The Real Story
Yuval Baruch, Jerusalem Region Archaeologist, Israel Antiquities Authority
The clamor that arose over the reconstruction work on the Mughrabi Ramp has flooded us again with place names and expressions which have served for years as the backdrop for events and issues surrounding the rights of Jews at the Western Wall and the legitimacy of the archaeological excavations around the Temple Mount.
Back in the middle of the 19th century, Jews attempted to improve their status in the place that was holy to them. In the 1850s, the Jewish sage Abdullah of Bombay tried unsuccessfully to purchase the Western Wall. The attempts by Moshe Montifiore were also in vain and all that was achieved were temporary arrangements, which were canceled from time to time at the requests of the heads of the Waqf (the Muslim endowment system) to the Ottoman government, which feared that the Jews would acquire the rights of possession to the place. In 1887, Baron Rothschild conceived a plan to purchase the Mughrabi neighborhood, but the plan was ultimately cancelled for unknown reasons. Even the attempts of the Palestine Land Development Company to purchase the environs of the Western Wall for the Jews just before the outbreak of World War I never came to fruition.
After the Balfour Declaration, the Zionist institutions began to emphasize the Western Wall as a national symbol of the Jewish people, in addition to its religious significance. This action led the Mufti of Jerusalem to claim that the Jews intended to take control of the Western Wall, so he declared the Wall with no religious or historical substantiation a holy Moslem site. This wall of stones, to which the Muslims ascribed no importance, was thenceforth called El Buraq, after the name of the magical horse of the Prophet Mohammed.
In the 1920s, the Mufti of Jerusalem ordered the opening of the Mughrabi Gate in the southern plaza, thus turning the prayer plaza from a cul-de-sac into a thoroughfare for passersby, who disturbed the worshipers. In August 1929, an incited Muslim mob rampaged through the opening torn by the Mufti in the south of the plaza, attacking the Jewish worshipers and destroying ritual objects. Several days later, the 1929 riots broke out. As a result of these riots, the British established a committee of investigation. The committee’s report included a specific statement on the use of the El Buraq myth by the Mufti to incite the Arabs against the Jews.
The first connection between El Buraq and this area can be ascribed to Mujar al-Din, a 15th century Jerusalem judge whose essay, the History of Jerusalem and Hebron, is an indispensable element in understanding Jerusalem. Among the structures that he describes in the area of the Temple Mount are a mosque called the Westerners Mosque (Al Magriba Mosque). “In the courtyard of the Temple Mount, to the west of the Al Aqsa Mosque, a structure covered with domes, known by the name of the “Westerners Mosque. This is a place that arouses reverence and many go there to pray…” (translation into Hebrew by Yosef Drori, in Ariel, a magazine about the Land of Israel, issue 59, 5748). According to this description, it is clear that at least in the 15th century, the El Buraq Mosque was located within the Temple Mount courtyard and was certainly not located in the Mughrabi neighborhood, which is also mentioned by Mujar al-Din.
There is very little on the history of the Mughrabi neighborhood. This is also true of the monumental essays bearing the titles “Mameluke Jerusalem” and “Ottoman Jerusalem,” which contain only partial and insignificant information on the neighborhood. It is customary to think that the residents of the Mughrabi neighborhood were of lowly social status. There is almost no information on the public or religious structures that were in their neighborhood.
In 2004, when the Mughrabi Ramp collapsed, a small room was discovered which contained an alcove covered with a dome, a kind of Muslim prayer niche, facing south. Some suggest that these are the remains of a prayer room that was part of a madrasa (a school for Muslim religious studies) which operated near the Mughrabi gate.
After the Six-Day War, the area of the Western Wall plaza was expanded to the south. During this expansion, the northern doorpost and the great stone lintel of the most ancient of the area's gates were uncovered. This gate is known by its scientific name, the Barclay Gate, and can be seen in the women's' section of the Western Wall. This gate was discovered in 1848 by the missionary James Thomas Barclay who was serving at the time as the American Consul in Jerusalem. Barclay discovered the gate from its inner side, within the Temple Mount. The discovery of the gate led several researchers to identify it as one of the Temple Mount Gates which date back to the Second Temple and are mentioned in Jewish and Christian sources of the period, including the Coponius’ Gate. The gate was blocked with stones at the end of the 10th century C.E. and the gate room on the internal side was devoted to El Buraq. Today the room is closed and entrance to it is prohibited without the approval of the Waqf.
Over the years, the external façade of the Barclay Gate was covered and the ground outside that Temple Mount was raised many meters above the lintel of the gate. At some stage, probably in the 12th century C.E. (and maybe even later), a new gate called Bab al-Magriba was installed in the Western Wall above the level of the Barclay Gate. This is the Mughrabi Gate, named after the residents of the adjacent neighborhood, who had come to Jerusalem from Morocco in the days of Saladin. This gate is open to this day and is the only entrance to the Temple Mount for non-Muslims.
Beginning in the 19th century, European and American researchers began to investigate the Temple Mount and its environs. Those investigations uncovered, in addition to the Barclay Gate, the remains of Robinson’s Arch and Wilson’s Arch, named for the researchers who first discovered them. Other well-known researchers, like the British Kathleen Kenyon, conducted excavations in areas adjacent to the Temple Mount.
A new momentum in archaeological and historical research in the area began after the Six-Day War, when large-scale archaeological excavations were conducted in the area of the Western Wall under the direction of Professor Benjamin Mazar. Most were implemented in the area to the south of the Western Wall plaza, and another area was excavated within the plaza itself. Later, archaeologist Meir Ben Dov supervised the excavations conducted in the Western Wall tunnel and under the houses of the Muslim quarter, an operation that was continued more vigorously by Dan Bahat.
From the start, the excavations aroused strong opposition in Islamic circles and international organizations, which did not accept the actions of the Israeli researchers in Jerusalem, irrespective of the discoveries themselves. Sometimes it was a quiet opposition and sometimes, when the voices of incitement took over, the matter led to outbursts and violence. Those opposing the excavations rationalized their actions by expressing ostensible concern for excavations under the walls of the area and the intentional destruction of the mosques above.
Excavations conducted by Mazar to the south of the Western Wall and by Ben Dov and Bahat in the Western Wall tunnels uncovered extremely important archaeological discoveries, which contribute a great deal to our knowledge of Jerusalem's past. The archaeologists removed many layers, including those along the length of the walls of the Temple Mount itself. They uncovered the layers of the Herodian site, in all their splendor and might, next to which were the steps of the Hulda gates and the streets of the city from the Second Temple period, which had been covered by the collapse of great stones that were dismantled by Roman soldiers from the walls of the sacred site. The Romans built new structures on top of the Jewish ruins, some of which, like the Roman bathhouse, were discovered at the site. In the Byzantine period, the site was also very prestigious, and next to the main paved street (the Cardo), dozens of Byzantine residences and public structures were built. Noteworthy among the important discoveries made in those excavations are four enormous structures that were built by the first Muslim rulers of Jerusalem of the Umayyad dynasty.
In the 1990s, the Antiquities Authority renewed the excavations in the area of the archaeological park to the south of the Western Wall, and it was opened as a beautiful modern archaeological park, displaying remnants from Jerusalem's past which faithfully represent the city's history. The Western Wall tunnels were also opened to the general public.
The archaeological excavations in this important area have not concluded. In the past year and a half, for example, the Antiquities Authority has been conducting large-scale excavations in the Western Wall plaza and spectacular and instructive remnants from 2,000 years of history are being uncovered. These excavations, like the other excavations conducted by the Antiquities Authority in Israel in general and in Jerusalem in particular, are accompanied by conservation work with the aim of displaying the remnants of the city's past with the particular remains and special nature of each period.
Among the conservation work, the project to restore and preserve the wall of the Mameluke Machkema structure, to the north of the Western Wall plaza, is particularly noteworthy.
Even now, with the start of the excavations at the Mughrabi Ramp, the archaeologists and the professionals working alongside them are anticipating the discoveries to come, while the conservators and the architects are full of ideas on how to preserve and display what will be uncovered, for the benefit of the city, its residents and those who love it, where ever they are.