Thursday, October 12, 2017

What's in a (Place) Name?

Israel, Judea . . . and Palestine

Marcus Jastrow's Dictionary of the Talmud, part 13 (1900)

There appears to be a great deal of confusion about the name “Palestine.” Some believe it was invented by the Roman emperor Hadrian to replace the name “Judea.” Some believe it was imposed on the Arabs of Mandate Palestine by the British. Where did “Palestine” (and “Judea” and “Israel”) come from? What does it tell us about the people who use it? What, exactly, is in a name?

There is a famous verse in the book of Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) that runs, “One generation passes away, another generation comes, but the earth (ha’aretz) stands forever.” The medieval Jewish geographer Estori Haparchi added a twist: for him, “the land (ha’aretz) stands forever, with most of its names.” He was referring to how many ancient place names have been preserved in the Land of Israel. Place names are often very durable, but even so they can be hard to pin down. They may move around or change their meaning. Many names we use today for countries (England, Greece, Holland, Persia) originally referred to much smaller regions, and their ranges expanded only as groups of people and kingdoms spread. Given how we are usually taught to think of them, it might be surprising to realize – it was for me – that the same is true of the names Israel, Judea, and Palestine.

All three of these place names first appear in the historical record about the same time, around the ninth and eighth centuries BCE. (The names Israel and Philistines both appear earlier, c. 1200, as groups of people, Israel in the famous Merneptah Stele discovered in Egypt by British archaeologist Flinders Petrie in 1896.) And all three applied only to small regions. Israel was centered on the northern hill country in what is now the West Bank, Judea (Hebrew Yehudah, Judah) on the southern hill country, and Palestine (Hebrew Peleshet, Philistia) the southern coastal plain. Over the following several centuries, each name expanded in its scope until it encompassed the entire country: the Land of Israel as a central geographic term in Judaism, Judea as a political name for a small province of different empires and then an expanded Hasmonean kingdom. When the Romans incorporated the land into their empire, it was natural that they would adopt the term “Judea” (or Judaea) for its name.

And starting with Herodotus in the fifth century BCE, classical writers regularly used Palestine (Greek Palaistinē) to cover an area clearly greater than the southern coastal plain of the country. As with any name, there was some variation in its use, but overall that use was roughly consistent: Palestine covered much if not all of the land between Syria and Egypt. It was sometimes considered southern Syria, sometimes paired with Syria as a separate entity. Aristotle described tales he had heard of the Dead Sea (“they say . . . the lake is so bitter and salty that there are no fish in it”) and located it in Palestine. Jews used the name too. For Jewish writers like Josephus and Philo (first century CE), Palestine could be either the southern coastal plain or an alternate name to Judea for the entire region. So, when Hadrian substituted the name Palaestina for Judaea, he was in fact swapping one expanded regional name for another.

The name “Palestine” never went away, either. For hundreds of years it was the name of the Roman and Byzantine province. The rabbis, too, used Palestine (Hebrew-Aramaic Palastini) in Midrash as both the name of the province and a name for the southern coastal plain. The Umayyads (the seventh to eighth century rulers of the Middle East) inherited it, in the form of Arabic Filasṭīn, as a province from the Romans and Byzantines. Afterwards it no longer served as the name of an administrative unit, but as a geographic term in common use, again for a fairly well-defined area: most of area west of the Jordan and south of Galilee, plus a small part of what’s now Jordan. Important writers who lived in Jerusalem, from Muqaddasi in the 10th century to Mujir al-Din in the 15th and beyond, all knew the term and used it repeatedly in this way. They were often even aware that the land was named in some way after the Philistines. The use of “Palestine” by people in all different classes and parts of the country continued to the end of the Ottoman period. The influential Jaffa-based Arabic newspaper named Filastin was first published in 1911 – prior to the British Mandate, not imposed by it. Familiar with both this modern use and classical texts, it is no wonder that people around the world routinely used Palestine to describe the land in this period, including Jews (alongside their other names for it).

So why do we think of these three names in such different ways? For Jews, Israel and Judea are “our” names, the names we originated in some way and preserved over some 3000 years. For most of the last 1900 of these, this has happened largely – but certainly not exclusively – in the Diaspora. Palestine became the primary name used by its inhabitants after the Roman province was renamed, and it is the name Arabs living in and around the country have continually used for more than a millennium. It is “their” name. But the land doesn’t discriminate; it continues to stand, together with all these names.

Nameplate of Filastin, July 15, 1911

Friday, August 11, 2017

Joseph's Tomb and the Universal Value of Heritage

A group of ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jews and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee 
pray at Joseph's Tomb, Nablus, May 22, 2017 (screenshot from YouTube)

In a recent blog post, Christopher Jones discussed the evolution of frameworks for dealing with cultural heritage over the last two centuries. The current framework is centered on national sovereignty, as Jones notes: national cultural heritage laws generally vest ownership of artifacts and monuments (unsurprisingly) in the nation-state, and international agreements center on national signatories and mechanisms to repatriate to source countries. But Jones notes increasing tensions with this framework – both international (the concept of global heritage) and local. When we say that something is global heritage, or shared heritage, that appears to be staking a claim to ownership of that heritage. It is no longer national.

Erich Hatala Matthes, a philosopher focusing on the ethics of heritage, has identified a similar tension between the value of cultural heritage for specific groups and the universal value of cultural heritage.[1] His work suggests, however, that it is possible to bridge the gap between these two views.[2] He points to alternative ethical accounts of recognition of value, or respect for heritage – that some things may be valued without ownership, or recognized to have value, or respected by everyone, regardless of whether everyone finds them actually valuable. Matthes is less concerned with arguing for the fact of universal value – his starting point is that at least some examples of cultural heritage have (or appear to have) universal value, and is merely trying to explain why that might be. (This marks a contrast with the concept of global heritage, which is often invoked with the assumption that all heritage should matter to everyone.) These models would relieve the tension between the universal and the national.

Or do they? With heritage – at least as heritage is understood under the current framework – I have become increasingly skeptical of our ability to escape ownership claims. For those who claim merely to value heritage, or that it is cultural or spiritual heritage (and not a literal claim to ownership), these concepts often bleed together – including insisting what other countries should do with their heritage. Consider the case of Palmyra, where, after three centuries of seeing the ancient ruins as part of their own past as opposed to that of the people living there, Europeans and Americans can still lecture Syrians on how to reconstruct (or not) the site after ISIS. Or the case of the Parthenon sculptures (aka the Elgin Marbles), where the British Museum uses “shared heritage” as justification for its continued ownership of the sculptures and refusal to repatriate them to Greece.

The Parthenon sculptures point toward the clearest problems: cases of contested heritage, where multiple groups (nations, ethnic groups, religious groups, etc.) directly vie for physical control of a monument or group of artifacts, even vying for control of the meaning – who gets to determine what it means. Having worked for many years in Israel, I have continually come across examples of contested heritage. Here I would like to highlight one specific example that may be illuminating: Joseph’s Tomb at Nablus.;r=9040
Joseph's Tomb in ruined state, late 19th century (Maison Bonfils)

Joseph’s Tomb (Arabic Qabr Yūsuf, Hebrew Qever Yosef) is located in Balata on the outskirts of Nablus.[3] The current structure largely dates to the late 19th century and later, but is ultimately a renovation of an earlier building. The site itself, or a site very close by, has been revered as the burial place of the biblical Joseph (Yusuf of the Qur’an) since at least the fourth century. It is mentioned by a long parade of travelers, pilgrims, and geographers, starting with Eusebius, in close connection with the traditional Well of Jacob; the current structures are only a few hundred meters apart.

Joseph's Tomb
Restored tomb, c. 1900 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The place was considered sacred by Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Samaritans alike. 18th-century itinerary books for Jewish pilgrims included Joseph’s Tomb at Nablus among their lists of sacred places and provided a prayer to be said. Explorers in the 19th century noted Hebrew inscriptions on the wall, one dating to 1749 (in the month of Sivan 5509 in the Hebrew calendar) describing a repair of the building at that time. They also noted that Jews and Samaritans burned incense in the hollowed tops of the two columns that flanked the cenotaph (the empty above-ground monument marking the place of burial) in the center of the tomb building. Travelers focused on the shrine’s importance to Jews and Samaritans, but they routinely observed that Christians and Muslims also considered it a holy place. The shrine itself looks like a typical Muslim sanctuary or maqām: a small room with a dome on top, and an adjacent partly-closed courtyard. Tawfiq Canaan, author of the definitive study of Muslim sanctuaries in Palestine (1927),[4] remarked that in his time Muslims understood the shrine to be the shrine of the son of Jacob. All religious communities, it seems, understood the site as dedicated to the same biblical/quranic figure.[5]

Stereograph of man in interior of Joseph's Tomb, c. 1900 
(J.F. Jarvis, via Library of Congress)

But in recent decades this situation has drastically changed. After 1948, many Muslim shrines lost importance among local communities; some of the festivals (such as the Nabi Musa festival for the Jerusalem region and the Nabi Rubin festival in the southern coastal plain) were suppressed by Jordan or Israel. With Israel’s takeover of the West Bank after 1967 came visits of religious Zionists to Joseph’s Tomb – while Palestinians were banned from the site in 1975. Even after Israel transferred jurisdiction of Nablus to the Palestinian Authority in 1995, it still maintained control of the tomb with an IDF outpost there. A yeshiva with extremist ties named Od Yosef Chai (“Joseph still lives”) had been founded at the site in the 1980s, but was relocated to the nearby settlement of Yitzhar in 2000.[6] At that time, with the beginning of the Second (Al-Aqsa) Intifada, residents of Nablus burned the tomb, destroyed the yeshiva, and killed a Druze border policeman; subsequently Israel completely withdrew from Joseph’s Tomb and Nablus. In the years since, visits to the tomb in the middle of the night by groups of religious Israeli Jews, escorted by the Israeli military, are regular occurrences. One such trip earlier this year included roughly 4000 Jewish worshipers plus former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Palestinians in Nablus now maintain – in contrast to widespread belief before 1948 – that the tomb is merely that of a local sheikh named Yusuf. Local residents have vandalized the tomb multiple times.

Group of religious Jews and soldiers at Joseph's Tomb, November 2009. 
Note the damaged dome.
(Photo by Shuki, via Wikimedia Commons)

What accounts for the massive shift in Palestinian attitudes toward the tomb, between the British Mandate and today? In Facts on the Ground (2001), Nadia Abu El-Haj suggested that the tomb – given its handling in the decades of Israeli control – had come to be seen as monument to Israeli colonialism.[7]

This conclusion parallels Morag Kersel’s work on looting in the West Bank.[8] While it is commonly believed that antiquities looting is caused primarily by economic factors, and it is true that collectors’ demand for artifacts is a central driver of the market, this is only one of four major motivations identified by Kersel based on interviews with Palestinians. One of the other three is resistance: “In repeated interviews I was told that one of the motivating factors for looting was a resistance to the Israeli occupation and subjugation of the Palestinian people.”
Even if the looted artifacts are (or could be understood) as part of the Palestinian past, looters see them only as belonging to the Israeli past: “Interviews with Palestinian archaeologists and government employees confirmed that the Palestinian looter, regardless of whether he digs in Israel or the PA, does not identify the material remains as his or her past but as an Israeli past, and it therefore should be eradicated.” For many (not all) Palestinians, Joseph’s Tomb has been transformed from a sacred place to a symbol of occupation – it is what Lynn Meskell has identified as “negative heritage.”[9] It conjures not positive but negative memories, in a way we normally ignore when we think about heritage.

However much we may deplore vandalism and destruction, can we expect or even demand that everyone respect or recognize the value of Joseph’s Tomb? We are in a situation where two groups attribute meanings to the structure – one positive, one negative – that directly conflict; and where a single group’s meaning underwent significant change within a few decades. Can we as scholars or outside observers insist on treating only one view – the Israeli one – as legitimate? This question is not just academic. Several scholarly reviews of Abu El-Haj’s Facts on the Ground harshly criticized her merely for trying to understand Palestinian motivation for vandalizing Joseph’s Tomb.[10] Especially in the context of occupation of the West Bank, it seems superficial to focus on condemning vandalism and damage to a building – though the loss of life in the 2000 attack is another matter.

Certainly not all forms of heritage are as contentious as Joseph’s Tomb, not all places filled with as much tension as Israel/Palestine. In places like the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, Palestinians and Israeli Jews attribute different meanings even to metal detectors. But the same issues, in stark outline there, can be found all around us once we start looking for them – often just waiting for the time to erupt. In the U.S. they are the natural product of disturbing aspects of history like slavery, Jim Crow, and displacement of Native Americans. Recent examples include fights over Confederate monuments, Native American sacred sites and burial grounds, and so many more. I am still working my way through these issues; with all of their complexity, I imagine we all are. But I am increasingly uncertain of any universal model for respecting or recognizing the value of heritage.

[1] Matthes, “Saving Lives or Saving Stones?” The Ethics of Cultural Heritage Protection in War, in Public Affairs Quarterly. (I am grateful to Dr. Matthes for sharing a draft of this paper.)
[2] See also Matthes’s Impersonal Value, Universal Value, and the Scope of Cultural Heritage, Ethics 125 no. 4 (2015): 999-1027.
[3] I sincerely recommend the Wikipedia entry on Joseph’s Tomb (, which is detailed and well-presented. I found it helpful in providing references for some of the discussion that follows.
[4] Taufik Canaan, Mohammedan Saints and Sanctuaries in Palestine (London: Luzac & Co., 1927; reprinted from the Journal of Palestine Oriental Studies 4-7 [1924-1927]), pp. 294-295.
[5] Incorrect claims about the history of the building circulate widely. For instance, Sandra Scham, By the Rivers of Change: Strategists on the Heritage Front, in Controlling the Past, Owning the Future: The Political Uses of Archaeology in the Middle East (ed. Ran Boytner, Lynn Swartz Dodd, and Bradley J. Parker; Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2010), p. 97: “Among these are Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, which was sacred to Muslims and Samaritans but not traditionally identified by other Jews before 1967 as the tomb of the biblical Joseph.” Alex Shams, meanwhile, suggested that the identification of the tomb as the burial place of the biblical Joseph was invented by an Irish journalist, William Cooke Taylor, in the 1830s (Why Do Palestinians Burn Jewish Holy Sites?: The Fraught History of Joseph’s Tomb, Mondoweiss, November 12, 2015
[6] The yeshiva would be seized by the IDF in 2014, apparently the first time a yeshiva was closed by the Israeli government, for repeated violence against Palestinians as well as Israeli forces.
[7] This conclusion has been echoed by Palestinian archaeologist Adel H. Yahya: Heritage Appropriation in the Holy Land, in Controlling the Past, Owning the Future: The Political Uses of Archaeology in the Middle East (ed. Ran Boytner, Lynn Swartz Dodd, and Bradley J. Parker; Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2010), p. 147; and Shams, Why Do Palestinians Burn Jewish Holy Sites?
[8] Morag M. Kersel, Transcending Borders: Objects on the Move, Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress 3 no. 2 (August 2007): 81-98.
[9] Lynn Meskell, Negative Heritage and Past Mastering in Archaeology, Anthropological Quarterly 75 no. 3 (Summer 2002): 557-574.
[10] Aren M. Maeir, Review of Facts on the Ground, Isis 95 no. 3 (September 2004), p. 524; Alexander H. Joffe, Review of Facts on the Ground, Journal of Near Eastern Studies 64 no. 4 (October 2005), p. 303; Jim Davila, Review of Facts on the Ground,, September 27, 2007 ( This passage has also seized on in popular accounts; e.g., Bari Weiss, Facts in the Air, Haaretz, November 29, 2007. Maeir claims further that the tone of her description of the vandalism is “gleeful” and that she “condones” the act. I find his claims puzzling, as I fail to see how anyone can read the relevant excerpt from Abu El-Haj’s book and come away with this impression. Unfortunately, until Abu El-Haj herself addressed such claims in print earlier this year (Academic Freedom at Risk: The Occasional Worldliness of Scholarly Texts, in If Truth Be Told: The Politics of Public Ethnography [ed. Didier Fassin; Durham: Duke University Press, 2017]), the only person of whom I’m aware to come publicly to her defense on this matter is J.L. Crossley, Jesus the Jew since 1967, in Jesus beyond Nationalism: Constructing the Historical Jesus in a Period of Cultural Complexity (ed. Halvor Moxnes, Ward Blanton, and James G. Crossley; London and New York: Routledge, 2014 [Equinox, 2009]), p. 123; see also Jesus in an Age of Terror: Scholarly Projects for a New American Century (London and New York: Routledge, 2014 [Equinox, 2008]), p. 168.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Looters

With multiple antiquities scandals involving Hobby Lobby currently in the news, we are seeing perhaps unprecedented attention to issues such as antiquities trafficking, provenance, and archaeological ethics. One of many articles that I’ve recently read on these topics, brought to my attention by Caroline Schroeder of the University of the Pacific, is an opinion piece by Hershel Shanks (First Person: Should These Looters Go to Jail, Biblical Archaeology Review, July/Augst 2017) (Shanks is founder of the Biblical Archaeological Society and editor of the society’s popular Biblical Archaeology Review). Shanks invites us to imagine a Bedouin (a “young” Bedouin at that) looting a cave near the Dead Sea, discovering a gold artifact inscribed with the name of King Solomon. He shows it to an antiquities dealer, who alters the authorities, leading to the arrest, trial and imprisonment of the Bedouin; meanwhile, the artifact is meets a sensational reception and becomes a priceless part of the Israel Museum and Israeli culture. Shanks then compares his hypothetical to a real life incident where the arrest of looters operating in the Cave of Skulls near the Dead Sea leads to an Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) excavation.

In many ways this op-ed is eye-rolling. It implicitly asks us to look favorably on looting, to celebrate looters as heroes. Shanks and BAS have a history of advocating for the publication of looted objects, despite the serious problems of legality, ethics, and loss of scholarly information. This history includes hosting a 2006 forum on unprovenanced artifacts slanted entirely in favor of publication, centering on a “Statement of Concern” that misstated the ASOR and AIA policies on ethics, and asserted without citing any evidence that there is no link between scholarly publication of unprovenanced finds and looting. (The work of Neil Brodie over the last 15 years strongly suggests otherwise.)

But one aspect of Shanks’s piece stands out and deserves discussion: the attention he draws to a rarely discussed issue, the disparity between treatment of looters and treatment of others involved in antiquities trafficking. As Shanks writes,

What makes me feel the need to explore the situation is the fact that the looters alert the archaeologists to the existence of the other valuable finds in the cave and get sent to jail for it, while the archaeologists learn from the looters where to dig.

Shanks is correct: Looters face sustained criticism, including from scholars. This may take an extreme form, like American archaeologist Elizabeth Stone urging American soldiers to shoot Iraqis for the crime of looting in 2003. “I would like to see helicopters flying over there shooting bullets so that people know there is a real price to looting this stuff … You have got to kill some people to stop this.” Or it may be more mundane: an unfortunate ASOR poster/banner at the 2014 ASOR Annual Meeting described how, in the years after the initial discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, ASOR “rescu[ed]” some additional scrolls from “Bedouin looting”. What was omitted was that the Dead Sea Scrolls were only discovered in the first place by Bedouin looting – and several ASOR scholars built careers around those looted objects. The scholarly community criticizes looting even while profiting from it.

The antiquities trade involves looters, dealers, and collectors, along with various middlemen. Of the three main groups, almost all of the burden of punishment falls on looters. This is both unfair, and unsurprising, because looters have by far the least power of the groups involved in the trade. Dealers and collectors are generally richer, and often located outside the source countries that tightly regulate (or outlaw) trade in antiquities – and so are beyond their reach. No one calls for shooting dealers or collectors involved in illegal acts on sight. Shanks has a point here, though motives for looting are more complicated than mere subsistence looting, as demonstrated both in general and for the Bedouin specifically by Morag Kersel.[1] Bedouin often view looting as a profession, one that is traditional and has been handed down generation to generation. They do not fit the oriental stereotype of “ignorant locals” but are intelligent and resourceful, and knowledgeable about archaeological sites and artifacts. But, more broadly, people are sometimes forced to loot sites; looters can include children, who sometimes die in the process.

It is surprising that Shanks did not pick a different real-life incident to illustrate his point – one that mirrors his hypothetical almost exactly. In 2004, three Bedouin discovered four fragments of an ancient scroll of Leviticus from the Bar Kokhba era (2nd century CE); they brought them to an antiquities dealer in Hebron, who through a second dealer in Tel Aviv was able to estimate the fragments’ value at $20,000. Later the Bedouin brought the scrolls to the attention of noted scholar Hanan Eshel and his research assistant Roi Porat, whose institution (Bar-Ilan University) eventually bought the scrolls in early 2005 for $3,000, via a donation by Swiss collector David Jeselsohn. After initial study of the fragments Eshel turned them over to the Israel Antiquities Authority. However, later in the year Eshel and Porat were investigated by the police for antiquities trafficking; Eshel’s home was searched and he was taken by the police multiple times for questioning. The scholarly community in Israel rallied around Eshel, circulating a petition in Haaretz and insisting that he bought the fragments for “pure academic interests”; that he “rescued” (there’s that word again) the scrolls; and for all of this was being treated like a “common criminal.”

Many of the details of the case are even now unclear, because of competing claims from Eshel and the police, and because the news accounts are mostly slanted toward Eshel. At least some of the most damning police claims appear to be refuted by actual evidence given by Eshel. Nevertheless, the scholarly community sanitized Eshel’s actions somewhat. Both Eshel’s purchase of the scroll fragments and his failure to turn them over to the IAA immediately violated the law. Buried in most of the discussion is the fact that the cave where the fragments were said to be found is located in the West Bank, which complicates both the legitimacy of Eshel’s purchase – the police had considered charging Eshel with illegally bringing antiquities into Israel – and Israeli jurisdiction. (The only news outlet to refer to the location of the cave in the West Bank was ERETZ Magazine in 2006, which described it as “technically across the Green Line.”) There were "problematic aspects in the behavior of both sides,” suggested archaeologist Isaac Gilead of Ben-Gurion University, in probably the fairest assessment of the situation. But Eshel and his assistant were never charged with a crime; the only ones charged, and eventually fined, were the three Bedouin.

Embed from Getty Images

Embed from Getty Images

Above: Hanan Eshel holding photographs of the scroll fragments
Below: The fragments before cleaning

Shanks is surely familiar with this episode: between 2005 and 2007 he wrote a series of op-eds on it for the Jerusaelm Post, the Jewish Week, and his own Biblical Archaeology Review. In those pieces, unlike his hypothetical example above, Shanks came to the defense of the scholar Eshel while ignoring the fate of the Bedouin. By the time of Shanks’s first piece on the affair the Bedouin had already been remanded to a military court. But Shanks showed no concern for what had happened or would happen to the looters, in stark contrast to his 2017 piece. Perhaps Shanks has changed his views on this issue over the last decade. Or perhaps his primary goal, even in 2017, is to protect the privilege of scholars to study looted objects.

I’ve come to believe that many people, including many scholars, while they may pay lip service to the evils of looting, prefer to see looted objects on the market – because it means more goodies for them to study and publish than could ever be found in controlled excavation. Condemning looters (while protecting scholars) is a convenient way to use the least powerful players in the antiquities trade as a scapegoat and avoid meaningful change. The case of James Charlesworth (a prominent professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary) is exceptional but illuminating: in the Q&A section of a lecture first highlighted by Årstein Justnes (of the University of Agder, Norway), Charlesworth expresses excitement at the poor Palestinian economy, because (as he claims) Arabs are now digging under their houses and selling him their finds more cheaply. Shanks’s piece (whether it was argued in good faith or not) draws attention to how vastly different such scholars are treated from looters – but then appears to embrace an idiosyncratic conclusion (let’s honor the looters!). Instead we can take other approaches, such as holding accountable those with the real power in the antiquities trade who break laws and ethical codes.

[1] Morag M. Kersel, Christina Luke, and Christopher H. Roosevelt, Valuing the Past: Perceptions of Archaeological Practice in Lydia and the Levant, Journal of Social Archaeology 8 no. 3 (2008): 298-319 (pdf). See also Morag Kersel, Transcending Borders: Objects on the Move, Archaeologies 3 no. 2 (August 2007): 81-98. This is based on Kersel’s research for her dissertation: Licensed to Sell: The Legal Trade of Antiquities in Israel, University of Cambridge, 2006.

Monday, June 12, 2017

(Not) Finding Byzantine Churches on the Temple Mount: A Short History

The Temple Mount in ruins: This is such an evocative, familiar image of Jerusalem in early Christianity. The Gospels present Jesus prophesying the future destruction of the Temple. For early Christian thinkers, the desolate Temple Mount is a crucial representation of the punishment of Jews and the triumph of Christianity. The image is so pervasive and powerful that the idea that Christians left the Mount in ruins in the Byzantine period is often taken for granted.

Surprisingly, then, there have been a series of challenges to this idea over the last two centuries. Inspired by the recent conference Marking the Sacred: The Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem, I decided to take a brief look at these arguments for Byzantine activity on the Temple Mount. The following is not meant to be a complete presentation, but a few important instances that I have encountered in research.

1. The nineteenth century was a critical time of questioning of the traditional location of sacred and biblical sites in Palestine by (mostly Protestant) scholars. One such scholar was James Fergusson, a Scottish architectural historian. Fergusson suggested that the original Church of the Holy Sepulchre – built by the emperor Constantine in the fourth century over what was believed to be the burial place of Jesus – was not at the site of the current church, but under the Dome of the Rock (in Arabic, Qubbat al-akhra) on the aram al-Sharīf (the Noble Sanctuary), traditionally identified as the Temple Mount. Meanwhile, Fergusson believed that the two Jewish temples had stood not on the spot of the Dome, as was widely believed, but in the southwest corner of the Mount/Haram. Fergusson’s theories were based in part on the Crusader identification of the Dome of the Rock as Templum Domini, the “Temple of the Lord” – which they believed had been built by Helena, mother of Consantine, or by a Byzantine emperor – and the Aqṣā Mosque as Templum Salomonis, the “Temple of Solomon.”
Fergusson’s plan of Jewish, Christian, and “Mohammedan” buildings on the Temple Mount.
The Temples of the Jews and the Other Buildings in the Haram Area at Jerusalem (1878).

Fergusson’s theories were influential. He and the English music writer George Grove, an amateur biblical archaeologist, promoted them. Both were founding members of the Palestine Exploration Fund in London in 1865; Grove was the Fund’s original honorary secretary. In fact, a primary purpose of Charles Warren’s pioneering excavations for the Fund in Jerusalem – of which we are now marking the 150th anniversary – was to prove Fergusson’s theories. Fergusson provided much of the funding for the expedition.

Warren did not excavate on the Haram/Temple Mount itself, due to its sensitivity as a sacred area, but tunneled alongside its edges and explored pre-existing subterranean cisterns and passages beneath it. Over three years he was able to revolutionize our understanding of ancient Jerusalem’s topography. Ironically, it was Warren’s achievements that led to the downfall of Fergusson’s theories. In particular, Warren showed that, at its southern end, the Western Wall was built over part of an ancient valley (the Tyropoeon Valley of Josephus) running north-south through the city. By the time the wall was built, the valley here was already partially filled with debris. Far from being the oldest part of the Temple Mount, the southwest corner was the most recent addition to it. In short, Solomon’s Temple could not have stood here. 
West-east section through the Temple Mount at Robinson’s Arch and the southern wall.
 Charles Warren, Plans, elevations, sections, &c., shewing the results of the excavations at Jerusalem, 1867-70 (1884), pl. 10.
(Click to enlarge.)  

2. It was widely believed in the nineteenth century that the Byzantine emperor Justinian (527-565) had built a major church, the famous Nea (New) Church of the Theotokos (Mother of God), on the Temple Mount. The favorite candidate was the Aqsa Mosque: it was suggested that the earliest form of the Aqsa was a basilica, like the Nea, with a cruciform plan. The French scholar Melchior de Vogüé identified the remains of an ancient church in part of the entryway to the mosque: “This church could only be the basilica of Justinian: all the word in agreement on this point.”

Doors of church of Shaqqa (Syria) and of al-Aqsa Mosque.
Melchior de Vogüé, Le Temple de Jérusalem (1864) 
(note that de Vogüé calls al-Aqsa Mosque the “Basilica of Justinian”).

This identification is contradicted by some basic historical sources, however. The Byzantine historian Procopius, who provides the most detailed account of the Nea, states that it was built on the highest hill in the city – which is not the Temple Mount: the western hill, now called Mt. Zion, is higher. And (as pointed out by the great French scholar Clermont-Ganneau in 1900) there are textual sources in the ninth century – a century after the Aqsa Mosque was built – that indicate the Nea Church was still functioning. Not surprisingly, the identification of the Nea with the Aqsa Mosque fell out of favor in the twentieth century. Various alternatives were proposed. Finally, excavations by Nahman Avigad and later Meir Ben-Dov in and just south of the Old City of Jerusalem (after it was captured by Israel in 1967), on the eastern slope of Mt. Zion, uncovered different parts of a massive church that must be the Nea. In a cistern related to the church Avigad found an inscription commemorating construction carried out by Justinian. (In fact, by 1900 Clermont-Ganneau had already located the Nea on the eastern end of Mt. Zion, using only textual sources.)

Inscription from the "New Church" in Jerusalem
  Building inscription from Nea Church cistern, now in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem 
(photo by Nick Thompson via flickr)

3. The idea of Byzantine activity on the Temple Mount has been revived most recently by Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Dvira, co-directors of the Temple Mount Sifting Project: their project has identified coins and many other finds from the Byzantine period. I have previously identified some of the serious problems with this project. Briefly, what is relevant here is that the material – bulldozed on the Haram, dumped by truck in the Kidron Valley, left for about four years, then re-trucked to sifting facilities, where it has sat in an olive grove – cannot be treated as provenanced, as coming from Temple Mount; even if its origin on the Temple Mount/Haram is taken as a given, it is widely believed by experts to have come from Islamic period fill, meaning the dirt (and anything within it) could have been brought to the Temple Mount/Haram from anywhere nearby. Barkay has insisted that the material he is sifting was used on the Mount itself, that the Mount was a “closed box” with no major movement of earth in or out. But he has also qualified these remarks: it was a “closed box” only after the Herodian platform was constructed, and the project has suggested at least in once case that a pre-Roman find was included in fill brought to the Temple Mount at that time; and that the dirt piles from the Kidron could have been contaminated with material not from the Temple Mount. Meanwhile, Meir Ben-Dov has provided persuasive arguments that the elevation of the current Haram al-Sharif is lower than that of the Herodian Temple Mount, meaning that there was major clearance and movement of earth after the time of Herod.

4. Contrary to claims that the Temple Mount has never been excavated, there have been several limited soundings and trial digs on the Haram al-Sharif. The most important of these took place between 1938 and 1942, during the British Mandate, while the Aqsa Mosque was undergoing repairs. Work was observed by several staff members of the Mandate Department of Antiquities. Among the things they observed were trenches dug below the present-day floor of the mosque by the contractors carrying out the repairs; in addition, the Department of Antiquities was also able to dig seven small trenches under the floor.  

Example of trench under the floor of al-Aqsa Mosque 
(Mandate Department of Antiquities file SRF 92, photo 21.006)

These trenches helped to clarify the construction history of the mosque. R.W. Hamilton, director of the Mandate Department of Antiquities at the time, later published a monograph on this work (The Structural History of the Aqsa Mosque, 1949). Not included in the publication were several finds predating the mosque, which were only briefly alluded to in Hamilton’s report. These included three sections of mosaic floor, which were first presented by Dvira in at a conference in 2008 and subsequently published in the conference proceedings. Unlike the material recovered by the Temple Mount Sifting Project, these are substantial sections of floor found in situ: they must have been in use on the Temple Mount. 

Photographs of mosaic floor sections 
(Mandate Department of Antiquities file SRF 92, photos 20.944, 20.993)
(Click to enlarge.) 
The only evidence we have for the floor sections are a small set of photographs from the Mandate Department files, now put online by the Israel Antiquities Authority (SRF 92). It is difficult to date the floor on the basis of the photographs, as we have little stratigraphic information. The only evidence they provide is stylistic: Dvira compares it to two mosaic floors from Byzantine churches, but also to a wall mosaic from the Dome of the Rock. Dvira ultimately dismisses the possibility of an Early Islamic date, but the assumptions behind this dismissal (that there was only one Early Islamic period building in this area before the Aqsa Mosque, the temporary mosque built by the caliph ‘Umar; and that we know exactly where this temporary mosque stood) are questionable. Meanwhile, in a paper just given at the Marking the Sacred conference, Israeli archaeologists Yuval Baruch and Ronny Reich suggested that this mosaic floor is Umayyad.

What do we learn from all of this? Despite repeated interest in finding a Byzantine-period church on the Temple Mount, there is still no good evidence for one. Unprovenanced finds and photographs of a mosaic floor without stratigraphic information are not sufficient to overturn the consensus and the weight of the textual sources behind it.