Digging the Temple Mount – the location of the Altar

Recently I received this email:
Shalom Dr. Ritmeyer
According to the Talmud a very very deep pit was present at the south western corner of the second temple altar to receive libations. Is there any pits that we know about that are likely canditates for the pit of the libation pit.
best wishes
Shlomo Scheinman

Answer:
None of the cisterns or other cavities that have been recorded by Warren could be identified as the libation pit you mention. The area in which the altar was located, just to the east of the Dome of the Rock (see previous post on The New Sanhedrin and the Temple Mount), has never been excavated. Yet I believe that Shlomo is right, for it is mentioned in Middot 3.3 that “at the [south-west corner of the altar] in the pavement below was a place one cubit square where was a slab of marble on which a ring was fixed; by it they used to go down to the pit and clean it.”
According to the bedrock levels, the altar stood on the rock, which is located about 1 meter below the level of the present platform, which is indicated by the lower blue line on the drawing. I believe therefore that the foundation of the altar may still be there. The following drawing, which is an east-west section through Herod’s Temple and the Altar (in red) and the Dome of the Rock and the Dome of the Chain (in blue) shows how these structures were related to the bedrock (i.e. Mount Moriah)

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The pit therefore must have been carved out of the rock, including possibly the channel that drained the water and the blood from the sacrifices and the libation offerings into the Kidron Valley. There is a real possibility that these remains are preserved and it would take only a little bit of excavation to find it. How exciting that would be!

The Temple Mount in focus

Very busy here with the 40th anniversary of the Six day War. Just time to point out two interesting links that show that the Temple Mount is coming more and more into focus.
This article from Ha’Aretz discusses the different halachic rulings on Jews visiting the Temple Mount and the other BBC site has some topical photographs of the Temple Mount.

Herod’s Grave

I am so pleased for Ehud Netzer, the excavator of Herodium, who has been looking for Herod’s grave all his life and finally found it! You can see some pictures of Prof. Ehud Netzer and the site at http://www.usahm.de/Herodes/page_01.htm. The pictures belong to Ulrich Sahm and they can only be used with his permission.
The interesting decoration, in the shape of a rosette, which Ehud has in his hands was part of the 2.5 m. long sarcophagus (stone coffin) of King Herod the Great. A few other sarcophagi decorated with rosettes have been found in Jerusalem. The sarcophagus of Herod the Great was badly damaged, but this partially preserved rosette is virtually identical to decorations that were found in the Temple Mount excavations. Rosettes like these were used in the entablature of the Temple itself, as can be seen in the Temple illustrations in The Quest, pp.377 and 399. It is obvious that Herod wanted to be remembered as the Temple builder.

Digging the Temple Mount – Inside the Dome of the Rock

Launching this series of postings on what you would find if you could excavate the Temple Mount, we begin by imagining what we would see if the Dome of the Rock were suddenly to disappear.

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The dome of the Rock

If you examine the drawing in my recent post “Digging the Temple Mount –An Introduction”, you see that the uppermost contours of Mount Moriah would become visible. Not only would the Rock or Sakhra (which the Moslems call the Sacred Rock on which, according to them, Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac) stand out as the peak of this mountain of destiny, but the surrounding rock levels, now covered over by the floor of the seventh century mosque and its dome-bearing pillars would be exposed.
Digging is, of course, out of the question, but in the past certain circumstances have provided a revealing glimpse into what lies beneath the now sumptuously carpeted floor. One such circumstance was in 1873 when repair work took place (observed by the French archaeologist Clermont-Ganneau), which showed that the bedrock was located about 1 m. (3 feet 3 inches) below the present floor-level. This would mean that the rock would stand to a height of 2.75 m. (9 feet) above the surrounding bedrock (“bedrock” is an archaeological term for the rocky mountain itself).
Another opportunity arose in 1959, when Bellarmino Bagatti, an Italian Franciscan scholar, made observations during the extensive repair work that was carried out inside the Dome of the Rock. At that time, the areas near the dome-bearing pillars and other places were excavated down to bedrock. This was done so that concrete could be poured around the pillars to strengthen them.

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The bedrock is visible at the bottom of this picture

Bagatti took some illegal photographs which provide valuable evidence and wrote up his findings in a booklet called Recherches sur le site du Temple de Jerusalem (Research on the site of the Temple of Jerusalem). He observed that the bedrock adjacent the Rock inside the Dome of the Rock was rather flat and only started to dip near the outer walls.

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The Rock (Sakhra) stood high above its surroundings

 

When Herod the Great built the new Temple, he first took away the old Temple and cleared the area down to the rock. He then built a podium 6 cubits (3.15 m, 10 feet) high around the Rock, so that only the bare top projected 3 fingers high above the pavement of the Temple. This podium was lined with massive foundation stones, while the inside was filled with large stones.

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Laying the foundation for Herod’s Temple

These massive stones would have been placed on level bedrock and this flat bedrock would have been ideal for this construction. Outside these walls, the bedrock would have sloped down and that is exactly what Bagatti observed.

Further and extensive details on how Herod’s Temple and its predecessor, Solomon’s Temple, were built around the Sacred Rock may be found in my book “The Quest – Revealing the Temple in Jerusalem.”

Digging the Temple Mount – an introduction

A couple of weeks ago, one of our RAD clients asked me “what would you find, if you could excavate the Temple Mount?” I have been often asked this question and usually answered jokingly “World War Three”.

Although this question is of course hypothetical, it is an interesting exercise to imagine what would have been left of the Herodian and earlier constructions after the Roman destruction in 70 AD. By studying the preserved height of the outer walls of the Temple Mount and the state of preservation of the underground structures, it is possible to make an educated guess as to what might be found if ever the possibility of excavating the Temple Mount would present itself.

A valuable source of information is the record of Charles Warren, who in the 1860’s investigated all the cisterns on the Temple Mount and took accurate readings of the top of the bedrock. This enabled him to create a topographical map of the rock contours. Here is his plan:

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After studying this plan, I made a schematic drawing showing the outer walls of the three stages of the Temple Mount and also the layout of the rocky mountain, Mount Moriah, on which the Temple Mount was built, including the position of the water cisterns. Here is the drawing:

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The earliest square Temple Mount was created, as explained in my book The Quest, in the days of King Hezekiah. I have been able to identify part of the western wall of this square, which is visible today as the lowest ‘step’ at the northwest corner of the raised platform, see these two photos:

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The second phase was the Hasmonean extension, of which a part of the eastern wall can still be seen near the southeast corner of the Temple Mount:

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The third phase is the Herodian extension, the walls of which can be seen all around the Temple Mount. In future posts I hope to show in much greater detail what might be found if the Temple Mount could be excavated. Keep checking this blog!

Honest archaeology versus the sensationalism of the “Jesus Tomb”

Recently a parcel arrived from Israel which made me reflect on the difference between real archaeological research and the kind we have been seeing lately in the so-called Jesus Tomb. The parcel contained a copy of the recently published Rafid on the Golan, a profile of a late Roman and Byzantine village, by Dan Urman, edited by Shimon Dar, Moshe Hartal and Etan Ayalon. Opening it, I was thrilled to see drawings I had made 17 years ago for my friend and colleague Dan Urman, who had sadly passed away in 2004. I had gotten involved with Dan through my work with him on the survey of the Golan-Bashan region, back in 1973, just after the Yom Kippur War, when Israel for a time held a large tract of territory that had belonged to Syria.

I was just starting my career on the Temple Mount Excavations making reconstruction drawings and through my connections there was invited to join the Israel Army Archaeological Survey team which included, apart from Dan, Amihai Mazar, Amos Kloner, Zvi Ilan, Meir ben Dov and others, all of whom later became well-known archaeologists or professors. I measured, drew and photographed buildings from the late Roman period in this newly captured area.

The village of Rafid, which is located on the Golan Heights some 30 kilometers east of the Sea of Galilee, was destroyed in the Yom Kippur War and the subsequent military activities between Israel and Syria. However, it had contained numerous ancient buildings, standing from foundation to rafters and had been thoroughly surveyed after the Six Day War by Dan, Shmuel Bar-Lev and Moshe Hartal. Realising its potential as an example of a building style typical of the Roman and Byzantine periods, Dan decided to publish the results of the survey and asked me to draw the larger finds, plans and isometric reconstruction drawings. This I did following a move to the UK in 1990, while I was completing my MA in Conservation Studies in York and Dan was on sabbatical at Wolfson College at Oxford. My wife Kathleen translated a large part of the manuscript from Hebrew into English, so we saw a lot of Dan and Metty his wife then and also afterwards on summer seasons on Nitzana excavations in the Negev, also directed by Dan.

When Dan felt that the end was coming, he called his colleagues, Dar, Hartal and Ayalon and entrusted them with the completion of his unfinished manuscript. So, after many years of his intensive labour detailing the survey of the houses in the village, additional chapters were added on the geographical setting, the architectural decorations, the Hauran style architecture and the history of Rafid in the various periods (it is now located in a demilitarised zone, controlled by UN forces). The volume has been published in the BAR International Series 1555.

An interesting insight into life in Gospel times can be gleaned from these houses. Because of the scarcity of timber, the houses in Rafid were completely built of basalt, including the ceiling. Corbel stones projected from the walls and long basalt beams were laid across them with the resulting space covered by cross slabs. This was then covered with plaster to make it waterproof. See drawing:

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In the story of the healing of the paralytic man we are told that he was let down through the “tiling” (Luke 5.19). It is possible that the top of this roof of the house in Capernaum, where the houses were also made of basalt, was paved with flat ceramic tiles. After removing these tiles and taking away the cross beams, a space would have been created large enough to let a man down through.

Insights such as these take rather longer to glean than the instant sensationalist discovery of the Talpiot tomb, which contained ossuaries bearing those “resonant” names. As Samuel Johnson, the brilliant 18th century literary figure observed: “Excellence in any department can be attained only by the labour of a lifetime; it is not to be purchased at a lesser price.” Or again in Johnson’s words, only more concisely, “What is easy is seldom excellent.”

The New Sanhedrin and the Temple Mount

On October 13th 2006, 71 Jewish religious leaders re-established the ancient Sanhedrin. This used to be the supreme religious court that resided on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, prior to its destruction by the Romans in 70A.D. Many cities had smaller sanhedrins, but the Supreme Court in Jerusalem was called the Great Sanhedrin. It is this Great Sanhedrin that has now been re-established. There were three places on the Temple Mount, mentioned in Mishnah Middot 5.4, where they used to meet over 1900 years ago. The most well-known location was the so-called Chamber of Hewn Stone. This chamber was located to the southeast of the Temple, as can be seen on this model of Herod’s Temple Mount:

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One of the aims of the modern Sanhedrin is to reinstate animal sacrifices, starting this coming Pesach (Passover) on the 3rd of April. At present they are looking for ritually perfect animals that could be used for this purpose. Indeed, in recent years, several animals have already been sacrificed at different localities around the Temple Mount, usually at a distance of about half a mile, but always in view of the Temple Mount.

Years ago I met Rabbis Yisrael Ariel and Chaim Richman of the Temple Institute, both of whom are now members of the new Sanhedrin, and I asked them where they were hoping to make these sacrifices – on the Western Wall Plaza, or on the Mount of Olives? Their reply was: only on the original location of the Altar. As I was researching the problems of the Temple at that time, they asked me to give them a lecture about my findings. They showed great interest in my location of the Altar in the open space just to the east of the Dome of the Rock, as published in my book The Quest – Revealing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, p. 362:

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It is possible to locate the Altar if one knows the exact location of the Temple. I believe to have identified the rock-cut remains where the walls of the Holy of Holies stood, inside the Dome of the Rock (see plan above). Once this location is established, one can use the measurements given in the Book of Measurements, Mishnah Middot, as set out in my book The Quest, Revealing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, to pinpoint the exact location of the Altar as can be seen on this aerial photograph of the Temple Mount:

 

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It will be interesting to watch this development and to see what this new Sanhedrin is going to achieve, especially in regard to sacrificing.

New discoveries in the City of David

On the About page, I mentioned that “things are developing so rapidly in the world of Biblical Archaeology” Yet, some of the finds were not totally unexpected.
It was exciting to read last year, and recently again (on Todd Bolen’s blog) and here too, about the excavations conducted by Eilat Mazar in the City of David. She found remains of a large monumental building, possibly the palace of King David. Seven years ago, Kathleen and I published a book called “From Sinai to Jerusalem“. It has a chapter called ‘King David’s palace and the Ark of the Covenant’. We wrote the following: “Scholars agree that David’s palace could only have stood on the summit of the hill occupying the area previously fortified by the Jebusites. The Bible gives no details of the style of building used, but we do know that the materials used in its construction, dressed building stones and cedar wood, were not in common use. No architectural remains firmly attributable to the palace have been found …”
This statement is no longer valid in the light of the new discoveries. No plans have been published yet, but parallels with other buildings and the finding of an proto-aeolic capital by the late Kathleen Kenyon made it possible for me to have proposed a reconstruction drawing of David’s palace some ten years ago. Minor details may need to be changed, but I believe that the location of the palace in relation to the stone-stepped structure and the basic outline of my reconstruction drawing are still correct.

David’s Palace
© Ritmeyer Archaeological Design, 2007

These excavations may prove archaeologically that Jerusalem was indeed the capital of Israel during the reign of David and beyond. Some have argued that this city was too small for a capital city. Does size matter? Look at some modern examples of capital cities which are by no means the largest cities in their respective countries: Washington DC (USA), Canberra (Australia), Brasilia (Brazil) and of course modern Jerusalem (Israel). The new evidence that has come to light indeed boosts the credibility of the Biblical record.