We’re all familiar with the old Chinese curse, "You should live in interesting times." As a tour guide in Israel, I often see my clients mouthing the words "How very interesting!" as I describe a hotly contested site or issue, while what they are really thinking is "Thank God I don’t live here!"
No place is as "interesting" as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which both Jews and Muslims claim as one of the foundations of their history and theology. Both religions agree on the idea of a single God, but not much else.
Case in point: In 1999, the Waqf - the Muslim religious trust that administers the holy sites - began work on a new mosque to be built in the southeastern corner of the expansive Temple Mount. The new Marwani Mosque would have room for thousands of worshipers. It was built below pavement level, necessitating the removal of thousands of cubic meters of fill that had been deposited over the past two millennia.
But due to heightened Arab-Israeli tensions at the time, the construction work was carried out without any supervision. Not a single archaeologist was present as the historically invaluable strata of Temple Mount fill were bulldozed and removed from the site.
This unfortunate circumstance created a unique opportunity.
The discarded fill layers were subsequently recovered from the garbage dump by a team of researchers working under the archaeologist Gabi Barkai. And wannabe archaeologists now have the chance to sift through buckets of this historically invaluable dirt.
It is political archaeology at its best. In the course of a 90-minute visit, you receive an in-depth rundown of the history of the Temple Mount, and then a quick lesson on what sort of things you are looking for. Typical finds are mosaic tiles, glass fragments and ancient pottery dating from Temple times to the Umayyad, Crusader and Mameluke periods.
Everyone finds something. This writer once found a copper coin. Your imagination takes flight: what was this particular item doing at the Temple Mount, who brought it there, for what purpose? Who was the last person to touch it before me?
Temple Mount sifting
You don’t have to be in amazing physical shape to take part in the activity; all it requires is the ability to stay on your feet for an hour or so, and the willingness to get a little dirt under your fingernails. The activity must be booked in advance, through the City of David Foundation, either online (http://www.cityofdavid.org.il/en/tours/mount-olives/temple-mount-sifting-project) or by phone (02-6268700). Suitable for ages 5 and up. Cost: Adults/children age 5-18 and seniors NIS 20/16.
The Temple Mount sifting project is located at Emek Zurim in the Kidron Valley, at the foot of Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem. Finding it can be a bit tricky, and it is advisable to check online for specific directions.
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