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:


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:


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:

step1.jpg step2.jpg

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:


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!

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:


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:



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:



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

The Mughrabi Gate – What’s in a ramp?

“UNESCO experts tour controversial Jerusalem dig.” Why does this headline make you feel as though you’re in a time warp? Because this is what used to happen regularly during the Temple Mount excavations (which commenced after the Six- Day War and continued up to 1977). Regular UNESCO delegations would arrive on the dig and invariably condemn what we were doing. And the Muslims would get twitchy whenever we found tunnels running under the massive Herodian retaining walls of the Temple platform. However, when we found such tunnels, for example, under the Single Gate, the Double Gate and the Triple Gate, we would have them professionally photographed and recorded, block them off and all would go quiet for a time.

But now sensitivities are running much higher. What precipitated this was the excavation in 1981 of a passageway behind Warren’s Gate (the northernmost Herodian gate in the Western Wall) by a group of rabbis. This was in the context of the clearing, by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, of a tunnel which ran alongside the Western Wall from Wilson’s Arch to the north-west corner of the Temple Mount. When it leaked out that the rabbis were in fact searching for the lost Ark of the Covenant, which they believed was hidden deep under the Temple Mount, they were attacked by a Muslim mob and almost killed. Since then, digging near the Temple Mount, is, in the eyes of Muslims, tantamount to undermining the El Aqsa Mosque, or Farther Mosque (from Mecca).

In the case of the Mughrabi Gate, the Arab reaction has been explained in the Western media, as total paranoia because, as they explain and painstakingly illustrate, the ramp is 75 metres away from the El Aqsa mosque and 200 metres from the Dome of the Rock. What is not clearly understood, however, is that the Muslims regard all of the Temple platform as the El Aqsa.

This was explained to us by a Muslim tour guide, a student at one of the religious schools on the Haram-esh- Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, as the mount is sometimes called. We took a tour with him in 1994, in order to see the mount, which we were researching at the time, from another perspective. He told us, among other things, that the El Aqsa was the second mosque in the world (the first being Mecca) and that it was originally built by our first father, Adam. He also informed us that the two passageways leading from the Double Gate to the Temple platform (which we had always understood to be magnificent examples of Herodian architecture), were the work of Adam and comprised the Old El Aqsa. While we listened incredulously, he further informed us that archaeologists had found no trace of Jewish temples in the area!

When you put an understanding such as this, together with the massive rise in popularity of writing on Muslim end-time prophecy, which predicts a Jewish conspiracy against El Aqsa as part of their end-time scenario, then even the most innocuous picking and scraping near the walled compound is bound to be incendiary.

But what’s in the ramp? Although one cannot expect any reasoned discussion on this issue, I thought it might be helpful to post the photo and drawing below to make things a bit clearer. The path running over this ramp leading to the Mughrabi Gate used to skirt a few houses which were built there in the late Turkish period. In 1967 this house belonged to the family of Abu Said. It is very clear from this photograph, that the ramp is located outside the Temple Mount and its removal would in no way endanger the El Aksa Mosque.

The ramp in 1967

These buildings were demolished in 1967, leaving only the dirt pile over which the path ran. At the beginning of the excavations, led by the late Prof. Benjamin Mazar, the ground near Robinson’s Arch was leveled and then the excavations started going down and eventually reached the Herodian street level.

The sectional drawing below makes clear that this ramp is vulnerable, because of the tremendous depth of the dig. The rain and snow which fell on this ramp over the last 40 years and also a recent earthquake in 2004, made it unstable, so that a part collapsed a couple of years ago (see drawing). If nothing is done, then more of the ramp will collapse.

Diagram of the Ramp

This drawing is a section through the dirt ramp leading up to the Mughrabi Gate. The ramp is in the middle of the drawing. On the left is the Western Wall Plaza, reserved for Jewish worship. On the right of the section is the excavated area with, on the bottom, the Herodian street, with the stones which were thrown down by the Romans in 70 AD. Immediately above this level, remains of the Byzantine period were found, including a water channel cut into the Herodian stones for use in a bath house. Above this level, the remains of a large Ummayad palace was found, which used a similar water channel, cut higher in the Herodian stones of the Western Wall. No Crusader remains have so far been found in this area.

If digging continues below the level of the plaza, the excavators could expect to find the corner of the Ummayad palace, more remains of the Byzantine bath house and deep down below, remains of the Herodian period. The one or two arched constructions inside the ramp are the remains of cellars which belonged to the buildings which were demolished in 1967 and of no particular historical value.

Whatever UNESCO decides, realistically, neither of the two sides in the conflict has any option but to enable the construction of some sort of bridge to allow safe access to the site they both cherish, but view through such very different eyes.

Recent discoveries at the Siloam Pool

It was very exciting to see the following picture taken by Todd Bolen of the stairway which was recently uncovered to the immediate west of the Siloam Pool.

Todds pic

This grand stairway was first discovered by Bliss and Dickie during the years of 1894-1897. They drew accurate plans which made it possible for me to reconstruct the building and the adjacent stairway. Here is the drawing which I made in 1995 (included in this book):

Siloam Pool reconstruction

Bliss and Dickie wrote the following: “The discoveries in this [Tyropoeon] valley were of considerable interest, including a paved street, with a fork above the Pool of Siloam, one branch leading to the gate … and another connected by a stairway with the original pool … A church was discovered, built over the disused stairway, and extending over the north arcade of the pool.”
The plans they published made a reconstruction plan possible. The following plan shows the street which descends from the Temple Mount through the Tyropoeon Valley. At one point it splits in two, with the eastern branch leading down to the pool.


They further wrote that the two branches of the street were separated by a rocky ramp: “On the west the steps [of the stairway] butt against the scarp, and on the east against the west wall of the original pool (see photo). As the scarp and wall are not parallel, the breadth of the steps varies from 27 feet at the top to 22 feet at the bottom. The number of steps is thirty-four. They vary in height from 6 to 9.5 inches, and are arranged in a system of wide and narrow treads alternately.”

Bliss and Dickie also observed that the western part of this grand stairway were partially cut out of the scarp itself. The description of this street with the alternating wide and narrow steps, some of which were carved out of the rock, reminds us very much of the identical construction of the grand stairway leading up to the Double Gate in the southern wall of the Temple Mount. The construction of the stairway to the Siloam Pool is therefore strongly reminiscent of the Herodian construction.

They also found remains of a Byzantine church, which was partly built on the stairway and partly into the northern part of the pool. Here is a reconstruction drawing of the Byzantine church:

Byzantine church

Bliss and Dickie were very conscientious about recording and publishing the results of the findings. These descriptions have made it possible for me to make reconstruction drawings of this famous pool. It is even more satisfying to finally see pictures of this grand stairway, which I feel I have known already for a long time. It was like meeting a long lost friend.

South of the Siloam Pool a stepped water reservoir has been found, on which I will comment later.

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.