"What do you care if we get rid of this pile of garbage?" asks Mohammed Abu-Kitesh, a long-time Waqf worker, pointing to the mounds of dirt and building debris piled up on the eastern side of the Temple Mount esplanade.

About two weeks ago, the Waqf (the Muslim religious authority) authorized a visit by a group of Israeli guests, led by archaeologist Meir Ben-Dov, to the various sites on the mount. Abu-Kitesh wanted us to see the dirt and debris that have piled up over the past four years. The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAI) has examined the piles and declared them free of significant findings.

However, after a petition to the High Court of Justice by the Committee for the Prevention of Destruction of the Antiquities on the Temple Mount, a temporary injunction was issued prohibiting the IAI, the defense minister, and the prime minister from authorizing the Waqf to remove the mounds. Why?

About 10 years ago or more, the Waqf, which manages the Temple Mount, began to clean out the subterranean space on the southeastern side of the plaza, known as Solomon's Stables. The peace process was in high gear, and things were relatively quiet. On Fridays and during Ramadan, hundreds of thousands of worshipers would crowd the mount, and only a small number were able to find room inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Waqf said they wanted to prepare the underground space as a place of prayer for the crowds on rainy days; according to their records, the space served in earlier Islamic periods as a place of prayer and was known as the Marwani Hall (named after Omayyad Caliph Marwan ibn al-Hakham, who lived at the end of the seventh century).

These spaces were first created by Herod the Great in the first century BCE during work to expand the Temple, which in his day reached its greatest dimensions. To create the expansive Temple courts, especially where the Temple itself was located, Herod built huge retaining walls, of which the Western Wall is one, and created several levels on the plateau. Those entering the Temple Mount 2000 years ago could ascend via the Hulda Gates in the southern wall via tunnels (like a subway), or climb a flight of stairs like the one constructed at the southern corner of the Western Wall, with its well-known remnant, Robinson's Arch.

Two ancient remains

Beneath the courts were - and to some extent still are - spaces, cisterns and arches, of which the Marwani Hall (or, as the Crusaders called it, Solomon's Stables) is the most famous and the largest. When the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, large portions of these courts were also destroyed. The arches that supported them collapsed, many stones were removed from the mountain, and the site stood deserted for hundreds of years. The Byzantines sought to perpetuate the ruination in order to prove that Jesus was right when he predicted the destruction of the Temple. Only about 600 years after the destruction, the new Muslim rulers of Jerusalem began to restore the esplanade. They rebuilt the large retaining walls on the foundations of the Herodian walls, and recreated the underground spaces and the arches of Solomon's Stables. But the new level created by the Muslims in constructing the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque was not the same as the Herodian level - it was lower. How do we know this?

The archaeologist Meir Ben-Dov gives a few examples: The golden Dome of the Rock stands over a large piece of bedrock, which is without a doubt the highest point on the mountain. All scholars agree that the Temple was built above this level. Therefore, if we dig beneath the rock and around it, there is no chance that we will find remains from the days of the Temple. Robinson's Arch, the large stone protruding from the southern part of the Western Wall, provides additional proof. This was the spring of an arch that supported a bridge that led into the Temple Mount. If the arch is reconstructed, it comes out at a point approximately three meters higher than the present esplanade around the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

The conclusion is that there is no chance today of finding any remnant of the structures that once stood in the Temple courts. All scholars agree on this point. They also all agree that the arches of Solomon's Stables, in their present form, date from the Early Muslim period or later.

The place now looks nice and clean. After the work carried out by the Waqf, the large halls were paved with marble and covered with costly rugs. Two ancient remains from the time of Herod have been preserved here. The first is a stone with Herodian carvings in secondary use in the southern wall. The second is a protrusion that is the spring of an ancient arch. These two elements have not been damaged by the Waqf's work. It will always be possible to remove the marble flooring and excavate if so desired. The Waqf therefore rejects the accusations that they sought to wipe out the remains of Jewish antiquities in Solomon's Stables. The Waqf says it employed an archaeologist to supervise the work, which it says was carried out with full scientific oversight.

Rabbi Goren allowed it

There is no doubt that the Waqf's work had a political agenda. After the Six-Day War, archaeologists Binyamin Mazar and Meir Ben-Dov directed a long series of excavations outside the mount along the southern wall. Among other things, they discovered remains of the wide steps that led to the Hulda Gates, which served as the main entrance to the mount. At that time, rabbis, led by then-chief rabbi Shlomo Goren, permitted Jews to enter the southern portion of the Temple Mount in the area around the Al-Aqsa Mosque, including Solomon's Stables. This area, they explained, was added to the Temple Mount during the time of Herod the Great and was not part of the sanctuary, where it would be forbidden for Jews to go without being ritually purified.

In other words, whereas halakha (Jewish law) had for generations prohibited Jews from ascending to the area of the mosques, these permits encouraged groups of national-religious yeshiva students to try to enter the southern portion of the Temple Mount. Moreover, in political talks, like those held about a decade ago by Yossi Beilin and Mohammed Abbas (Abu Mazen), the Israelis proposed that Jews establish a synagogue in Solomon's Stables. Similar ideas were brought up later in the failed Camp David summit.

Palestinian spokesmen began to view such proposals as Jewish attempts to take over Al-Aqsa the way the settlers took over the mosque at the Cave of Machpela in Hebron. It was apparently in this context that the Waqf hastily cleaned out the halls and prepared them for Muslim prayer.

During its restoration of Solomon's Stables about five years ago, the Waqf began work on a large-scale dig to create additional openings on the north side of the prayer hall. In removing large amounts of dirt and building debris they discovered Early Muslim-era arches in the northern wall. Most of the debris, in which it was suspected important artifacts from the time of the Temple were to be found, was dumped at the Al-Azzariyeh waste disposal site and on the slope of the Kidron Valley.

But Meir Ben-Dov says that almost all the dirt and debris removed from the site dates from the Mameluke and Turkish periods, and that only a small number of shards, of negligible significance, going back to the time of the Temple, can be found there. The IAI, which authorized the removal of the material, agrees with this assessment.

A great deal of media attention has been focused on the affair. Professor Ehud Netzer of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a member of the Committee for the Prevention of Destruction to Antiquities on the Temple Mount, says that his attitude on the issue is not political. According to Netzer, this is an area of antiquities and no work or excavation should be carried out without proper scientific oversight. Meir Ben-Dov says that even in the excavations carried out by the Religious Affairs Ministry at the Western Wall and its environs, large amounts of dirt were removed using heavy equipment, which does not allow for strict scientific supervision. Neither was such supervision present during restoration work at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, he says.

In any case, Waqf leaders say anyone who wants to examine the material is free to do so. All they ask is permission to remove the mounds of debris, as they have become a nuisance that prevents them from continuing the cleanup and restoration of the courtyard of the holiest place in the country.