Archaeologists expose Muslim-Jewish ‘dialogue’ in Jerusalem from 1,300 years ago
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Muslims 'adopted the Jewish narrative and symbols'

Archaeologists expose Muslim-Jewish ‘dialogue’ in Jerusalem from 1,300 years ago

Using coins, vessels and inscriptions, researchers hope to share with the Arab world how early Islam in the Holy Land was a period of relative tolerance for Jews and Muslims

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Umayyad coin (after the reform) with a seven-branched menorah model. Made of bronze. These coins were probably minted in Jerusalem around the 8th century CE. On one side of the coin is a seven-branched menorah with an inscription in Arabic: "There is no God but Allah." On the other side of the coin is an Arabic inscription, "Muhammad, the messenger of God," and above it is the symbol of the Muslim crescent. (Gift from the Abraham Sofer and Marianne Schweer Sofer Collection, Palo Alto, to American Friends of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel. © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem; Vladimir Nikhin)
    Umayyad coin (after the reform) with a seven-branched menorah model. Made of bronze. These coins were probably minted in Jerusalem around the 8th century CE. On one side of the coin is a seven-branched menorah with an inscription in Arabic: "There is no God but Allah." On the other side of the coin is an Arabic inscription, "Muhammad, the messenger of God," and above it is the symbol of the Muslim crescent. (Gift from the Abraham Sofer and Marianne Schweer Sofer Collection, Palo Alto, to American Friends of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel. © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem; Vladimir Nikhin)
  • Archaeologists Peretz Reuven (left) and Assaf Avraham. (courtesy)
    Archaeologists Peretz Reuven (left) and Assaf Avraham. (courtesy)
  • A drawing of the inscription in the village of Nuba with the emphasis on the color of the Arabic term 'Beit al-Maqdas' -- the Temple. (Illustration: Alena Ruban)
    A drawing of the inscription in the village of Nuba with the emphasis on the color of the Arabic term 'Beit al-Maqdas' -- the Temple. (Illustration: Alena Ruban)
  • A copper basin fragment with the Menorah symbol was found next to Kibbutz Beit Zera, together with another fragment that bears an inscription in Arabic. Umayyad period (early 8th century). (A. Peled)
    A copper basin fragment with the Menorah symbol was found next to Kibbutz Beit Zera, together with another fragment that bears an inscription in Arabic. Umayyad period (early 8th century). (A. Peled)
  • Mosque of Umar in Nuba, West Bank. (Assaf Avraham)
    Mosque of Umar in Nuba, West Bank. (Assaf Avraham)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gave a scathing response Wednesday to United States President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel earlier that day.

Citing the city’s Muslim and Christian strongholds and historical ties, Abbas negated the Jewish state’s ancient claim on the capital, saying, “US President Trump’s decision tonight will not change the reality of the city of Jerusalem, nor will it give any legitimacy to Israel in this regard, because it is an Arab Christian and Muslim city, the capital of the eternal state of Palestine.”

In remarks translated by Wafa, the Palestinian News & Info Agency, Abbas said, “Jerusalem, the capital of the State of Palestine, is bigger and more ancient for its Arabic identity to be altered with a measure or a decision. The identity of Jerusalem and its history will not be forged.”

Indeed, Jerusalem’s Muslim identity was forged alongside the dawn of Islam. However, according to a pair of Israeli archaeologists, that identity was originally one of coexistence and tolerance. They say they have the 1,300-year-old archaeological evidence to prove it, and now they want to share it with the Muslim world.

Jerusalem-based doctoral students in archaeology Assaf Avraham, 38, and Peretz Reuven, 48, launched a crowdfunding campaign Wednesday to gather funds to continue their work in exposing a lesser-known period of Jerusalem history which, they argue, saw Jews and Muslims conducting “an inter-religious dialogue.”

Archaeologists Peretz Reuven (left) and Assaf Avraham. (courtesy)

Their archaeological evidence includes the use of Jewish symbols during Muslim rule. Avraham said in conversation with The Times of Israel on Wednesday that this and other findings illustrate an era of Jerusalem history in which the Muslim conquerors felt themselves to be the continuation of the People of Israel.

“At the beginning of the Muslim rule, not only didn’t they object to the Jews, but they saw themselves as the continuation of the Jewish people.” They adopted the Jewish narrative and symbols for their own, said Avraham. The menorah was a Jewish symbol; its use is testimony that Muslims didn’t have a problem with the Jews, he said.

As evidence, the researchers offer 1,300-year-old coins and other vessels from the Umayyad period (from 638 CE) which bear the seven-stemmed menorah. Additionally, the archaeologists point to an inscription mentioning the Temple Mount which the pair dramatically deciphered and unveiled last year and which links the Dome of the Rock with the Temple Mount.

A millennium old inscription in the village mosque of Nuba which mentions the term ‘Beit al-Maqdas’ in the context of the Dome of the Rock. (Assaf Avraham)

The inscription, found in a working mosque in the village of Nuba, was etched in 1,000-year-old Kufic script onto a limestone block which points to Mecca and reads: “In the name of God the merciful, the compassionate, this territory, Nuba, and all its boundaries and its entire area, is an endowment to the Rock of Bayt al-Maqdis and the al-Aqsa Mosque, as it was dedicated by the Commander of the Faithful, Umar ibn al-Khattab for the glory of Allah.” The tie to the Temple Mount, said Avraham, shows the Muslim rulers wanted to rebuild King Solomon’s Temple, not supersede it.

In the wake of the inscription’s publication last year, the pair met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and helped the Foreign Ministry publicize their finding on its various social media channels. When posted on the ministry’s Arabic media, where it has over 1.3 million followers, Avraham said that he noted a tremendous response from all over the Middle East. He was spurred — as an Israeli as well as a researcher — to bring more such archaeological findings to the Muslim world.

“We want to show the world evidence of a dialogue that took place for hundreds of years,” he said, “so people can decide for themselves what to believe.”

All of this is in stark opposition to the narrative taught in most Muslim countries today. Most troubling to the researchers is the relatively recent pervasive rejection and denial among Palestinians of a Jewish connection to Jerusalem. On the international stage, echoes of this denial can be seen in the recent UNESCO resolution which ignored Jewish and Christian ties to the Temple Mount and referred to the controversial holy site solely by its Muslim names.

Once funded through a campaign on the crowdfunding platform Giveback, the pair’s project aims to educate individuals about a shared Jerusalem-based Muslim-Jewish history of give and take that is not presented in most Muslim schools.

“We hope that this exposure will promote an educated dialogue between Jews and Muslims,” Avraham said.

In the eye of the beholder

Whether these coins and other archaeological evidence denote a common, tolerant history is a matter of interpretation for those who pore over the annals of history.

In the 1970s, historians Patricia Crone and Michael Cook wrote in their work, “Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World,” that they “believe that originally the Muslims truly intended to rebuild the Jewish Temple… This Jewish link was temporary and short, however, and the separation from Judaism was swift.”

Umayyad coin (after the reform) with a seven-branched menorah model. Made of bronze. These coins were probably minted in Jerusalem around the 8th century CE. On one side of the coin is a seven-branched menorah with an inscription in Arabic: “There is no God but Allah.” On the other side of the coin is an Arabic inscription, “Muhammad, the messenger of God,” and above it is the symbol of the Muslim crescent. (Gift from the Abraham Sofer and Marianne Schweer Sofer Collection, Palo Alto, to American Friends of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel. © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem; Vladimir Nikhin)

Take the coins, for instance. Minted in Jerusalem under Muslim rule, the menorah appears in the center of one side, accompanied by Shahada Arabic stating “There is no god but Allah.” The other side bears the inscription: “Muhammed (is the) Messenger of God.” Researched by Dan Barag in the 1980s, these coins are Bronze issues dating to after 696/97, during the Umayyad post-reform era.

According to the head of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s coin department Donald Tzvi Ariel, the IAA has at least seven such coins in its collection and they are not considered rare. But do they mean Muslims rulers promoted pluralism?

“In those days, coins symbolized money, the owner’s ability to buy some food and live to see another day. I wouldn’t say that the people who issued the coin were thinking about promoting interfaith relations,” said Ariel.

In the center of a Jerusalem-minted Muslim coin from the Umayyad period (8th century) stands a five-branched Menorah. On one side the Arabic inscription ‘There is no God but Allah.’ On the other side of the coin is the Arabic inscription ‘Muhammad, the messenger of God.’ (courtesy Assaf Avraham)

The seven-branched menorah coin was soon followed by a five-branched menorah issue, according to an essay by a menorah expert, Yeshiva University Prof. Steven Fine, called “When is a Menorah ‘Jewish’?: On the Complexities of the Symbol During the Age of Transition” which is found in the collection, “Age of Transition: Byzantine Culture in the Islamic World”

Fine writes that early Islamic coin designers used Byzantine and Persian models for their coins, “borrowing their basic iconography while adapting it to the developing aesthetic of Islam.”

The seven-branched coin “coincided with the Islamicization of Jerusalem and its folklore, with a particular interest in the Temple of David and Solomon. In fact, under the Umayyads, the city of Jerusalem was often referred to in Arabic as medinat bayt al-maqdis, “city of the Temple.”

Nuba’s Mosque of Umar inscription, dated to the 9th or 10th century CE. (Assaf Avraham)

“The coins of Jerusalem thus suggest that as the Temple was rebuilt, for one brief moment the menorah of the Temple became the possession of Islam. This would respond to both Jewish and Christian claims of having taken possession of this object.”

The later use of five-branched menorah, he writes, was then a move away from Jewish and Christian symbolism.

In “Medieval Jerusalem and Islamic Worship: Holy Places, Ceremonies, Pilgrimage,” Hebrew University historian Amikam Elad also touches on the Islamic references to Jerusalem as bayt al-maqdis, as found in the Nuba inscription. Elad writes it is significant for many reasons that the Dome of the Rock was built in the place where the Jewish Temple had stood.

“Many traditions, circulated in the second half of the 7th century or the early 8th century, deal with the building of the Temple by Solomon and its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar. A few are even more specific, linking building of the Muslim Dome of the Rock with Solomon’s Temple. One of these is, ‘The nation of Muhammed shall build the Temple of Jerusalem,'” writes Elad.

According to tradition, Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab, under whose rule Arab armies conquered Jerusalem and the rest of Byzantine Palestine in the mid-7th century, chose the Temple Mount as the site for the Dome of the Rock. It was under his successor Abd al-Malik, the shrine was completed in 691 CE.

Hundreds of thousands of worshipers pray at the al-Aqsa mosque on the night of al-Qadr, in front of the Dome of the Rock on the compound known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City, july,1, 2016. (Suliman Khader/Flash90)

Historians Crone and Cook touch on some other possible reasons for this linkage between the Dome of the Rock and the Jewish Temple. They cite early Jewish sources, such as the mid-eighth century “Secrets of Rabbi Simon ben Yohay,” which preserves a messianic interpretation of the Arab conquest, write the authors. “The readiness of the early sources to speak of Arab building activity on the site as restoring the Temple… at least suggests that this is what the Arabs originally took themselves to be doing.”

However, Crone and Cook also draw upon an account given by Sebeos, a 7th-century Armenian bishop and historian, which tells of “an overt quarrel between Jews and Arabs over the possession of the site of the Holy of Holies and the Arabs frustrate a Jewish design to restore the Temple and build their own oratory there instead.”

Conclude the authors, “It is not unlikely that the ‘Secrets’ and Sebeos are referring to successive phases of Judeo-Arab relations. But Sebeos places his account of the break in the immediate aftermath of the first wave of conquests; the days of the messiah seem at all events to have been pretty short-lived.”

A matter of ‘rolling revelation’

In conversation with The Times of Israel on Thursday, Medieval historian Dr. Jeffrey Woolf, an Associate Professor in the Naftal-Yaffe Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University, discussed the Jewish contribution to early Islam. “There is clear evidence that Muhammad had some awareness of midrash [Jewish biblical exegesis]. There are midrashim clearly reworked and attributed to Muhammed’s entourage,” said Woolf.

Dr. Jeffrey Woolf, an Associate Professor in the Naftal-Yaffe Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University (courtesy)

However, the record of Muhammed and the Jews is “not a happy narrative,” he said, citing massacres in Medina, mass expulsions, and a system which placed Jews in second-class status.

Woolf said, however, it is possible that as the Muslim rule was establishing itself in Jerusalem, there was “more room for coexistence,” with less persecution especially in the “periphery” of the caliphate.

There was a period of flux under early Islam, said Woolf, which took a relatively long time to take root and overtake Christianity in the region. “Who said that these rulers who minted these [menorah] coins were orthodox Muslims?” Woolf asked. In Jerusalem there was some tolerance of Judaism; until the 12th century with the Mameluke conquests, there is even evidence of a synagogue on the Temple Mount, he said.

However, Muslims would have seen themselves as the continuation of the People of Israel only in the sense that they believed in a “rolling revelation.”

The Foundation Stone in the floor of the Dome of the Rock shrine in Jerusalem. The round hole at upper left penetrates to a small cave, known as the Well of Souls, below. The cage-like structure just beyond the hole covers the stairway entrance to the cave. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In this vein, according to Woolf, Umar chose the Temple Mount because he was stating that Islam continues, but perfects, everything that came before.

“Everything that came before is now inferior… Muhammed is the seal of the prophets,” he said.

The idea of “tolerance” is “anachronistic and wishful thinking.”

“To say that non-Muslims were equal to Muslims? That’s unfair to Muslims, who, as members of the ‘true faith,’ would be in a superior position,” said Woolf.

There was no pluralism, he said. “Everyone believes in absolute truth so my truth contradicts yours,” said Woolf.

At the same time, said the IAA’s coin head Ariel, “I have no doubt that in the early Islamic periods there was a great deal of tolerance between Muslims and Jews and Muslims and Christians. Islam, after all, is to this day a very tolerant religion. Silent majorities need better PR.”

A new world order?

On Wednesday night Trump connected Jerusalem to the ancient people of Israel, and touched on the sensitivities of Jerusalem to all three major monotheistic religions in his speech.

“Jerusalem is today, and must remain, a place where Jews pray at the Western Wall, where Christians walk the Stations of the Cross, and where Muslims worship at Al-Aqsa Mosque. And it is time for young and moderate voices all across the Middle East to claim for themselves a bright and beautiful future.

“So today, let us rededicate ourselves to a path of mutual understanding and respect. Let us rethink old assumptions and open our hearts and minds to possible and possibilities,” said Trump.

The young archaeologists attempting to fund their project which aims to explore a rare period in which Muslims and Jews resided in Jerusalem in relative, arguable, tolerance, would likely agree.

“Now everything is based on hatred. We want to show that in the past there was dialogue — and that it can continue,” said Avraham.

Ilan Ben-Zion contributed to this report.

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