Text size

Several worked stones discovered during ongoing maintenance excavations around the Dome of the Rock may be part of a wall that once surrounded an outer courtyard of the Temple, some archaeologists conjecture.

The excavations are being carried out by the Waqf, the Muslim trust that is custodian of the Temple Mount, and the Public Committee Against the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount called a press conference yesterday to warn that the excavation is endangering these and other rare artifacts.

There have been verbal confrontations in recent days between Waqf officials and police and Israel Antiquities Authority representatives over the Waqf's violation of the terms of the permit it received to conduct work at the site. In one incident, a police officer tried to prevent Waqf workers from operating a bulldozer, ultimately resorting to blocking the vehicle with his body. Tempers later calmed, after senior officials intervened.

Waqf officials told the Associated Press that the 1.5-meter-deep trench in question is being dug in order to replace 40-year-old electric cables. They termed the claims by the Israeli archaeologists "sheer propaganda."

Dr. Gabi Barkai, one of Israel's most prominent archaeologists and a member of the committee, said that the Waqf's current excavation, along with a previous one of over 400 meters in the direction of the Dome of the Rock, is an archaeological crime unacceptable in any cultured country.

Another archaeologist and committee member, Dr. Eilat Mazar, said it is unfathomable that the police, and perhaps also the IAA, allowed a bulldozer to damage layers of ground beneath the extensive flooring now uncovered.

"It is an unbelievable spectacle," Mazar said. "Israeli police officers and an official from the Antiquities Authority observing as a tractor digs the trench. This is irreparable destruction. After all, nobody is examining the dirt and materials coming out of that trench, which is located in an incredibly unique area, of historic, cultural and religious importance for every human being, and particularly for the Jewish people."

The committee issued a statement demanding that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Minister for Jerusalem Affairs Rafi Eitan and the IAA stop the Waqf's work immediately, and prevent any further work on the Mount without proper archaeological supervision.

The archaeologists announced that they would file a police complaint and are contemplating a petition to the High Court of Justice against the excavation work.

The leading Muslim cleric in Jerusalem, Mufti Mohammed Hussein, rejected the committee's charges. "We don't harm the antiquities, we are the ones who are taking care of the antiquities, unlike others who destroy them," he said.

Issues relating to the Temple Mount are handled entirely by the Prime Minister's Bureau and the attorney general, who set policy on the matter, usually based on police recommendations. The IAA makes recommendations, but they are not always accepted.

In a related development yesterday, new artifacts discovered in sifting through earth removed from the Temple Mount were presented at the eighth annual City of David archaeological conference.

The project, now in its third year, entails scrutinizing truckloads of earth removed by the Waqf in 1999.

Among the ancient finds were numerous stone tiles intended for flooring, some of which have been identified as designed for use in the Roman-era mosaic work known as opus sectile, in which colorful tiles were cut into shapes and fitted into geometric patterns.

"The discovery of stone tiles used in opus sectile flooring in [earth from] the Temple Mount is one of the most important discoveries of the dirt-sifting work," Barkai said, "and it might aid in reconstructing the appearance and character of the Temple's outer courtyard."