The holiness of a holy site – however ancient – is more prominent in the public’s perception than its antiquity. As most of the public, and especially believers, see the site in relation to its religious significance, the attempt to discuss the archaeological import of the site can never be separated from the feelings of believers. The holy sites in Jerusalem’s Old City have a central role in the political struggle in the region. Each side emphasizes the Old City’s central importance to its tradition, basing it on the majority religion of its people. Thus Jewish holy sites are seen as Israeli assets, and Islamic holy sites are held as Palestinian assets. Many Christian sites are controlled by different churches that are also involved.
This document focuses on the three central holy sites in the Old City: Haram Al-Sharif/Temple Mount, holy to Muslims and to Jews, the Western Wall, holy to Jews, and the Holy Sepulcher, holy to Christians. We will examine archaeological activities at thesesites, and how they affect the socio-political situation in the Old City. Developments in the holy sites impact billions of believers. Archaeological activities and the preservation of antiquities in these sites carry a very wide radius of importance. It is impossible to separate religion and politics in these sites from science. Consequently, we believe that all research and archaeological activity in these sites are inherently political.
The oldest standing structures in the Old City today are the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock in the Haram Al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound. Both were built in the seventh century, apparently by the Ummayad caliph Abd Al-Malik. Most of the architecture at the site is from the Islamic periods, and the Islamic Waqf is in charge of the site. Since 1967, the place is under self-rule as a Muslim autonomy, and there is no archaeological supervision. After the Oslo accords were signed, there was a short period of cooperation between the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and the Islamic Waqf.
In 1996, riots that erupted as a result of the opening of the tunnel connecting the Western Wall and the Via Dolorosa ended in the deaths of dozens of Israelis and Palestinians. After the riots, the IAA reduced its archaeological supervision of the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif. IAA officials indicate that since 1996 it has been difficult to implement this supervision. At this point the Waqf initiated various construction projects in the site, the most extensive being the clearing and renovation of the cavernous halls known as King Solomon’s Stables, which were turned into a mosque. A large opening was forged at the south-eastern end of the cavern with large-scale mechanical tools that damaged the antiquities severely. The State Comptroller’s Report of 2011 confirms failings of supervision and failure to acquire permits for development projects in the Temple Mount 2001-2007: “Significant deficiencies were found regarding supervision of most of the (development) work performed in the years under review (2001-2007). This work was not coordinated with the law-enforcement authorities in the Temple Mount and was conducted without the required license and permits.”
It is difficult to assess the degree of destruction undergone by the antiquities in the Temple Mount for two central reasons: one, the Islamic Waqf does not provide precise details, such as the size of excavations, their depth, or a description of the findings; the second, severe criticism of the destruction at the site accompanies the heartfelt wishes of the many who would like to see full Israeli sovereignty there. The Islamic Waqf, meanwhile, is consciously dedicated to shoring up the Islamic hold on the Temple Mount, and considerations regarding the preservation of antiquities are of secondary import.
From 2005 on, the “Temple Mount Sifting Project” has been offered nearby as a hands-on experiential activity for pupils and visitors. The initiative is supported by the Elad Organization (a settlers’ organization which also runs the Visitors Center at the Mount of Olives and the City of David archaeological site). The actual soil sifting, which uses soil thrown into the Kidron Valley during Waqf works in the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, is not an archaeological project, and has no scientific value. This project, which purports to expose remnants from the Jewish temple or other important Jewish antiquities, sifts very little actual material, and provides no reliable information on the degree of destruction at the Temple Mount, because the soil is out of its archaeological context. The project is an example of an initiative that uses antiquities for religious, nationalistic and political interests.1. ^ G. Avni &, J. Seligman, The Temple Mount 1917-2001: documentation, research and inspection of antiquities, Jerusalem, 2001
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation is responsible for the plaza and for the Western Wall Tunnels. The foundation is a government body operating from the Prime Minister’s Office. It is funded by the government and by private donors. The excavation of the tunnels began immediately after the 1967 Six-Day War. The digging was managed by the Ministry of Religion and did not follow scientific archaeological standards. Instead of conducting an archaeological dig, it was decided to place an archaeologist to oversee the work. Publications of archaeologists involved in digging the tunnels show that a great deal of information is lacking as it was produced under archaeological supervision without a properly organized excavation. Archaeological supervision permits some follow-up of the development and excavation work, but is not a scientific operation; its conclusions are not comparable to those of orderly archaeological digging.
From 2005 on, the most extensive and large-scale excavations in the Old City have been conducted by the IAA in the Western Wall Plaza or the tunnels, under the authority and funding of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.
In 2005, the IAA began digging in the western section of the Western Wall plaza. The excavation, spread over about 1.5 dunam, continued till 2009 almost without interruption. The dig unearthed remains of the Mugrabi quarters which Israel destroyed in 1967 along with ancient remains going back as far as the 7th Century BCE. The Western Wall Heritage Foundation plans to build a three-four storey museum over the excavation site. A group of archaeologists have protested, saying that the construction will harm the archaeological findings, but the plan was approved for deposit in the regional planning committee. The structure is intended to stand facing the Al-Aqsa Compound.
Western Wall Foundation officials openly declare that the excavation aims to find remnants of the Second Temple. These officials see periods associated with the Jewish past, such as the Judean Kingdom period (10th – 6th Centuries BCE) and the Second Temple period (2nd Century BCE – 1st Century CE) as the main targets of the excavations. In this way, antiquities from the past can be linked to contemporary Jewish belief, creating a direct connection between a 2000year old Jewish past and our own day. These pronouncements do not accord with IAA statements that the excavations deal with all the periods represented in the site, without aiming for any particular one or ignoring others. It might be said that after decades of digs that were managed by the Religion Ministry and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation under inappropriate conditions, in today’s political climate the IAA cannot stand up to decisions made by religious officials. Past experience suggests that wealth and the Heritage Foundation’s executives will determine the route tourists take in the tunnels, and will select the periods and the interpretations to be presented.4. ^ D. Bahat, "The Western Wall Tunnels", Qadmoniot 101-102, 1993, Pp. 38-48 (in Hebrew)
The church is located in the Christian Quarter, and custody is divided among several denominations: Greek-Orthodox, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Catholic and Syrian. It was built in the 4th Century CE, and has undergone many renovations, changes, demolitions and restorations. The church as we find it today is based on construction from the Crusader period.
Despite the recognition that the Holy Sepulcher is one of the most important ancient sites in the Old City, the involvement of the IAA and other official bodies in development and excavations in the church often depends on agreements and conditions set by the various denominations. For one example, when the St. Vartan Chapel (in the interior of the church, beyond St. Helena’s Chapel) was renovated -- from November 1975 to February 1976 -- archaeologists were invited to oversee the work only once it was completed. The scientific publication was based on information and documentation collected from remains left on the site after the renovation was complete.
In 1996, the IAA conducted an archaeological dig within the Coptic Church section of the Holy Sepulcher, and with Coptic Church funding. The dig was initiated following a quarrel between a store owner who dug into a cavity below his store and the Coptic Church personnel, who claimed the space belonged to them. The clash led to the involvement of the Palestinian Authority, the Egyptian government, the Israeli government, and Israeli courts. Consequently, and as church executives wanted to prove their rights to the underground caverns, the IAA was asked to excavate the site. The invitation to a professional government body was made in order to corroborate the church’s hold on the site. As there was a legal contest regarding land ownership, the IAA should have verified ownership and waited for the resolution of the legal battle. Up to such resolution, it should have prevented any construction or digging at the site. Nonetheless, the IAA chose to excavate there, thus indirectly colluding with the Coptic Church and confirming its claims to ownership. The excavations uncovered remains that included structures and excavated niches from the Byzantine period, a church from the early Islamic period, and a domed structure from the Crusader period.
The contest between various denominations over areas and control in the Holy Sepulcher, and other contests between them and those who own adjoining structures, foil the supervision, research and preservation proper to this extraordinary site.9. ^ J. Patrich, "The Early Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Light of Excavations and Restoration", Ancient Churches Revealed, Y. Tsafrir, (Ed.), 1993, Pp. 101-117
The many holy sites of the multiple religions and denominations in the Old City are all characterized by discrimination against women, beginning with areas allotted to women’s prayer, and ending with their role and standing during the prayer service. One of the only groups battling this discrimination and aiming to receive full rights is the Women of the Wall. This group, which comprises religious women from various branches of Judaism, has been battling for women’s right to pray at the Western Wall for over 20 years. The group has demanded the right to pray in the women’s section of the Western Wall, wrapped in a talith (jewish prayer shawl), once a month for several hours. This request was perceived as a threat to Jewish prayer at the Wall as it is currently practiced, and religious leaders, rabbis and politicians have spoken out forcefully against it and against women’s rights.
In the year 2000, after a long legal battle that began in 1989, the Israeli Supreme Court -- sitting in a panel of nine -- determined that the Women of the Wall may not pray as they wish at the Western Wall plaza. Instead, it was decided to allot a special prayer area for them in the archaeological excavations of the Davidson Center – in an area called Robinson’s Arch.
After the 1967 Six-Day War, the area south of the Mugrabi Gate was designated for archaeological excavations while the area to the west was designated as the prayer compound of the Western Wall. Robinson’s Arch lies in the area intended for archaeological research. The decision to fit antiquities for prayer raises several questions: should excavation sites change their designated purposes and become religious sites? Are the Women of the Wall seen by the Jewish Orthodox establishment as unacceptable, making prayer in an antiquities site reasonable precisely because the site isn’t holy? Is the significance of antiquities qua antiquities secondary to local religio-political interests?
It appears that the answer is yes, at least to the final question: in 1995, the IAA asserted that prayer services may not be held in antiquities sites: “It does not appear possible to hold prayer services of any form whatsoever at this site,” was the IAA’s response to the Supreme Court. However, as the legal battle dragged on, it was decided to fit the antiquities site for prayer. The solution -- changing the site’s designation from an antiquities site to a prayer site -- confirms the hierarchy regarding holy sites: religious leaders, political interests, the wider public, women, and finally antiquities. In this regard, the status of the antiquities, like that of the women, is subordinate to that of the interests of religious and political factions.
On the face of it, questions regarding the methodology of archaeological excavations, their scientific level and professionalism are the business of the archaeological community. But when holy sites are presented as one nation’s political asset, and when the antiquities are among the means used to bolster one side at the cost of the other, archaeological research is centrally important in reinforcing the chosen narrative.
The degree of suspicion, animosity and caginess in the holy sites is perhaps the highest in the Old City, where every unilateral action, even a renovation of a standing structure, heightens tensions. In this climate, independent archaeological activity, backed by a wide public of many religions, nations and sectors, can offer an alternative to a situation where archeology is held hostage in religious and political battles.
Incorporating international elements and creating inter-religious dialogue are crucial not only to defend the antiquities from physical harm, but to the give the antiquities a measure of protection from exploitation by extremists and nationalists. The remnants of the past can be used by such extremists to enflame the political conflict, or, alternatively, to present a complex and multi-cultural narrative of the past. Such a complex presentation can reinforce the role of the antiquities as a significant asset for all residents and visitors, and support the voices of moderation. In the present reality, it appears that the moderates are being drowned out.