Shortly before his death, in what is called the Olivet Discourse, Jesus predicts the fall of the Second Temple and the resulting desolation on the Temple Mount. Recounted in three gospels, this prophecy became foundational theology to the early Christians, who eschewed the most holy site of the Jewish faith when creating their new churches.
But what if not all of them did leave the Temple Mount deserted?
Over the past decade, there have been increasing archaeological findings that after the destruction of the Second Temple and prior to the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount served Byzantine Christians as a base.
Shown through rare images of Byzantine mosaics photographed during the British Mandate in 1937 — and only published in 2008 — alongside some half a million Byzantine period mosaic tiles discovered since 1999 in the Temple Mount Sifting Project, there is increasing evidence that the Al Aqsa Mosque and courtyard is built upon Christian ruins.
In an UNESCO resolution on “Occupied Palestine,” however, Jerusalem holy sites are referred to by Muslim names only, ignoring the historic ties of Jews and Christians. Approved at committee stage in Paris on October 13, 2016, it passed by 24 votes to 6, with 26 abstentions.
Unsurprisingly, many of the nations which voted in favor were Muslim. But there were several traditionally Christian nations which also voted for the resolution, and even more that abstained — in essence giving tacit support to the notion that Haram esh-Sharif (called the Temple Mount in Judeo-Christian tradition) concerns Muslims alone.
Before the resolution’s scheduled approval this week by UNESCO’s Executive Board, The Times of Israel explores the Christian roots of the Temple Mount.
The mainstream historical record
In 335 CE, Emperor Constantine, the first Roman emperor who converted to Christianity, inaugurated the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as part of a rebuilt Christian Jerusalem. The center of this burgeoning Christianity remained outside of the Temple Mount.
There are increasing indications that not all felt compelled to heed Jesus’s prophecy from Mark 13:2 — that the destroyed temple’s stones would forever lay in ruin.
However, a Christian use of the Temple Mount is not documented in contemporary pilgrim travel diaries such as the Gaul from Bordeaux in 333 CE, or even the famous Madaba Map, part of a floor mosaic in the early Byzantine church of Saint George at Madaba, Jordan. Dated to the 6th century, the map depicts the oldest discovered cartographic survey of the Holy Land.
Bar-Ilan University History Prof. Yvonne Friedman told The Times of Israel that the Byzantine Christians in Jerusalem “saw the Temple Mount as the Jewish center. It was destroyed and should stay that way to prove the veracity of Jesus’s prophecy,” she said.
Friedman does not, however, rule out entirely the possibility of churches on the Temple Mount during the Byzantine period.
“I think there must have been some churches [on the Temple Mount], but the major alternative center was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” said Friedman. This changed, she said, during the Crusader period, when the holy warriors — seeing themselves “the heirs of biblical Israel” — conquered the Temple Mount and turned the mosques there into a church and, temporarily, their political base.
According to Joshua Schwartz, professor of Historical Geography of Ancient Israel at Bar-Ilan University, an organized Christian building on the Temple Mount is “unlikely.”
‘The Church Fathers and the Madaba Map relate to the Temple Mount as a dump, as proof of the defeat of Judaism’
“The Church Fathers and the Madaba Map relate to the Temple Mount as a dump, as proof of the defeat of Judaism. A number of Byzantine sources relate to Jews being allowed to go up to the Temple Mount on Tisha B’Av to mourn. Some scholars claimed that this was staged by Christian clergy,” Schwartz told The Times of Israel.
“I know of no Christian Church on the Temple Mount during Byzantine times.
The fact that the Sifting Project found Christian material, that in my view is probably Crusader or Byzantine in secondary usage by Crusaders, but Byzantine from Byzantine churches in the Jerusalem (which had of course many). The Crusaders loved to shlep stuff,” said Schwartz.
It would be difficult to move a Byzantine mosaic floor, however. Documented by British archaeologist R.K. Hamilton during a rare archaeological dig in the Dome of the Rock in the late 1930s, its existence only came to light in 2008 when Temple Mount Sifting Project archaeologist Zachi Dvira (Zweig) discovered and published Hamilton’s photos.
Uncovering a cover-up?
Rich in history and political strife, the Temple Mount has rarely been excavated. One rare instance of a professional archaeological survey came in the 1930s, by way of earthquake.
Between 1938-1942 there was a large scale renovation of Al-Aqsa, following two earthquakes in 1927 and 1937.
According to archaeologist Dvira, during the British Mandate period, the cooperation between government archaeological supervisors and the Islamic Waqf was at its height. As a result, there were two archaeological digs conducted by the British antiquities authorities, accompanied by much photography.
Hamilton, director of the British Mandate Antiquities Department, published some of his results in 1949. But, after pouring over Hamilton’s archival photography, Dvira discovered that much was left out, especially anything with a Jewish or Christian connection, including early ritual baths and Byzantine mosaic flooring.
The mosaic flooring was found in an area that was under and outside the northern facade of the Umayyad mosque. “From this one could assume that the mosaic floor predates the Umayyad mosque,” wrote Dvira in a 2008 essay (Hebrew).
“The patterns presented on these mosaics which survived are common ones for the Byzantine period,” wrote Dvira, and are parallel to ones found in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which was commissioned by Constantine in 327 and completed in 339.
In a 2010 article, Dvira insinuates that Hamilton’s close political connection to the Waqf didn’t allow the archaeologist to publish his findings which predated the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem.
On the one hand, said Dvira, the very fact of an archaeological dig on the Temple Mount was praiseworthy. However, it came with a price, which was in this case a politically driven academic self-censorship of sorts.
Dismaying Israeli politicians and archaeologists alike, the current resolution has echoes of Hamilton’s decision not to publish his Christian and Jewish findings.
However, said Dvira, the Dome of the Rock was built on that spot because it was previously the location of the Solomonic Temple, said the exasperated archeologist.
Dvira said the UNESCO resolution came about, absurdly, because Israel has been recently proactive in observing the Antiquities Law, which requires archaeological supervision during building projects, including restoration on the Temple Mount.
“It is so ridiculous that they [the largely Muslim proponents of the resolution] are changing their narrative. I don’t understand how it is possible to so distance themselves from the truth and from history,” said Dvira.
From ashes to ashes, to dust to discovery
Dvira’s Temple Mount Sifting Project was set up in 1999 when the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, which conducted unsupervised (and therefore illegal) renovations on the Temple Mount, disposed of over 9,000 tons of dirt mixed with what the project calls “invaluable archaeological artifacts” in the Kidron Valley.
The project began when veteran archaeologist Dr. Gabriel Barkay, alongside Dvira, salvaged the hundreds of truck loads of dirt, which has since been examined for artifacts in the Tzurim Valley National Park adjacent to the Mount of Olives. For a small fee, volunteers can spend two hours participating in the project, which is funded by the City of David Foundation.
Dvira said he is convinced there was a Byzantine Christian presence on the Temple Mount, both through the Hamilton images, and through “finding more and more in the sifting from the Byzantine period,” he said. He said the project, which is fundraising to publish its findings, has found some half a million mosaic pieces over the years.
“It is possible a church was built there,” he said. What is certain is that in addition to the broad use of the Temple Mount during the Crusader period — illustrated through the projects findings of horse shoe nails and rare Crusader coins, among other objects — there was also Christian building of some scale prior to the Muslim conquest.
“The Temple Mount is also the heritage of the Christians, there’s no doubt,” Dvira told The Times of Israel.