Were There Jewish Temples on Temple Mount? Yes

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A panoramic view of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.Credit: Davidson Norris

This article was first published on October 21, 2015 and re-upped amid the latest round of violence at the Temple Mount

Was there once a great Jewish temple on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount? Yes. Does any scholar genuinely doubt there was? No, say archaeologists who have spent their lives studying Jerusalem. "I feel stupid even having to comment on it," says Dr. Yuval Baruch, a leading Israeli archaeologist who has studied Jerusalem throughout his career. "Demanding proof that the Temples stood on the Mount is like demanding proof that the ancient stone walls surrounding Jerusalem, which stand to this day, were the ancient stone walls surrounding Jerusalem," he adds.

The contention that there is no proof the Temples existed, let alone on the Mount, is an artifact of the recent Israeli-Arab conflict. Jewish, Christian and Muslim tradition has always held the Mount sacred and none queried the existence of the Temples. "A Brief Guide to al-Haram al-Sharif," published in English by the Supreme Muslim Council itself in 1925, states: "The site is one of the oldest in the world. Its sanctity dates from the earliest (perhaps from pre-historic) times. Its identity with the site of Solomon's Temple is beyond dispute. As well as being sacred to Jews, the hilltop plaza, which could go back as much as 5,000 years, is sacred to Muslims as the place from which the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven. No Muslim scholars would agree to be interviewed for this article.

Jewish tradition says the First Temple was built by King Solomon on Temple Mount. It was destroyed by the Babylonians, who expelled the Jews from the land, in about 587 B.C.E. When the Jews were allowed to return from exile some decades later, they built a new temple on the site, but it was a simple structure. Their makeshift effort was not to the taste of King Herod, who swept away the shabby house of worship, created a great platform on the top of the Mount and had the grand Second Temple erected on it, within a massive compound.

The Second Temple was destroyed and looted by the Romans in 70 C.E., under Emperor Vespasian. How much of this can be proved? Almost all.

Carved in stone

Archaeologists cannot conclusively point to stones they know comprised the Second Temple, let alone the first one. But as Prof. Israel Finkelstein, a world-renowned expert on Jerusalem archaeology, spells out in an email to Haaretz, "There is no scholarly school of thought that doubts the existence of the First Temple."

All the archaeologists Haaretz spoke with for this article believe that if Temple Mount could be excavated – which it never has been – such evidence would be found, even if many of the stones were repurposed over the centuries.  But concrete finds definitively from the Temple exist in abundance, says Bar-Ilan University Prof. Gabriel Barkay, an archaeologist who has spent many years working in Jerusalem, and the area of Temple Mount in particular.

"Two copies of inscriptions prohibiting the entry of nonbelievers to the Temple have been found on Temple Mount, which Josephus wrote about. These inscriptions were on the dividing wall that surrounded the Second Temple, which prevented non-Jews from accessing the interior of the [Temple] courtyard," Barkay says, adding that both were written in ancient Greek. The "warning" stone, which is at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, warns non-Jews of the perils of entering the sacred Temple. There were additional, similar inscriptions in Latin, he says.

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An inscribed stone discovered in 1968 by Benjamin Mazar, stating: "lebeit hatekiya" - To the Trumpeting Place. It belonged to the Second Temple.Credit: Yoavd, Israel Museum, Wikimedia Commons
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A mikveh found at the foot of the Western Wall itself.Credit: Michal Fattal
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Dr. Yuval Baruch: Feels silly having to even comment on whether the Temples existed.Credit: Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

Another inscription in stone, "To the trumpeting place," was found in 1968 at the southwest corner of Temple Mount. "It is known that trumpets were blown at the corners of Temple Mount, to declare the advent of Shabbat and other dates," Barkay explains. Josephus, the ancient historian of ephemeral loyalties, explains that it was customary for a Temple priest to "stand and to give notice, by sound of trumpet, in the afternoon of the approach, and on the following evening of the close, of every seventh day." The stone is now at the Israel Museum.

Further concrete evidence attests to Jerusalem’s uniqueness in religious observance. "The ancient city of Jerusalem at the time of the First Temple was clearly a hub of ritual worship," says Baruch, who heads the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Jerusalem district. "The hundreds of mikvehs [ritual purification baths] found around the Temple Mount compound and Jewish artifacts made of stone found there show that until the Temple's destruction, at least, Jerusalem was an 'ir mikdash' [holy city], where what matters is the house of worship. Athens and Olympia were like that, too."

While the Second Temple may be long gone, razed by the Romans to punish the rebellious Jews, the outer walls surrounding the magnificent temple compound built by King Herod (~74– 4 B.C.E.) still exist – most notably the Western Wall, which has become the holiest site in Judaism.

12 Less famous, but equally remarkable, are the double "Shaarei Hulda" arched gates through the walls enclosing the Second Temple Compound. These still exist today, complete, roof and all (although at some point the Hulda entrances were walled up).

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Model of Jerusalem around the Second Temple Compound built by King Herod on Temple Mount.Credit: Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority
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A model showing Sha'arei Hulda, the double gates into the Second Temple Compound. The Hulda entrance is blocked up but still extant.Credit: Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority
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The Hulda gates once led into the Second Temple compound. At some point, they were walled up.Credit: Bachrach44, Wikimedia Commons

Will more evidence be found? Massive, decades-long construction work by the Muslim authorities controlling Temple Mount caused great archaeological destruction, says famed third-generation Jerusalem archaeologist Eilat Mazar, of the Hebrew University. 

"No wonder remnants of the First and Second Temples themselves have not been found," Mazar writes in an email to Haaretz. "What has been found, including by my grandfather [pioneering archaeologist Benjamin Mazar], are the remains of magnificent buildings that support historic sources describing the construction of the First and Second Temples, and the surrounding compounds, in detail."

While the Mount remains unexcavated, the City of David site right next to it has been and is being explored. "Remains uncovered over decades in excavations at the City of David, and the area connecting the City of David to Temple Mount, support, without reservation, the historic descriptions of the beginning of Jerusalem, and its development from a Canaanite town existing 5,000 years ago, to the heavily fortified Israelite capital 4,000 years ago, to the days of King David 3,000 years ago, to the city that developed northward in the days of King Solomon (around 10th century B.C.E.)," Mazar writes. "The archaeological finds support the biblical descriptions regarding the status and development of Jerusalem during the days of David and Solomon, and afterward."

Titus' boast

We don't need to rely exclusively on digging in Jerusalem for solid evidence that the Mount housed the Second Temple. Roman Emperor Titus was not coy about his achievement in crushing the Jewish rebellion in 70 C.E. and destroying the Temple in Jerusalem.

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The Arch of Titus, showing the "Spoils of Jerusalem" relief on the inside arch.Credit: Dnalor01, Wikimedia Commons
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A 2,000-year old chisel used to build the Western Wall: Did a builder drop it and just not bother to climb down and pick it up?Credit: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority
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A closeup from the Arch of Titus, showing spoils - including a grand menorah - looted from the Second Temple.Credit: Dnalor01, Wikimedia Commons

"Herod had destroyed whatever was on the Mount and built a giant platform on its top, on which he finished building the Second Temple. The Arch of Titus in Rome shows the procession following the gleeful plunder of the Temple by the Romans, even showing the menorah they removed," says archaeology writer Julia Fridman. Whatever their quirks, the ancient Roman emperors didn't make up a temple on the Mount just to mess with the minds of latter-day warmongers.

Yet more solid evidence is found with elaborately stamped coins from the Bar Kochba era (second century C.E.), showing the Temple with its Roman-style pillars. The coins don't state that the Temple was on Temple Mount, a fact that makes Fridman snort. "It wasn't anywhere else – everywhere else has been excavated," she says. "The Muslims built the mosque there because it was a holy site they conquered the land and stamped it with a mosque. That's what they did in Mecca as well – the Kaaba is a pagan site, a meteor that had been worshipped."

No stone left standing

Detractors argue that the precise location of the Temples on the Mount is not known, that no remnants of the actual Temples can be proven to exist and, therefore, maybe they never existed

Indeed, actual archaeological finds at the site are scanty – because, as noted, Temple Mount has never been excavated.

Archaeology as a science is, for the sake of argument, some 200 years old. And throughout much of that time, Temple Mount was paved over, Baruch notes.

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Another view of the paving on top of Temple Mount, which is one reason why excavations have not been done.Credit: Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority
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Temple Mount has been paved over for about 200 years, which is part of the reason why it hasn't been excavated.Credit: Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority
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The paving stones on Temple Mount: A closer view.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

(In the course of building El-Marwani, a new mosque sited underneath Al-Aqsa and dedicated in December 1996, the waqf - the Muslim religious trust - decided that a new emergency exit was needed from El-Marwani. Without coordinating with Israel, says Baruch, it extracted tons of material from Temple Mount – transporting it away in hundreds of trucks, mainly to dumps around the Old City. The Israel Antiquities Authority subsequently collected much of that material, which is now being examined in the "Sifting Project" – and this rubble may contain more evidence. However, this does not count as excavation.)

"The question of whether archaeological finds prove the existence of the Temple on Temple Mount is cynical and provocative," says Barkay. "These are things known to anybody with culture and cannot be cast in doubt. We have dozens of literary sources, including Muslim sources, describing the Temple."

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Ancient dice uncovered in the Temple Mount Sifting Project, October 2015. Credit: The Temple Mount Sifting Project
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Archaeologists and volunteers use 'wet sifting' at the Temple Mount Sifting Project, October 2015. Credit: The Temple Mount Sifting Project
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Ancient coins uncovered in the Temple Mount Sifting Project, October 2015. Credit: The Temple Mount Sifting Project

Over the last century, political strife has made proper excavation of the Mount unthinkable. Yet the argument, notably by certain Muslim radicals, that  a Jewish temple never existed there is a specious political artifact, with zero basis in history, archaeology, religion or tradition. Barkay believes –certain Muslim leaders are trying to have things both ways. "They claim there are no remains of the Temple, but they don't allow any digging [on Temple Mount]. If they would allow digging, remains would be found," he asserts.

Historical smoking guns

Can Temple Mount’s sanctity to the ancient, biblical-era Israelites be nailed down more specifically? Baruch suggests the legend provides a dateline: "It was at least from the day King David conquered Jerusalem [around 1000 B.C.E.], buying the land from the Jebusites and giving it to his son Solomon to build the Temple."

Even if one argues that there is no archaeological proof that either David or Solomon existed – or, if they did, that they were great kings – the existence of the ancient Israelites cannot be questioned. Nor can their affiliation with Jerusalem and the Mount.

While much of the Second Temple compound still exists, if not the actual Temple itself, no remains of the First Temple have ever been found. But Elephantine Island in ancient Egypt harbored a replica of the First Temple. The Elephantine Papyri from the fifth-fourth centuries B.C.E. contain a document written in 407 B.C.E. to the Persian governor of Judea, Bagoas, pleading for help in repairing the recently built Second Temple, which was damaged in a pogrom.

The "Petition to Bagoas" is relevant since the author mentions the age of the Elephantine replica – which, by definition, had to be younger than the Israelite Temple in Jerusalem on which it was based: “Now our forefathers built this temple in the fortress of Elephantine back in the days of the kingdom of Egypt, and when Cambyses came to Egypt he found it built. They [the Persians] knocked down all the temples of the gods of Egypt, but no one did any damage to this temple."

Baruch shrugs off the one piece of evidence that’s purportedly from the First Temple – a tiny carved pomegranate made of hippopotamus bone, with paleo-Hebrew writing running along the shoulders of the fruit. At the time of its discovery, it was thought to have adorned the high priest's scepter for use within the inner sanctum of the Temple, and was thought to prove the existence of Solomon's Temple. The consensus now is that it's a fake, but in any case Baruch simply dismisses it as an irrelevancy, given the clear-cut evidence of Jerusalem's status in the First Temple era – notably, the mikvehs in their hundreds.

Liturgical evidence

So, possibly starting with Canaanites worshipping Lord knows who, to the ancient Israelites, to the Christians and, finally, to the Muslims, Temple Mount has been held sacred.

"Muslim historians and geographers of the Middle Ages never doubted it," says Baruch. "I don't know a single description of Jerusalem in Arabic from the Middle Ages, or even the earlier period or later one, that does not relate to Haram al-Sharif as the site of the Temple." Islam does not necessarily distinguish between the First and Second Temples, he adds. For them, Solomon built his temple there and that is that.

Historical evidence is abundant, too, and not only from Jewish sources. From the Babylonians and Romans to the Greeks and  Persians, the Jewish Temples on the Mount were recorded.

The Letter of Aristeas, for example, from the second century B.C.E., describes how King Ptolemy (285-247 B.C.E.) was urged by his conscientious librarian to have the scriptures and laws of the Jews translated for his library. Ptolemy sent Aristeas to the Jewish high priest Eliezer, who agreed to cooperate. Ptolemy rewarded Eliezer with silver for the temple sacrifices.

There are accounts of the Temple in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and much loving detail about it in the Mishna. By the time the Crusaders became involved in Jerusalem from 1099 C.E. on, the Temples were long gone, but they still harbored no doubt.

"Anybody who pursues historical research and has read the ancient texts would reach the categorical conclusion that the Temple existed on Temple Mount," Barkay sums up.

With the facts so clear, why does the history of Temple Mount remain controversial? "The controversy does not come from the scholarly world. It is all politics and propaganda (by people with no sense of learning)," Finkelstein tells Haaretz. "The fact that the Temple Mount cannot be properly explored is, of course, a factor – though I guess the deniers would deny its existence even if it had been found standing 10 meters high."

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