Jerusalem's controversial archaeology

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

Audio Transcript:

JEB SHARP: Israel's diplomatic feud with the U.S. has overshadowed its longer lasting dispute with the Palestinians over Jerusalem's holiest shrine. That dispute erupted again this week when Palestinian leaders called on their constituents to protect Al Aqsa Mosque. Israel had imposed tight restrictions on Palestinian access to the mosque. But today those restrictions were lifted. Still, Al-Aqsa remains an archaeological flash point in Jerusalem. Daniel Estrin reports on some digs there that are pitting Israeli archaeologists against not only Palestinians, but each other.

DANIEL ESTRIN: If there's one stereotype that archaeologists like Eilat Mazar try to shake off; it's the Indiana Jones image of digging up treasures of Biblical proportions. But Mazar's latest find comes pretty close. A few weeks ago this third generation Israeli archaeologist announced that she had uncovered a massive fortification wall, and she's convinced that it was built by none other than King Solomon.

EILAT MAZAR: I mean, it fits the Biblical story that King Solomon built the fortification line, the wall of Jerusalem, as it says very clearly. Up until now, this is the only construction that we can come as close as possible to King Solomon's reign.

ESTRIN: The find, of course, created a buzz among archaeologists. But in Jerusalem, stones also carry political weight. Israeli leaders refer to the city as the eternal capital of the Jewish people. Palestinians see the city as the Capital of their future state. This is Abir Zayyad, a Palestinian tour guide with a master's in archaeology from Al Quds University in Jerusalem speaking on Palestinian TV a few months ago. David and Solomon don't appear in historical records of the ancient Near East other than the Bible, and no remains of Solomon's temple has been found. That's what makes Zayyad and other Palestinian academics dubious about the Biblical account. It's not that Zayyad thinks David and Solomon are made up, but she doesn't believe they were ever in Jerusalem.

ZAYYAD: There is not any kind of archaeological evidence. They dig and dig and dig and there is nothing. From a lot of people point of view, even if David or Solomon was here, they don't have the right to occupy us.

ESTRIN: After the Israeli watchdog group Palestinian Media Watch publicized her TV appearance, officials fired Zayyad from her job at a Jerusalem city history museum and yanked her Israeli tour guiding license. But Jerusalem archaeology doesn't just divide Israelis and Palestinians. Even Israeli archaeologists butt heads when it comes to the history of the first Biblical kings. Archaeologist Israel Finkelstein is one of the country's most vocal critics of Eilat Mazar's findings.

ISRAEL FINKELSTEIN: She reads the Biblical text as if she reads the New York Times or so. The whole attitude to the Biblical text is wrong here.

ESTRIN: Finkelstein doesn't doubt that David established a dynasty in ancient Jerusalem, but he thinks it was a small village, not the capital of a large empire, which is what the Bible states and what Mazar thinks. Jerusalem is probably the most excavated city in the world. But there's one place that's off limits for archaeologists. Muslims call it the noble sanctuary, where tradition says Muhammad ascended to heaven in his night journey. According to Jewish tradition, it's the Temple Mount, the place where King Solomon built the first temple and King Harrod built the second. Late Palestinian Yasser Arafat said that no Jewish temple ever stood there. Excavations could set the record straight, but the Islamic authorities that govern the area forbid digging there. So one Israeli archaeologist set out to do what he considers the next best thing.

GABRIEL BARKAY: The soil goes automatically through this device into four buckets. The four buckets are then taken and soaked with water.

ESTRIN: For the last five years, Gabriel Barkay has been sifting through piles and piles of dirt that was unearthed from the compound to build the subterranean mosque. The rubble was dumped in a nearby valley. Barkay says he's uncovered tens of thousands of finds.

BARKAY: If you look at it carefully, you can see that it is a baked sealing, which was attached once to a written document.

ESTRIN: One seal Barkay found features the Hebrew inscription "son of Imer". The Bible mentions that a member of the Imer family was in charge of worship at the temple in Jerusalem.

BARKAY: And so we have direct regards from Solomon's temple in our finds.

ESTRIN: The sifting project costs a million dollars a year, mostly bankrolled by the City of David foundation, a controversial organization that settles Jews in Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem. The foundation has also funded Eilat Mazar's digs. Critics say these Israeli archaeological activities are similar to building houses in East Jerusalem. But both Barkay and Mazar say they're doing independent scientific work. And they're proud of it. For The World, I'm Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem.