The Modern Destruction of the Temple Mount

There is no evidence of any kind to suggest that Moslems of Mohammed's day recognized the Mount as anything other than a Jewish holy site.

By Richard Benkin, Ph.D.
May 2003

How are we, as concerned laypersons and scholars, to regard the current Moslem actions at Jerusalem's Temple Mount? Although a mount of evidence provides strong bases for a Jewish connection to that holy site—in fact the oldest and most storied connection, official Arab Moslem policy contends that no such connection exists. While there is nothing new or noteworthy about hyperbole coming from the Arab world, what makes this different is that Moslem leaders have been engaged in ongoing efforts to change the situation "on the ground." Ominously for our civilization, the Mount's Moslem officials (Waqf), with backing from Mecca and elsewhere in the Moslem world, are attempting to destroy an archeological and biblical heritage and subvert the historical record in the service of transitory political goals.

The Setting

In 1886, British explorer Captain Charles Wilson undertook the most comprehensive survey of Jerusalem in modern times, noting, "No one has ever questioned that the [Jewish] Temple formerly stood within the Haram-es-Sherif [Moslem name for the Temple Mount]."[1] It would be difficult to think of a more absurd notion. To deny that reality denies the essence of both Jewish and Christian scripture. They both contain voluminous reference to the temples, from their construction to the events in the life of Jesus. In fact, Moslem and Arab history also confirms Warren's declaration. Before 638 CE—a rather late date in the history of that region—there was no Islamic presence in Jerusalem. Its conqueror, the Umayyad Caliph, Umar, asked its Byzantine Patriarch, Sophronius, to show him the site of the Jewish Temples almost immediately upon entering the city. Sophronius did so and said, "Here is that appalling abomination." Umar was indeed appalled—but not by the Temple itself. He was incensed at the accumulated garbage and debris, which he believed desecrated that Jewish holy site. He ordered the site cleansed immediately in a manner befitting its holy purpose. Soon thereafter, he commissioned The Dome of the Rock on the Mount, and his son had Al-Aqsa mosque built there as well. These edifices were not constructed to mark a Moslem holy site but to advertise Moslem hegemony over Jerusalem with its Jewish and Christian holy sites.[2]

Although some Moslems later tried to connect the "furthest mosque" of the Quran's Sura 17:1 with Jerusalem, there is no evidence of any kind to suggest that Moslems of Mohammed's day recognized the Mount as anything other than a Jewish holy site. Islamic scholarship through the 1960s located the furthest mosque (al-masjid al-aqsa) in al-Gi-ranah on the Arabian Peninsula.[3] Mohammed himself had no regard for Jerusalem, except for a brief time while he courted Arabia's Jews, anticipating that they would flock to his teaching. When they rejected his proffered apostasy in 624, Mohammed strictly forbade all Moslems from facing Jerusalem when they prayed—a ban enforced on Al-Aqsa worshippers, as well, who face Mecca. As recently as 1930, in its official "Guide to al-Haram al-Sharif," Jerusalem's supreme Moslem authority states: "Its identity with the site of Solomon's Temple is beyond dispute."[4] The historical record is replete with like statements by Arab leaders, yet all from a time before the Arab world became obsessed with the State of Israel and its ongoing failed attempts to eradicate it from the nations of the world.

More indicative of official Arab Moslem policy today are assertions such as those emanating most Fridays from mosques throughout the Middle East that there was no Jewish Temple on the Mount. Arab political and Moslem religious organizations re-affirm that outrageous claim at regular intervals. Typical are the words of these Iranian clerics that the Mount is a "sacred place only for Muslims, around the globe." The Jerusalem mufti (or Moslem spiritual leader) regularly insists that Jewish or Christian prayer never will be allowed on the Mount, as it is strictly a Moslem holy site.[5]

The Destruction

The Waqf has proceeded on two fronts: one to de-Judaize the Mount and another to Islamicize it, although their actions often aim toward both at once. In a conscious attempt to make the Mount more hospitable to greater numbers of Moslem worshippers, the Waqf, in 1996, converted two Second Temple era structures into a new 1.5-acre mosque. The first was the Eastern Hulda Gate. This was one of the passageways used by ancient worshippers to access the Temple. The other structure is known as Solomon's Stables. Located under the Mount's current surface, it was used by ancient Temple priests to store vestments and other items. It also encompasses the area known as Jesus' Cradle, the site where the 40-day-old Jesus was presented in the Temple. This small room, only 32.5 square feet in area, is now used for Moslem prayer. In 1997, the Waqf built a second new mosque, destroying another ancient passageway, the Western Hulda, to do so. There is no accurate record of all the artifacts lost during the conversions, but we do know that the material removed for them dated back as far as the First Temple Period (1006-586 BCE).[6] By the autumn of 1999, however, Waqf actions finally caused extensive concern and then protest action by many prominent Israeli archeologists and others. Over three days and nights in November, using heavy machinery to cut through the ancient Temple Mount wall, the Waqf opened a gaping hole, 18,000 square feet in area and 36 feet deep, for an "emergency exit" from the new mosques. In January, another hole, 1250 square meters in area and twelve meters deep, appeared north of Solomon's Stables. And the destructive construction continued.

Without any archeological supervision, the Waqf used bulldozers and tractors on an ancient site never built to accommodate anything more than foot traffic. It removed and then paved over approximately 6,000 square meters of the ancient Temple Mount surface. Mount police also reported observing a Second Temple (516 BCE to 70 CE) era arched water channel being dismantled during this period. Temple artifacts were ripped from the Mount and, at first secretly, dumped in several places throughout Jerusalem, most prominently in the Kidron Valley just east of the city walls but also in El Azaria and the municipal city dump.

The material often was mixed intentionally with modern-day garbage in an attempt to cover up these actions. It sometimes made archeological examination difficult, if not impossible. Volunteers, however, from students to some of Israel's most renowned archeologists, were able to recover many ancient artifacts that the Waqf sought to destroy. Moreover, they were able to identify the Mount's distinguishable dusty gray soil, containing a variety of stones, from different ancient periods mixed with contemporary material.

A survey of the Kidron site, for instance, dated by three respected archeologists, found ten percent of the recovered pottery shards to be from the First Temple period and another twenty-five percent to be from the Second Temple period. There very well could be more evidence of the Jewish Temples in the dumps, but many pieces still cannot be dated reliably. The earliest fragment found dates from the eighth century BCE, almost a millennium and a half before the Moslem conquest. Archeologists searching through the dumps also recovered a pillared figurine leg that they dated conclusively to the First Temple period.

This evidence, however, presents a serious obstacle to Waqf assertions: hence, the secret dumps. And the deliberate destruction of history has gone even further. One Waqf employee, who participated in the 1996 construction, testified that workers finding stones with decorations and inscriptions were ordered to turn them over to the Waqf. The stones were then recut with the express intent of destroying any evidence of a Jewish presence. The Waqf employee specifically identified stones marked with a five-pointed star, used as far back as the second century BCE by the Hasmonean dynasty. Clandestine photographs were taken which then confirmed the employee's statement. One picture, for example, showed an industrial stone cutting saw on the Mount, partially covered to obscure its presence. Others showed ancient pillars and ashlars, cut as alleged above, which were later used as pavement slaps and building stones.[7]

A former commander of the police unit responsible for the site confirmed that the Waqf also uncovered an arch and a column from the Herodian period. This most likely came from a secondary wall running parallel to the eastern perimeter wall. Some archeologists, however, believe that the most significant artifact ever recovered from the Temple Mount is a carved marble lintel found in the Kidron dump in 2000. Archeologist Zachi Zweig calls the stone "the first archeological evidence of monumental architecture in the Temple Mount that can be positively dated to the Second Temple period." Noted archeologists have compared it in style to that identified in the Triple Gate at the Mount's southern wall by Israeli archeologist Benjamin Mazar.[8]

The problem, as articulated by the Israeli Antiquities Authority (the government agency responsible for protecting antiquities throughout Israel), is that the archeological value of these finds drops drastically when they are removed from their original sites. In fact, it can then be alleged, as it has been in the Arab media, that the found artifacts did not originate on the Mount.

Parallel with the Mount's de-Judaization are current efforts to Islamicize it, led by Sheik Rayadh Salah and the Israeli Islamic movement. The Waqf is cleaning ten giant subterranean Mount cisterns with the intention of filling them with water from Mecca's holy Zamzam Spring. The complex of cisterns served as reservoirs for both Jewish Temples and for ancient Jerusalem's population in times of peace and of siege. The Zamzam water would elevate Jerusalem's sanctity in Islam, giving al-Aqsa weight equal to the Great Mosque in Mecca, and buttress Arab pretexts for denying all Israeli claims to the Old City of Jerusalem.[9]

How Did This Happen?

Many would cite Israel's liberation of Jerusalem and Judaism's holiest sites from Arab occupation as the crowning achievement of the 1967 Six Day War. Yet, the above evidence seems to suggest that Israel does not have control over those sites, and exploring the derivation of such a state is extremely instructive.

Even before the war's end, Moshe Dayan met with the Waqf and pledged control of the Temple Mount and its precincts to that body. There were several solid motivations behind that action. There is extensive evidence to support the notion that Israel never intended to take over the former Jordanian territory to the east of the 1967 armistice lines. In fact, there is record of frantic communications between Israeli leaders and Jordan's King Hussein, urging him to stay out of the impending war. History records that he did not. Facing a new set of territorial realities, Dayan and others foresaw the volatility of the site and felt they could reach an accommodation with the Jordanian-controlled Waqf. Moreover, secularist Israeli leaders, like Dayan, saw the Mount as little more than an historical curiosity for Jews, while recognizing its religious significance for Moslems. Neither can it be denied that Israel's historic commitment to tolerance and its respect for all religions in the area—in stark contradiction to its neighbors—contributed to the decision as well. Thus, the two organizations agreed to maintain the status quo in exchange for the other's non-interference.

An uneasy but effective truce was maintained until 1993, the year of the Oslo accords. Shortly after the accords were signed, the Jordanian-controlled Waqf withdrew in favor of members appointed by and beholden to Yassir Arafat's Palestinian Authority. The Jordanian-appointed Waqf was not exactly friendly to Israel. It did, however, recognize the practicality of maintaining the status quo. The PA's appointment of a Minister for Waqf Affairs effectively radicalized the situation and formally subordinated all Mount activities to political aims.

It was less than three years later that the above actions began. The Israeli government and Antiquities Authority were facing a new challenge. Up until that point, the Authority could count on voluntary compliance with its edicts, which were supported by all academics and researchers of good will and were based on long established principles respecting the integrity of inquiry. The new Waqf, however, gave greater priority to politics than historical truth. Its leaders were not schooled in the same set of principles as other researchers. Moreover, it adhered to a PA article of faith to reject the authority of any Israeli agency or institution. Thus, any attempt by the government to enforce its authority, or the 1993 Supreme Court ruling confirming it, would face fierce Arab opposition, involving mass demonstrations and other public displays. Israel could expect international condemnation and declarations that it was attempting to derail the Oslo peace process. Actions by the Arab world to discredit attempts to stop the Waqf's illegal activity and other nations' inaction in even questioning their claims confirm Israeli fears. In Orwellian fashion, official Arab and Moslem media throughout the Middle East accuse the Israelis of plotting to destroy the "Moslem" Mount. One Iranian piece quotes the Jerusalem mufti of accusing those who have protested Waqf actions as creating "a big hue and cry to justify [Israel's] interference in [Moslem] affairs."

The issue came full circle in 2000. During the Camp David peace negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Yassir Arafat formal control of the Temple Mount. All he wanted for Israel was the Western Wall holy site and the space beneath the Mount's surface where most people expect to find remnants of the ancient Jewish Temples. Not surprisingly, Arafat refused, and the peace talks failed.


The Israeli government's inaction on the Mount is puzzling, especially given the perspective of years, while each discrete decision is backed with its own logic. This is an apt metaphor for the wider conflict in which proposals are launched and compromises based on the immediate circumstances are advanced. Yet, we are reminded again and again that such decisions made without the perspective of history neither defuse the conflict nor bring true peace.

Although the Temple Mount issue is important in itself, it reveals something more sinister: the Moslem Waqf's willingness to subvert academic and scientific inquiry upon the altar of political expediency, surely a crime against the truth.



[1] Captain Charles W. Wilson, "Ordnance Survey of Jerusalem." (London: Lords Commissioners of Her Majesty's Treasury, 1886)

[2] Theophanes, quoted in Moseh Gill, "The Political History of Jerusalem During the Early Muslim Period," in Joshua Prawer and Haggai Ben-Shammai (eds), The History of Jerusalem, the Early Muslim Period, 638-1099. (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 1-35.

[3] al-Waqidi, Kitab al-Maghazi. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), Vol. 3, 958-959. See also Mordechai Kedar, "How Did Jerusalem Came to be so Holy to Moslems?" Department of Arabic Studies, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel. Published online.

[4] Supreme Moslem Council, cited in Etgar Lefkovitz, "1930 Moslem Council: Jewish Temple Mount ties 'beyond dispute,'" Jerusalem Post, 6 January 2001.

[5] Sheikh Ikrima Sabri quoted in "Iran Claims Israel Destroying Al-Aksa Mosque," Jerusalem Post, 6 September 2001. Note, too, that there is ample evidence of such sentiments in numerous articles, sermons, and conferences throughout the Arab world.

[6] Much of the archeological evidence here and what follows relating to specific findings comes from the work of the Committee for the Prevention of Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount. This committee is composed of Israeli (and other) archeologists, scholars, and other prominent individuals. Its most outspoken member is prominent archeologist, Dr. Eilat Mazar of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Information about the Committee can be found online at the web sites of numerous organizations, through Hebrew University, and in the Israeli press. Another excellent archeological source for information on the location of the Temple Mount is Leen and Kathleen Ritmeyer, Secrets of Jerusalem's Temple Mount. (Washington, DC: Biblical Archeological Society, 1998). Finally, much of the material was confirmed through personal investigation, direct conversations, etc.

[7] Zachi Zweig, "What can we learn from this destructive dig?" Published Online, 10 March 2000; Kokhaviv Publications.

[8] Arieh O'Sullivan, "Rare Temple Mount Lintel Neglected by Antiquities Authority," Jerusalem Post, 5 January 2001.

[9] This has been reported widely. See for instance, Mark Ami-El, "The Destruction of the Temple Mount Antiquities." Jerusalem Letters/Viewpoints No. 483, 1 August 2002. The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Also, Hershel Shanks, "How We Lost the Temple Mount," Moment Magazine, June 2002.

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