The sifting project of debris from illegal construction by the Waqf on the Temple Mount has yielded hundreds of thousands of findings relating to the roots of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. Time for the government to wake up and support the project.
The Temple Mount Sifting Project and the study of the archaeological findings in the debris from the illicit construction project run by the Waqf religious authorities, is without doubt one of the most important national projects since the establishment of the State of Israel. This is a unique opportunity to investigate findings from the Temple Mount, but the Israeli government has squandered the opportunity.
Despite its sanctity to the Jewish People and the role played by the Temple Mount throughout our history, and despite the fact that Jerusalem is one of the most archaeologically excavated cities in the world, no systematic archaeological excavations have ever been carried out on the Temple Mount, due to the opposition of the Muslim Waqf.
The Temple Mount Sifting Project, which is being carried out by the Israel Archaeology Foundation, headed by Zachi Dvira and Dr. Gabriel Barkay, is the closest thing to this. The findings uncovered during the past 13 years of the survey, represent the first archaeological data ever originating from the Temple Mount itself.
The excavation of the debris from construction on the Solomon’s Stables compound on the Temple Mount is a story of greed, political maneuvering, religious feelings and national pride, combined with a battle of personal egos and professional prestige added in for good measure.
It began as an attempt to establish facts on the ground, with a desire to demark sovereignty and to predetermine negotiations between Israel and the PLO in the mid-1990s. According to Arabs sources, who request to remain anonymous, this was done with the recommendation of representatives of the Israeli side. It was at this time that Muslim clerics and members of the PA began to deny the historical connection between Judaism and the Temple Mount.
Between 1996 and 1999, the Waqf, along with the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, renovated the large underground structure called “Solomon’s Stables”, located in the southeastern corner of the Temple Mount, with the intention of turning it into a huge mosque. This was done illegally and without archaeological supervision. The name of the structure dates back to the Crusader period, which served as the stable for the Templar Knights, built on top of ruins from the time of the Second Temple, the center of which was in the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
The Islamic organizations used heavy machines to dig a huge pit for the main entrance to the mosque. The work resulted in extensive damage to antiquities and valuable archaeological information was lost. In addition, a large area north of Solomon’s Stables was bulldozed with heavy tools to make way for a balcony that was paved over.
Massive quantities of earth were removed from the site. About 400 trucks loads containing over 9,000 tons of dirt that concealed archaeological remains from periods from throughout the history of the Temple Mount. The dirt was evacuated and dumped in various places in and around the city of Jerusalem, especially to the nearby Kidron Valley.
The Waqf and the Arabs rushed to mark sovereignty on the Mount, prevented archaeological supervision and even removed the Waqf archaeologist, who was sent on special leave. Their goal was to prevent the discovery of artifacts that would verify the existence of an ancient Jewish presence on the Temple Mount. They were only partially successful though. Since the Temple Mount is not accessible to any archaeological research, the findings from the soil are now used as a source of unique archaeological knowledge, which was previously unattainable.
The layers of earth that accumulated over generations north of the Solomon’s Stables included waste, refuse and debris that originated in various works that were carried out on the Temple Mount during the last 1,000 years. The origins of the evacuated and excavated soil is from various locations from all over the Temple Mount and the finds therein constitute a representative sample of the activity conducted on the compound throughout its history.
Concealing from the Public
All along, the Israeli law enforcement authorities and security services, operating under instruction of the highest political echelon, attempted to conceal from the public what was happening in the area of the Temple Mount and especially the extent of the destruction leveled.
The removal of the debris from the construction site was also done in violation of the Antiquities Law and with the disregard of the law enforcement authorities and the Government of Israel. Proper archaeological excavations require meticulous registration of the location and connection to the discovered items, which are meticulously collected. In this case, the findings were violently removed from their location without any documentation.
Yitzhak Dvira and Oren Yardeni, then two students at Bar-Ilan University, conducted an archaeological survey of the soil that was dumped at the landfill in Al Azaria and Nahal Kidron. When they attempted to collect findings, their work was abruptly stopped by inspectors of the Israel Antiquities Authority. They however did succeeded in extracting a collection of findings from the effluents, which were dated with the help of Dr. Gabriel Barkay and other researchers. The data was brought to the attention of the public at an archaeological conference. The publication sparked outrage that was widely covered by the media.
The debris contained a large amount of dust and sand, which made it very difficult to identify the items during the filtering. Dvira and Barkay experimented with sifting with water, which revealed large quantities of findings, including minute artifacts which are a rare finding in regular excavations. They developed a innovative and cost-effective technique for optimizing wet sifting. This method, which uncovers greater numbers of findings, is currently used in other excavations, including excavations by the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Barkay joined Dvira to established a regulated project for the systematic study of the findings from the debris evacuated from the Temple Mount. After several years of struggle, in 2004, the excavation license was granted and the filtering plant began to take shape.
The soil from the Temple Mount have produced a variety of hidden treasures : fragments of ancient glass vessels and potsherds, cubes of mosaic floors, fragments of metal, animal bones and various stone artifacts. A total of half a million findings, dating from the First Temple period onwards, have been discovered to date.
Alongside the ordinary findings, some 15,000 special items of various kinds, such as inscription-bearing pottery, seals, stone tools, over 6,000 coins, jewelry and beads, clay figurines, arrowheads and other weapons, were also discovered.
A sifting project of this magnitude requires a huge number of working hands. This is where the citizens of Israel and lovers of Israel from around the world showed their dedication and met the challenge. More than 200,000 volunteers have joined the mission of filtering and restoration, a number unmatched by any excavation or archaeological operation in Israel or the world over. The volunteers’ activities also contributed to raising public awareness of the importance of preserving and understanding the archaeological treasures of the Temple Mount.
Fulfilling the prophecy described in Psalms 102:15 “For Your servants shall want her stones, and by her dust shall be charmed”, the people of Israel joined the project, and many of the volunteers saw their participation as a privilege and even a national duty. Participants from Israel and abroad testified that they had an experience of great significance, and over the years it has become an international tourist enterprise with great educational value. For this purpose, special facilities were built in the Emek Tzurim National Park, enabling filtering activity by large groups and additional facilities for the benefit of the many visitors to the site.
Looking for a Budget
The Sifting project is under the scientific auspices of the Institute of Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University. The Nature and National Parks Authority provided the area in which the work takes place, and until March 2017, the ongoing screening work was funded by the Elad foundation. About a year and a half ago, this cooperation was halted, and they are now looking for an alternative site for the continued Sifting of the debris, nearly 30 percent of which has yet to be filtered.
Archaeologically, the very work of sifting, filtering and identifying findings is not enough, and of course there is a need to understand the findings and carry out research work that will present their practical significance. For this purpose, no amount of working hands will help. This is where the experts have to come in to apply their knowledge to every piece and every discovery. To analyse and determine the meaning and release the information in international scientific publications and forums.
To conclude the project and publish their findings, the Israel Archaeology Foundation needs an amount of NIS 9 million over the next five years. This is a relatively negligible sum. Yet despite this, and despite the promise of the prime minister, the transfer of funds is currently stuck in a bureaucratic labyrinth of finding suitable budget items, approval of legal advisers and officials and personal interests that delay funding.
Seize the Moment
The Zionist Movement along with the actual act of the redemption and return to the Land of Israel has always been an initiative of the Jewish People themselves. First came the pioneers who toiled the land, dried the swamps and made the desert bloom. Then came generation of the founding of the state, who fought for its independence and nurtured it. Finally, generations of immigrants arrived, integrating into society with great personal and family struggles, until we became who we are – Israelis.
But the act of redemption is not over. The Zionist enterprise is changing its nature along with the new challenges facing us. Now that we have returned and established our sovereignty in our ancient homeland, we have the duty to clear the debris and dust that has accumulated here for 2,000 years and covered the treasures of our history deep in the ground. By exposing them, we will better understand who we were and what it is that we have been waiting for all these centuries. Once we have a better understanding of who we were and what our heritage is, we will know who we are today.
The leaders of the past knew how to read the map and act to achieve national goals. Herzl understood the historic opportunity to ride the wave of national awakening among European nations in the 19th century, and Ben-Gurion understood the magnitude of the moment when the establishment of a Jewish State in the Land of Israel should be declared.
Now there is an opportunity to explore the Temple Mount, our most sacred and important place as a nation. The people, for their part, once again responded to the call, rose to the occasion , and took on the challenge. The time has come for the Israeli government to get a grasp on the realities and understand this. Where is the Government of Israel and when will it prove that it is worthy of the wonderful public that is clearly saying what really matters to it?
And until such time that the Israeli government responds to the challenge, those who wish to contribute to the project can do so through the Israel Archaeology Foundation website at http://half-shekel.org.
Daniel Seaman is the editor of the English edition of Mida.org Online magazine
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