The historic religious rift that has blood again spilling in the streets of Jerusalem has been stirred recently by both politics and archaeology - and some say, a quest for the biblical Ark of the Covenant.
The area in dispute, roughly the size of Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City, has been the focal point for control of the ancient city for more than two millenia.The most recent sparks to ignite the hate that simmers just below the city's multiethnic face have come from at least two sources:
- An archaeological dig beneath Jerusalem's Old City, where the Temple of Solomon once stood - making the site sacred to Jews. Upon the ruins of Solomon's Temple, Muslims have built the gold-domed mosque known as the Dome of the Rock upon Mount Moriah. They believe the prophet Mohammad ascended into heaven from this spot, making it sacred to them.
- Overall uneasiness among both Arabs and Israelis over the new government and policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been slow to implement or adopt the Palestinian peace overtures of his predecessor, assassinated Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin.
Control, in both cases, is the issue.
So control of the tunnel below sites sacred to both Muslims and Jews is a perfect focus for ever-bubbling anger.
And the possibility that there is a race to find or to hide the ancient Ark - said to contain the tablets of Moses from Sinai and other artifacts sacred to both religions - may be fueling the dispute.
In fact, the entire Temple Mount is honeycombed with ancient tunnels, quarries and some 40 cisterns. Josephus remarked that Solomon laid the foundations of his temple "very deep." During British archaeological explorations in 1864 and 1867, Charles Wilson and Charles Warren mapped findings beneath the Temple Mount, giving names that are still used today such as the "Secret Passage" and the "Great Causeway." Thousands of years of architectural history are recorded beneath the mount from the Solomonic, Hasmonean, Roman, Crusader, Ayubbid and Mameluke periods.
Archaeologists have worked to excavate a tunnel that parallels the Western Wall for years, and tourists have walked its length since 1985.
Israeli archaelogists opened an exit (and a frightening can of worms) to this tunnel that connects with the Via Dolorosa - the street that many believe Jesus walked on his way to the cross. This new doorway will enable 400,000 tourists to visit the tunnel, exiting on the Via Dolorosa instead of doubling back to leave where they originally entered at the Western Wall.
The new opening in the tunnel, near Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque, Islam's third-holiest shrine, has stirred anger among Arabs who interpret the move as an effort by Netanyahu's right-wing government to consolidate Jewish control of Jerusalem, claimed by each side as its natural capital.
But it may be the existence of a second, secret tunnel that devout Muslims are most worried about.
Excavation of this "hush-hush" tunnel was secretly begun in 1981 when Rabbi Meir Yehuda Getz, chief rabbi of the Western Wall, accidentally rediscovered Warren's Gate. While preparing a place to affix a Torah cabinet in a new underground synagogue behind the Western Wall, stones were knocked out, and a spacious hall with exit tunnels came into view. It turned out to be Warren's Gate.
Warren's Gate had been discovered more than 100 years earlier by British explorer Charles Warren, although it was not clearly marked on his maps. Israeli archaeologist Dan Bahat, who oversaw the Rabbinical Tunnel explorations, was quoted in the book "In Search of Temple Treasures" by J. Randall Price as saying:
"This (gate) is a threshold to the Temple Mount and . . . one of the gates to the temple. This gate is the most important of all the gates, because it is the nearest gate to the Holy of Holies. The eastern extremity of this passage is even nearer to the Holy of Holies, and this is why it was preferable for Jews to pray inside this vault. For over 450 years, it was the holiest place where people came to pray, or in other words, from the Arab conquest of A.D. 638 till the Crusader conquest of A.D. 1099, it was the central synagogue of Israel's Jewry. It was called `the Cave' because it has the form of a cave, a kind of underground vault penetrating into the Temple Mount."
This unexpected opportunity to enter secret priestly passages that had lain sealed for two and a half millenia was far too great a temptation. For 10 years, Rabbi Getz and Rabbi Shlomo Goren (chaplain of the Israeli Defense Forces) with a cadre of volunteers, including Gershon Salomon, (head of the Temple Mount Faithful) and students from the Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva, faithfully excavated to where they believed the Holy of Holies once was. Unfortunately, this happens to be below where the Muslim shrine Dome of the Rock now stands.
The rabbis were digging for a purpose - following biblical and talmudic tradition that the Ark of the Covenant was buried beneath the "wood chamber" of the temple or under the Holy of Holies. Says Rabbi Goren in Randall Price's book:
"Jeremiah's statement (Jeremiah 3:16) gives us a hint of what really happened to the Ark in the days of Josiah ben Amon. He became afraid that the Babylonians would take the Ark into captivity, so 36 years before the destruction of the First Temple, he dug very deep beneath the Holy of Holies - and hid it together with the tablets (of the Law), the pot of manna, and the stick of Aaron. I believe that it is still down there."
It is intriguing to note that archaeologist Dan Bahat acknowledges that those early British explorers also knew of the references to the Ark being hidden when they came to excavate. So the movie, "Raiders of the Lost Ark," may actually have historical precedent.
In 1991, the secret excavations became a reporter's scoop, and an Arab riot was the result. The dig was closed down, and Warren's Gate was encased in steel and plastered over. But stories were quietly circulated regarding how close the rabbis had been to finding this secret chamber.
In the November 1992 Vanity Fair, Ron Rosenbaum interviewed a rabbi in Jerusalem (probably Chaim Richman of the Temple Institute). This rabbi "knew someone, he said, who had already located it (the Ark). He told us about another rabbi he knows who was with a group of seekers when they secretly tunneled beneath the Dome of the Rock to explore the ruined foundations of the temple upon which the Muslim shrine rests. They were stopped mid-dig by Israeli authorities, but what's not generally known - what's only whispered about among the cognoscenti - is what happened just as they were halted.
"They said they'd come within inches of breaking through a final layer of mortar to a still-intact chamber they were certain was nothing less than the secret compartment where the Ark had been hidden.
"The authorities prevented them from breaking through, but the rabbi in the lead claimed to have heard - dimly but unmistakably - through the fragile subterranean masonry, an awesome roaring sound like a fierce wind. A sound he said he knew for sure was the roaring breath of God."
But it's not just the Jews who have traditions about finding this sacred Ark. To further complicate this tangle of tensions in the Middle East comes this quote from the Qu'ran, (Ivy Books 1993 based on original English translation by J.M. Rodwell): "And their prophet said to them, `Verily, the sign of his kingship shall be that the Ark shall come to you; in it is a pledge of security from your Lord and the relics left by the family of Moses, and the family of Aaron; the angels shall bear it: Truly herein shall be a sign indeed to you if ye are believers."
Most rioting Arabs have not been told that the tunnel alongside the Western Wall is an ancient tunnel. A Christian Arab from Bethlehem, Samuel Diek, who emigrated from Israel to Utah, said, "I didn't know until Monday that this tunnel was old." And there have been no moves to reopen the Getz-Goren tunnel at this time.
Who has the right to dig beneath the Temple Mount? The Muslims cannot be faulted for wanting to protect their shrines. Yet the Jews also have a right to this sacred ground where two of their temples once stood.