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History in miniature

After 130 years, a tiny Temple Mount comes home

An intriguing model of what lies above and beneath one of the world’s most famous holy sites has finally returned to Jerusalem

Conrad Schick's Temple Mount model, made for display at the 1873 World Fair. (Photo courtesy of Shimon Gibson)
Conrad Schick's Temple Mount model, made for display at the 1873 World Fair. (Photo courtesy of Shimon Gibson)

A 19th-century wooden model has returned to Jerusalem after more than a century abroad, offering a rare glimpse of what lies underneath one of the world’s most revered and combustible holy sites.

The detailed, and long-forgotten, replica of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City is the handiwork of Conrad Schick, a German missionary, architect, carpenter and archaeologist. In 1872, Schick became one of the only Westerners ever allowed to investigate the subterranean spaces under the Islamic shrines on the sacred esplanade, and recreated in miniature what he saw above and below ground level.

No significant archaeological excavation has ever been carried out at the Mount, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, because of the religious sensitivities associated with the site. The areas Schick visited are off-limits to visitors today. That makes his model, which will go on public display this month, more than a curiosity.

The model, said archaeologist Shimon Gibson, would serve as a “major resource for scholars.”

“It is not just something of some beauty, but a way to tell the story of the Temple of God in Jerusalem,” he said.

A book Gibson co-authored in 1996 on the underground spaces at the Temple Mount – he listed 49 chambers and 42 tunnels – relied heavily on Schick’s research, which was still among the most reliable sources a century after the German’s death in 1901.

Schick’s model was commissioned by Turkish authorities for display at the Ottoman pavilion at the 1873 World Fair in Vienna. It remained in Europe and has been held at the St. Crischona seminary in Basel, Switzerland, since the late 1870s.

The model’s purchase and homecoming were arranged by Christ Church, a 200-year-old Anglican mission in Jerusalem’s Old City where Schick once taught carpentry on behalf of the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews. It arrived in December and will be open to the public from mid-February.

Every tree

The model depicts every architectural feature, topographical detail, and tree on the Mount as they existed in the year of Schick’s research. In one small but important element, for example, the model shows a stone staircase that scholars believe was likely a remnant from Herod’s Temple, but which is no longer there – it was erased in a renovation a century ago. Sections of the model’s surface can be lifted up to reveal cisterns, tunnels and chambers underground, including a passage underneath the Aqsa mosque that was originally created for Temple pilgrims 2,000 years ago.

‘This model is one of the many exhibits that show why we call Schick the most important figure in Jerusalem in the last half of the 19th century’

Schick also created models of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and recreations of the Temple, and his replicas, though largely forgotten today, were once listed among the city’s tourist attractions. An 1876 Baedecker travel guide to Jerusalem recommended visiting his Sepulchre model, displayed in a bookshop near Jaffa Gate, and Barnaby Meistermann, a Franciscan priest, wrote in a 1923 book that the city “should not be left without seeing the exact model of the Temple made from painted wood by Mr. Schick.”

Schick's model of the Jewish Temple. (photo credit: CC-BY-SA Dror Feitelson, Wikipedia)
Schick's model of the Jewish Temple (photo credit: CC-BY-SA Dror Feitelson, Wikipedia)

Model-making was just one of Schick’s pursuits: He was a missionary who hoped to convert Jews to Christianity, taught carpentry, planned the neighborhood of Mea Shearim, and built his own house, Beit Tabor, which still stands on Prophets Street (Rehov Hanevi’im) in central Jerusalem.

“This model is one of the many exhibits that show why we call Schick the most important figure in Jerusalem in the last half of the 19th century,” said Haim Goren, a historian at Tel Hai College in northern Israel and an expert on Schick.

Schick’s subterranean investigations in the latter half of the 19th century came as other European scholars and adventurers of varying levels of professionalism and religious fervor began to arrive in the Holy Land with excavation teams and Bibles, looking for vestiges of the past as described in Scripture. Some – like the colorful English nobleman Montague Parker, whose unruly expedition wreaked havoc in Jerusalem in the early years of the twentieth century – were looking for the Temple treasures, which they believed might be buried at or around the Mount. The treasures eluded them, but their efforts launched the field that became known as Biblical archaeology.

The Temple Mount model will be displayed at Christ Church along with other models created by Schick and his students. Still others are held elsewhere in Jerusalem or scattered around Europe, and some have been destroyed. One of his important models of the Sepulchre, for example, was last sighted in Stuttgart in 1869.

Conrad Schick's Temple Mount model, made in 1872. (Photo: Matti Friedman, Times of Israel)
Conrad Schick's Temple Mount model, made in 1872 (Photo: Matti Friedman/Times of Israel)

Aaron Eime, the director of the Heritage Center at Christ Church, said the center was pleased that the newly returned model “hasn’t gone the way of those other unfortunate artifacts.” The replica, he said, will allow visitors, and especially Jews, to peek into the site that has been at the center of their faith for three millennia.

“There is a connection between the Jewish people to the mountain, and you can’t see inside it – but you can see it here,” he said.

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