As Jews prepared to kindle the first lights of Chanukah and commemorate the Maccabees' capture and rededication of the holy Temple in Jerusalem more than 2,000 years ago, an Israeli archaeologist shared his passion for unlocking the Temple Mount's long and complicated history.
"We are discovering, every day, new things," said Dan Bahat, who for more than 20 years has conducted excavations in Jerusalem's Old City, particularly in the area near the Western Wall and Temple Mount, which was the center of Jewish worship prior to its destruction in 70 C.E. It's also the spot where tradition holds that Abraham, following God's instructions, brought Isaac for the sacrifice. Muslims believe that the area is where Mohammed rose to Paradise.
Utilizing slides of ruins along with illustrations of what it may have looked like in the past, the Polish-born archaeologist addressed an audience of roughly 400 people last week at Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park.
He spoke in great detail about how the Temple Mount area, as it existed in the era of the Chanukah story, looked far different, and was much smaller, than the structure destroyed by the Romans two centuries later — some of the remains of which can still be seen today.
That's because, starting in about 20 BCE, King Herod — a Jew installed by the Romans — greatly expanded the site, which lead Bahat to one of his more controversial points. He argued that the Western Wall — for centuries considered Judaism's holiest site — was part of the "newer" area built by King Herod, and therefore not included in the Second Temple's original layout, and thus, not specifically a holy place.
But he said that his aim was not to denigrate the veneration of the wall, or the history and traditions now associated with it. Instead, he meant to argue that the whole area of the Temple Mount should be considered a national treasure of the Jewish people.
"All the walls of the Temple Mount are equally holy," declared Bahat, currently a professor at the University of Toronto, as well as lecturer emeritus at Israel's Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan.
'A Very Political Science'
Of course, when discussing the Temple Mount, it's nearly impossible to avoid the subject of politics. For instance, back in 1996, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to expand the Western Wall tunnel sparked Palestinian rioting. And in 2000, Likud Party Leader Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount was followed by days of violence, and was later utilized by Palestinians as a pretext for the second intifada, though many believe the uprising was planned long before the visit.
"Archeology is a very political science," he said, adding that Palestinians are constantly trying to prove that they are the descendants of ancient Canaanites, while Jews are seeking to learn more about ancient Israel to deflect attacks on the legitimacy of modern Israel.
He claimed that the construction currently taking place on the Temple Mount, which is under the auspices of the Muslim Wakf, may in fact be damaging intact parts of the ancient area, as well as yet-to-be discovered antiquities. Yet unlike some of his colleagues, he said that so far the damage has been "bearable."
Up until this point, for various reasons, the Israeli government has chosen not to draw too much attention to the issue.
'Bible Gives Answers'
Billed as "Israel's Indiana Jones" — Israel has actually produced more than its fair share of famous archaeologists — Bahat, with his thick glasses and balding head, is in many ways more reminiscent of Indiana Jones' scholarly father, Henry, a character portrayed by Sean Connery in the Steven Spielberg/George Lucas films.
Nevertheless, he felt the need to address the mystery of perhaps the Temple Mount's most famous artifact, and the subject of one of the most popular movies of all time, Raiders of the Lost Ark, which introduced the world to Indiana Jones.
"As to what happened to the Ark of the Covenant, the Bible gives us all the answers," he said, adding that there is an apocryphal account of the prophet Jeremiah taking the ark from the Temple Mount to the site of Mount Nebo, where Moses was buried in an unknown place.
"If we want to find the ark, we may find the tomb of Moses. It's the same probability for both," he said dryly.
During the nearly 30-minute question-and-answer period that followed his talk, one audience member asked Bahat what he thought of a 2005 discovery by Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar who claimed to find King David's palace in an area south of the Old City walls. The find made international headlines, mostly because it seemed to offer direct physical proof that the United Jewish Kingdom, headed by David, was indeed history and not myth, as some biblical archaeologists have claimed.
"Her discovery deserves real consideration," he said. "We had never before discovered a structure from David's time."
However, he added that by claiming outright that she had found David's palace — and not simply any building from the era — Mazel may have overreached, and "shattered such an important discovery."
In the end, proclaimed Bahat, Jerusalem is a city that has been plundered and rebuilt many times; therefore, "we must be grateful for the smallest morsels of information."