Police Block Muslim Burials in Archaeological Area Near Temple Mount

Police have prevented Muslim burial at the foot of the Temple Mount for the past several months. Public Security Minister Avi Dichter became convinced recently that a burial plot at the southeast foot of the mount, outside the walls, had stretched into an area defined as a national park and an area of great archaeological significance, that had not previously been used for burial.

Dichter rejected the Jerusalem police's initial argument, that halting burials on the site would lead to riots and bloodshed.

The police policy changed after an antiquities lobby submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice. The Committee for the Prevention of the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount, supported by prominent authors A.B. Yehushua, the late S. Yizhar, Hebrew University Jewish philosophy professor Avi Ravitzky, defense establishment figures such as former chief of staff Dan Shomron and senior archaeologists including Ehud Netzer, Ronny Reich, Ephraim Stern, Gabriel Barkai and Eilat Mazar, lobbied heavily to ban burials in the area.

The area in question, one of the most sensitive in Jerusalem's Old City, borders on the eastern wall of the Temple Mount and runs parallel to it. It runs 800 meters, 650 meters of which are north and south of of the Lion's Gate and Mercy Gate, are occupied by Muslim cemeteries. The southern edge of the southern cemetery is marked by an old fence. From that fence to the southeast tip of the Temple Mount is an 80 by 35 meter stretch designated as an antiquities site.

Muslims began using the area for burial a few years ago. The police have identified 21 graves, 39 empty graves and 35 plots, which they are unsure are in use. During the High Court hearing, it became evident that Silwan elders had sold plots in an area they didn't own to families of deceased Muslims.

The archaeologists persuaded the police that the area "annexed" for the burial ground was tremendously important archaeologically.

Barkai says it is a rare contact point between Second Temple-era construction and earlier remnants from the First Temple age. "Muslim burial on the site, which was never a cemetery in the past, could end any possibility of excavating the area in the future, as has been done at the foot of the southern wall and the bottom of part of the Western Wall," Barkai noted in the petition.

The court heard that the area had well-preserved 2000 year old construction from Herod's time and a clear seamline between the northern construction, Hasmonean, and the southern construction, Herod's. British archaeologist Charles Warren, who excavated there 140 years ago, found cornerstones for the five lowest layers of construction built into a layer of terra rosa, which includes remains from the First Temple. The first sealing rings stamped "for the King," found in Israel, dated to late 8th Century B.C.E., were found in the red soil.

At first, Jerusalem district police chief Ilan Franco told the court he would not prohibit burial on the site due to the likelihood of riots. The police also initially refused to accompany municipal inspectors charged with hanging up injunctions after additional mausoleums were constructed. The police approach changed only after the antiquity committee brought the matter to Dichter. Dichter even noted that the police could learn from its own naivete in 1999 when the Muslims dug a huge pit in the Temple Mount to open an entry into a site known as Solomon's Stables. Tons of earth filled with archaeological finds from many periods were dumped into a riverbed.

Police are now preventing further burials on the site, while the committee is demanding that unused burial plots set up there be filled in.