Temple Mount Sifting Project at Emek Tzurim

Gaalyahu-sealOn Thursday, I had a rather unique experience off the beaten path, both in terms of my research and the location of the meeting. I interviewed one of the archaeologists who is currently working at the Temple Mount Sifting Project in Emek Tzurim. The site, in the valley between Wadi al Joz and Har Hatzofim, is where archaeologists, national park employees, and increasing numbers of tourists every year are sifting through the rubble from an illegal dig which the Islamic Waqf conducted on the Temple Mount in the mid-1990s.

Since the project began in 2004, somewhere between 60 and 70 thousand people have visited the sifting site. They have helped archaeologists uncover thousands of valuable finds illuminating the history of the Temple Mount, spanning back as early as the First Temple Period (roughly 1006-586 BCE) as well as some earlier Canaanite artifacts up until the present day. The finds have illuminated a great deal of previously unknown history and structural details of structures which once sat on the Mount. Not only the two ancient Jewish Temples, but latter-day Roman temples and churches.

Remains of mosaic tilling found in the rubble have offered the first real ideas of what the Mount actually looked like, particularly in the days of King Herod and the renovated Second Temple. While accounts from Josephus and earlier Rabbinical literature tell of magnificent structures, walkways, and architecture, some of the remains found at Emek Tzurim have suggested what the designs, patterns, and perhaps even layout of these decorative elements may have been. Discoveries of stained glass and other characteristically Christian architectural elements have also suggested, contrary to the accepted history, that churches likely stood on the Mount in the period prior to the construction of the current Al Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock. Rubble from different the era of Muslim control have also suggest how the exteriors of these structures appeared prior to their current incarnations.

In short, the “dig” is revealing some very cool things about the history of this ancient site. One excellent example is the seal pictured above which, according to the inscription, belonged to Gaalyahu, a Temple Priest in the time of Jeremiah. It is also incredibly significant in that it is the only source for archaeological materials from the Temple Mount which are available for serious scientific study. This is because the Waqf, which exercises effective control over the site, forbids archaeological work. Aside from sensitivities related to disrupting Muslim religious practice, the Waqf actively denies that the Mount was ever home to religious sites other than the current mosques. Note that this position is contrary to the Waqf’s insistence as late as 1925 that the Mount was holy because it was the ancient home of the Jewish Temples.

When the Waqf began its excavations on the Mount in the 1996, it was seeking to turn the ancient storage rooms located along the southern wall, known as Solomon’s Stables, into a third mosque. Although receiving a permit to build a small emergency exit from the chambers, they instead carved out a huge staircase into the rooms without archaeological supervision and trucked out at least 400 loads of dirt over 2 days. This they dumbed first at the municipal dump near Maale Adumim and, once archaeologists took notice, in the nearby Kidron Valley.

While the digging and dumping slowed considerably after this, archaeologists were not allowed by the state to sift through the debris until a landmark petition was signed in 1999 by many members of Knesset, archaeologists, and other academics. It then took another five years before the state allocated space for the project to begin work at its current sifting site in Emek Tzurim. For the first few years, the project survived on private donations alone, procured entirely by volunteers. More recently, the City of David Foundation has taken up funding ensuring the its immediate future.

With its aims to explore the history of Israel’s most sensitive site, the project is locally contentious. The relationship between the dig staff and the proximate Arab villages are tenuous, and there have been several security incidents of Arabs attacking archaeologists and occasionally volunteers. I myself had a glass bottle thrown at me by taunting teenagers in Wadi al Joz on my way to the site. Fortunately they missed.

Outside of this, however, the project itself has attracted little to no negative diplomatic pressures. Indeed, with their clearly apolitical agenda to learn about the history of the Temple Mount, they are contributing to knowledge about the Muslim occupation as much as those of the British, Crusaders, Byzantines, Romans, Greeks, ancient Israelites, and Canaanites. The actual conduct of archaeology at this site and many others in Israel speaks very strongly against the criticism leveled by academics like Nadia Abu El-Haj who claim that Israel engages in archaeology merely to fulfill political interests. While this certainly does occur, that such balanced, scientifically motivated inquiry surveying debris from such a contentious space is occurring provides a powerful counterargument.

If you are interested in the work of the Temple Mount Sifting Project or would like to participate in the sifting itself, check out their blog at http://templemount.wordpress.com. They regular host tour groups as well as curious individuals. For anyone fascinated by the history of this much debated and fought-over space, I highly recommend you visit, check out their displays, speak to the archaeologists on site, and, of course, sift through some of the ancient rubble. Many of the projects most fascinating discoveries have been uncovered by visiting volunteers.

In the spirit of Channukah, I myself hoped that I would find a Hasmonean-era coin or the like. Standing next to one of the many piles of rubble, I pulled out finely detailed tile. With no small amount of excitement, I piped up, “Look! I found something!” It was a 21st century bathroom tile. Needless to say, when digging through piles of trash, you cannot find something amazing every time. With a bit of persistence, I am sure you will have more luck than I did.

Ed. – Many thanks to Scott and Aviva for the contact at the project!

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