The Temple Mount

A tour of the Temple Mount reveals the rumbling beneath the holy site's deceptively calm surface.

The Old City didn’t look any different the morning after theAnnapolis summit. Religious Jews were praying at the Western Wall andgroups of tourists were streaming through the narrow streets, snappingphotos and looking for bargains. A couple of wedding processions camefor a huppa at the Wall. A prayer call was sounded from oneof Al-Aksa’s minarets. All in all, one of the world’s most contestedand charged places, an area whose fate had been discussed just a fewhours earlier in a remote city, was unbelievably peaceful and quiet.Even the presence of the police and security checks at the gatesdidn’t seem disturbing or alarming.

Preparingto enter the Temple Mount, I wondered how genuine and stable this quietreally was. And what was hiding behind the still water appearance?

At 7 a.m., a group of very determined and sleepy tourists, mostlyIsraeli, gathered at one of the Kotel entrances. Some of the touristscame from as far as Tel Aviv to participate in a tour of the TempleMount organized by Beit Shmuel. The guide, archeologist Tzahi Zweig,explained the meaning of the sign hanging right before the entranceto the site. ’Orthodox Judaism forbids the approach to the Temple site,the holiest of the Jewish sites in the world, due to ritual impurity.Yet, all the Reform rabbis and some ’kippot srugot’ [crocheted kippot,a reference to the national religious camp] now permit and evenrecommend visiting under special conditions — if a person has purifiedhimself in a mikve and put on non-leather shoes.’

A few minutes later, three Jews wearing kippot joined the group thatjust crossed the gate to the Temple Mount. One of the new sightseerswas none other than Moshe Feiglin, a member of the Likud party who lostthe battle for party leadership to Binyamin Netanyahu in August.

The Wakf guards (210 of them are deployed at the site in threeshifts) and the Israeli policemen didn’t prevent Feiglin and hisentourage from walking around, yet the tension was quite palpable.

Jewish Israeli tourists are allowed to enter the site, yet anyJewish paraphernalia, like shirts with Psalms quotations or prayerbooks, are strictly forbidden. ’People have actually been expelled fromthe Temple Mount as soon as the Wakf guards suspected they were aboutto conduct a prayer,’ said Zweig.

After being closed to visitors in 2000 at the beginning of thesecond intifada, in August 2003 the Mount was reopened first to foreigntourists, then Christian groups and eventually to Jewish Israelitourists.

Feiglinand his companions made their rounds, and after a few minutes they leftthe site. The policemen and the Wakf guards seemed relieved after theirdeparture.

DESPITE THE apparent quiet, it’s clear it could be disrupted at anygiven moment, especially when there are so many elements that threatento destabilize the situation, says Dr. Yitzhak Reiter, a lecturerin Islam and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University. ’Thestatus quo is very fragile and any threat — or even an appearanceof a threat — can put an end to it,’ he says.

As could be expected, the summit in Annapolis has brought deep fearsto the surface, combined with militant rhetoric on both sides. Despitethe hard line taken by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas,who repeated a few times that the Palestinians demand an endto occupation in east Jerusalem and the establishment of the capitalof a future Palestinian state in east Jerusalem, a few cartoons thatappeared in mainstream Palestinian newspapers — Al-Quds and Al-HayatAl-Jadeeda — cried out the famous slogan ’Al-Aksa is in danger’ anddemonstrated how the Dome of the Rock disappears in the hourglassof the peace process.

A day before the Annapolis summit, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem SheikhMuhammad Hussein issued a fatwa forbidding ’giving up even a singlestone of Al-Aksa.’

Reiter explains that since the Muslims consider the Kotel to be thewestern wall of Al-Aksa, the meaning of this fatwa is clear —no compromises on Al-Haram al-Sharif (the Arabic name for the TempleMount) or any territory around it, including the Western Wall.

While buying a newspaper in a small bookshop on Salah a-Din Street,I heard a commercial that has been running for quite some timeon numerous Israeli radio stations calling on Jews to enter the TempleMount and pray there during Hanukka. In an interview with Arutz Sheva,Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, the head of the capital’s Temple Institute, calledon Ehud Olmert to ’send the troops to the Temple Mount during Hanukkaand to light the candles, so the Arabs would shake.’

Sourcesin the police say that this campaign is not likely to materialize intoan actual storming of the Temple Mount, yet the leaders of the Islamicmovement are warning against such a move, which will ’lead to the thirdintifada.’

WHEN YOU first enter the compound, you are immediately overwhelmedby the two mosques — the massive, gray Al-Aksa, where thousandsof people can pray simultaneously, and the beautiful, glowing Domeof the Rock. While Al-Aksa, which was built in 710, has been destroyedmany times by earthquakes and has been totally rebuilt, theoctagon-shaped Dome of the Rock has barely changed since it wasconstructed by Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik between 687 and 691. Oncethe initial awe has worn off, visitors start noticing the smaller, moredelicate and sometimes almost invisible details of the compound.

The clear air of Jerusalem is filled with memories of great menof the past — King David, King Solomon, Herod. The clues areeverywhere, but one can only guess what lies beneath the gardens andstone pavement, to which era the broken columns and fragments of marblebelong.

In some countries, archeology is considered to be a purelyscientific field that has nothing to do with real life and politics.Not so in the Middle East. Here every excavation, every dig and everyfind immediately affects reality, no matter how ancient.

For more than 60 years, no archeological team has been allowedto perform any work at the Temple Mount. The piles of rubble lyingon the outskirts of the compound hide pieces of ancient Lebanesecedars, fragments of marble, carved stones and ceramics — a purearcheological paradise. Unfortunately for archeologists around theglobe, for now this paradise remains untouchable. The only digs thatare permitted are around the compound.

Yet there is always great controversy over these works, as Islamicauthorities assert that the digs and the excavations pose a threatto Al-Aksa’s foundations.

The contention was first made during the 1920s by grand mufti HajAmin al-Husseini in an argument over the Jewish faith in the redemptionthat will come after the Third Temple is built. It gained real supportafter a fire that was started at Al-Aksa in 1969 by Michael Rohan,a disturbed Australian Christian.

’There are two aspects to this assertion. The first one is a concernthat any Jewish dig under the Temple Mount will damageAl-Aksa’s foundations and cause a collapse of all the existingstructures,’ explains Reiter. ’The second is a fear that archeologistswill discover artifacts from the Temple era — a menora or any otherremnant of that time — that will strengthen the claim of the Jewsto this historic site. An argument commonly used by the Islamicauthorities and experts says that since no such remnants were foundduring the previous expeditions that worked on the compound in the 19thcentury and the beginning of the 20th century, there is no useperforming any additional digs. Israeli archeologists say that sinceno expedition has actually dug beneath Al-Aksa, it explains the absenceof remnants.’

Zweig supports this view: ’The British archeologists who workedat the site during the last century and beforehand didn’t do a thoroughjob and didn’t dig beneath, and still there were some interestingfindings,’ he says.

The local planning committee has approved the renewal of thecontroversial works that were suspended this summer at the MughrabiGate, which leads to the southwestern gate of the holy compound, andif the proposal is passed in the regional committee there will probablybe a new wave of accusations and threats. Recently the Turkish dailyZaman published a report submitted by a group of Turkish archeologistswho visited the site in March and inspected the digs.

’The archeological excavation at the Mughrabi pathway, whichinvolves various traces of the Umayyad, Ayyubid, Mameluke and Ottomanperiods, must be discontinued immediately,’ the report said.Ironically, the Turks were invited to the site by Prime Minister EhudOlmert so that they could attest that there was no threat to Al-Aksa.

While Israel prepares to renew the works at the Mughrabi ramp, theWakf continues the dig inside the compound to replace the old electricwires that caused a short circuit this summer.

Zweig says that although this time there is an archeologicalinspector on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, there is stillconcern that this will cause irreversible damage to the possiblearcheological findings onsite. While we were touring the compound, thetractors continued the digging.

Coming out from the Chain Gate on the way back from the TempleMount, we passed through Rehov Hagai. On the right side of the road,construction was being done. The work, financed by the American Jewishtycoon Irving Moskowitz, is designed to reconstruct the Ohel Yitzhaksynagogue, which was built in 1917 and abandoned during the Arab riotsof 1936. In 1948, the structure was destroyed by the Jordanians alongwith all the other synagogues in the Old City.

During the excavations at the site, an intact 14th century Mamelukebathhouse was discovered. The dig is being conducted by the IsraelAntiquities Authority.

A museum is also planned to be constructed at the site. However, theArab and Iranian media reported recently that the plan was to connectthe space to the Western Wall with the help of an undergroundpassageway.

’The Zionist regime’s officials have admitted that they haverecently constructed a synagogue under the Al-Aksa Mosque sitein Al-Quds. In a response to this Israeli act, Al-Aksa Institute hasannounced that it was well aware of the existence of many othersynagogues under the site of Al-Aksa Mosque, adding that it certifiedall the claims of Israelis of not having dug under Al-Aksaas absolutely false,’ said the Iranian quoted Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the chief rabbiof the Western Wall, as saying that ’the agreement with ChernaMoskowitz, the wife of Irving Moskowitz, has been already signed. Theidea still needs approval from the Israeli government, securityservices and the Israel Antiquities Authority.’ Haaretz carrieda similar report.

Replying to In Jerusalem’s inquiry, Rabbi Rabinowitz denied thereport, saying that the possibility of connecting the space with theKotel tunnels was currently being explored. ’At this stage we are stillunsure that this plan is feasible, and there is certainly no agreement.’

Daniel Luria from Ateret Cohanim, an organization supportedby Moskowitz, also denied that the billionaire was involved in theplan. ’Moskowitz is responsible for restoring the synagogue andbuilding the museum. The dig beneath the structure is being conductedby the IAA, and if someone is interested in exploring whetherit is possible and worthwhile to connect Ohel Yitzhak with the Koteltunnels — [Moskowitz] is not involved.’

Grand Mufti Hussein has slammed ’building the synagogue and diggingbeneath Al-Aksa,’ claiming that Israel was breaking international law.In an interview with IJ he said that ’the Palestinians refuse thebuilding of any structure — synagogue, apartment house or any otherbuilding — on land that belongs to Islamic Wakf and that was occupiedby the Israelis in 1967.’

The mufti referred to the synagogue as ’the new structure,’ disregarding the idea that it existed prior to 1948.

According to Reiter, the building in which the synagogue was housedactually belonged to a Jewish family, however the Islamic religiousestablishment refutes these claims.

The Temple Mount tour was over by midday. At that time, more peoplecame to visit the holy sites — some to pray, some to take pictures,some to guard. Now the quiet seemed to be merely a thin outer layerof an otherwise turbulent interior of the Temple Mount.