Last month, Neshama Spielman, a twelve-year-old girl from Jerusalem, found a rare Egyptian amulet dating from the Late Bronze Age (1550-1880 BCE). The amulet bears the name of Thutmose III of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty who reigned between 1479 and 1425 BCE.
Neshama and her family were participating in the Temple Mount Sifting Project which allows volunteers to sift through tons of earth illegally discarded from the Temple Mount by the Jerusalem Waqf (Islamic Authority), which officially oversees the Temple Mount. In the Sifting Project press release, Neshama said, “While I was sifting, I came across a piece of pottery that was different from others I had seen, and I immediately thought that maybe I had found something special.” According to the project’s site, more the 170,000 volunteers from Israel and around the world have participated in sifting which, according to Zachi Zweig, co-director of the Sifting Project, is an unprecedented phenomenon in the realm of archaeological research.
The Temple Mount Sifting Project was established in 2004 as a response to the illegal excavation and removal of debris from the Temple Mount by the Jerusalem Waqf, which is responsible for oversight of the Temple Mount site (known to Muslims as the “Noble Sanctuary”). In 1967 when Jerusalem became a united city under Israel’s sovereignty, Israel delegated almost all authority of the Temple Mount complex to the Waqf. Today, not only do those same Muslim clerics of the Waqf deny any historical Jewish connection to the site, they also forbid any archeological investigation there—for the obvious reason that finding Jewish artifacts relating to the First and Second Temples would challenge their claim that Jews have no historic connection to the Temple Mount. These unfortunate attempts to re-write history come not only from Muslim clerics, but also from, UNESCO, a UN cultural organization, which recently adopted a resolution that denies Jewish ties to the Temple Mount.
Between 1996 and 1999, the Islamic Waqf began construction to convert two ancient underground structures (known as Solomon’s Stables and the Eastern Hulda Gate passageway) into two enormous mosques, one of which extends over 1.5 acres, making it the largest mosque in Israel. So, while the Waqf forbade archeologists from excavating the Temple Mount site with trowels and toothbrushes, it allowed bulldozers and backhoes to tear through ancient structures without any archeological supervision. Needless to say, the unsupervised digging caused irreparable damage to the site and destroyed an untold number of priceless artifacts.
The Temple Mount: A Flash Point
While the illegal digging and construction was going on and concerned Israelis were sounding the alarm, the Israeli police and government worried that intervention to stop it might spark violence as Muslim tensions were particularly high at the time.
In Jerusalem, every action is potentially politically charged, especially in regards to the most sensitive site in Jerusalem—the Temple Mount. A visit to the Temple Mount in 2000 by then Likud Leader, Ariel Sharon, was seized upon by Palestinians as a rallying cry for an already pre-planned intifada, which they ended up calling the “Al-Aqsa Intifada”—after the name of the mosque on the Temple Mount.
2015 saw the advent of what is now being called “the stabbing intifada”, where mostly young Palestinians—some as young as 13 and 14—armed with knives took to the streets to kill Jews. Palestinian and western media promulgated the idea that these “knife terrorists” were motivated by anger and frustration over settlements and “hopelessness” in their everyday lives.
However, the terrorists themselves broadcast their reasons loud and clear: to protect the Temple Mount from Jews. Many Palestinian leaders have been openly peddling the story that Israel is planning to establish a permanent Jewish presence on the Temple Mount—a claim which caught fire in the Palestinian social media scene with cries for the faithful to defend their holy sites on the Temple Mount. In September of 2015, Palestinian President Abbas himself said, “Every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem is pure, every martyr will reach paradise, and every injured person will be rewarded by God” and continued that, “Jews have no right to desecrate the mosque with their dirty feet.”
For your servants take pleasure in her stones, and show favor to her dust. – Psalm 102:14
When Israeli citizens learned what the Waqf was doing on the Temple Mount, instead of resorting to violence, they took to petitioning the government and sounding the alarm in the media to raise awareness. When the Waqf was done dumping its construction debris into the Kidron Valley below the Temple Mount, Dr. Gabriel Barkai, a prominent professor of archaeology, and then archeology student Zachi Zweig began quietly collecting truckloads (70 in all) and transporting them to the Tzurim Valley National Park where they would began sifting it in order to retrieve as many artifacts as possible—which it has done in abundance. Because of the large quantity of debris and the painstaking nature of the work, the Sifting Project opened up special installations for visitors to participate. To date only about half the amount of debris has been sifted, so it will be ongoing for the foreseeable future. Indeed, it is a one-of-a-kind archaeological project that continues to yield priceless historical information from a site that has never before been excavated.
For more information about the Sifting Project, click here.