Herod may not have completed Jerusalem’s Western Wall, archaeologists discover

It is one of the holiest spots in one of the holiest cities in the world. The Western Wall attracts Jews and Christians alike, and is on the limits of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a Muslim holy site.

It’s always been believed to have been built by King Herod, the king of Judea and a vassal of the Roman Empire who reigned from 37-4 BC. Herod expanded the Second Temple in Jerusalem and the Western Wall is the western boundary of that expansion.

Now archaeologists have found evidence that the Western Wall was finished after Herod’s death. The coins found under the foundations date to 20 years after Herod died.

This isn’t news to scholars. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus wrote that the project was finished by Herod’s great-grandson. Archaeologists also found a mikve (Jewish ritual bath), three clay lamps in a style popular in the first century AD, and other artifacts. Seventeen coins were found, including two minted by the Roman governor Valerius Gratus in 17 or 18 AD.

I visited Jerusalem several times when I was working as an archaeologist in the Middle East back in the early Nineties. On numerous occasions I saw where local tradition came up against the findings of archaeology and history. For example, the route of the Via Dolorosa, the trail Jesus supposedly took on his way to Calvary, was only established in the 19th century. In the centuries before that there were several different routes.

In the current debate between the faithful and the atheists, these facts change nothing. The deflating of a local tradition will not make anyone stop believing in God, and the atheists are equally convinced about their views.

Photo courtesy Chris Yunker.

Clash at Jerusalem sacred site

Police and Palestinian protesters have clashed at the entrance to Al-Aqsa mosque, part of the Temple Mount, Jerusalem’s holy spot for both Jews and Muslims.

Details are unclear. Palestinian sources say the protesters threw rocks at a Jewish prayer group trying to enter the area in defiance to Israeli law, which reserves the top of the Temple Mount for Muslims. Jews are supposed to pray at the Western Wall on the other side. Israeli sources say the Palestinians threw rocks at a group of tourists who were dressed inappropriately.

We may never know what really happened, but the result was that several Palestinians and Israeli police were injured and a holy spot was once again marred by violence.

I’ve been to the Temple Mount several times and despite the palpable tension it’s well worth a visit. The eleventh-century Al-Aqsa mosque has attractive medieval stained glass and an elaborately carved minbar (pulpit). Of greater interest is the Dome of the Rock next door. Its golden dome is a Jerusalem landmark and covers the spot where Mohammad is believed to have ascended to heaven. The building is decorated with beautiful multicolored tiles. Nearby is the Western Wall, also called the Wailing Wall, said to be part of the original Jewish Temple and a place of great spiritual importance for Jews.

Visiting the Temple Mount is a quick lesson in religious politics. Police crowd every entrance and signs warn members of opposing religions from worshiping at each other’s sites. On one visit during the Nineties I went with my girlfriend of the time, who was Muslim. The soldiers eyed us suspiciously and hovered close by as we waited outside for the prayer service to end. She wanted us to go in together but I wasn’t allowed in during services. Once the service was over, we entered and she did her prayers as I admired the building. Nobody objected to the strange sight of an agnostic and a Muslim visiting Islam’s third holiest site together, but we got plenty of curious looks. I wonder if we could have pulled it off today? I’m not sure I’d try. Too bad everyone can’t just chill out and accept that there are different types of people in the world.

No chance. I can’t even blog about Ottoman architecture without getting grumpy comments. Ah well.

Two tours, two Jerusalems

BBC’s Tim Franks has written a fascinating article about taking two very different tours to the same place. His guides showed him the same sights and talked about the same things, but their interpretations were entirely different. It was like they weren’t talking about the same place at all.

That place, of course, is Jerusalem.

Franks went to the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. He took tours with Al-Quds University, the only Arab university in Jerusalem, and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, run by the Israeli government.

Both took him along the Western Wall, built by King Herod about 2,000 years ago, and through a tunnel dug alongside it. The Jewish tour guide pointed out a mikveh, a room for Jewish ritual cleansing. The Palestinian guide said there was no evidence it was used as such. The Jewish guide said the Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall for the anguished prayers of many of the faithful) is one of the walls of the ancient Jewish Temple. The Palestinian guide said there is no evidence for this. The Jewish guide compared this statement to Holocaust denial.

And so it goes, round and round.

Back in my archaeology days I did a field season in Israel and can attest to how quickly history gets turned into a political football. Start talking about archaeology, and sooner or later you’ll start talking religion and politics. Usually sooner. With so many religious sites piled literally on top of one another, there’s bound to be arguments. If you look at the picture of the Western Wall above, you can see the dome for Al-Aksa Mosque right above it, and the Dome of the Rock is just off the picture to the left. Both religions consider this same spot to be sacred.

While we read about this all the time in the news, it’s much more interesting to witness firsthand. So if you are headed to the Holy Land and want to see just how contentious history can be, why not try out both of these tours? Or if this whole thing is just making your head hurt, you can always go to the local Hooters.