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Was the Aqsa Mosque built over the remains of a Byzantine church?

by Etgar Lefkovits

Jerusalem Post, Nov 16, 2008

The photo archives of a British archaeologist who carried out the only archaeological excavation ever undertaken at the Temple Mount's Aqsa Mosque show a Byzantine mosaic floor underneath the mosque that was likely the remains of a church or a monastery, an Israeli archaeologist said on Sunday.

The excavation was carried out in the 1930s by R.W. Hamilton, director of the British Mandate Antiquities Department, in co-ordination with the Wakf Islamic Trust that administers the compound, following earthquakes that badly damaged the mosque in 1927 and 1937.

In conjunction with the Wakf's construction and repair work carried out between 1938 and 1942, Hamilton excavated under the mosque's piers, and documented all his work related to the mosque in The Structural History of the Aqsa Mosque.

Hamilton also uncovered the Byzantine mosaic floor and beneath it a mikva (Jewish ritual bath) from the Second Temple period, which he pointedly did not include in the publication about the mosque, but instead photographed and labelled in a file about the mosque, archaeologist Zachi Zweig said on Sunday.

Zweig uncovered the photographs in the British archaeological archives that are kept at the Antiquities Authority in Jerusalem.

The Byzantine mosaic floor, which was uncovered under the Umayyad level of the mosque, is "without a doubt" the remains of a public building - likely a church - which predated the mosque, Zweig said in an address at a Bar-Ilan University archaeological conference. A similar mosaic can be found at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, he said.

"The existence of a public building from the Byzantine period on the Temple Mount is very surprising in light of the fact that we do not have records of such constructions in historical texts," Zweig said.

Over the last several years, numerous marble church chancel screens have been uncovered by Zweig and Bar-Ilan University archaeologist Dr. Gabriel Barkay from rubble that was dug up during Waqf construction at the site in the last decade and dumped in the Kidron Valley.

The mosaic found on the Temple Mount is dated to the fifth to seventh centuries AD, said Dr. Rina Talgam, a mosaic expert at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "We were very surprised by the discovery of such a mosaic on the Temple Mount," Talgam said, noting that it contradicted the testimony of pilgrims who described the site as deserted in the Byzantine period, and was also unlikely to have been part of the earliest mosque at the site, in the Early Islamic period, since that structure was made of wood.

"The simple mosaic pictured does not give us a hint that it was certainly part of a church but it very well could have been part of a hostel or some other nondescript structure," she said.

Since the establishment of the state, no archeological excavations have been held on the Temple Mount, in keeping with religious sensitivities of both Muslims and Jews.

"It is hard to establish with certainty that this was indeed the site of a church, but without a doubt it served as a public building and was likely either a church or a monastery," Barkay said. He called the discovery of the photographs in the British archives both a sensational and an important find. "This changes the whole history of the Temple Mount during the Byzantine period as we knew it”.

Photo: Courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority.



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