Temple Mount Riddles Resolved by Tens of Thousands of Tiny Pieces

The monumental buildings on Temple Mount, Jerusalem turn out to have been decorated chiefly with images of plants and geometric forms, patient researcher finds

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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A carving flower decoration from a building on Temple Mount, showing a fine quality of carving.
A carving flower decoration from a building on Temple Mount, showing a fine quality of carving.Credit: Vladimir Naykhin, Hebrew University
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

What did the Temple Mount compound look like over 2,000 years ago? How were its buildings decorated? The literature and the archaeology do not always coincide, but new research may have put some of the questions to rest. Including the enigma of who built a set of subterranean domes. Who completed the construction however will have to remain a mystery for now.

Much of what we know, or think we know, comes from the 1st century C.E. traitor-cum-historian Josephus Flavius, who devoted a section in one of his books to the Mount and the temple itself, which is associated with the massive construction drive by the Roman vassal king of the Jews, Herod. And we also have some knowledge from archaeological research.

Josephus’ descriptions and the archaeological findings have a number of inconsistencies that researchers have difficulty reconciling. One, for example, involves the Royal Stoa. How big, actually, was this colossal public structure that Herod erected while renovating the Temple Mount? (According to Jewish tradition, Herod had the Second Temple built on the site of the pitiful second temple, which itself had been built on the site of the First Temple, after its destruction. So actually, according to this chain of events, the “Second Temple” is the third one at the site.)

The Stoa was a monumental colonnaded building at the southern end of the Temple Mount, which effectively loomed over the entire south of Jerusalem. The Stoa was quite the hive of civic and commercial activity.

Josephus admiringly describes a massive edifice it that was a “stadium” long. That Roman unit of measure means that it was from 180 to 200 meters (roughly 600 to 650 feet) long. On the other hand, Josephus also wrote that it stretched the length of the Temple Mount’s southern wall, “from the eastern valley [Kidron] to the western valley [Tyropoeon],” which is about 280 meters.

The historian also wrote that rows of massive columns divided the building into a wide central hall with two side halls: 162 columns in four rows, one built into the wall:

“This cloister had pillars that stood in four rows one over against the other all along, for the fourth row was interwoven into the wall, which [also was built of stone]; and the thickness of each pillar was such, that three men might, with their arms extended, fathom it round, and join their hands again, while its length was twenty-seven feet, with a double spiral at its basis” (Jewish Antiquities 15.413-4)

It is true that 162 doesn’t divide neatly by four – a conundrum that scholars believe they have now solved.

A recent new study by Dr. Orit Peleg-Barkat of the Hebrew University archaeology department reexamined Josephus’ text in comparison with archaeological finds from Temple Mount digs in the 1970s. Focusing on fragments of decoration found from the time, she extrapolates to the construction of the buildings, and does propose answers to some questions – including that issue of the 162 columns that don’t divide by four. She also raises new questions too.

An illustration of the Stoa on Temple Mount. Credit: Sheila Winograd, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The excavations themselves were conducted on the slopes of the southern wall of the Temple Mount between 1968 and 1978 by a Hebrew University excavation team led by Prof. Benjamin Mazar, grandfather of Prof. Eilat Mazar, who is in charge of the Temple Mount endeavor.

Temple Mount and logical puzzles

Tens of thousands of finds from that time have been kept in underground storehouses in the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus. Peleg-Barkat dusted them off and started combing through them, seeking fragments of walls and ceilings to study the ancient decoration before the entire Temple Mount and city were destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E.

The fragments confirm that the colossal structure was somewhere in between a Roman basilica and Greek stoa – both being, simply, roofed meeting places, places of administration, government, law and trading, too.

Examination of ornamentation installed on the frieze above the columns led to the realization that there were 3.25 meters between each column.

Prof. Yoram Tsafrir (who passed away in 2015) noted according to Josephus, the columns were so huge that it took three men with their arms outstretched to encompass them. Ergo, Josephus was talking only about the columns that stood free, not the ones built into the wall. Ergo II: the 162 columns Josephus mentioned didn’t include the southern row of columns set into the wall. The number 162 should therefore be divided by three rows of columns, not four, because the fourth row was set into the wall.

Happily, 162 does divide by three and the answer (if true) is that each row had 54 columns.

Dr. Orit Peleg-BarkatCredit: Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Now, if we make the calculation based on the placement of the ornamentation from the columns that Peleg-Barkat found, the distance between columns, and the thickness of the columns themselves, we get a building that was indeed 180 meters long, the length of the Roman unit of measurement - the stadium.

No other gods

Probably there would have been other structures by the stoa – which is almost certainly the place where Jesus flew into rage at the sacrilege:

“And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves” (Matthew 21:12).

The assembly of stone ornamentation fragments found on Temple Mount differs from the assemblies collected at Herod’s palaces on Masada, in Jericho and at the Herodion, says Peleg-Barkat.

“First of all, they used Jerusalem limestone, which has much higher quality. Secondly, the quality of the carving is extraordinary, indicating that it was the work of first class artisans, involving vast investment of resources,” says Peleg-Barkat. “Even though the work was done by local artisans, we see the influence of Rome and the Syrian region.”

An illustration of the Stoa on Temple Mount.Credit: Sheila Winograd, Hebrew UNiversity of Jerusalem

The local influence is clear, she adds, in the total absence of figurative art in the fragments - a reference to the traditional Jewish prohibition against the use of graven images, lest it lead to idolatry:

“Thou shalt have none other gods before me. Thou shalt not make thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters beneath the earth (Deuteronomy 5:7-8).

One interesting thing is that more than half the ornament fragments originated in carved stone entablatures (ceilings themselves would have been made of wood or plaster). The carvings were geometrical forms or plants. Two other temples in the region from roughly the same time are like the Jerusalem temple in that respect, one being the temple to Bel in Palmyra, Syria, which ISIS destroyed. The other is a colossal temple dedicated to Jupiter in Heliopolis – today Baalbek in Lebanon. The only surviving part of that temple is six Corinthian columns. Its ceiling is believed to have been made of cedar.

The mystery of the double gate

Peleg-Barkat addresses another mystery: who built the so-called “Double Gate”, a subterranean double opening on the southern side of Temple Mount. and when they did it.

This “double gate” leads to a subterranean passage (that today passes beneath Al-Aqsa Mosque), from which pilgrims could reach the Temple Mount plaza.

Temple Mount researchers have been quarreling from day one on dating the southern part of the underground passage. Four domes have been preserved inside it, of which three bear geometric and rich, plant-like decoration. One set of researchers believes this structure is a remnant of the Herodian Temple. A different set of researchers believes Muslim rulers had it built 700 years later, during the Umayyad Caliphate. That’s quite a difference – most arguments of this ilk differ in a few decades, not almost a millennium.

For years, the Muslim Waqf controlling Temple Mount has prohibited non-Muslims from accessing the underground parts beneath Al-Aqsa. Peleg-Barkat visited there once 13 years ago. However, in the 1970s, an archaeological team got permission brought in lighting and filming equipment.

These photographs made it possible to study the dome decorations and to compare them to the decorations that the team discovered south of the Western Wall.

“The difficulty the researchers felt in accepting the Herodian date for the domes was because there are so few square, not round, ones from that period. That would become more common later,” says Peleg-Barkat. “Another difficulty arose because of the collapse and the reconstruction of the southern wall which begged the question of how the domes could have survived if they weren’t supported by the southern wall.”

Yet the paucity of square domes in antiquity, and the strangely obdurant domes, these were not insurmountable challenges to logic, in her opinion. She feels these simple domes were parallels to domes found in the world of the Nabatean nomads and in ancient Alexandria, Egypt, says Peleg-Barkat. In any case, she says, Herod was quite the innovator in architecture and not afraid of an engineering challenge. In any case, the domes hadn’t leaned on the southern wall at all, in her opinion, but on an internal system of walls.

Furthermore: the decorations on the domes and on Temple Mount show they were the same models and done in the same carving style, she says. She therefore postulates that the artisans who decorated the royal cloister and other related structures in the southern Herodian Temple were the same ones who carved the domes.

One source of the conflict had been that Umayyad and Herodian art have many similarities, hence the postulated later dating for the domes. She however is confident they’re Herodian, and that the Muslim builders utilized the existing underground passage, restoring it and adding decorations to the front of the gate. “It is actually both a Herodian and an Umayyad monument, both Jewish and Muslim, if you will,” she says.

Who built it?

Another question is who exactly built Temple Mount. Until a few years ago, the answer had always been King Herod, unequivocally.

However, recent excavations that the Antiquities Authority conducted near Temple Mount has begged the question of whether Herod had managed to complete the enormous task of expanding the compound himself. One telltale clue that somebody else wrapped up the work, is the discovery of coins post-dating Herod's death, which were discovered below massive foundation stones of the Western Wall.

“Herod was certainly the developer," avers Peleg-Barkat. "People in his service conducted the measurements, prepared the plan, opened the quarries, paved the roads, carved the stones and decorative objects, and started the construction. However, I find it hard to believe that Herod indeed lived to see the structure completed.”

Tragically, the monumental structures on the Mount would stand completed only very briefly, a historical blink of an eye. Following the Great Revolt, from 66 to 70 C.E., Jerusalem would be destroyed by the Romans, led by Titus The Romans would sack the city and take the Temple treasures including the golden menorah, which were paraded before the people in Rome, to mark their triumph over the Jews - an achievement so monumental, evidently, that Titus found it necessary to build not one arch to commemorate himself, but two.



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