Why must excavations be conducted next to the Temple Mount right now, of all times?

Dr. Gideon Avni, Head of Excavations and Surveys, Israel Antiquities Authority

In the extensive media coverage of the excavations that have been conducted for the past two weeks near the Mughrabi Gate adjacent to the Temple Mount, the question has arisen more than once about why archeological excavations have to be conducted right now in such a sensitive location. Sometimes it seemed from the media reports that people from the Antiquities Authority just decided one fine morning that the time had come to go back and dig, now, of all times, and next to the Temple Mount, of all places. The reality, of course, is very different. The new excavations near the Temple Mount are not the result of initiatives by the Antiquities Authority or the desire to satisfy the academic curiosity of the researchers. These are salvage excavations whose objective is to document and save antiquities prior to construction. The only reason for conducting these excavations is the plan for construction of the bridge that will replace the existing ramp to the Mughrabi Gate. The earthen ramp itself was declared a dangerous site by the engineers of the Jerusalem municipality, following its collapse about three years ago. From that standpoint, this salvage excavation is no different than any other salvage excavation conducted by the Antiquities Authority throughout the country. Each year, some 300 salvage excavations are conducted in Israel with one goal documenting and rescuing antiquities prior to construction operations. Most of these excavations conclude with documentation of the archaeological findings, publication of the findings in professional literature and then continuation of the construction and development work in the area. On rare occasions, an item of supreme archaeological and historical importance is discovered, which necessitates a change in the construction plans and conservation of the archaeological finding at the site. That happened recently in the salvage excavations conducted by the Antiquities Authority at the Megiddo prison prior to construction of additional structures in the prison compound. In those excavations, the structure of an ancient Christian prayer hall was discovered, which sheds new light on the process of the formation of ancient Christianity in the Land of Israel in the third century C.E. Due to the great importance of that finding, it was decided to preserve it at the site and to change the construction plans for the prison.

To the south of Jerusalem, on the main road to Bethlehem, routine salvage excavations conducted about 10 years ago by the Antiquities Authority uncovered the remains of an impressive church  the Church of the Kathisma, which was built during the Byzantine period in the place where, according to Christian tradition, Mary, the mother of Jesus, rested on her way to give birth to her son in Bethlehem. Here, too, the construction plans for the main road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem were changed slightly to enable preservation of the archaeological find..

In the Old City of Jerusalem and its environs, dozens of salvage excavations have been conducted in recent years. These excavations, which were implemented in connection with both public and private construction, were sometimes conducted in places of great religious and political sensitivity. Thus, for example, in recent years, several salvage excavations have been conducted within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and its adjacent structures, in full cooperation with the leadership of the Christian communities in charge of the holy site. In the Western Wall plaza itself, a large salvage excavation has been underway for many months, which has uncovered the remnants of the Eastern Cardo  one of Jerusalem's main streets in the Roman and Byzantine period. In contrast to the excavation that began this week next to the Mughrabi Gate, for some reason, the excavation in the Western Wall plaza did not attract any attention or political protest.

The excavations that were recently commenced near the Mughrabi Gate are not substantively different from any other salvage excavation conducted in Jerusalem in recent years. Here, too, the reason for the excavation is the construction plan designated for the site. The excavation areas were determined in accordance with the construction plans and the only areas designated for excavation are those that will be harmed. Most importantly, contrary to the repeated accusations regarding the anticipated danger to the Temple Mount walls or to the historical and religious structures that it contains, the entire excavation is planned for implementation outside the walls of the Temple Mount and it will neither touch nor endanger the stability of the walls or of the Temple Mount itself.

Unfortunately, and not for the first time, it is very convenient for various entities to connect these professional archaeological activities with the national and political dispute in Jerusalem and to exploit archaeology for their own ends.