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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Renowned archeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar of the Hebrew University and the Shalem Center answers readers' questions about the Mughrabi Gate dispute and the status of the Temple Mount in recent years. Of the hundreds of questions received, here are 20 which encompass the major issues at hand.
John, Hong Kong: The Muslims claim the Mughrabi dig is within their holy site. Israel says it's nowhere near. Is it at all possible to answer this question with 100% reliability?
Dr. Mazar: The Mughrabi ramp is near the Western Wall of the compound, and it doesn't risk it's stability in any way. Moreover, it is of no risk whatsoever to the Al-Aksa Mosque, which stands about 100 meters to the east. There is no basis to the Muslims' claims. We should pay attention to their claims, which they have repeated many times in the past whenever they sought to raise a provocation. The same claim has been made with regards to my excavation in the City of David - 200 meters south of the Al-Aksa Mosque - declaring that the purpose of the excavation is to dig a tunnel under the mosque. At this very spot, the height of the original Second Temple-period wall is about 25 meters high, while the Mughrabi Gate is only 3.5 meters above the Herodian construction. In any case, the ramp only leads towards that gate.
Zachary Lubwama, Kampala, Uganda: Do you think that the findings will resolve the long standing dispute as to who the owner of this place is? Do you see Muslims accepting it if the findings reveal that this was a site for the Holy Jewish temple before a mosque was put in its place? Do you see Israel wishing to rebuild a third temple in this place, and would this be possible?
Dr. Mazar: We have learned about the history of the Temple Mount compound from archaeological and historical sources. These facts do not influence the Waqf and the Israeli Islamic Movement (especially its northern wing), as they completely ignore the history and ancientness of the site. They declare that the site was built as a mosque "since the time of Adam and Eve" - unfortunately, there are no grounds for a scholarly discussion with them. Returning to academic and scientific research, excavations around the compound near the Mughrabi ramp will show that the original compound built at this place was the most impressive and ingenious construction of the Second Temple period.
Rudy Reichstadt, Paris: What can you say about the declarations of archaeologist Meir Ben-Dov, who said that one could be satisfied with "a simpler and less expensive solution"?
Dr. Mazar: The Mughrabi ramp was in dire need of significant restoration. It was in a terrible state for many years and no simple work can be done there. This archeologist has declared in the past that we should thank the Waqf and the Islamic Movement for their destructive activities on the mount. In his words, they were "cleaning the place."
Brian Anderson, Jerusalem: In a desire for accuracy of information often lacking in news coverage, I would like to ask what efforts have been and are being made amidst the Mughrabi Gate project to 1) have necessary dialogue with Islamic officials regarding the impact of these efforts on the Temple Mount, its current condition and structures, and 2) plans/efforts in place on the part of the Antiquities Department (or other government agencies) to safeguard existing structures to help alleviate the concerns being expressed by many in the Islamic world?
Dr. Mazar: In recent years, the Waqf and the Israeli Islamic Movement were very active at the site, conducting a large-scale destruction of antiquities and continuing to do so without any dialogue. As far as I know, they were told and actually know the terrible condition of the Mughrabi ramp and how it needs a restoration, which is currently taking place. They also know that the Israeli Antiquities Authority is conducting a large excavation in order to document the antiquities as the ramp is strengthened to prepare for a more stable structure above it. The Antiquities Authority is conducting a regular archeological excavation at the this site, and the methods of excavation are well known and up to date, just as in any other excavation at such an important site.
Joseph Abraham, London: Is it true the Muslims built their Dome over the wrong rock? I understand that the Holy of Holies was built on a different rock on the Temple Mount.
Dr. Mazar: It's not the wrong rock, because at present it is on the highest spot on Mount Moriah, which is probably the same spot where the temple stood. Muslims believe that Mohammad went to a place that is called "extreme," and they relate this extreme place to be the location of the Al-Aksa Mosque, which was never claimed to be the spot of the temple itself.
Geoff Neilson, Cape Town, South Africa: Is there any specific location where the altar for sacrifices must be? Do we know the precise point of that location today?
Dr. Mazar: The location of the altar near the temple itself can be located in the most probable way - where we all locate the temple itself - but to pinpoint exactly where it stood is disputed. It's unlikely that this dispute will be resolved as long as excavations are prohibited inside the Temple Mount compound.
Yosef Zahav, Miami: Why isn't the Temple Mount symmetrical? It seems there are no two walls that are parallel. Isn't that surprising for a monumental architectural structure?
Dr. Mazar: You are correct. It's not really a square and not even a rectangle, but we need to understand that the compound as it appears today is an enlargement of a previous compound from the First Temple period. King Herod enlarged it by overcoming deep valleys that surrounded the ancient compound, which is very impressive and almost ingenious, but did not make it symmetrical.
Ezequiel, Buenos Aires: In 1996, Binyamin Netanyahu allowed the Muslims to build a third mosque in Solomon's Stables. By doing this, did Israel give the Muslims the opportunity to destroy important archeological remains?
Dr. Mazar: This was a huge mistake which took place without any archeological supervision. We are certain that a vast amount of important data was lost, especially when the Muslims dug the huge 2,000-square-meter pit in front of the stables and dumped the "garbage" along with ancient antiquities. They loaded hundreds of trucks - and I am not exaggerating - so you can imagine the scale of the data that was lost from all periods (Muslim, Byzantine, Roman and Jewish).
David Flug, Hillcrest, New York: How likely is it that the truckloads of material carted away by the Waqf in a previous construction project contained archaeologically significant material?
Dr. Mazar: We need to remember that the Temple Mount compound is very ancient and all the periods starting from the First Temple period were part of it. Although we know some remains were destroyed, others were left inside - maybe for secondary use, but nonetheless, they are there and can be revealed one day when proper excavations are allowed. Destruction took place mainly in the eastern part of the compound, and we should see to it that no further destruction is allowed there. Regrettably, there is no proper supervision. The east part is destroyed forever.
Regarding the construction and restoration of the previous path of the Mughrabis, the excavations - as they are currently being conducted on a large scale - should continue in order to stabilize the pathway and allow the public to approach the Temple Mount compound. This is the only gate through which tourists can visit the compound, and there is urgent need for it to be stable and convenient.
Inside the Temple Mount compound, excavations have been forbidden for centuries. Muslims do not allow anyone to excavate. It was tentatively agreed to leave the site as-is as long as no one made any changes. However, this is not the case. The Waqf and the Israeli Islamic Movement are conducting significant changes in order to convert the entire site into a built-up mosque.
Mary Ellen Marks Highland Lakes: Is it true that the Ark of the Covenant is buried under the mount?
Dr. Mazar: There is a very high probability that the most important ancient remains are inside the compound in the massive underground halls. This includes the Ark of the Covenant.
Saul Mishaan, Brooklyn, New York: I know that digging on the Temple Mount is a non-starter, but is there any research involving the use of aerial infrared photography or sonar to assist in determining the layout of the Second Temple compound?
Dr. Mazar: I know that research using these methods had been conducted from outside of the compound in order to trace hollow spaces. There were very interesting results, such as the finding that the ancient walls of the compound are very thick, and that behind them are many massive underground halls.
Thomas Crispin, Phoenix, Arizona: What is the most exciting thing you've discovered in your career so far?
Dr. Mazar: My most exciting find was a personal seal impression one centimeter in diameter from the First Temple period that had the name of a minister who was part of the government of Zedekaya. I found it last year during my excavation in the City of David. His name is mentioned in the book of Jeremiah - he was the one who asked King Zedekaya to kill the prophet Jeremiah because he was telling the people of Jerusalem to surrender to the Babylonians. This is astonishing because it is a direct connection between an archeological find and a biblical document. It reinforces our understanding and appreciation of the bible as an historical source of great authenticity.
Abe Sender, Cambridge, MA: What do we know about the two chambers the Waqf claims are underneath the mount?
Dr. Mazar: These are chambers that were documented already in the 19th century. One of them served as a water cistern, and the other was used as a pathway during the Second Temple period and then most probably as a synagogue in the 11th century CE before finally being turned into a mosque in a later period.
Lee Safran, San Jose, California: What do you know about the construction/destruction at Solomon's Stables? Why wasn't Israel able to create an international outcry about this? It seems a much more significant destruction than the work at the Mughrabi Gate. Why didn't Israel petition the UN world heritage site committee or some other similar body? Or raise the issue with Jordan? Is this construction continuing as we speak, or has it finished?
Dr. Mazar: Israel made a big mistake by keeping mum about the illegal activities of destruction and conversion carried out inside the stables and around them. The Israeli government doesn't really understand that by turning a blind eye to the illegal actions undertaken by the Waqf and the Islamic Movement, it does not achieve the true quiet it seeks, since it only increases the appetite of the Muslim side, which notices that its acts go without punishment. This is still going on.
Dave Abernathy, Columbia: The JP published an article last week stating that a cistern was found recently that proves that the Second Temple existed, and that it's located more southwesterly than previously thought. Does this mean that a third Temple could be built without disrupting the current mosques on the Temple Mount?
Dr. Mazar: Prof. Joseph Patrich only suggested that he could locate the very spot where the altar stood near the Temple as he relates it to one of the underground cisterns at the site. It does twist the location of the temple a bit, and it is an interesting suggestion. I don't know how much it holds for the time being. Even if this is the case, there are no facts that will convince the Muslim side to allow any construction at the compound, except their own. As we are witnessing with the Mughrabi path row, the facts themselves mean nothing to them.
Dan Morman, Miami Beach: Since 1967, after custodial arrangements of the Temple Mount were implemented, who has performed more digging and construction work in the area - Israel or Muslims?
Dr. Mazar: On the Temple Mount itself, Israel has not conducted any work, since the Muslim side does not allow it. Around the mount, Israel has conducted large-scale excavations and cleared space for tourists and visitors to reach the Western Wall. Other areas in the northern and northwestern parts have been left as before . On the other hand, the Muslim side has never stopped digging and building inside the compound for its own purposes.
Donna Diorio, Dallas: I have been reading a lot about the Mughrabi ramp repairs, but not much about the announced new construction of a 5th minaret on the Temple Mount. When the plan was first announced in 2004, you are quoted as saying that archeological supervision must be resumed at the site before any changes. If this is a good thing for Israel to observe at the Mughrabi ramp, why isn't this call also being voiced regarding the Jordanian minaret plans?
Dr. Mazar: I was surprised to see that the Jordanians adopted the radical view that claims the construction of the Mughrabi ramp is destroying the Al-Aksa Mosque, despite the fact that they know all too well that there is no truth to this. Building a new structure like the minaret, the fifth one, is completely out of place in light of the status-quo situation of the site, which should have been maintained unless open options were submitted to all sides. Unfortunately, the Israeli government refrains from demanding that the site be under supervision so that its preservation is safeguarded. I want to remind you that the Jordanians did not once raise their voices regarding the destruction carried out by the Muslim side.
The main thing to remember is that the mount is an extremely important historical site that needs to be preserved for the millions of people worldwide who are interested in it. It is sad to see how cheaply the site is treated.
Margaret, Sydney, Australia: Why is the site important to the Christians?
Dr. Mazar: The Temple Mount is of extreme value to the Christians as well, as it was the very spot where the Temple stood, at which Jesus himself arrived and became infuriated when he saw that it was being desecrated by so many people. He said that this was the holy place that the people must respect, and then he overturned the tables in fury. I see many Christians near the Temple Mount, standing on the stairs leading into one of its gates and praying. I urge the Christian world to raise its voice in order to help us preserve this magnificent site, which is part of Christian heritage, as well.
As a member of the Public Committee Against the Destruction of Antiquities for the past seven years, I feel that we do not have enough support from the millions of people all over the world who we assume care about the site. We need more support! People should write/call/email/fax the prime minister and the media, demanding to open the site.
Andrew, Boston: What can be seen at the site at present?
Dr. Mazar: The public is now allowed to enter site for a few hours only, but is not allowed to enter the mosques or any of the underground structures in which magnificent remains from the original Second Temple are located. These structures were converted in recent years to new mosques, after never being used as mosques before, and are now closed to the non-Muslim public.
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