With the approval of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), the ultra-fundamentalist Jewish “Ateret Cohanim” organization “is at the moment conducting a dig” at a depth of 12 meters beneath a building just 80 meters away from the walls of Islam’s third holiest site, the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem, and that the excavations “have already advanced 20 meters eastward,” Israeli daily Haartez reported Sept. 23.
“Members of the organization are not satisfied with digging deep down, in one of the most sensitive places in the world. They are also digging along width-wise, to the east, in the direction of the Temple Mount [Al-Aksa Mosque], beneath the houses of Palestinian residents,” Meron Rapoport wrote in Haaretz.
“The excavators have already advanced 20 meters eastward, while ‘clearing away earth’ from subterranean spaces. Only 60 meters separate now them from the walls of the mount,” Jon Seligman, the IAA Jerusalem district director, who is overseeing the dig, told Haaretz.
Haaretz quoted Seligman as saying that “there is a ‘small chance’ that they will continue the dig and reach the actual Temple Mount compound beneath what is known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, or the Dome of the Rock.” But Seligman said he cannot guarantee that they won’t do it.
Seligman did note that the at the present depth of the excavation, would necessitate passing through houses of the Muslim Waqf, the Trust that oversees the site.
Seligman estimates that in order to reach the “mother rock”—the rock on which Jerusalem was first built 3,000 years ago—they would have to extend the excavation down an additional three to six meters. Seligman acknowledges that this is their goal: “The rock of our existence,” as then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it with the breakthrough of the Western Wall tunnel in 1996.
Seligman acknowledges that the area between the excavation and the Temple Mount/Al-Aksa Mosque contains remains from several eras, including a bath-house from when Egypt’s Mameluke dynasty ruled Jerusalem, and part of the Cardo, Jerusalem’s main thoroughfare in Byzantine times. But it is clear to him what the members of Ateret Cohanim are interested in. “They are enthusiastic about the First or Second Temple periods,” he explains. “They have an agenda. But I don’t have to dance according to their agenda, on this issue I do have something to say. I won’t allow them to destroy antiquities the Cardo or the bathhouse because of their enthusiasm for one period or another.”
Other archeaologists, such as Meir Ben Dov (described as “a mortal enemy of the IAA”), express concerns that going to such a depth poses a threat to both remains below and the integrity of existing structures above—including some that date to the Ottoman era.
But politics may override archeological concerns. Writes Rapoport:
“Ateret Cohanim is the most prominent and active Jewish group in the Old City. The head of the organization, Matti Dan, is a man with connections: The doors of the mayors of Jerusalem, of ministers and even of the president are open to him. Dan has also spent many hours with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has a house in the Old City. He has never actually lived in the building, which is still guarded to this very day and belongs to Ateret Cohanim. The Klugman Committee, which was established in 1992 to examine the way in which Jewish organizations took over property in the Old City and in Silwan, exposed the direct link between Matti Dan and the housing minister at the time: Ariel Sharon.” (Summarized at Palestine Media Center, Sept. 24)
Under protocols arrived at in negotiations between Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek and East Jerusalem Muslims in the 1970s, “No settlement or renovation would [take] place near the Haram ash-Sharif.” (See “Settling the Old City: the Policies of Labor and Likud,” Jerusalem Quarterly File, Issue 6, 1999) The Jewish Virtual Library page on the Western Wall Tunnel states: “Needless to say, the tunnel was never in the vicinity of the mosques on the Temple Mount.” This new tunnel may soon violate that principle.
Meanwhile, a Sept. 25 report in Israel Today, “Moslems Destroy Temple Mount Artifacts,” charges that the Muslim Waqf is carrying out illegal excavations within the Haram al-Sharif, which have disturbed relics from the First and Second Temples. Archaeology professor Gabriel Barkay of Bar Ilan University carted away disgarded rubble from the excavation that had been dumped in the Kidron Valley, and reportedly found that it was rich with Hebrew relics, including pottery shards, marble pillar fragments, oil lamps, arrowheads and over 100 inscribed coins. Writes Israel Today of the Waqf’s excavation: “Their goal was twofold: To erase all evidence of the Biblical Temples by destroying artifacts and to build a new mosque in the underground area known as Solomon’s Stables, strengthening Islam’s claim to the disputed holy place.”
See our last post on the secret wars for the Temple Mount.