A 1931 photograph taken from a German zeppelin has helped solve a mystery about the fate of one of Jerusalem's oldest Islamic schools.
The photograph revealed that the school, or madrassa, was located where the Western Wall Plaza is now. But the remains of the building were dismantled by the Israel Antiquities Authority, which did not realize its importance.
The school, known as the Afdiliyeh, was named after el-Malik al-Afdil, one of the sons of Saladin, who conquered Jerusalem in 1187. According to a 15th-century document, al-Afdil built the school in Jerusalem's Mughrabi quarter.
Eventually it became known as the Sheikh Eid Mosque, after a leader of the North African community that inhabited the quarter. The sheikh was buried there in the 17th century, after which the mosque became a place of pilgrimage.
A few days after the Six-Day War, Israel destroyed the Mughrabi quarter to build the Western Wall Plaza. The destruction included the mosque - one of only three or four remaining from the time of Saladin.
"It was an archaeological crime," said Benjamin Kedar, a historian and vice president of the National Academy of Sciences. Kedar took an interest in the site after an Israeli-Palestinian academic collaboration that in 2009 produced the book "Where Heaven and Earth Meet" on the Temple Mount over the centuries.
"It was clear to us that to locate the structure we needed a good aerial photograph," Kedar said. In 2009 he went to the zeppelin museum in southern Germany and returned with 30 photographs, one of which shows the mosque.
A comparison between the photo, historical descriptions, a 19th-century map and other photos allowed Kedar to locate the exact site of the mosque.
The excavation in the Western Wall Plaza was carried out to allow for the construction of a building to cater to Western Wall visitors.
A few meters below the remains of the madrassa, Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah and Alexander Onn, who directed the antiquities authority excavation, found impressive remains of a Roman-era street.
The excavation report verified Kedar's finding. It described stones found in the stratum from the Islamic period that conform precisely to those in a gate in a 1943 photograph.
A human skeleton was also found, interred according to Islamic tradition. Scholars say it is Sheikh Eid himself.
Kedar missed the chance to stop the destruction of the madrassa by only a few months, he says. "By the time I found the clue that allowed the place to be identified, it was already destroyed," he said. "Had I known about it in time, I would have stopped it."
He could have, because at the time he was chairman of the Israel Antiquities Authority Council.
As a result of this case, Kedar has been leading efforts to make the antiquities authority more aware of remains from the Islamic period, which are often destroyed while earlier remains are being sought. "It was done innocently, but somebody needs to understand that if there's a tomb in the heart of the city, it means something," Kedar said.
A draft of a recent article by Weksler-Bdolah and Taufik De'adleh of the Hebrew University for the French magazine Revue Biblique has been handed to the District Planning and Building Committee. The committee received the draft as part of a campaign by archaeologists against the construction of the visitor-service building.
"It might be said that the demolition of the Mughrabi quarter in 1967 was necessary ... to allow masses to reach the Western Wall, not to build a new building," said Prof. Yoram Tzafrir, who is leading the opposition."
The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which manages the nearby Western Wall Tunnel, responded: "Excavations in the area of the Western Wall are intended to reach the earliest levels possible. Clearly this cannot be done without destroying later periods, whatever they may be. The Israel Antiquities Authority has decided what remains are to be documented and preserved."
The foundation added that during the excavation, remains were found from the First and Second Temple periods, and the building had to be put up to protect and display them.