Adopting a Jordanian initiative, and contradicting it's very essence, UNESCO calls on Israel to cease all archaeological work in the Old City. Jerusalem, Israel. 20th July 2011
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted a decision calling on Israel to immediately cease all archaeological works in the Old City of Jerusalem. In particular, UNESCO, one of the UN’s most prominent and influential agencies, attacked the renovation of the Mughrabi Bridge that links the Western Wall plaza and Temple Mount, a bridge that serves tens of thousands of visitors annually and is becoming unsafe for it's function. In 2007, after a landslide two years earlier made the earthen ramp leading to the Mugrabi Gate unsafe and in danger of collapse, the Israel Antiquities Authority started work on the construction of a temporary wooden pedestrian pathway to the Temple Mount.
According to Giulio Meotti, published on Ynet (19/07/2011 - http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4097506,00.html): "The decision, initiated and promoted by Arab states, was adopted by consensus of the Western members of the commission. Indeed, the vote is the latest anti-Jewish initiative launched by the UN office meant to promote culture, education and science around the world. In fact, UNESCO’s robber barons are sanctifying the current global campaign aimed at liquidating the legitimacy of the Israeli regime ... UNESCO appears to deny that the Jewish people has laid its roots in Israel more than 4,000 years ago, or that 1,000 years before Christ, King David made Jerusalem the Jewish city par excellence, never entirely abandoned even in times of deadly persecution."
Itamar Eichner writes, also on Ynet (28/06/2011 - http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4088221,00.html); "Israel and Jordan had previously agreed that the existing bridge must be razed for safety reasons. Israel plans to build a new bridge on the site. Jordan's petition was also signed by Egypt, Iraq and Bahrain. The decision was carried with a unanimous vote by UNESCO - member nations. Australia, Switzerland, Brazil and Mexico voiced their reservations over the strong anti-Israel language used in the resolution, but did not oppose it in the vote. The four, along with Sweden and Estonia asked the committee to defer its debate on Jordan's petition, but were denied. Israel's ambassador to UNESCO Nimrod Barkan, who has an observer's status, attempted to address the committee, but Egypt objected and he was denied the floor."
The one site in Israel with the greatest potential for arousing political problems is the Haram esh-Sharif Temple Mount and surrounding area. Sacred to Jews as the location of their Temple and the site of the binding of Isaac, the same area is sacred to Muslims because of their identification of Jerusalem as the “furthermost mosque” visited by Mohammed during his night journey from Arabia. Allegedly from this site in Jerusalem, Mohammed ascended into heaven to visit with Moses, Elijah and Jesus. The Quran does not specifically identify the “furthermost mosque” as located in Jerusalem. It was the Umayyads who wished to establish Jerusalem as a Muslim religious center since their political center was in Syria and Palestine--not Arabia. According to current Arab tradition, the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik built the magnificent Dome of the Rock within the Haram in A.D. 691 to commemorate Mohammed’s ascension into heaven. The el-Aksa Mosque was built nearby in A.D. 715 to support the identification of Jerusalem as the site of the “furthermost mosque” (el-aksa means “the furthermost.”).
In the past, anyone who wished to excavate in the area had to take the prohibitions of the waqf (an Islamic trust best known for controlling and managing the current Islamic edifices on the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem) into account. Beginning in 1867, the Palestine Exploration Fund financed the work of two British engineers, Charles Warren and Charles W. Wilson, who began excavation in the area of the southern and eastern walls of the Haram esh-Sharif. They could not excavate openly so they built a series of shafts and tunnels which permitted them to approach the walls from below. Because the excavation could not proceed very systematically, its contribution to clarifying the archaeological questions surrounding the Second Temple was quite limited and some of the conclusions Wilson and Warren reached had to be refined in the light of later work. In archaeology there is no real substitute for field work. Excavation provides the data. Trying to develop hypotheses in the absence of data is sheer folly.
The value of Warren’s work was that it provided the only archaeological information available about the Herodian structures in the Temple for about one hundred years, due to the opposition of the waqf to excavation in the area of the Haram. When the state of Israel assumed control of the Haram and the area surrounding it in 1967, the work begun by Warren and Wilson some one hundred years earlier could be continued.
The years between 1867 and 1967 did witness some archaeological work in the area just south of the Haram. King Hussein of Jordan wished to build a girls’ school in the area. In the process of building the school, a wall incorporating immense re-used Herodian stones was found. In 1961 the Jordanian Department of Antiquities began excavating this area, with Kathleen Kenyon of the British School of Archaeology serving as an advisor and Pere de Vaux of the Ecole Biblique as director of the excavations. These proceeded for three seasons, but the waqf withdrew its permission after 1963. De Vaux died in 1971 before publishing the final results of his excavations, but Kenyon agreed with his preliminary reports that identified the structures uncovered as dating from the Byzantine period. Both Kenyon and de Vaux surmised that the structures they uncovered were part of two hospices built by the Emperor Justinian (A.D. 527-565) for pilgrims. Since Hussein was not particularly concerned about preserving Byzantine structures, he allowed the school to be built and this, of course, made further excavation impossible.
When the Israelis began excavation in the same area in 1967, the girls’ school was to be relocated and the building torn down. But before the Israelis could begin their excavations, they too faced opposition from the waqf. The Muslims considered an excavation as a departure from long-standing tradition. After all, only one very limited excavation was permitted and that to facilitate the building of a school in the area. Secondly, the Muslim authorities feared that the results of excavations might be used by Jews who wished to claim ownership of the site by reason of prior occupation. Some Muslims thought that the excavations were a cover for a Jewish plot to weaken the foundations of the el-Aksa Mosque leading to its eventual destruction.
Ironically, one of the first conclusions made by the Israeli excavators was that the building identified by Kenyon and de Vaux as a Byzantine era hospice was in fact a palace from the Umayyad period. Both the coins and the pottery associated with the building made it clear that the structure was from the Muslim period. When the building was completely excavated, its architectural plan was similar to that of palaces found elsewhere in Syria, Transjordan and Palestine during the early days of the Muslim era.
The care with which the Israelis not only excavated but also preserved the remains from the Arab period led the Muslim authorities to look upon the project with a bit more sympathy. After all, the excavations illuminated what was a largely unknown period of Jerusalem’s history. In fact, when Ben-Dov, the field director of the Israeli excavations, wrote about the project at the southern wall, he devoted approximately 25 percent of his book to finds from the Muslim area. That the excavator devoted so much attention to these finds is commendable but not an act of virtue. Although the Israelis were primarily interested in occupational layers associated with the First and Second Temple periods, they could not ignore the finds from the Muslim era and still present themselves as archaeologists.
The project at the southern wall was not able to escape political entanglements. Then, just like now, in 1968, UNESCO passed a resolution calling for an end to archaeological excavations in Jerusalem. The project did not meet UNESCO’s guidelines for excavation in occupied territories. Of course, the Israelis did not consider the Old City of Jerusalem to be part of the occupied territories since Arab Jerusalem was annexed by the Israeli State shortly after the 1967 war.
Charges were made by the waqf that the excavations at the southern wall involved the destruction of Islamic cultural property and the undermining of the foundations of the el-Aksa Mosque. In 1974, Raymond Lemaire, an architect and officer of the International Council of Monuments and Sites, was sent by UNESCO to investigate these charges. His report exonerated the Israeli archaeologists. Despite this, UNESCO condemned Israel in a resolution which withheld UNESCO funds from Israel. Finally Israel was expelled from this organization for political reasons, though ostensibly because of the excavations at the southern wall.
The area excavated at the southern wall included much more than the Umayyad palace. In his book, In the Shadow of the Temple, Ben-Dov describes twenty-five strata and twelve different historical periods which begin with the 9th century B.C. and extend to the Ottoman period (1517-1917). This enormous project was completed in twelve years of continuous excavation while most digs are in the field for just a matter of weeks in the summer. Shorter periods for actual excavation allow for careful supervision, scientific analysis and prompt reporting.
The southern wall project, however, illustrates the unexpected good that can come when excavation is allowed to proceed. In this case, an important gap in Jerusalem’s history was filled in. The Umayyad period of Arab rule in Jerusalem was responsible for the only palace built in the Temple area since the time of Solomon. Indeed the most impressive find in the entire project was this palace. Before Ben-Dov’s excavation at the southern wall, it was generally assumed that the Arabs built little beside the Dome of the Rock and the el-Aqsa Mosque. That estimate had to be radically revised.
In summary, the Arab lead crusade to stop Israeli archaeology in the Old City of Jerusalem is nothing more than politics. It has nothing to do with archaeology and science. It is a barrier in the way of uncovering even more treasures of the bible, of history and of the origins of the culture of mankind. UNESCO has a proven history of resolutions biased against Israel and I assume this resolution, like that of 1968, will not drive the State of Israel into archaeological ignorance that dominated the pre-1967 Jordanian sovereignty in the Old City of Jerusalem.