Debris removed from Temple Mount sparks controversy

Archeologists say "modern trash" may contain ancient artifacts, but police call that rubbish.

Debris removed from Temple Mount 370 (photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
Debris removed from Temple Mount 370
(photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
The adage that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” rings especially true on the Temple Mount, where even the smallest piece of ancient trash – such as a seal bearing the name “Bethlehem” or a bell that possibly fell off a priests’ robe – can reveal volumes about religious practices.
Workers from the Temple Mount Sifting Project say that over the past week, six to eight garbage trucks, illegally removed debris, possibly rich in archeological finds, from the site.
But Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said the debris had been “modern trash” that needed to be dumped, and that it was done in cooperation with the Antiquities Authority and under police supervision.
The debris dates back to 1999, when the Wakf, the Jordanian body that retains authority over the Temple Mount and other Muslim holy places, used bulldozers to remove some 10,000 tons of dirt from the area known as King Solomon’s Stables to create an emergency exit for the Marwani Mosque, which can accommodate 10,000 people.
Archeologists were stunned at the wanton disregard for preserving the material. Garbage trucks dumped the debris in a big heap in one end of the nearby Kidron Valley.
In 2004, following a petition by archeologists, the High Court of Justice halted the removal of the debris.
Since then, the eastern part of the Temple Mount has become perhaps the world’s most controversial garbage dump, with piles of trash marring the holy site. Construction debris and nylon sheeting are mixed in with medieval Mameluk wall engravings and shards of ancient Herodian floor tiles.
Under the 2004 court order, debris can only be removed from the site after a team of archeologists has examined it – which, say the Temple Mount Sifting Project workers, would make last week’s debris removal illegal.
The police disagree.
“All the removal was done with our oversight and that of the Israel Antiquities Authority,” said Ben-Ruby, who provided pictures of the debris removal taken by the police.
“You can see here in the pictures that we’re talking about old doors and plastic material,” he said. “There’s no dirt, or if there is dirt it’s from the plants we pulled up.
Antiquities from 3,000 years ago or 1,500 years ago aren’t going to be in the first 30 cm. [of dirt pulled up with the bushes].”
But workers pointed out many that ancient artifacts had been strewn haphazardly with the debris.
The sifting project, under the direction of Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Dvira, is funded in part by the City of David Foundation and works in cooperation with Bar-Ilan University, the Antiquities Authority and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.
Starting in 2005, the project’s workers, along with thousands of volunteers, including many youngsters on school field trips, began examining – bucket by bucket – the debris created during the 1999 excavation.
They have found thousands of ancient coins, pottery oil lamps, arrowheads, an ivory comb, a ceramic flask, and various First Temple figurines, among other objects.
Frankie Snyder, who works with the project, first noticed suspicious activity on the Temple Mount on December 23. She saw an empty truck waiting close to one of the many piles of debris that cover the eastern end of the Temple Mount.
From a vantage point on the Mount of Olives, project workers watched Wakf officials load garbage trucks and drive them away while the site was not open to visitors. The next day, Snyder and Dvira followed one of the trucks from the site, careening around corners in east Jerusalem as they tried to stay on the vehicle’s tail. Dvira said he did not see any officials from the Antiquities Authority during the removal.
The pair identified ancient hewn stones, including ruins from a Herodian door, parts of floor tiles and fragments of Byzantine storage jars, in the debris removed from one of the trucks. According to video taken by Dvira, an entire truckload consisted with hewn stones, not modern trash as the police claimed.
Dvira estimates that over the next four days, six to eight truckloads of debris were removed from the Temple Mount. Now that the dust has settled, he and Snyder are trying to figure out how much debris went missing.
“You cannot separate this modern garbage from this soil, this soil which is rich in archeological remains,” Dvira said Monday on the Temple Mount.
Adnan Husseini, the Palestinian Authority-appointed governor of Jerusalem and a former head of the Wakf, said the debris was from renovations being undertaken on the Temple Mount. He added that it was the first to be taken from the site in the eight years since the Wakf was allowed to remove significant amounts of waste, saying police had been adamant about enforcing the court’s no-removal order until the coordinated removal last week.
According to a report filed with UNESCO this summer from Jordan, workers on the Mount are restoring the plastering and mosaics inside the Dome of the Rock, laying lead sheet over the roof of the Aksa Mosque complex, renovating the Al-Marwani Mosque, and renovating the Khanatanyah School and library below al-Aksa.
“They want to clean it, they want to [prune] the trees, they want to improve the appearance, but unfortunately they are not allowed to take out any quantity of this [trash],” Husseini said on Monday. “This garbage is not good for the appearance of Jerusalem; to clean it is very important for everyone, but they can’t.”
As Dvira on Monday pointed to shoddy restoration work carried out by the Wakf, including a reinforcement project on the eastern wall of the Old City, he shook his head in frustration.
“Anywhere else in Israel archeologists would accompany the workers and study things,” he said while pointing to the Wakf’s wall restoration, which is replacing ancient tan stones with smooth, white stones and is a stark departure from the old material. “It’s a joke.”