What If This Isn't the Western Wall?


Fonte: The Jerusalem Report, November 23, 1998 • Vol. IX, No.15

A maverick researcher claims that the Temple actually lay below the Temple Mount plaza of today, and that the Western Wall is part of a Temple of Jupiter later built by Hadrian. Archaeologists vigorously dispute his findings. He thinks he's found a solution to the contested claims to the Temple Mount. But could anyone do that?

Tuvia Sagiv didn't set out to show that the Western Wall was not really the outer wall of the Second Temple. He had no intention, when he began poring through books and building architectural computer models a decade ago, of trying to prove that the huge stones caressed daily by yeshivah students were actually the wall of the temple of Jupiter built by the 2nd-century emperor Hadrian, celebrating Roman victory over Judaism.

At most, he was curious as to whether the Jewish sanctuary stood precisely where both archaeologists and impatient believers eager to rebuild it said it did.
"Listen, I'm not some post-Zionist who wanted to blow away myths. I didn't want to destroy anything," says Sagiv, who has trouble finding words only when trying to explain what has driven him to spend years on a theory which, he hopes, solves the world's most volatile historic question. "It's an intellectual issue that aroused my curiosity. Like a kid taking apart a clock."

If Central Casting were asked for someone so fixated on where the Temple stood that he'd take infrared pictures of the site from a helicopter at night, it wouldn't send Sagiv. The standard actors are either sun-browned archaeologists or bearded men with extra-large skullcaps and settler résumés. Sagiv, clean-shaven, does wear a yarmulke, but it's the all-black crocheted style favored by Orthodox yuppies taking evasive action against any political statement. When he meets me at his door on a well-gardened street in Ramat Aviv Gimel -- the monied neighborhood synonymous with Tel Aviv secularism -- he's wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Downstairs in an architectural office that tastefully speaks success, several staffers are quietly working. He and his partner specialize in multi-level burial projects used to solve Israel's shortage of cemetery space.

The Temple Mount theory isn't his first radical archaeological suggestion. Sagiv, 51, took up iconoclasm during a mid-80s stint of reserve duty as an Artillery Corps officer in Hebron. "I started asking all sorts of questions about the Tomb of the Patriarchs," he recalls; architecturally, it didn't seem to line up with ancient sources. "Before the Muslim period [beginning in the seventh century], the descriptions are of a completely different building… Besides, the Talmud indicates that the Tomb was in ruins in the third century. Yet this building dates to the first century BCE." Eventually, "I came to the conclusion that the Tomb we know today is really an Edomite sanctuary. It's got nothing to do with the Jews."

He pauses, lets his voice drop: "And then I got the idea that the Jews fooled the Arabs. There's a rabbinic legend that when the Arabs came, they asked the Jews where the tomb was. The same story is told about the Temple. I said to myself, If they fooled them about the tomb, all the more so they would have about the Temple."

AMONG ARCHAEOLOGISTS AND religious Jews, accepted truth is that the First and Second Temples stood at the peak of Mt. Moriah, where the Dome of the Rock shines today from its octagonal base. A good number argue that the Holy of Holies was located on the same stone that Muslims venerate as the place from which Muhammad leapt to heaven on his winged horse. The great plaza around it -- at 35 acres, the largest ever built in the Roman world -- is credited to King Herod, who expanded the mountain top with massive retaining walls, including the western one where Jews now pray, when he began rebuilding the Temple in 20 BCE.

Scholars reach that positioning based on modern research at the site and on ancient writings, such as the Mishnah's Tractate Midot and the work of Roman-Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, who lived during the Temple period and describes it in detail. Bar-Ilan University archaeologist Aren Maeir says that "if you ask 100 scholars, you'll get 101 opinions" on the Temple's precise location, but "those who are dealing with the facts in a responsible manner" don't vary by more than 20 meters one way or another. Given Muslim fears that Jews want to replace the Dome with the Third Temple, digging on the Mount itself to settle the archaeological question would be like pulling the pin out of a grenade and peering inside to figure out how it works.

To challenge the classic approach, Sagiv says he brought "an inter-disciplinary approach -- Talmud plus architecture, a three-D way of seeing things and use of computers. And of course I read Josephus."

In the accepted wisdom, altitudes didn't line up, he decided. Take the water problem: The Romans, he explains, brought water to the Temple via an aqueduct that descends at an even, stunningly engineered grade of 0.15 percent from Solomon's Pools, 30 kilometers away in the Judean Hills. But that aqueduct was too low to provide the water for the High Priest's elevated mikveh, as the Talmud says it did. "If I put the Temple at the Dome of the Rock, and here's the pipe, how'd the water go up? The only answer is to lower the Temple!"

Studying the original topography of Jerusalem -- "I stopped working, I ran to libraries… I related to this as an architectual project, don't ask me who the client is" -- he concluded that the only spot at the right altitude was between the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

That provides an answer to other problems, too: The size of today's Temple Mount plaza is much bigger than the area described by Josephus and the Mishnah, as he reads them -- and much larger than anything built in the Roman Empire in Herod's time. But, he says, it fits the massive scale favored two centuries later -- in the time of Hadrian, who's remembered for brutally crushing Bar Kokhba's revolt and turning Jerusalem into a pagan city.

Sagiv's conclusion: The Western Wall is actually one side of the plaza Hadrian built, both larger and higher than the square where the Temple stood. At the top stood the temple of Jupiter that most scholars believe Hadrian built. Sagiv says that in the style of the day there would have been a rectangular building, a polygonal one and, in the open area between, a statue of the emperor on horseback, saluting his god. Deep within were the ruins of the Jewish temple. The fifth-century Bible commentary by Church Father Jerome, he says, places the statue directly above the site of the Holy of Holies: the emperor declaring his victory over the God of the Jews.

The succession of deities didn't stop there. The Arabs, Sagiv asserts, built Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock on the ruins of the pagan sanctuary -- believing it the "Temple of Solomon." He produces a floor plan of the Muslim shrines and anoth-er, on a transparency, of the second-third century temple to Jupiter at Baalbek, in today's Lebanon. Drawn to the same scale, it shows a rectangular hall and a hexagon. Sagiv puts one plan on top of the other: They line up, proving, he believes, that they come from the same period. "That's coincidence?" he says quietly. "It's like it's the same architect." I can hear the joy, as if the boy dissecting the clock has just reached the shimmering mainspring.

WANTING MORE EVIDENCE, Sagiv says, "I looked for nonintrusive methods" of studying the Temple Mount. "Infrared gives amazing results."He shows me pictures of the Temple Mount that have the fuzzy look of fetal ultrasounds. In one, taken on an August night, four thick subterranean lines can be seen between the Muslim shrines. "It's wishful thinking, but maybe those are the remains of the Temple. You're looking, for the first time in 2,000 years, at the Temple.

"I'm not compelled by any passion for Redemption, any footsteps of the messiah," Sagiv tells me. He speaks the indecisiveness of the Israeli center: "I'm torn. I saw all the horrors of the Intifada, of ruling another people. On the other hand, it's our land." Each time he mentions one of the activists interested in building the Third Temple, he says, reflexively, "I don't agree with his politics." But he's spoken to enough of them to say, "There are people who want to do what the [1980s Jewish] underground tried" -- blowing up the Dome of the Rock. "It could start World War III... I don't know how much the intelligence people know, but the ground's on fire." The clock he has opened, he knows, has wires leading out of the back.

He'd like to think, though, that he's defused the explosives. He says he's contacted militants to convince them not to attack the Dome to make room for the Temple, because "it would be like when spies shoot the wrong guy." What's more, he says, he has a solution to how Jews and Muslims could settle their claims to the shared holy site. Yet another sketch emerges, of a multi-level peace plan: "We'll break through the Western Wall and be able to look at the remains of the Temple. They'll be above, and we'll be below, until the messiah comes… I have problems with sacrifices. Just looking could be more spiritual."

Even opening a tunnel next to the Temple Mount, I remind him, aroused Muslim fears that Israel was digging under Al-Aqsa to destroy it, and triggered the violence of September 1996. "Everything needs to be done in coordination with them," Sagiv responds. Muslims, he says, have an interest in dispensing with the idea that the Dome is on the site of the Temple. "There have to be cooperation, international efforts," he says. Tuvia Sagiv, it turns out, also has a utopian vision, though visions aren't his shtick.

ONE WARM DAY, I FIND Dan Bahat sitting under a grape arbor and sorting ancient pottery shards in Silwan, just outside Jerusalem's walls, almost in the shadow of Al-Aqsa. Muscular, bald, tanned, with a huge gray mustache, dressed in faded shirt and shorts, deep-voiced, Bahat would be Central Casting's choice for an archaeologist. The potsherds come in tagged plastic bags from this year's dig, where he's looking for the northern wall of pre-Solomon Jerusalem. If you don't wish you could join him after 10 minutes of conversation, you were born without the gene for adventure.

Bahat, a Bar-Ilan University professor and former Jerusalem district archaeologist, defends the classic theory of the Temple's location. The Mishnah, he says, describes the pre-Herodian Temple as 500 cubits by 500 (a cubit is about half a meter), and the only spot on Mt. Moriah topographically large enough is at the top, where the Dome now stands. Indeed, he asserts, the site's holiness probably dates to a thousand years before David's conquest. Beneath the rock in the Dome, "is a cave. It's believed to be a burial cave from Middle Bronze I, 2100-2300 BCE." The succession of gods, he indicates, began long before we arrived on the scene.

Sagiv? "It's a cute theory," says Bahat. "I don't agree with any of it. He's got the right questions, but the wrong answers." He dismisses Sagiv's view that Hadrian built the Temple Mount. "There's absolutely no source for that. To this day, we're still uncertain what stood there after the Roman conquest. On the other hand, the best visitors to the Temple, such as Josephus, give an exact description of what we see today."

But back-handedly, Bar-Ilan University professor of historical geography Joshua Schwartz leaves more room for Sagiv's ideas. Every theory of the Temple's precise location, he says, is weak, because "it's based on the Mount geography of today." That includes the conventional approach. "To the best of my knowledge, you can't prove it. You have proof when you excavate." But Schwartz, an American-born scholar who wears a crocheted skullcap and a closely trimmed beard, doesn't care much. Indeed, for someone who studies the historic role of the Temple, he's refreshingly dismissive of location: "I don't want to build the Temple, I want to understand what it meant... All Judaism is related to the Temple -- even if it is Judaism adjusting itself to living without the Temple."

Still, with sarcasm and hands sweeping the air, Schwartz waves aside Sagiv's reasoning, claim by claim. The Temple Mount was an immense project for Herod? "So it was unusual," Schwartz says. "Herod was a megalomaniac." Jerome wrote that a statue of the emperor stood above the site of the Holy of Holies? "Jerome couldn't tie his shoelaces correctly in the Land of Israel. He knew bubkes about geography."
And another researcher undermines more pillars of Sagiv's theory. Ya'akov Billig, a 39-year archaeologist, has studied the aqueduct that led to the Second Temple, and helped direct the 1994-97 Southern Wall excavations next to the Temple Mount. The ancient water line, he says, arrived at the Temple at just the altitude of the Mount today. The fourth-century Babylonian sage Abaye says in the Talmud that the aqueduct supplied the High Priest's mikveh, at a higher altitude? "I dare to assert that Abaye's conclusion was wrong," says Billig, an Orthodox graduate of a hesder yeshivah. "Not everything a rabbi, great as he was, said in Babylon is Torah from Sinai."

Besides, Billig says he has proof that the Western Wall we see today existed in the time of the Temple. On the Roman street that runs along the Wall, he explains, "We found 350 coins on the paving stones. Not one was dated later than the end of the Great Revolt." That's precise evidence that the street was used until "the ninth of Av in 3830" -- the date of the Temple's destruction, in 70 CE. And, he adds, everything was covered by stones that fell from above when the Temple was destroyed.

Sagiv is undeterred by academic detractors. The problems with the accepted theory are complex, he says; excavations have only raised new questions. For instance, he claims, the paving stones of Billig's street "are clean, as if they were never used." So its place in history remains unclear. He admits he doesn't have all the answers, either: "I'm like Sherlock Holmes. I've found a hat, an umbrella; I haven't found the murderer. It's all circumstantial evidence."

But he has won one or two people over. In a Jewish Quarter house with a view of the Temple Mount, Yoel Lerner says he's heard Sagiv and is "convinced from beginning to end" that he has located the Temple. A mountain-sized, gray-bearded man, Lerner is a disciple of Meir Kahane who lists a string of far-right groups on his CV -- along with a jail term for what he describes as "an intellectual exercise" concerning "let us say, damaging the Islamic structures on the Temple Mount."

Arms crossed on his chest, diffident, Lerner says his goal today is to "educate the public" in order to elect a government that would build the Temple. Because of Sagiv, he's altered his route for taking yeshivah students to tour the Mount, to avoid where he now thinks the Holy of Holies was.

But, he says, it's "not relevant" whether the Dome of the Rock occupies the spot. "Whether you stick a pickaxe between the two buildings, or in one of them, it'll make no difference." The Muslim reaction "will start with rioting. After that, I don't know." Does that disturb him? "I take it almost as a principle of faith that the course we entered in 1993" -- the Oslo process -- "is going to lead to an explosion anyway."

I leave Lerner's home and walk past the Western Wall -- the western wall of something; in the end, it doesn't seem to matter what. The belief in sanctity is packed like Semtex into the place. Let's say the clock is open; let's imagine that Tuvia Sagiv has found the mainspring. The wires are still running from the back.


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