Tensions over limited Israeli archeological preservation and oversight on the Temple Mount flared once again last week, when the Wakf Islamic trust replaced the worn carpeting inside the Dome of the Rock without first alerting the Antiquities Authority.
The renovation, financed by Jordan’s King Abdullah II, renewed concerns among archeologists and religious groups about Muslim indifference and the destruction of Jewish antiquities at the contested holy site.
The conflict came to a head in 1999, when Muslim authorities removed 8,000 tons of earth
from the Temple Mount to construct an underground prayer area, and then dumped the remains – including countless invaluable relics – into the Tzurim Valley National Park on Mount Scopus.
Outraged by the move, archeologists Zachi Dvira and Gabriel Barkay formed the Temple Mount Sifting Project in 2004, under the auspices of Bar-Ilan University, with archeological research funding from the Israel Archeology Foundation.
In 2005, the Ir David Foundation, also known as Elad, joined the project, which it also funds. Elad was founded in the 1980s to acquire the former homes of Jewish families who fled Silwan after the 1936 riots, and is dedicated to the preservation and development of ancient Jerusalem.
To date, Dvira said approximately 4,000 tons of the debris have been sifted, yielding upwards 4 million fragments – 500,000 of which have since been analyzed in archeological laboratories.
On Thursday, Dvira said the Israel Antiquities Authority, which is supposed to supervise all archeological activity on the Temple Mount, did not learn of the recent carpet replacement in the Dome of the Rock until he notified them last Sunday, upon seeing pictures of it on Islamic Facebook pages.
“I was sure they were supervising and monitoring the project,” he said. “I called to ask them to take pictures of certain places on the [exposed] floor because I don’t have the authority to do that. But when I spoke to an IAA official he was completely out of the picture.”
Moreover, Dvira claimed that archeological oversight on the Temple Mount has been repeatedly stymied by the government due to political and diplomatic sensitivities related to Jordan, which has overseen activities there since 1967.
However, Dvira said the issue at hand is not the carpet itself, but rather the ancient geometrically patterned tiles from the Crusader period underneath them, which were removed without proper oversight from the Antiquities Authority.
“These are antiquities and should be supervised with special materials to ensure they are not damaged,” he said. “Also, some interesting things can be revealed underneath the tiles, such as coins or another floor, and this should be documented and preserved properly.”
“The main issue,” Dvira continued, “is that we missed an opportunity to scientifically document the exposed floor of the Dome of the Rock.
If the IAA had been present they could have documented it and taken pictures.”
According to Dvira, Israeli archeologists presently only have partial documentation of the floor from researchers, dating back to the 19th and 20th centuries.
“It was only recently that we realized some of the floor’s section is from the Crusader period between 1099 CE – 1187 CE,” he said. “Now it appears some of the Crusader flooring was removed and we’re finding the fragments in the Sifting Project and we’re reconstructing it.”
Dvira added that the last renovation in the Dome of the Rock was in 1959 during Jordanian rule, and that much of the floor now appears to be modernized.
By the time Antiquities Authority officials were able to inspect the renovation after learning of it last week, he said most of the tiles were already covered with the new carpet, obviating the possibility of research.
“We are solving a very large puzzle, and day by day we’re putting more pieces together to help understand the whole picture of the Temple Mount’s history,” he said. “Now we’ll have to wait for the next carpet replacement to have another opportunity to properly document the floor.”
Meanwhile, Ze’ev Orenstein, Elad’s director of international affairs, said the destruction of countless antiquities at the holy site continues, unabated.
“In recent years on the Temple Mount we have been witness to the wanton destruction of archeological antiquities – dating back to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim periods – at the hands of the Wakf, along with its outright denial of the Jewish historic connection to the site,” he said.
“Safeguarding the antiquities of the Temple Mount, the most significant historic site in the world, is of paramount importance to the State of Israel, to the City of David, and to millions of people of all faiths and backgrounds throughout the world.”
In response to the allegations of wrongdoing, Sheikh Azzam Tamimi, who is the head of the Wakf, claimed that the renovation was innocuous and long overdue.
“Our work in the Dome of the Rock is transparent,” he told the Associated Press.
“We are only putting down carpet and felt. Nothing more, nothing less.”
While Israel’s state comptroller documented the Wakf’s ongoing illegal excavations in a 2010 report, it was ordered classified by government officials due to concerns of political fallout with Jordan.