This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Excavations and Imaginations*

News Item:

September 1996 -- The opening of an archeological tunnel under the Temple Mount leads to fierce and prolonged rioting by Arabs in Israel.

I trust that most of my readers are more knowledgable and discerning than the news media, and were not taken in by the hysterical Arab fabrications about the Western Wall archeological tunnel somehow penetrating under the Al-Aqsa mosque and threatening the stability of the Temple Mount.

The Israeli Antiquities Authority is well aware of the religious and political sensitivity of that site, and has scrupulously excluded it from the scope of their otherwise ubiquitous digging in Jerusalem's old city.

No doubt the decision-makers have not forgotten the sad fate of the English Captain Montague Parker who in 1911 conducted excavations in Jerusalem's Siloam pool and Ophel. Unfortunately, Captain Parker could not resist the temptation to extend his research beneath the Temple Mount. Though he tried to evade detection by doing his work under cover of darkness, word of his clandestine activities eventually got out, and the rumour spread that he had actually succeeded--as had been his undeniable intention--in unearthing and removing the cherished treasures of the Temple.

So great was the ensuing uproar among the irate natives that, in true "Indiana Jones" style, Parker's team had to flee to Jaffa, where their yacht set sail only moments before the arrival of the Turkish police.

The expectation that the Temple's vessels are still concealed beneath the earth has been fueled by the sector's very inaccessibility. As often happens, legend and imagination have ventured into those realms from which empirical investigation has been excluded.

According to a tradition that is recounted in the Palestinian Talmud, a priest in the Second Temple, while at work chopping wood for the altar, became aware of an unevenness in the Temple floor. Before he had a chance to show the spot to a companion, he immediately expired. This was viewed as proof that the holy ark was buried under that location, and that its whereabouts were not ready for public disclosure.

Muslim traditions also speak of treasures from the Jewish Temple being housed in a cave under the Dome of the Rock. Access to this cave is obstructed by a large slab of marble. In Arabic the cave is designated "Bir al-Arwah"--the Well of the Spirits--and legend has it that Abraham, David and other Biblical saints assemble there for prayer. The 16th-century Egyptian Rabbi David ibn Zimra relates that the cave's entrance had been sealed by the kings of an earlier era, because none of the emissaries who were sent to investigate it ever emerged alive. The entrance to the Cave of the Spirits is actually situated in another cave, which in turn is carved into the great rock ("al-Sakhra") from which the mosque gets its name. This rock is well-known from ancient Jewish sources where it is referred to as "Even ha-shetiyyah." While the Hebrew expression might originally have denoted a "fire-stone," i.e., a meteorite, it came to be universally understood as the "foundation stone." Rabbinic lore saw this rock as the kernel from which God began to fashion the world, of which the Temple Mount was the centre.

Jewish legend lovingly elaborated upon the miraculous qualities of the Foundation Stone. The midrash identified it with the stone that served as Jacob's pillow while he dreamed at Beth-el, a belief that was later reiterated by a 12th-century Christian pilgrim. Several Jewish writers accepted the Arabic tradition that the rock actually hovers in the air.

The Zohar stated that the rock had been quarried directly from the divine throne of glory, and that it had furnished the tablets that were given at Sinai. Other sources told how the secret name of God was engraved on the rock, so that special defenses had to be devised to prevent unscrupulous individuals from using the mystical name to divulge divine secrets. Some people, including Jesus, were clever enough to bypass the security system and use the name for sorcery.

The Muslims evolved their own beliefs about the wonders of al-Sakhra, linking it to the stones in the Garden of Eden or to episodes in the life of Muhammad.

Contrary to the impressions that are created by recent events, the devotion of two communities to a single holy site does not inevitably lead to conflict. A more harmonious scenario is suggested in the following tale, which builds upon the affinity between the Jerusalem Foundation Stone and the black rock that is housed in Islam's holiest site, the Kaaba in Mecca.

Accordingly, a Muslim sage speaks of a great day in the time of the future Resurrection, when the stone of the Kaaba, escorted by all the inhabitants of Mecca, will travel to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where it will be united with the Foundation Stone.

At that point (the story goes) the Jerusalem rock will greet its Meccan "cousin" with the hearty blessing of "Peace to the great guest!"

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: