earth to Emek Tzurim from their own excavations — and this is how the location of the sifting project became not only a place to sift earth from the Temple Mount, but from other digs as well.
One of the rare findings discovered recently is a bulla that was found in a First Temple-era trash pit on the southeastern slopes of the Temple Mount. The bulla bore the inscription: “From Gibeon to the king.” Gabi Barkai believes that the bulla, which is about 2,600 years old dating back to the seventh century B.C.E., is evidence of the tax that the inhabitants of Gibeon paid to the king of Judah, who was likely Manasseh, the son of Hezekiah.
“This is the first time that a bulla of this type has been discovered someplace other than the antiques market. It gives validity to 50 other bullae, most of which are in the collection of Joseph Chaim Kaufman of Belgium. Each bulla mentions a city whose name appears in the fifteenth chapter of the biblical Book of Joshua,” says Barkai. “This demonstrates that those cities paid taxes to the central government.”
The bulla that bears the inscription “From Gibeon to the king” was found by accident when the ground was being leveled on the eastern slopes of the Temple Mount in order to prepare for a mass given by the Pope, who visited Israel that year. Zachi Dvira, who was there when the work was going on and watched it, received permission to transfer the earth from there for sifting in Ein Tzurim National Park. This led to the discovery of amazing findings including fragments of earthenware and tools, bones and five other bullae from the First Temple era.
The sifting of the earth from the Temple Mount to date has uncovered thousands of coins from various periods. Among the coins that generated the most excitement was the half-shekel coin, which was stamped during the great rebellion against the Romans and was used to pay the Temple tax. Another coin bears the image of the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV (Epiphanes), under whom the anti-Jewish decrees were promulgated and the Hasmonean rebellion began.
Another coin that came from the soil of the Temple Mount dates back to the rebellion during which the Second Temple was destroyed. This coin bears the inscription “The liberty of Zion.” Other findings include animal bones, some of them perhaps of animals kept on the Temple Mount for sacrifice and which were burned during the destruction. Fox and pig bones were found as well.
To date, 120,000 volunteers have participated in the Temple Mount Sifting Project. Even now, excitement breaks out every time someone shouts “I found something!” The Nature and Parks Authority made the land available for the project. Bar-Ilan University is giving the project academic sponsorship, and the Antiquities Authority has issued it a license. The Elad organization provides the funding.
Dr. Gabi Barkai says that to date, about two-thirds of the earth removed from the Temple Mount has been transported to the sifting site, and about half of the total amount has been sifted. “The remaining third, which was not taken to the sifting site, became mixed in large part with other dust and earth, so we let it go. ... We have enough sifting work for another seven years,” he says, and mentions that piles of earth remain on the Temple Mount. In an extraordinary move, he High Court of Justice has ruled that the waqf is forbidden to move them.
“We are willing to allow the waqf to remove the earth from there under certain conditions that will allow us to carry out a better archaeological examination of it, or if they allow us to sift it there. Meanwhile, the waqf refuses to allow either option. Not only that, but it is deliberately mixing this earth with modern-day trash and construction debris in order to reduce our ability to get something out of it in the future,” he says.
Until the piles of earth reach Emek Tzurim or are examined on the eastern side of the Temple Mount, Barkai and Dvira still have plenty of work to do, and plenty of discoveries to make: “From the prehistoric era, from the days of Adam to our own time.”
Here are several examples of recent discoveries: three scarab seals from the second century B.C.E.; fragments of prehistoric tools made of flint, and some ceramics from the 10th century B.C.E., including pitcher handles. Similar handles were discovered recently at Khirbet Qeiyafa in the Elah Valley, at a site that is identified with the period of the united monarchy and King David; large numbers of figurines from the First Temple era; scales for weighing money, made of stone with a domelike structure and a flat base, and slingshot stones shaped like tennis balls, also from the First Temple Period resembling those that were discovered in the ruins of the Assyrian destruction of Lachish. One of the more exciting discoveries to come from the mounds of earth was the handle of a pitcher with the imprint of a seal from Rhodes. It bears the date corresponding to 165 B.C.E., the year that the Temple Mount was purified and the Temple rededicated — the year of the Hanukkah miracle.
Hundreds of opus sectile tiles and thousands of mosaic stones of the same flooring type that were discovered in the sifting project link the Temple Mount to scripture texts. These are fragments of colorful tiles, some of them of marble and others of bituminous chalk, which comes from near the Dead Sea. Examples of such tiling were found in the past in Herod’s palace in Jericho, at the Herodion and on Masada.
Dr. Barkai quotes from the scriptures, drawing a connection between them and the hundreds of colored tile. “Josephus says that during the Second Temple era, the Temple courtyards were paved with ‘colored stones.’ The sages of the Talmud also say that Herod built the Temple 'of blue, yellow and white marble.'"
Large findings hardly survived the waqf’s bulldozers. Most of the ones that did are still on the Temple Mount. Some of them were used as raw material for the waqf’s construction work on the Temple Mount, and a little of it reached the black market. Still, the piles of earth that were removed from the Temple Mount contained fragments of red marble columns from the Roman period.
In the waqf museum on the Temple Mount, a large fragment is preserved with a dedicatory inscription. The fragment was part of the victory arch that the Romans build after the Second Temple was destroyed. The inscription commemorates Flavius Silva, the conqueror of Masada, who was the governor of the province of Judea during the 80s C.E. The fragment came from a building in Solomon’s Stables, which the Muslims began to level in 1996.
This week, a rare photograph was taken on the Temple Mount. Taken inside the Dome of the Rock, it shows construction materials and rebar placed on the Foundation Stone, the place where the Holy of Holies and the Ark of the Covenant are believed to have been. While there does not appear to be any archaeological damage, this state of affairs is an expression of the weakness of the Antiquities Authority in the place that is the most important to the Jewish people. This weakness takes the form of the authority’s complete dependence on the police and also of the contempt that the Muslims show toward Jewish archaeological remnants on the Temple Mount.
The director-general of the Antiquities Authority, Yehoshua “Shuka” Dorfman, spoke about the current situation on the Temple Mount before the Knesset’s Education Committee. He described the Temple Mount as “an archaeological site that is not under the Authority’s supervision ... our ability to provide supervision is limited. Would I say that I am pleased? Definitely not. But we cooperate with the police, and we know what is happening on the Temple Mount.”