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It is difficult to think of a more impressive site than that of the "project to sift through the earth of the Temple Mount" on the slopes of Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. To the north of the site towers the campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. To the south, concealed by the abandoned Palace Hotel and by Ibrahimiya College, lie the Hinnom Valley, Siloam and the City of David. To the east is the Rockefeller Museum, the headquarters of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). And, most important of all, to the southwest looms the gilded Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount itself, the cause of all the fuss.

At first glance, actually, the fuss does not seem all that great: A few mounds of earth, a container, a large tent and about 10 staff and volunteers were at the site of the sifting project on the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah. Archaeologist Dr. Gabi Barkai, who heads the project, has an excavation permit, but is definitely not excavating. What he is doing is what archaeologists have never done in this country: He is scrutinizing the earth that the Waqf (the Muslim trust that is custodian of the Temple Mount) removed from the mount in 1999, looking for ancient finds. Usually the material with which Barkai and his group are working is called "back dirt" a description that infuriates the archaeologist and connotes worthless debris.

"I do not call it debris," Barkai says. "It is not refuse and not garbage and not trash. A negative ideology underlies those terms. All those who say I deal with garbage, trash, refuse ... I am engaged in sifting earth whose source is the Temple Mount among the most precious remnants we have, historically."

Refuse or not, the earth conceals important finds. For example, the bulla from the First Temple period (1000-586 B.C.E.), which was discovered on September 27 and which Barkai reported that very day at the sixth annual archaeological conference of the City of David. A bulla is a round clay seal affixed to documents. The bulla, which is no more than one square centimeter in size, nevertheless contains three lines of writing in Hebrew. The top line is broken. In the middle line the letters lamed yud heh vav (together "lihu") can be made out; Barkai says this may be the last part of the name "Galihu." On the third line the word "immer" appears. Barkai says this might have been the seal of a person named Galihu Ben Immer, explaining, "from the Book of Jeremiah we know one of the important Temple priests, whose name was Pashhur Ben Immer."

Many First Temple bullas have been discovered in the past, but "the tremendous importance of this discovery," Barkai told reporters, "is that this is the first time we have an artifact bearing an inscription from the First Temple period, whose source is incontrovertibly the Temple Mount." He described finding this artifact as receiving "greetings directly from the kings of the House of David." The sifting project also turned up another artifact from the First Temple a shard with several letters on it."

Why is the bulla more important than the jar fragment?

Barkai: "The shard bears the inscription of the owner's name so that no one else will use it. The bulla attests to administrative activity."

Barkai and fellow archaeologist Meir Ben-Dov are usually on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to the debate over the Temple Mount, and this case is no exception. Ben-Dov maintains that there is a good chance that the source of the bulla is not the Temple Mount. First, he says, part of the back dirt that was removed from the Temple Mount was brought there from the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and is not originally from the mount. Second, in the Kidron Valley, where the Waqf staff dumped the earth, it was mixed with debris from other places.

Nonsense, Ben-Dov says. "If a Coke bottle had been found in the rubble, would that mean Coca-Cola was manufactured on the Temple Mount?" He does concede, though, that "if you find the golden eggs of an ostrich in the refuse, that's lovely. Who says it isn't?" However, he is quick to make it clear that, in his view, this is not the case.

Ben-Dov: "Let's say that there is a bulla and it has three letters on it. Yigal Shiloh [excavator of the City of David] had 70 intact bullas. This bulla says nothing. There is no discovery, so why blow things up like this?"

Is it possible that the earth Barkai is sifting is mixed with earth that is not from the Temple Mount? "The answer is yes," Barkai himself confirms. "That has been taken into account."

But the whole importance of this bulla is that it comes from the Temple Mount. If it doesn't, there are many more like it ...

"Correct."

How do we know that its source is the Temple Mount?

"I take all these data into account. First of all, we have eye-witness testimony from people who saw the trucks coming from the Temple Mount and dumping the material ... I was there [in Kidron Valley] shortly afterward and I saw the mounds of earth. Within the earth we found a large number of gilded glass cubes, whose source is in the mosaics of the Dome of the Rock, and also tile fragments from the Dome of the Rock ... We took 70 truckloads. Of course, it is possible that something that is not from the mount got into there, that there is material that is not from the Temple Mount."

A pig on the Mount Born in Budapest, Barkai, 61, is a recipient of the Jerusalem Prize for Archaeology and a leading expert in the country, responsible for one of the major archaeological finds in Jerusalem in recent decades, if not the most important of them all: the silver amulets discovered at Ketef Hinnom, above the valley, dating to the seventh century B.C.E. (see box). The amulets are the first and to date the only evidence that verses from the Bible, in this case the Priestly Benediction (Numbers 6:24-26), were already known in the First Temple period.

Barkai is currently an external lecturer at Bar-Ilan University; for more than 30 years he worked at Tel Aviv University. For more than 15 years he was one of the assistants to Prof. David Ussishkin at the Lachish excavations, where he was in charge of one area of the dig. Much of Barkai's activity has been conducted in Jerusalem, where he carried out a survey of the burial caves in the Hinnom Valley, studied the northern cemetery of Jerusalem from the First Temple period, and published a report that redated the cave in the Garden Tomb of Jesus. His conclusion, which is today almost universally accepted, was that the cave dates from the First Temple period centuries before Jesus.

The bulla is not the only intriguing find from the Temple Mount back dirt. Some of the finds are definitely not connected to the mount's Jewish past. "There are researchers," Barkai relates, "who say that the mount was unoccupied during the Byzantine period [326-638 C.E.], because they wanted to emphasize Jesus' prophecy about the destruction of the Temple and underscore the [importance of] the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. We have a vast number of finds from the Byzantine period, mainly ceramics and coins, including rare coins. One coin shows the Byzantine emperor, Heraclius. There is a Byzantine candle with an inscription related to Jesus. There are some architectural elements. Parts of churches can be identified. It is possible that the history of the Temple Mount can be rewritten according to these data."

What existed on the Temple Mount during the Byzantine period?

"It can be said with certainty that in the Byzantine era the Temple Mount was a center of activity. It is possible that there were church structures there. It is possible that there was a marketplace there."

Not so, Ben-Dov retorts. "It is impossible for there to be Byzantine-era finds from the Temple Mount, because the mount was unoccupied," he asserts. "[Barkai] cannot say, 'I found a few shards or there was a church there, so we will change everything we know about the mount.' That is material from excavated fill and it is not clear where it came from. It is new archaeology to treat fill as authentic material."

Barkai adds: "There is a large quantity of animal bones. There are fish bones, pig bones."

In what period would there have been pig bones on the Temple Mount?

Barkai: "In the Crusader period, for example."

He relates that the sifting project has uncovered "a vast number, many hundreds of coins. There is a beautiful coin of Napoleon III made of gold. We have a wonderful arrowhead from [a weapon used by] the army of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, from the destruction of the First Temple. There is an arrowhead of the Scytho-Iranian type, in the shape of a miniature jet plane. It is what we would call 'small and nasty.' It has three wings and enters easily, but is hard to get out it tears the flesh. There is a fine arrowhead from the Hellenistic period. Maybe it was shot by Judah the Maccabee or by the wicked Antiochus."There was great interest not only in these finds, but also in the earth that remained after the sifting, Barkai explains. He was contacted by entrepreneurs from the United States and England who wanted to market the holy earth from the Temple Mount, in some cases to place in synagogues, but "I shook them off fast."

Why, actually?

"Because I didn't think it was appropriate. I don't think the earth from the Temple Mount should be commercialized. I am also not the owner. I can't sell something that is not mine. The dirt is the property of the IAA and the Nature and National Parks Protection Authority. We are working in Tzurim Valley National Park, at the foot of Mount Scopus."

How long will you continue?

"Until we crack. There is still a great deal of material in Kidron Valley and there are other sites, too. There are hundreds more truckloads. It can go on for a long time. We will stop if the money runs out, or if information accumulates that in my estimation will constitute a statistically good representative sample."

Archaeological crime Barkai is one of the many public figures who in 1999 signed a letter demanding that the government stop the excavations that were being carried out by the Waqf in front of Al-Aqsa Mosque. This was the only petition that was ever signed by as ideologically disparate a group as Ariel Sharon and Amos Oz, Yehuda Amichai and Silvan Shalom, Amos Kenan and Benny Elon, A.B. Yehoshua and Meir Dagan, S. Yizhar and Moshe Arens. The rubble that Barkai is sifting comes from those earthworks. He notes that the large-scale digging carried out by the Waqf on the Temple Mount in the second half of the 1990s was a result of the Oslo Accords. One of the ideas that came up in the negotiations, he says, was "a horizontal division of the Temple Mount. That is, everything belowground, including the structural remnants of the Jews' temples, would be under Israeli sovereignty; everything aboveground, including the Muslims' mosques, would be under Palestinian sovereignty."

The result, he says, was Waqf-initiated activity, with the aid of volunteers from the Israeli Islamic Movement, to seize control of the underground spaces: "In 1996, the Al-Marwani Mosque was dedicated in Solomon's Stables [below the Temple Mount], with room for more than 10,000 worshipers. Two years later, another mosque was dedicated on the Temple Mount, which completely changed the status quo. This is Al-Aqsa al-Qadima, in the passages of Hulda's Gate."

The peak of this activity, Barkai notes, came in November 1999, during the tenure of Ehud Barak as prime minister: "A trench 12 meters deep and 40 meters long was dug in front of the facade of Solomon's Stables, where the mosque had been dedicated three years before. It was a huge pit, dug by bulldozer, and trucks carried the earth out. The Waqf's request was that there be an emergency exit, but what was built was a monumental entrance to the mosque." Amir Drori, director general of the IAA at the time, described what was done as an archaeological crime.

Barkai: "I want to see how a cultured person would react if bulldozers were to mount the Acropolis. In my opinion, there should be no trucks or tractors on the Temple Mount, no heavy equipment at all. A crime was committed there, by the huge removal of a vast amount of fill, without supervision and without archaeological examination. There was a rare historic opportunity to carry out an excavation on the Temple Mount and it is immaterial to me if the director was an Arab archaeologist. Destruction was wrought there on a tremendous scale."

Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy visited the site last month, on a tour led by Meir Ben-Dov, and came back with the conclusion that the Waqf did not harm the mount, but built very beautiful mosques there ["Sentimental journey," Haaretz Magazine, September 30].

"I too can tell you that the mosques are wonderful and interesting. Al-Marwani is a beautiful mosque. They have carpets from Saudi Arabia there."

Ben-Dov maintains that the Waqf preserved the site in which the mosques are located very well.

"Really, now! They did not 'preserve' the mount. A mosque could have been built there, but first bring in an archaeologist. See what is in the dirt before you remove it. Document the walls. I have no objection to mosques. I do not belong to any kind of fanatic circle."

Isn't it the case that the tiling work done by the Waqf is good archaeology-wise, because it protects what is underneath?

"The tiling is very bad for the Temple Mount. The tile covering may be terrific archaeologically, because it seals everything below, but on the way to tiling you have to level the area, and while doing that they removed up to a meter of earth. That is a crime. It is a crime of the first magnitude. That is all the archaeological 'flesh' that there is and they treated it like plain dirt."

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