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Jerusalem Holy Site Excavations Unearth History, Controversy

Excavations at a Jerusalem site holy both to Jews and Muslims have revealed new facts about the dating of its construction, Israeli archaeologists said.

Coins struck by Valerius Gratus, the Roman procurator of ancient Judea, in 17/18 A.D. were found recently beneath the lowest layer of the Western Wall of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, which Muslims refer to as the Haram al-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary. That dates the building of this part of the site to more than two decades after the death of King Herod, the ruler credited with its construction.

“Here we have an important archaeological addition, independent of the historical record, that work on the Temple Mount took a very long time, far after Herod’s death,” said Ronny Reich, the archaeologist overseeing the excavations.

While the discovery “doesn’t detract from Herod’s greatness in planning the Temple Mount,” it confirms the extent to which his heirs had to finish the job, Reich says.

Final work on the Temple Mount stretched on into the middle of the first century, according to contemporaneous historian Josephus Flavius, who witnessed its destruction by Roman troops in 70 A.D. The project was so massive that the city was left with thousands of unemployed workers on its completion, Josephus wrote.

Herod’s Expansion

The coins were found among debris covering a Jewish ritual bath, or mikvah, that was paved over as part of Herod’s massive expansion of a much smaller pre-existing site housing the Second Temple. Just north of the excavation area is the “Wailing Wall” section reserved for Jewish prayer, and inside the compound is the al-Aqsa Mosque and the gold-plated Dome of the Rock Muslim shrine.

The digs alongside the Western Wall, including the excavation of a drainage canal that extends out into the Arab neighborhood of Silwan adjacent to Jerusalem’s Old City, have drawn criticism from Palestinian and Muslim officials. They point out that among the excavation’s funders is the Ir David Foundation, a non-governmental group that also sponsors Jewish settlement in Silwan.

“We are talking about a network of tunnels that Israel is digging which endangers the walls around the compound and also dozens of homes in Silwan,” said Sheikh Ekrema Sabri, head of Jerusalem’s Higher Muslim Council. “The Israeli intention is very clear and that is to destroy the Muslim roots in and around the city of Jerusalem.”

Reich responds that Israel’s Supreme Court considered complaints against the excavations and ruled they could proceed, pointing out that no digging takes place under the Temple Mount itself.

“I’m an archaeologist, not a politician, and what I’m doing is science, pure research of ancient times,” he said.

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