Temple Mount Sifting Project reboots, aims to salvage ancient temple artifacts
At Jerusalem Day event, minister vows funds for project in which 500,000 artifacts from all eras of J’lem settlement have already been found in dirt illegally dumped by Muslim Waqf
Minister of Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Zeev Elkin played show and tell at the June 2 Cabinet meeting this week. To mark Jerusalem Day, a national holiday celebrating the 1967 reunification of Jerusalem, Elkin brought to the Prime Minister’s Office a rare 2,700-year-old First Temple clay sealing impression, fittingly inscribed with the name of a priestly family of Temple Mount political administrators.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu studied the minuscule artifact and called for a magnifying glass to read the faint paleo-Hebrew script while Elkin explained that he had just arrived from the relaunch of the Temple Mount Sifting project, an “amazing” endeavor that has unearthed huge amounts of fascinating artifacts, he said.
After a two-year hiatus, the project, up and running again since Sunday, is now housed in a previously abandoned tree-filled grove in east Jerusalem, located at the nexus of the Mount of Olives and Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus. As in the previous nearby location, paying volunteers sort through a jumble of debris and earth that was illegally excavated by Muslim authorities from the Temple Mount, a site holy to all three monotheistic religions.
The clay seal impression Elkin brought to the meeting bears the fragmented ancient Hebrew inscription, “(Belonging to) […]lyahu (son of) Immer,” which could be read as “Belonging to Ga’alyahu son of Immer.” The inscribed name references a priestly family mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah, thought to have lived in the 7th – 6th Centuries BCE.
At Sunday’s cabinet meeting, a nodding Netanyahu inspected the artifact as Elkin, sitting next to the prime minister, emphasized, “Finds of this nature illustrate our connection to the Temple Mount.”
According to archaeologist Zachi Dvira, co-director of the Temple Mount Sifting Project, aside from almost illegible fragments of ancient Hebrew inscriptions on potsherds, “this is the first readable ancient Hebrew inscription ever found from the Temple Mount and the most direct evidence to the First Temple.”
But were it not for the tediously careful work of the Temple Mount Sifting Project, this unique sealing from the distant past would likely have remained in a heap of trash at the foot of the Temple Mount. In the past 15 years, through the help of some 200,000 paying volunteers the project has recovered over 500,000 artifacts from earth illegally discarded into the Kidron Valley by the Muslim Waqf.
This army of thousands of tourists and native Israelis have found priceless treasures, including 5,000 coins, inscriptions, mountains of pottery, Egyptian-era cultic items, jewelry, remnants of warfare, and a plethora of fauna remains: bone tools, the charred bone remains of Temple Mount sacrifices, and even pig bones from Roman pagan and Christian periods. The artifacts span all periods of Jerusalem, from Jebusite settlement prior to the biblical kingdoms, to the modern era.
While housed at a facility administered by the City of David from 2005 until 2017, for the past two years the Temple Mount Sifting Project has been on hold, searching for funding for a new home for the sifting and, more pressingly, a way to subsidize the necessary intensive research to publicize the finds.
To celebrate the reboot of the Temple Mount Sifting Project on Jerusalem Day, June 2, hundreds of visitors braved a blistering heatwave. At the new premises, up to 80 amateur archaeologists at a time can again search antiquities-rich earth for ancient artifacts from the Temple Mount using a wet-sifting technique developed by the co-directors, archaeologists Dvira and Prof. Gabriel Barkay.
The project works under the scientific auspices of Bar-Ilan University and a revolving staff of a dozen archaeologists supervise the volunteers working from the 20 tables set up for the wet sifting. Still other archaeologists and experts are on call to research the finds, both in Israel and abroad.
But now that the new site has been built, will the people come?
A second pile of dirt is still on Temple Mount
Sunday’s inauguration ceremony was attended by a bevy of VIPs and interested supporters. Elkin gave the keynote speech and later recited the Jewish Shehecheyanu blessing — the prayer of thanks for new or unusual experiences — before he ceremonially sifted a “first bucket” alongside co-directors Dvira and Barkay.
“It’s painstaking work,” remarked Dvira as Elkin hosed dirt away from the mix of rocks and pottery. Together the men carefully examined each promising piece of debris.
The Times of Israel spoke with veteran archaeologist Barkay during the chaos of preparations last week. We spoke as staff arranged the compound’s small gallery for a one-off exhibit of a selection of coins, jewelry, pottery, and Crusader-era floor tiles on Temple Mount. These were on display in the compound’s small hall on Sunday and may again appear over the fall holiday of Sukkot.
“We collect everything made by man or used by man which testifies to man’s environment,” said Barkay, who famously discovered a pair of priestly blessing amulets at Ketef Hinnom in 1979. The two amulets date from the 7th century BCE and are inscribed with what scholars consider the oldest biblical text yet found, which was deciphered by the late epigrapher Ada Yardeni.
The Sifting Project is a step away from Barkay’s earlier work in classical archaeology, in which a site is surveyed, excavated layer by layer, and through in situ discovery of artifacts, secure dating and provenance can be made. This project is more of an ad hoc rescue operation.
The seeds of the Sifting Project took root in 1999 when archaeologists Barkay and Dvira salvaged some 9,000 tons of dirt that had been unceremoniously dumped into the Kidron Valley between 1996 and 1999 by the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement during a large-scale building project on the Temple Mount: the construction of a subterranean mosque in an area colloquially called Solomon’s Stables.
The area around the new construction, in the south-eastern corner of the Temple Mount, has historically been a dumping ground on the hill, said Barkay, and renovation debris from centuries earlier was discarded there. Still up on the mount is another similar-sized pile of earth, which was not dumped into the Kidron Valley in the 1990s. Barkay is unsure of its empirical dimensions, but said it is “most likely approximately the same amount” as what was dumped into the valley.
The pile was recently disturbed during Ramadan of 2018, when it was discovered that it had been shifted and artifacts were used to build tables and benches. This earth is also legally under the auspices of the Sifting Project, but practical geo-political considerations have left little room to shift it from the mount into Israeli control.
“I hope the political atmosphere will one day allow us to sift through that material as well. In the Near East you never know, there are a lot of ups and downs,” Barkay said. He added, “It promises me longevity” as he hopes to see the pile transported from the mount, placed under the black “on deck” pile of earth ready for wet sifting, and studied during his lifetime.
As supported by artifacts pre-dating the biblical narrative that have been discovered in the sifted earth, the history of the place Jews and Christians call the Temple Mount and Muslims call the “Noble Sanctuary” or “Haram al-Sharif,” predates all modern religions.
However, said Barkay, the majority of finds date from the First Temple period and later, and represent all the major convulsions of history in the area — from a series of ancient invasions to modern military operations. For the past roughly 1,300 years, the site has largely been controlled by Muslim authorities and is the home to the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque.
“In the different periods the Temple Mount had different natures. One should not judge it from today’s period,” said Barkay.
You call this archaeology?
All archaeological excavation — and unsupervised renovation — are expressly forbidden in the web of written and unwritten rules legislating the enclosed box created by Herod the Great two thousand years ago.
Barkay and Dvira realized studying this illegally discarded earth was a unique opportunity that provided a window into the everyday life of the site. The team surveyed and divided the salvaged earth and discerned it came from 30 different areas on the Temple Mount.
Eventually they saw there were clusters of artifacts from the same periods and locations, and the archaeologists were haltingly able to reconstruct some of the archaeological context, explained Barkay.
However, the decision to research the artifacts was, at least initially, criticized. In archaeology, context is key. These finds were being discovered rag-tag in a mix of periods.
The Temple Mount was never excavated: It is a black hole in the history of Jerusalem
“The Temple Mount was never excavated: It is a black hole in the history of Jerusalem,” said Barkay a few days prior to the sifting site’s relaunch. At 76, Barkay may be physically less hardy than in decades past, however when speaking of the ire he faced as a researcher at the project’s launch, he has lost none of his passion.
“Enable me to dig there [on Temple Mount] and I’ll have context! Instead of criticizing, they should thank us,” he said with a disbelieving shrug. “We make the effort to enhance Temple Mount scholarship and they criticize,” he said shaking his head.
In 2004 the wet-sifting technique was developed (and is today standard at most excavation sites) and the project found a home in 2005 at its previous location in Jerusalem’s Tzurim Valley National Park. Crowds of visitors came there to touch a tangible piece of history — hoping to connect through artifacts to the First or Second Temples.
A stratified history
Jerusalem Day celebrates the reunification of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War. Today, however, it is largely only observed by Israel’s National Religious sector. Likewise, anything connected to the Temple Mount is now considered far right of consensus.
In the past, the project has often been derided by press as motivated by far-right politics rather than a scholarly desire to scientifically plumb the depths of Temple Mount history.
In conversation with The Times of Israel, Barkay responded to allegations of allowing ideology to cloud his judgement as a researcher by saying he is like a bureau with many drawers. In one is his Jewish identity, in another his Israeli citizenship, and still another, his early life in Hungary where he was born in 1944 when the Nazis hunted him and his family. He can close and open them as required, and they remain separate, he said.
Barkay said the criticism itself is politically motivated, but that is the nature of the holy city. “Sneezing in Jerusalem is an intensive political activity. You could turn your head to the right, or the left,” he said wryly.
“The Temple Mount is the heart and spirit of the Jewish people — including those who are not religious — everybody,” said Barkay.
“Unfortunately we are identified by some people as extremists. But I am interested in all civilizations and have no preference for this or that period or people,” he said. Rather, his interest is the entire history of Jerusalem, and artifacts the team has discovered clearly illustrate the city’s rulers’ rises and falls.
While the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan cemented Muslim control of the holy site, there is a growing number of Jews, largely religious, who are attempting to change the status quo and open the platform for Jewish prayer. They have traditionally been viewed by Israelis as provocateurs and extremists, but a new approach by several pro-Temple organizations that is making inroads in Israeli society ties the desire for prayer with freedom of expression and basic human rights.
The new compound and sifting center hopes to continue the mainstreaming of the Temple Mount as a source of history and heritage for all. As evidenced by the mix of religious and secular visitors at the site in the afternoon on opening day Sunday, a wide variety of Israelis and tourists appear receptive to that goal.
Show them the money
In light of the popular support of the project, Barkay seemed perplexed, and more than a little perturbed, that for all the historical importance of the artifacts taken from the most revered site in the Jewish world, the Israeli government has not stepped up to help fund it.
According to the Temple Mount Sifting Project, the Netanyahu government has repeatedly promised since 2016 to help the endeavor, including tasking an Israel Antiquities Authority commission with the job of estimating its financial needs. However the suggested five-year, $2.4 million budget has not materialized.
Therefore, the project must rely on the generosity of private funders, crowdfunding, and foundations. According to Barkay, it needs an additional NIS 5 million to support the ongoing research side of its activities.
At Sunday’s meeting, Elkin said regretfully that were it not for the imminent elections and a Ministry of Justice-mandated freeze on such legislation during the temporary government, he would have brought a government decision to financially support the project to the tune of NIS 4 million, as was promised in the past.
Netanyahu murmured sympathetic disbelief in an unfair system and Elkin emphasized that he is sure that the next government’s first order of business will be to pass such a proposal, stating, “the money exists” in the budget of his ministry and that of the Culture Ministry. “We just need to transfer it,” said Elkin. At the opening ceremony he estimated it may take another six months.
Before its two-year hiatus, the project had been housed in a site administered by Elad, the City of David Foundation, which did not fund the research wing of the project. However the two organizations “divorced,” said Barkay. Because both organizations are deeply interested in safeguarding the history of Jerusalem, he remains hopeful that they will have future cooperation.
It is a hope echoed by the City of David. “Professor Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Dvira are archeological trailblazers who have uncovered some of ancient Jerusalem’s most significant finds — in this instance, as a result of an archeological crime,” said a spokesperson from the City of David Foundation.
“For many years our partnership produced an incredible global awareness of the illegal destruction of ancient artifacts from the Temple Mount at the hands of the Islamic Waqf (religious trust) and their significance to mankind. We wish them well with their new endeavor and look forward to partnerships with them in the future,” said the spokesperson.
What’s in a name?
The ability to open a new home for the Sifting Project is thanks to a deceased businessman whose very name is a red flag for liberal Israelis.
It was emphasized several times to The Times of Israel that the land upon which the new site is located is on a ridge in East Jerusalem that is within the 1948 lines of the State of Israel. Several decades ago, it was purchased by the late businessman/philanthropist Irving Moskowitz and donated to one of his foundations, the American Friends of Everest Foundation. Like the City of David Foundation, Moskowitz is well known for supporting aggressive Jewish settlement in east Jerusalem.
It is on this site that the 1967 Battle for Augusta Victoria Hospital took place ahead of the retaking of Jerusalem’s Old City. It is also the site of the fall of Commander Giora Ashkenazi, who was killed during the battle for the hospital.
The small compound with a beautiful view of modern Jerusalem is now administered by the Keren L’Pituach Kehilati Yehudi B’Reches Har Hazeitim (Mount of Olives Ridge Jewish Communal Development Foundation). It is a project of the American Friends of Beit Orot whose director, Shlomo Zwickler, named the shady compound Mitspe Hamasuot (Torches Lookout) in a nod to the Mishna, part of the Oral Torah.
The name harkens to the Second Temple practice of lighting torches to announce the new month, said Zwickler. The idea was to have “this wooded grove, which it turns out is so full of ancient and modern history, and literally transform it into an active heritage site,” he said this week. Future plans include a monument to Ashkenazi.
Said Zwickler, just as the torches 2,000 years ago communicated the new month and the continuity of the Jewish community’s timelines, morals and concepts, the Mitspe Hamasuot site can help communicate “an important message today whereby Jerusalem is a great unifier and should unify all Jews together wherever they may be.”
To help in its mission to amplify Jewish tourists’ connection to the Mount of Olives Ridge, the American Friends of Beit Orot provided the Temple Mount Sifting Project with a new location and the means for the project’s relaunch after two years of homelessness.
The goal of Beit Orot, he said, is to “inspire young Jewish men and women of all kinds. The Sifting Project is the best way to seek out their connection to their heritage in Jerusalem.”
For Barkay, the emphasis of his work is also about connections, but of a more universalist nature.
“Who were the pilgrims who came? Who were those who had the aspirations to express religious feelings? Who fought over the site? The traders? Who lived in the royal compound?” he asked.
While he lamented his days are now filled with donors and media interviews, the still curious archaeologist clearly hopes some answers may be just another bucketful of Temple Mount earth away.
Do you rely on The Times of Israel for accurate and insightful news on Israel and the Jewish world? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
- Support our independent journalism;
- Enjoy an ad-free experience on the ToI site, apps and emails; and
- Gain access to exclusive content shared only with the ToI Community, including weekly letters from founding editor David Horovitz.
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we started the Times of Israel ten years ago - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.
David Horovitz, Founding Editor of The Times of Israel