“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.
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.
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.