In 1990 El Al Israel Airlines caused, indirectly, great embarrassment to Israel with an advertisement that appeared in its in-flight magazine at the time, IsraELAL. The ad, for the jewelry company NDC, appeared on the back cover, and featured an image of the Third Temple in the center of the Temple Mount plaza.
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The Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque had been erased, and the entire page had a text adorned with pictures of diamonds, which urged readers to come to the holy city. The ad provoked a big stir in the Muslim world, which was in an uproar (as reported in the Egyptian press) over what it called an “ugly and dangerous Israeli plot.”
Fantasies of reviving the Western Wall, the sole remnant of the wall that supported the platform on which stood the ancient Temple, began to flourish with the conquest of East Jerusalem in the Six-Day War. Various proposals for construction in the Wall’s plaza piled up on the Jerusalem city engineer’s desk during the ensuing six years. The Yom Kippur War put an end to that, too, at least temporarily.
“The unbuilt Jerusalem is much more interesting than the built one,” declares David Kroyanker, who studies the city’s architectural history. He curated an exhibition at the Tower of David Museum 20 years ago entitled “Dreamscapes: Unbuilt Jerusalem,” and a chapter in the book that accompanied it dealt with proposals concerning the plaza.
“Not one of the suggestions presented then could be discussed today,” Kroyanker says now, citing the great tension the project to renovate the Mugrabi Bridge has generated in recent years.
The first steps toward restoring the plaza were practical. In June 1967, the prime minister, Levi Eshkol, ordered eviction of residents from the Mugrabi neighborhood adjacent to the Wall, and their homes were razed to make way for a large plaza, which replaced the narrow and intimate alley that had been there before. But even the new area, despite its dimensions, was too narrow to contain the longings of 2,000 years in exile. Or, as the daily Maariv reported in 1968, after the first and last renovation to date: “They turned it [the Western Wall plaza] into a gigantic and expansive lot, shapeless, lacking architectural form of any kind.”
The project involved dozens of state and municipal committees and an array of public authorities and institutions, among them the interior, religious affairs and justice ministries, and the Prime Minister’s Bureau. The conclusion they reached was that the endeavor should be executed in two stages: In the first, immediate stage, a temporary plan would be carried out to make the plaza a functional but sacred national historic site. The second stage involved determining the overall permanent appearance of the place, to be determined by a design created by the best architects in the world.
First, excavations uncovered two more tiers of the Western Wall below-ground, which restored some of its past monumental grandeur. These excavations were the only part of the general plan proposed in 1967 by architect Yosef Shenberger (an appointee of what was then called the Ministry of Religions) that was actually implemented. To give the Western Wall back its intimate feel, he divided the plaza in his design into a lower level, intended for prayer, and an upper level, with a park, intended as an observation point. The Japanese architect and sculptor Isamu Noguchi (who designed the sculpture garden at the Israel Museum) added to this design a central element in the form of a black hunk of basalt that cut through the two levels in the center, to symbolize the Holocaust.
The initial plan encountered countless obstacles: A storm immediately erupted over the issue of the partitions between men and women, which resulted in foot-dragging in the authorization of certain aspects of the design. The municipal planning board intervened, the chief rabbi lent his support − and the result was an odd compromise: The upper level was raised only 90 centimeters above the lower one, the park concept was thrown out (due to objections from the Chief Rabbinate, which was worried about the possibility of unbecoming conduct there), and likewise, the idea of a flight of stairs which the architect had designed, as an homage to “Shir Hamaalot” (“Song of Ascent”) was discarded. The police objected, fearing overcrowding and injuries.
Completion of the first stage of the plan was less than satisfactory, and the longed-for second stage never got off the ground. In 1973 the East Jerusalem Development Corporation invited Israeli-born architect Moshe Safdie to submit a proposal. He designed the plaza as a kind of broad auditorium descending to the Western Wall. Its various levels were also intended to separate the various activities, according to the distance from the wall. The plan was shelved because of objections − mostly of them of a religious nature. But there were also complaints about the lack of a formal competition among designers.
One problem, which also undermined plans submitted later on, was the desire to uncover the Western Wall in full, down to what was the ground level during the Second Temple period − a depth of 18 meters that would have doubled the height of the Western Wall.
“There is a tremendous danger concerning what will be discovered there,” Kroyanker says today. “It is close to sites sacred to Muslims, there are historic periods whose significance you do not know precisely, and you can’t anticipate what might be exposed.” A substantial engineering problem compounded these concerns: Such an excavation would require extreme safety measures to prevent the Western Wall’s collapse.
In subsequent years additional proposals were submitted to upgrade the Wall, but none received formal authorization. Architects continued to make suggestions: One was to excavate the plaza to uncover a street dating from the Second Temple. In 1982, the Italian group Superstudio displayed at the Israel Museum a conceptual scheme for the plaza’s design. The group had come up with their design in Florence, without even visiting the Wall.
A year after the provocative diamond-company advertisement in the El Al magazine, and in anticipation of calmer days once the 1991 Gulf War ended, Likud Party activist Dr. Amos Orkan offered an original suggestion: to erect the Third Temple on the plaza, thus deviating slightly from its intended location, so as not to offend the Muslims. The entire project, Orkan proposed, would be executed on a mammoth platform to be supported by 10 beams (symbolizing the Ten Commandments), and would be both an engineering and spiritual feat, involving a convoluted system of pipes that would allow sanctity to flow from the surface of the Temple Mount to the new Temple. That way, Orkan was quoted as saying, “We will unload the baggage of hostility in preparation for real coexistence.”