Temple Mount sifting project

Construction of a mosque at the site left a pile of debris ready to be sifted. This is political archaeology at its best.

By Marty Friedlander

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?

And if you’re still not sated, click for a video report on the dig

This blog post was adapted from a “Tourist tip of the day” I wrote that originally appeared on the Haaretz website on April 12, 2013

Marty is a tour educator living in Jerusalem, the most exciting city in the world. He loves to show visitors around his adopted homeland, Israel. And he loves getting into the thick of any possible controversy or polemic, ancient or contemporary.

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