KNI EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Archaeologist Assaf Avraham

The Nuba Inscription inside the mosque (Photo: Facebook/The Nuba Inscription)

The Temple Mount expert talks about his discovery of the Nuba Inscription – how it came about, why it caused a sensation, and what it reveals about early Islamic admiration for Judaism.

As Director of Jerusalem Walls National Park, Assaf Avraham is an insider to the exciting stream of archaeological discoveries in Israel’s ancient capital. The Park is a composite of several world-famous areas, among them the entire Old City and its walls, Hezekiah’s Tunnel, the City of David digs, and the Temple Mount Sifting Project. The Sifting Project is part of the Emek Tzurim National Park, which is under Avraham’s direct management.

Shortly after he entered the field of archaeology in 2007, Avraham showed a talent for harnessing historical facts that lead to new discoveries. That year, he published a theory about how the marble flooring of the second Temple had been constructed, which eventually guided Sifting Project archaeologists in piecing together some of these tiles from 2000-year-old fragments dumped by the Islamic Waqf during their Temple Mount excavations. In the recent unveiling of those spectacular reconstructed tiles – the first of their kind from the Temple Mount – Assaf Avraham was credited for his contribution.

KNI: That must have been very gratifying for you.

AA: It was. My theory was based on what the Jewish historian Josephus wrote about the construction of the second Temple. I recognized his description of the multi-colored marble pavement in the open Temple courtyard as the Roman technique used in the wealthiest homes and palaces. Since we know what these tiles look like from other finds of that era, the theory helped us recognize the geometric fragments in the Waqf trash as parts of Herodian floor tiles.

KNI:  Your career is in Temple Mount archeology.  How did you get involved with a 1000-year-old Islamic artifact from Hebron?

AA: It was actually an accident. My specialty is the first and second Temple periods, and I just happened to find out about the Nuba piece. But when I saw it, I knew that I had to write about it. I can read Arabic, but for good measure I partnered with Peretz Reuven, who is an expert in Arabic scripts.

KNI: Wait… the Nuba inscription is inside a mosque in a small village in Palestinian-ruled territory.  How did you as an Israeli Jew find out about it?

AA: The wonder of the Internet! I came across the webpage of a Muslim scholar, who quoted a master’s-degree thesis by an Arab student at Jordan University, on the subject of “Ancient Inscriptions in Hebron.” The online version of that thesis included a photo of this inscribed stone in Nuba, and as soon as I saw it, I realized it was worth a closer look.

KNI: What was so special about it?

AA: It was the inscription’s use of Bayt al Maqdis. In the study of Islamic history, that name is assumed to mean the Temple Mount, or alternately all of Jerusalem, but Nuba identifies it exclusively as the Dome of the Rock. The inscription even makes a distinction between this “holy house” and the other famous structure on the Mount, the al Aqsa Mosque.

KNI: Did you and Peretz Reuven have difficulty getting permission to study the Nuba stone, either from the Palestinian Authority or from Israeli security?

AA:  We didn’t try. Although Nuba village is technically in Area B, under joint Palestinian and Israeli control, there was no way we as Israeli Jews could safely go there. I sent an Arab photographer to get high-resolution photos of the stone. I can’t even give him due credit here, because identifying him might endanger his life.  

KNI: Do you think Nuba residents are aware of the significance of the inscription on the wall of their mosque?

AA: I’m sure they aren’t. Only my photographer had some idea that it was important, but even he knew only that an Israeli archaeologist wanted to study it.

KNI:  You pointed out in other interviews that in using this name Bayt al Maqdis – which is actually from the Hebrew Beit ha-Mikdash, the Jewish Temple – the Nuba inscription is not unique. But how common is it? Was it only used in early Islam?  

AA: No, that name shows up a lot, from early Islam until today. It’s just the interpretation that has changed. First it was another name for the Dome of the Rock, later it came to mean the Temple Mount, and then it was used to refer to all of Jerusalem. The most ironic use of all, in my opinion, is a terrorist group in the Sinai affiliated with ISIS, or Da’esh, which is calling itself Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. The accepted translation is “supporters of Jerusalem.”

KNI: But a thousand years ago, it would have meant “supporters of the third Temple!” You have explained before that the Dome of the Rock was seen by the early Muslims as the third Temple.

AA: Yes, but not a third Jewish temple. They saw themselves as the “new Jews” or the “true Israel,” called to rebuild the Temple for universal worship of the one God, as Muhammed proclaimed him.  

KNI: It sounds like the Replacement Theology you find in some branches of Christianity. So if Muslims were the “new Jews,” why, in your opinion did the early Islamic rulers entrust the upkeep of this holy place to “old Jews” as it were?

AA: This is a part of history that needs more research. But what probably happened was that when the Muslims expressed an interest in rebuilding the House of God on the Temple Mount, the Jews were intensely interested and got involved in any way they could. And because the Jews were known to possess knowledge of how the Temple used to function, the Islamic rulers turned to them as partners to restart the Temple traditions and rituals.

KNI: Yes, you describe some of those rituals in your video about the Nuba find. One of the remarkable things about the inscription was that it gave the first place of honor to the Rock that is inside Bayt al-Maqdis – calling it al-Sakhra. What can you tell us about Islamic belief in the holiness of that Rock?  

AA: This is the most interesting thing of all. Muslim sources, even others besides those quoted in the video, show that the cultic traditions around that Rock mimicked Jewish traditions. For example, pouring oil on it, and burning incense on and around it. They would even perform these rites on the same days that the Jews were reading from the Torah scroll – just like today, it was every Monday and Thursday. The early Muslims also had a tradition of covering the Rock with a mantle, like the Parochet or Veil in the Temple that screened off the Most Holy Place.

KNI: It was striking to read the quote from a Muslim source, that those who went to Bayt al-Maqdis to pray would be “cleansed of all their sins.” Even the tradition about the Ka’aba in Mecca, that whoever touches or kisses the black stone will receive forgiveness, is a magical ritual predating Islam; and the famous Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab, whose name is in the Nuba inscription, did not believe the Ka’aba stone had any power. Were there any other places where Muslims believed they could receive forgiveness for their sins simply by praying there, other than the Temple Mount in Jerusalem?  

AA: I have not heard of any other.

KNI: You mentioned 8th-century Muslim coins that show the Temple Menorah. You’ve dated the Nuba inscription to the 10th century. So this recognition of the Jewish character of the Temple Mount, and even reverence for Jewish traditions and symbols, went on for nearly 400 years. When and why was it dropped from Islamic culture?

AA: It’s important to note that all this history was before the Crusades, which began in 1095. Ancient Islam tried to combine the two Biblical religions; the intention was not to make a new one, so much as reform the old ones. They saw Muhammed as the Messiah of the Bible, and they borrowed from both Jewish and Christian teachings. The Jews who received this idea were given charge over the rituals performed on and around the Rock. The design of the Dome of the Rock itself follows the pattern of 6th-century churches found all over Israel. The domed roof, the octagon shape, the pillars and decorative designs – the entire architecture is Byzantine.

It was only after the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem and slaughtered so many Muslims that Islamic faith in this region became militant. It was very traumatic for them. I think they came to believe that Christianity, and perhaps Judaism as well, would never cooperate in a religious reform. Relations with the Jews remained good on other levels, but when it came to religion, the Muslims got rid of Jewish and Christian symbols and went their own way.

KNI: Your research on the Nuba inscription, and its meaning for Islamic history, is carried on tens of thousands of Internet sites, but I didn’t see any Islamic sites reporting it. Have any Islamic scholars contacted you or shown any interest in your discovery?

AA: The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a site in Arabic, and they published the Nuba find on their Facebook page. There is in fact a lot of response to it, but it’s all in Arabic. Still, I don’t expect the Muslim world to get excited about this find. For them, Bayt al-Maqdis is just a name for Jerusalem. They aren’t taught about the origins of their religion.

KNI: Is that ignorance something we should be resigned to? It seems ironic, even tragic, that Jews and Christians are better informed about the origins of Islam than Muslims are.

AA: I agree. We can only do them good by opening their eyes to their own history. This is their identity, and the truth will benefit them, even if it’s traumatic for them to hear, “Do you know that your ancestors built the Third Temple?”

KNI: The Islamic Waqf, which oversees the Temple Mount, seems obsessed with trying to destroy all traces of Jewish presence there. Is there any hope that modern Islam will once again acknowledge Jewish history as early Islam once did?

AA: Well, as far as the Waqf goes, they are not deliberately looking for Temple Mount artifacts to destroy. The really outrageous destruction in the late 1990s, which produced the mountains of fragments that prompted the Temple Mount Sifting Project, was just a by-product of their construction of the underground mosque in the area called Solomon’s Stables. It was very destructive and was done without coordinating with the Israel Antiquities Authority. But since then, the cooperation between the IAA and the Waqf has been better.

There are smaller cases of destruction, which the media tends to exaggerate as a continuation of the 1990s. Mind you, I believe that if the Waqf happened upon an artifact with a Hebrew inscription, they would smash it. But mostly they just use whatever they find under the Temple Mount. These days the Antiquities Authority is closely supervising what the Waqf is doing.

KNI: If our readers would like to have you lecture on the Temple Mount, how can they contact you?

AA: I’m happy to give lectures to both Jewish and Christian audiences. I can be reached by email at: assaf.avraham.arc@gmail.com