by Kate Fitz Gibbon
This article appeared first on the Committee for Cultural Policy website.
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November 24, 2016 – An ancient papyrus fragment that includes the name “Jerusalem” in its text is now part of a continuing political argument. On October 13, UNESCO’s executive board approved a resolution on restoration of the monument known among Muslims as al Haram al-Sharif and among Jews as the Temple Mount, in the Old City of Jerusalem. In keeping with the present position of the Palestinian authorities, the UNESCO resolution referred to the site only by its Muslim appellation, in what appeared to be a deliberate denial of any ancient Jewish presence in Jerusalem. The resolution caused anger within UNESCO; director general Irina Bokova rejected it, stating that, “The heritage of Jerusalem is indivisible.”
The Temple Mount site is holy to the Jewish community as the location of the First and Second Temples and the Western Wall. The Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock, built atop Temple Mount many centuries later, are sacred to the Muslim community. The Temple Mount site is not managed by either Israeli or Palestinian authorities, but by a traditional Muslim charitable trust known as the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf. Management of the site has been extremely controversial since the site was taken by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War, only to lower the Israeli flag and relinquish the site to the Islamic Waqf.*
The ancient papyrus was publicly produced by the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) for the first time at an annual archaeology conference on October 27th at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The fragment is a 7th century BCE shipping document and the text is interpreted by archaeologists to read, “From the king’s maidservant, from Na’arat, jars of wine, to Jerusalem.” This is the oldest known non-biblical source containing the name “Jerusalem.” Researchers at the conference noted that the text was important not only because of the mention of Jerusalem as an economic hub of the kingdom of Judah, but also because it referred to a woman in an administrative role. The fragment was found by antiquities looters in a Judean desert cave some two years ago and retrieved by the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) in what it described as a “complex operation.”
While a number of scholars at the conference said they believed in the authenticity of the papyrus, a few have expressed skepticism, based on the fact that it came from robbers. Prof. Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University and Prof. Christopher Rollston of George Washington University said that the find should not have been announced without having done additional tests; Prof. Shmuel Ahituv of the Hebrew University and Dr. Eitan Klein and Amir Ganor of the IAA say they are assured it is authentic.
At the same conference, the IAA announced the results of ten years of archaeological research conducted with the cooperation of the Islamic Waqf during maintenance-related work at the Temple Mount. This is the first archaeological study done at the top of the Temple Mount since the 1930s. (A sifting project has been analyzing fill from construction done by the Waqf in the 1990s, and other excavation work has taken place south of the mount.)
Yuval Baruch, head of the Israel Antiquities Authority Jerusalem region, announced that IAA archaeologists had located a number of small finds on the Temple Mount dating to the period of the First Temple. These include olive pits, animal bones and pottery fragments dating to between the 8th and 6th Centuries BCE. While the finds amounted to very little, he said, “It exists.”
The response of the Palestinian Liberation Organization to the First Temple period finds on Temple Mount itself was dismissive. Saeb Erekat, the secretary general, said, “Through an orchestrated campaign, Israel has been using archaeological claims and distortion of facts as a way to legitimize the annexation of occupied East Jerusalem.”
* At the time, Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan stated, “We have returned to the holiest of our places, never to be parted from them again. … We did not come to conquer the sacred sites of others or to restrict their religious rights, but rather to ensure the integrity of the city and to live in it with others in fraternity.” Moshe Dayan, Avnei Derech [Milestones] (Jerusalem: Idanim, 1976), 13., quoted after the article ‘The Israeli Relinquishment of the Temple Mount’.