Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Temple Mount

Jerusalem's Old City has discovered the secret of eternal youth: It always seems to have something new to offer the tourist or pilgrim. Archaeologists keep peeling away fresh layers of antiquity, making the Holy City the world's fastest-growing outdoor museum.

The most dramatic development this year has been the opening up of the Temple Mount excavations as an archaeological park, with three guided tours in English daily (at 9 a.m. and 1 and 2 p.m., costing less than $1).

About these ads

The excavations, begun in 1968, are still in progress, although most of the present work has to do with landscaping the park, which opened last spring. Under the direction of Benjamin Mazar and Meir Ben-Dov of the Hebrew University here, the excavations at the foot of the Temple Mount have been the most extensive ever conducted in Jerusalem: the entire history of the Holy City in all its religious and ethnic aspects is reflected in the vast labyrinth of stone walls, exposed over the past decade and a half.

As the visitor works his eye downward from the tops of the newly exposed walls to the bedrock below, he will see remains the Ottoman, Mamluk, Crusader, Byzantine, Roman, Hellenistic, Israelite, and Canaanite periods, in that order. And now, for the first time, it is all open to the public.

The excavations run along the western and southern walls of the Temple Mount: the site of the first and second Jewish temples in antiquity, where the Dome of the Rock and the El-Aqsa mosque are situated today.

The western wall is holy to Jews because it is the only existent remnant of Herod's second temple complex. The focus of the dig has been to expose as much of this complex as possible. It was the second Jewish temple, beautified by Herod, which Christ Jesus knew so well.

As one approaches the excavation site, the eye seizes upon a row of massive stones projecting out like teeth, halfway up the western wall. These stones were the beginning of a multi-arched bridge: part of a gate system that provided entry to Herod's temple for thousands of Jewish pilgrims from the valley below. Everything seen below the level of these toothlike projections - including the bottom half of the western wall - was underground before the archaeologists applied their shovels in 1968.

Some of the gems camouflaged among this daunting, stone checkerwork include three 7th century AD Muslim palaces, several Byzantine villas, Roman-era Jewish ritual baths, and Phoenician tombs from the Israelite period. The steps that Jesus used to enter the temple area have also been exposed. In short, this is the Holy City in microcosm throughout 3,000 years of history.

Downhill from the Temple Mount excavations toward the confluence of the Hinnon and Kidron Valleys is the site of the original biblical Jerusalem: the Canaanite citadel conquered and then resettled by David and Solomon.

About these ads

While the Temple Mount dig is near completion, the one at the city of David - as the biblical site is called - is in full swing, with the shovels of 150 volunteers from around the world busy daily each summer for the past six years.

The city of David excavation, under the direction of Yigal Shiloh of the Hebrew University, will not be an official tourist site for some years to come. But that doesn't mean a visitor can't have an innocent look around.

What has emerged thus far is a network of modest walls on the side of the hill, revealing the Jerusalem of the Old Testament as looking very much like the present-day Arab village of Silwan across the valley: a cluster of dun-colored, domed houses where only a few thousand people lived in King David's time, roughly 3,000 years ago.

When visiting the city of David, savor the unique ambiance created by the Gihon spring - the sound and sight of running water braided by patches of green. Throughout history, this was Jerusalem's only natural water source, and thus a key element in the growth of the Holy City.

The Holy City the tourist or pilgrim encounters today is not only a living museum, but one relevant to the daily needs of its inhabitants. Whenever a new piece of the past is exposed, an attempt is made not only to landscape the site for the benefit of tourists, but to adapt it for the practical use of Jerusalemites themselves.

A perfect example of this logic is the recently exposed Roman Cardo. Actually , its full name is the Cardo Maximus, or ''great hinge,'' the main street of Roman Jerusalem in the first centuries after Jesus. The Cardo ran in a north-south direction from the present-day Damascus gate to the present-day Zion gate, approximating the routes of the Khan Ez-zeit and Rehov Habad, main arteries in the Muslim and Jewish Quarters of today's old city.

Many feet below the Damascus gate is the old Roman gate, from where the Cardo begins. And not only has the old Roman gate been excavated, but the Cardo as well. Slowly but surely, section by section, from the Muslim Quarter into the Jewish Quarter, the Jerusalem municipality has been opening up the Cardo to the public. This means there will shortly be two levels of the same street running the entire length of the old city, a Roman level below and a modern one (Medieval-Turkish) above.

The ''new'' Cardo will have a Roman atmosphere as well, since it will be lined with graceful columns along its route. The new Cardo is an example of Mayor Teddy Kollek's brilliance at making an ancient city relevant for modern use without compromising its architectural integrity. Whatever one's politics, it must be admitted that few ancient city cores in the world have been as intelligently preserved as Jerusalem's.

In addition to all this, in recent years a new museum has opened in each of the old city's four quarters - Muslim, Christian, Armenian, and Jewish - which have received little attention in new guidebooks.

The new museums are a product of that characteristic which Jerusalem communities possess in abundance - ethnic consciousness. It is as if the inhabitants of each of the four quarters want to keep reminding the world of their roots in the Holy City.

The museums are:

* The Museum of Islamic Art on the Temple Mount (open daily except Friday). It houses more than 40 display cases in two adjoining medieval buildings used as mosques until this century. The exhibits vary from inscribed beams and cypress wood panels to tiny glass flasks for holding kohl (eye shadow). But with few exceptions, everything is related in some way to mosque worship and decoration.

* In the Christian Quarter, the Greek Orthodox patriarchate has opened a museum of iconography and reliquary objects. It is in a network of chapels inside the Holy Sepulchre complex. The icons exhibited represent the oldest ones in the Holy Land aside from those at Ste. Catherine's Monastery by Mt. Sinai.

* The Mardigan Museum of Armenian Art and History (opened daily except Sunday) seeks to explain the Armenian people's role in both the history of Jerusalem and in the history of Christianity. Thousands of objects are displayed in 30 rooms around a quiet courtyard speckled with cypress trees. The ground-level rooms are designed to provide a historical and cultural background for the mosaics, manuscript reproductions, and copperware which await the visitor on the upper level.

* The old Yishuv Court Museum (open daily Sunday through Thursday) focuses on the daily life of the Jewish community in Palestine from the late Ottoman era to the eve of statehood in 1948. The museum consists of a split-level maze of rooms , including two synagogues, reflecting the courtyard-style existence of the pre-state Jewish Quarter in the Old City. The rooms contain dioramas of Jewish life in that period.

Of course there are other excavations under way - at the Jaffa gate citadel, for example - and new museums being planned. Never before in its history has the Holy City offered as much to the pilgrim and tourist.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.