The lamentations of Tisha b’Av, commemorating the destruction of the ancient Temples, have concluded. Solomon’s Temple, built in the 10th century BCE, was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. Its successor, constructed after Jews returned from exile, was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. But Jewish yearning for the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is likely to endure.
Israel Hayom reported (August 14) that two historical documents identify only the Al-Aqsa mosque compound – not the entire Temple Mount – as a sacred Muslim site. “A Brief Guide to Al-Haram Al Sharif,” issued in 1924 by the Supreme Muslim Council led by Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, stated: “the site’s affiliation with Solomon’s Temple is undisputed.” So, too, an official Jordanian tourist map from 1946 recognized only the Al-Aqsa mosque site as Muslim territory. Taken together, they undermine Palestinian and Waqf claims that the entire Temple Mount has been sacred to Muslims ever since Muhammad ascended to heaven from the site.
More than a decade ago archeological discoveries sifted from tons of earth bulldozed from Solomon’s Stables beneath the Mount by authority of the Waqf began to challenge Muslim exclusivity. The Temple Mount Sifting Project, guided by two Israeli archeologists, has yielded a half-shekel coin from the 1st century Roman war used to pay the Temple tax and a coin from that rebellion inscribed “the liberty of Zion.” Discoveries also include a pitcher handle dated 165 B.C.E, the year the Temple was rededicated (celebrated ever since at Hanukkah); and mosaic stone fragments of the kind identified by Josephus for paving Temple courtyards.
If such evidence is insufficient to challenge exclusive Muslim historical claims to the Temple Mount there is more, gathered by Robert Hamilton who served as Chief Inspector of Antiquities and then Director of Antiquities in Mandatory Palestine between 1931-48. With permission from the Grand Mufti, Hamilton launched the first archeological investigation on the Temple Mount. He focused on the Al-Aqsa area, where part of the mosque had collapsed during an earthquake in 1927. Among his findings were the remains of a mikveh (ritual pool) dating from the Second Temple period (and fragments of a Byzantine mosaic suggesting the presence of a church on the site following the Temple’s destruction).
Doubtlessly mindful of the perils of revealing historical evidence that undermined Muslim claims to the Temple Mount, Hamilton remained silent about his discoveries. Hidden in the Mandatory archives department (subsequently enfolded in the Antiquities Authority archives in the Rockefeller Museum), he even refrained from mentioning them in his Structural History of the Aqsa Mosque, published in 1949 after his return to England.
The evidence gathered by Hamilton, in conjunction with subsequent discoveries, leaves little doubt about the historical legitimacy of Jewish claims on the Temple Mount. So it was, in June 1967, that IDF paratroop commander Mordechai Gur exultantly proclaimed “The Temple Mount is in our hands.” But Defense Minister Moshe Dayan’s first act on the Mount was to remove the Israeli flag that paratroopers had raised. Then he removed the paratroop company that was to have been permanently stationed there.
In his first public announcement Dayan stated: “We have returned to the holiest of our places, never to be parted from them again.” But he continued: “We did not come to conquer the sacred sites of others.” Israel Supreme Court president Menachem Elon subsequently cited “this special attitude in the world of Judaism, that the more sacred the place…, there is a special duty not to draw near to it or enter it.” And Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, prominent head of the Ateret Cohanim yeshiva in Jerusalem, would write: “Our ownership and our belonging are revealed in the fact that we do not approach this place… the distance does not separate. On the contrary, it connects.”
In separation lies connection. That paradox remains something for Israelis and diaspora Jews alike to ponder.
Jerold S. Auerbach is a frequent contributor to The Algemeiner