The Temple Mount

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

Western Wall (photo credit: KSENIA SVETLOVA)
Western Wall
(photo credit: KSENIA SVETLOVA)
The Old City didn’t look any different the morning after the Annapolis summit. Religious Jews were praying at the Western Wall and groups of tourists were streaming through the narrow streets, snapping photos and looking for bargains. A couple of wedding processions came for a huppa at the Wall. A prayer call was sounded from one of Al-Aksa’s minarets. All in all, one of the world’s most contested and charged places, an area whose fate had been discussed just a few hours earlier in a remote city, was unbelievably peaceful and quiet. Even the presence of the police and security checks at the gates didn’t seem disturbing or alarming.

Preparing to enter the Temple Mount, I wondered how genuine and stable this quiet really was. And what was hiding behind the still water appearance?

At 7 a.m., a group of very determined and sleepy tourists, mostly Israeli, gathered at one of the Kotel entrances. Some of the tourists came from as far as Tel Aviv to participate in a tour of the Temple Mount organized by Beit Shmuel. The guide, archeologist Tzahi Zweig, explained the meaning of the sign hanging right before the entrance to 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 even recommend visiting under special conditions — if a person has purified himself in a mikve and put on non-leather shoes.’

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

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

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

After being closed to visitors in 2000 at the beginning of the second intifada, in August 2003 the Mount was reopened first to foreign tourists, then Christian groups and eventually to Jewish Israeli tourists.

Feiglin and his companions made their rounds, and after a few minutes they left the site. The policemen and the Wakf guards seemed relieved after their departure.

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

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

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

Reiter explains that since the Muslims consider the Kotel to be the western wall of Al-Aksa, the meaning of this fatwa is clear — no compromises on Al-Haram al-Sharif (the Arabic name for the Temple Mount) 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 time on numerous Israeli radio stations calling on Jews to enter the Temple Mount and pray there during Hanukka. In an interview with Arutz Sheva, Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, the head of the capital’s Temple Institute, called on Ehud Olmert to ’send the troops to the Temple Mount during Hanukka and to light the candles, so the Arabs would shake.’

Sources in the police say that this campaign is not likely to materialize into an actual storming of the Temple Mount, yet the leaders of the Islamic movement are warning against such a move, which will ’lead to the third intifada.’

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

The clear air of Jerusalem is filled with memories of great men of the past — King David, King Solomon, Herod. The clues are everywhere, but one can only guess what lies beneath the gardens and stone pavement, to which era the broken columns and fragments of marble belong.

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

For more than 60 years, no archeological team has been allowed to perform any work at the Temple Mount. The piles of rubble lying on the outskirts of the compound hide pieces of ancient Lebanese cedars, fragments of marble, carved stones and ceramics — a pure archeological paradise. Unfortunately for archeologists around the globe, for now this paradise remains untouchable. The only digs that are permitted are around the compound.

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

The contention was first made during the 1920s by grand mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini in an argument over the Jewish faith in the redemption that will come after the Third Temple is built. It gained real support after 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 concern that any Jewish dig under the Temple Mount will damage Al-Aksa’s foundations and cause a collapse of all the existing structures,’ explains Reiter. ’The second is a fear that archeologists will discover artifacts from the Temple era — a menora or any other remnant of that time — that will strengthen the claim of the Jews to this historic site. An argument commonly used by the Islamic authorities and experts says that since no such remnants were found during the previous expeditions that worked on the compound in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, there is no use performing any additional digs. Israeli archeologists say that since no expedition has actually dug beneath Al-Aksa, it explains the absence of remnants.’

Zweig supports this view: ’The British archeologists who worked at the site during the last century and beforehand didn’t do a thorough job and didn’t dig beneath, and still there were some interesting findings,’ he says.

The local planning committee has approved the renewal of the controversial works that were suspended this summer at the Mughrabi Gate, which leads to the southwestern gate of the holy compound, and if the proposal is passed in the regional committee there will probably be a new wave of accusations and threats. Recently the Turkish daily Zaman published a report submitted by a group of Turkish archeologists who visited the site in March and inspected the digs.

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

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

Zweig says that although this time there is an archeological inspector on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, there is still concern that this will cause irreversible damage to the possible archeological findings onsite. While we were touring the compound, the tractors continued the digging.

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

During the excavations at the site, an intact 14th century Mameluke bathhouse was discovered. The dig is being conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority.

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

’The Zionist regime’s officials have admitted that they have recently constructed a synagogue under the Al-Aksa Mosque site in Al-Quds. In a response to this Israeli act, Al-Aksa Institute has announced that it was well aware of the existence of many other synagogues under the site of Al-Aksa Mosque, adding that it certified all the claims of Israelis of not having dug under Al-Aksa as absolutely false,’ said the Iranian quoted Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the chief rabbi of the Western Wall, as saying that ’the agreement with Cherna Moskowitz, the wife of Irving Moskowitz, has been already signed. The idea still needs approval from the Israeli government, security services and the Israel Antiquities Authority.’ Haaretz carried a similar report.

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

Daniel Luria from Ateret Cohanim, an organization supported by Moskowitz, also denied that the billionaire was involved in the plan. ’Moskowitz is responsible for restoring the synagogue and building the museum. The dig beneath the structure is being conducted by the IAA, and if someone is interested in exploring whether it is possible and worthwhile to connect Ohel Yitzhak with the Kotel tunnels — [Moskowitz] is not involved.’

Grand Mufti Hussein has slammed ’building the synagogue and digging beneath Al-Aksa,’ claiming that Israel was breaking international law. In an interview with IJ he said that ’the Palestinians refuse the building of any structure — synagogue, apartment house or any other building — on land that belongs to Islamic Wakf and that was occupied by 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 housed actually belonged to a Jewish family, however the Islamic religious establishment refutes these claims.

The Temple Mount tour was over by midday. At that time, more people came 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 layer of an otherwise turbulent interior of the Temple Mount.