Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israeli archeologists are quietly sifting through tons of dirt that Islamic religious authorities excavated from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem several years ago -- an excavation that critics have dubbed a "cultural intifadah."
Using heavy machinery instead of the hand tools of an archeologist, the Islamic religious authorities several years ago dug out a giant "emergency exit" -- some 36 feet deep and 130 feet wide -- for a mosque built earlier under the Temple Mount. The unsupervised removal of tons of soil has been called an "archeological crime." The material was dumped in several spots outside the Old City in eastern Jerusalem, including the Kidron Valley.
Now archeologists are sifting through that material to glean what information they can about the site. However, they say, its value has been greatly diminished by its removal from the site.
In a small national park on the eastern side of Jerusalem, with a view of the golden Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount visible in the distance, Dr. Gabriel Barkay of Bar-Ilan University has been quietly working with several archeology students and a host of volunteers for six months to sift through the material dug out of the Temple Mount.
They wanted to keep a low profile, he said, so as not to attract the attention of people who might want to put a stop to the project. So far they have found thousands of artifacts jumbled together from various eras.
It's the first time in the history of archeology that work is being carried out in such a way. Nobody ever attempted to carry out such a project without the context, Barkay said.
It had to be done, he said, because of the importance of the site.
The Temple Mount occupies one-sixth of the area of the Old City and is one of the most important sites in the world, he said. "It's the soul, heart and spirit of ancient Jerusalem."
At the time of the digging and dumping on the Mount, Israel's Antiquities Authority remained silent. But Barkay said the Antiquities Authorities, which reluctantly granted the license for the current project, had its hands tied by the government.
Barkay said it was a tragedy that the Western world was not more concerned about the destruction of the antiquities on the Temple Mount.
The world community was outraged when the Taliban blew up two 165-foot nearly 2,000-year-old statues of Buddha in Afghanistan in 2001. But the destruction of "the heartland of [Jewish and Christian] faith did not create an effect as it should have done," said Barkay.
"Very clearly parallel to the armed [Palestinian] intifadah is also the cultural intifadah, more serious than the armed intifadah, Palestinians claiming Jews never had a right to this country, Jews were never here," Barkay added.
The Temple Mount, known to Moslems as Haram al-Sharif, in Jerusalem's Old City is also the focal point of the Palestinian battle cry against Israel. The sacred plateau is home to several important Muslim shrines including the golden Dome of the Rock and Al-Aksa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina.
Palestinians named the violent uprising that began in September 2000 the Al-Aksa Intifadah after the mosque at the site.
Originally the site of two consecutive Jewish temples -- the second of which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. -- it is revered as Judaism's holiest site.
During the Second Temple period, Jesus was brought to the area as a baby, according to the Bible. He later returned to teach in the Temple and overturned the tables of the moneychangers, the Gospels record.
Israel has maintained overall sovereignty at the site since the reunification of Jerusalem after the 1967, Six-Day war but daily affairs there are administered by the Islamic religious authorities.
"[The Temple Mount] was never excavated because of the political and religious sensitivity of the place," said Barkay. Nevertheless, Barkay said he would have preferred that all of the artifacts now being found would have been kept in place.
"The material is without context, stratification. It was brutally uprooted from its roots. It lost 80 percent of its archeological value." Barkay said. Nevertheless, they will save 20 percent of its value, which is "more than zero, still significant," he added.
Seventy-five truckloads of material that had been dumped in the Kidron Valley were brought to the work site. It was passed through mechanized sorting into dozens of piles of rock, gravel and finer stone according to grain size.
Bucket by bucket of the material was then soaked in water, placed in sieves and sprayed with more water to remove the mud and reveal the hidden artifacts.
A shipping container at the site, which acts as an office, contains many flat cardboard boxes on a worktable, full of categorized treasures that have been found.
By the door stands that largest piece -- a three-foot-high section of a marble pillar with purple veins running through it. The marble would have been imported from Asia Minor, Barkay said. They know it came from the Temple Mount because there are others like it there, Barkay said.
They have found pottery shards -- 15 percent of which date back to the First Jewish Temple period -- the days of Biblical King Solomon. But workers will never be able to put together a complete vessel because of the way things were mixed up, he said.
There are pieces of early Christian oil lamps, figurines, pottery fragments with Hebrew inscriptions. Hundreds of coins have been discovered dating from the Second Jewish Temple period all the way up to the time of Napoleon.
They found a silver charm of St. Christopher, which would have been used by Europeans during the 16th and 17th centuries to ward off evil.
Arrowheads of various shapes attest to the battles fought by generations of conquerors over the Mount.
There are beads from an Islamic era, jewelry, ivory objects -- including a fine-toothed comb -- which Barkay said he is sure will prove to contain lice eggs when it is thoroughly examined.
"We don't have any sensational finds that will change history," said Barkay. Nevertheless, he pointed to large amount of artifacts from the early Christian or Byzantine period.
Historians believed that the Temple Mount was empty during those years because the early Christians wanted to stress the desolation of the Temple Mount according to the prophecy of Jesus, Barkay said. But that is incorrect because they can now see that there was activity going on then, he said.
Barkay said the workers won't be able to finish sifting all of the material they have but will get a good sampling. The project, which is funded by private donors, is scheduled to continue until summer, he said. All of the artifacts as well as the remaining material from the Temple Mount belong to the Antiquities Authority by law.
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