The Danger to Al-Aksa from Muslim Building Activity in Solomon’s Stables
Background: For years Muslims have raised a hue and cry all over the world about Israel’s purported aim to level the Temple Mount mosques and build the Third Temple in their stead. As we have seen clearly, the charge is baseless. At the start of the 2000s, however, a real danger emerged of the collapse of the southeastern section of the Temple Mount compound with damage to the Al-Aksa Mosque – as a result of Muslim building activity. While no one accuses the Muslims of seeking to bring down Al-Aksa, the danger that emerged stemmed directly from their building activity at Solomon’s Stables in the southeastern corner of the mount. The Muslims denied this and even created obstacles for Israel when it sought to address the danger.
A real danger emerged of the collapse of the southeastern section of the Temple Mount compound with damage to the Al-Aksa Mosque – as a direct result of Muslim building activity at Solomon’s Stables.
Solomon’s Stables had been considered an underground structure. Recently it became clear, however, that it is an aboveground one, which was buried under thousands of tons of earth sometime after it was built. The structure in its present form was erected in the Ayyubid era (the seventh and eighth centuries), or, in the view of others, in the Fatimid period (the eleventh century) in a location where, in Second Temple days (during Herod’s time), there were underground vaults that supported the Temple Mount plaza. When the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem they turned the place into stables for horses, and the fact that they thought the nearby Al-Aksa Mosque had been the palace of King Solomon (or according to another Crusader belief, the Temple of Solomon) explains the name Solomon’s Stables. The compartments occupy 80 meters in length and 60 meters in width. The structure features twelve rows of pillars connected by arches.(1)
Solomon’s Stables, which became a mosque. According to engineering reports, the operations undermined the Southern and Eastern walls of the Temple Mount. (courtesy of Dan Bahat)
In 1995-1996, the Israeli Islamic Movement began to renovate Solomon’s Stables with the aim of converting it into a mosque. Spokesmen for the movement claimed that in the past Solomon’s Stables had served as a prayer hall named after the caliph Marwan, father of Abd al-Malik, the builder of the Dome of the Rock. Hence it was called Al-Masjid al-Marwani (the Marwani Mosque); but the claim has no historical basis.(2) The renovations in the underground compound were done at first without official approval, and sometimes building materials were smuggled onto the Temple Mount within worshippers’ clothes. This is no mere procedural or inconsequential matter. It should be noted that building without permission and supervision at a place of the most sensitive aesthetic, religious, archeological, and historical significance was unacceptable, and so was the lack of an Israeli response. That failure to react to the archeological vandalism and severe damage to antiquities, after the excessive forbearance Israel had shown, confirmed the darkest misgivings.
True, in January 1996 the police granted permission to Muslims to use the stables for prayer during rainy days in the month of Ramadan. Yet no consent was given for an overall renovation, nor for turning the place into a mosque. After the opening of the exit gate from the Hasmonean Channel, the Islamic Movement sharply stepped up its activities and converted the structure, which can accommodate ten thousand, into one of the largest mosques in the history of the Land of Israel.
We will not deal with the circumstances in which the building was carried out and the question of whether it was part of a secret deal between the Israeli government and the Wakf. (Some publications say it was agreed that the Israeli government would open the northern exit gate from the Hasmonean Channel at the end of the Western Wall Tunnel, without disturbances by the Muslims, and in return would provide a permit for turning Solomon’s Stables into a mosque.)(3) Nor will we elaborate here on the extensive and tragic damage caused to the Temple Mount’s antiquities in 1999. It should be noted, though, that this damage resulted from the digging of a gigantic pit to enable the building of stairs, which would descend underground to the stables’ northern row of arches. In consequence, two of these arches became the main entrance gate to the underground mosque. It should also be pointed out that these operations were done without any archeological supervision or documentation by the Antiquities Authority, and with heavy machinery. The endeavor included the removal by trucks in the middle of the night of soil that was replete with archeological items from various periods. The soil was dumped into the Kidron Valley and into the Al-Azariah garbage dump. According to data of the Committee for the Prevention of the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount,(4) in the course of constructing the gate for the new mosque in the stables, a pit was dug that stretches over an area of about 200 meters and a depth of 12 meters.
In 1999 the Wakf and the Islamic Movement in Israel (northern branch) converted Solomon’s Stables into a mosque. During the work an enormous pit dug in the soil of the Temple Mount caused major and irreversible archeological damage. (courtesy of Dan Bahat)
Part of the soil containing archeological findings that the Wakf removed from the large excavation at Solomon’s Stables. (courtesy of the City of David, Ancient Jerusalem archive)
Israel’s attorney-general at that time, Elyakim Rubinstein, called what had been done “a kick at the history of the Jewish people.”(5) The then director-general of the Antiquities Authority, Amir Drori, called it an “archeological crime,”(6) while the authority’s archeologist for the Jerusalem region, Jon Zeligman, concluded that the work had greatly damaged archeological research.(7) Yet the Israeli government showed extreme restraint toward what was being perpetrated, indeed to the point of not reacting. Why? Because of the profound political sensitivity of the Temple Mount, and the fact that political talks were then being held with the Palestinians. The government feared that assertive action on the mount would negatively affect those talks. The Palestinians, for their part, not only renovated the underground sections of Solomon’s Stables but also, above it, paved thousands of meters of the Temple Mount plaza.(8) Several petitions to the Supreme Court, claiming harm to the antiquities and violations of Israeli planning, building, and antiquities laws, were rejected. The court decided that it was not the appropriate venue to adjudicate these matters, saying this was clearly the role of the political authorities and first and foremost the government itself.
Worth noting in this context are statements of Judge Eliezer Goldberg in Supreme Court case 9474/96:
The heights of the Temple Mount are not like any other place, and the religious and political dispute over the Temple Mount is different from other disputes on which the court is entrusted to deliver a ruling. The question of how to deal with violations of the law…while taking into account the nature and gravity of this special and sensitive place, is not one for which it would be appropriate for this court to seek a solution.(9)
As for the significance of the Temple Mount soil for the study of Jerusalem and its history, the Temple Mount Sifting Project, which is supervised by archeologists Dr. Gabriel Barkai and Yitzchak Zweig, has revealed numerous minuscule findings, dating from Canaanite and Jebusite days (the third and second millennia BCE) through the early First Temple period and the later kings of Judea (the eighth and seventh centuries BCE), the Second Temple period, and subsequent eras. Among the findings: arrowheads from the army of Nebuchadnezzar, who demolished the First Temple; an inscription (silt impression) from the late First Temple period with preserved letters in ancient Hebrew script, from which the name Galyahu ben Amar was reconstructed; and Hasmonean and Herodian coins.(10)
Right: A Babylonian arrowhead of the kind used by Nebuchadnezzar’s army, found in the soil of the Temple Mount. Left: A pendant in the form of a harp, found in the soil of the Temple Mount. (both photos courtesy of the City of David, Ancient Jerusalem archive)
Teenagers and volunteers at the Temple Mount Sifting Project conducted by the archeologists Dr. Gabi Barkai and Yitzchak Zweig at Emek Tsurim in Jerusalem. (courtesy of the City of David, Ancient Jerusalem archive)
The Crisis of the Possible Collapse of the Southern Wall
At the beginning of 2001, the Antiquities Authority found a sizable swelling of the Southern Wall. According to the authority’s measurement, it extended along the wall for 190 meters. The most substantial bulge, to the west of the southeastern corner of the Temple Mount, came to 70 centimeters. Along another 60 meters of the wall the bulge came to 30 centimeters, and otherwise was 10-20 centimeters in size.(11)
The Southern Wall (on the left) and the Eastern Wall (on the right) of the Temple Mount, March 1997. Engineering reports stated that the work on Solomon’s Stables undermined their stability. (Avi Ohayon, Government Press Office)
The authority’s conservation engineers came to an unequivocal conclusion: the Southern Wall was in immediate danger of collapse. These engineers’ initial attempt to enter the Temple Mount, so as to survey the situation from the wall’s internal side as well, was prevented by the Israeli authorities because of Muslim opposition. Nor did initial quiet contacts with the Wakf administration and Jordanian officials bear fruit. The mufti of the Temple Mount and Jerusalem, Sheikh Sabri, went so far as to deride “Israel’s sanctimoniousness in its concern about the phenomenon and its risks, while purporting to be more concerned about Al-Aksa than the Muslims themselves.” He stressed that “the Muslims have been dealing with the phenomenon for four years, in the context of the renovations on the Temple Mount, but the occupation seeks to hamper this renovation activity. The renovation of the mount is the exclusive concern of the Wakf, and the Muslims will not allow anyone outside the Wakf to deal with it.” Furthermore: “The Muslims have given their lives in warfare for the mosque, and they will not shrink from further sacrifices for the sake of its renovation.” Sheikh Sabri rejected the claim that the damage to the Southern Wall had been caused by the renovations and construction at Solomon’s Stables. Instead he blamed the “occupation” and its excavations under and along the wall.(12)
Despite the mufti’s words, and the denial of any link between the work on Solomon’s Stables and what had happened at the Southern Wall, the professional assessments were clear-cut regarding both the danger of collapse and what was causing it. Although sometimes differing in emphasis, the common denominator of the professional assessments submitted to the Antiquities Authority, intended both for the Committee for the Prevention of Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount and for a Jordanian delegation that came to Israel to inspect the area, was that the swelling had resulted from a change in the flow and seepage regime of the water in the southeastern part of the mount.(13)
From the moment the Muslims paved the Temple Mount plaza, a large part of the rainwater seeped into the Southern Wall, causing it to swell and creating numerous cavities and fissures.
Until Solomon’s Stables was cleaned and the plaza above it paved, the rainwater would trickle down to the ancient arches in the stables and from there continue to the foundation stone. But from the moment the Temple Mount plaza was paved, most of the rainwater flowed to the periphery, and a large part of it seeped into the Southern Wall and began causing it to swell. The materials within the stones of the wall’s surface were premodern, hundreds of years old with a somewhat claylike composition. This made them swell from any contact with water, which now, thanks to the paving of the mount, was seeping into the wall in great quantities. When the water dried up, the wall’s internal material shrank, creating cavities as well as numerous fissures between the wall’s surface stones and its internal core.(14)
The engineers were alerted to this dangerous process by trial drills performed at the Southern Wall. Repeated measurements in 2001-2002 revealed that the situation was not static and, indeed, a process was underway. The swelling of the wall was not without effect. In one of the measurements carried out on March 4, 2002, a movement of up to 20 centimeters, compared to the previous measurement, was found at several specific points near the swelling. Hence, in March 2002, the police recommended to both the Wakf and the Israeli government that the southern part of the underground mosque of Solomon’s Stables, not far from the swelling, be closed to prevent people from entering it.
The Wakf authorities created many difficult obstacles to dealing with the problem, and contacts with Jordan and other Arab parties were needed to get the Wakf to recognize the severity of the crisis and cooperate in repairing the Southern Wall. Only after it was convinced that there was real danger to the wall’s stability did the Wakf accept a proposal that a Jordanian taskforce work with it in tackling the problem. Israel supposedly observed from a distance but, unofficially, was involved in the endeavor. About 200 meters of stone from the front of the wall was removed, its interior in these places was reinforced, and the old stones were replaced with new ones.
The corner of the Western and Southern walls. Workers are treating the bulge of the Southern Wall. (courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority)
The Crisis of the Possible Collapse of the Eastern Wall
In June 2003, Jerusalem district police officers detected signs that the Eastern Wall in the vicinity of Solomon’s Stables was leaning sideways in a dangerous way. The Antiquities Authority’s inspection led it to conclude that there was a danger of this wall’s collapse as well. They also warned that the ceiling of Solomon’s Stables, or parts of it, could collapse too.
Compared to the Southern Wall, at the Eastern Wall of the Temple Mount compound the problem was even graver. If the Southern Wall were to collapse, most likely the pillars that support the ceiling of Solomon’s Stables, pillars whose direction is north-south, would be exposed to view from the south but would not buckle. But if the Eastern Wall, which also runs north-south, were to collapse, the thirteen pillars, which rest on twelve arcades (composed of eighty-eight piers), would likely fall like a house of cards, one after the other.
The problem of the leaning of the Eastern Wall had long been known. A repair was carried out as far back as 1882. Nevertheless, the problem worsened with time. The building operations in the Solomon’s Stables area, particularly the pouring of concrete slabs and the passage of machinery over the roof of the stables, accelerated the process at the Eastern Wall. In July 2003, the engineer Ofer Cohen reported to the director-general of the Antiquities Authority, Shuka Dorfman, that the easternmost wall of the stables, which is its retaining wall, supporting the eastern pillar, was leaning some 40-50 centimeters outward. (Cohen also identified signs of cracking and crumbling in the inner recess of the stables.) In September, Cohen wrote to Dorfman that
any damage to the Eastern Wall will probably cause the collapse in a chain reaction of considerable parts of Solomon’s Stables. This is because the pillars naturally balance each other’s horizontal pressure. If there is damage to the stability of the outermost pillar, there will be nothing to balance the pressure of the rest of the pillars, which will probably lead to their collapse. In case of a mass event, inside and on the roof of the stables, the dimensions of the catastrophe could be very great.(15)
The earthquake in February 2004, which toppled the Mughrabi Gate access ramp, further increased the leaning of the Eastern Wall by 2.5 centimeters. The pressure on the arches, resulting from the greater burden from the plaza above, started a process of the shedding of stone and plaster from the arches. Each morning Wakf members would go down to Solomon’s Stables and sweep up the fallen material.(16)
At the end of March 2004, Zeligman and Cohen again warned that “the Eastern Wall is in immediate danger of collapse.” They recommended prohibiting entry to the Marwani Mosque and its surroundings until the wall was repaired.(17) The police joined in this demand, fearing that during the days of Ramadan, when tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands visit the mosque and the plaza, the added weight would create an additional stress on the ceiling, which rests on the Eastern Wall, possibly causing a collapse and a severe human calamity.
The Muslims saw things in a different light. They pointed to the results of an inspection by an Egyptian-Jordanian team of experts, which found that there was no danger of collapse at the site. Yet a report by experts of the Haifa Technion contradicted the Egyptian report completely, confirming a danger of immediate collapse.(18) Sometime later it emerged that the Egyptian report was submitted by professionals in building but not in infrastructure and this explained the discrepancy. Yet, even when that was clarified to the Wakf administration, it rejected the information and reiterated that it did not recognize Israeli sovereignty at the location. Having no other choice, the commander of the Jerusalem police district, Ilan Franco, went to Jordan and asked for help from the Jordanian Royal House, but this too was refused.(19) The police then announced to the Wakf that if it did not install engineering support for the Eastern Wall and prevent worship at Solomon’s Stables, the number of worshippers permitted to enter the Temple Mount would be restricted, and worship above and in parts of the stables would be prohibited. Again the Wakf rebuffed the demand. The Islamic Movement, for its part, went so far as to call the police warnings “false and malicious” and an “Israeli plot to implement the plans they dream about day and night.” The chairman of the United Arab List, Member of Knesset Abd al-Malik Dehamshe, declared: “The mosques are in no danger of collapse, and if the Israeli government intends to prevent worship at them, that will only be to advance its goals of worshipping where some of them stand and destroying the Al-Aksa Mosque.”(20)
Only in November 2004 did the Wakf, in cooperation with Jordan, complete the engineering-support operations in line with the requests of the Israeli professionals. They installed support anchors between the Eastern Wall and nine of the pillars in the first row of arches, and additional support anchors between this row of arches and the succeeding arches.
As with the danger to the Southern Wall, regarding the Eastern Wall as well the Israeli legal authorities and professionals had trouble dealing directly with the problem because of the restrictions imposed on them by the government. The Wakf, which toughened its stance, did not make things easier for the government. The heads of the Wakf made clear that they would not allow access to the relevant Israeli actors. Since the Western Wall Tunnel riots in September 1996, the Wakf had barred Antiquities Authority supervisors from entering the closed areas of the Temple Mount even for routine visits. The authority used various stratagems to get around this obstacle, sometimes even disguising archeologists in police uniforms. Only after some years had passed did the Wakf partially lift the restrictions, and today the authority’s visits to the site are relatively unimpeded.
The relationship between the government and the Wakf has had to take into account interests that were not always beneficial to the antiquities and to archeology on the Temple Mount. The main interest concerned public well-being and the preservation of order and security at the compound. Another interest concerned relations with the Kingdom of Jordan, which since 1967 had maintained an ongoing connection with the Temple Mount mosques and even won Israel’s recognition for its special status. Other countries that were part of this delicate fabric were Egypt, Turkey, and Morocco, as well as the Palestinian Authority.
Nevertheless, when it came to addressing the danger of the collapse of the Southern and Eastern walls, the Israeli authorities acted against almost insurmountable odds. This emerged in a discussion in the Interior and Environmental Quality Committee of the Knesset on May 18, 2004. As Micha Ben-Nun, director of the Licensing and Supervision Department of the City of Jerusalem, explained:
The City of Jerusalem has formal and statutory authority over the Temple Mount, but in practice we have no control and no access to it. And that’s not all. There is also what is called “deliberate obstruction” by the parties that rule the Temple Mount, including the police and so on, denying us access and keeping us in the dark. Any information we receive is unofficial. Even information about the collapse of the Eastern Wall…no one reports to us. No one speaks with us. We have no way to get hold of official information.(21)
Similar statements were made in this discussion by Antiquities Authority director Shuka Dorfman, who admitted that because of a political decree by the prime minister, the authority’s supervision of the Temple Mount was at that time partial, indirect, and unofficial. “Lately we have not been there,” said Dorfman.
Thus, after almost three and a half decades of the Muslims accusing Israel of plotting and planning to topple the Temple Mount mosques and shake the foundations of the compound, the Muslims themselves created a real danger of the collapse of two of the mount’s walls through their work at Solomon’s Stables. Yet, instead of immediately acknowledging this, they raised obstacles to treating the problem, denied their responsibility, and stood their ground to the point of endangering the compound and the Muslim worshippers.
The Israeli concern about the unsupervised work in the area of Solomon’s Stables was only heightened by the fact that the vicinity of the Al-Aksa Mosque is known to be of weak stability. This was seen when sizable earthquakes struck the Land of Israel and Jerusalem, such as the ones in 1033, 1547, and 1927. These quakes either destroyed the Al-Aksa Mosque or severely damaged it, while the Dome of the Rock almost escaped damage. These two structures were indeed built in the same period, the golden age of the Umayyad Dynasty. Al-Aksa, however, rests on underground recesses that gravely endanger its foundations in case of an earthquake, whereas the Dome of the Rock stands on a foundation stone that is actually the bedrock of the Temple Mount itself.
This concern surfaced in December 2010 in an interview that the Jerusalem district commander of the IDF Home Front Command, Col. Chen Livni, gave to a local Jerusalem paper.(22) The heavy concentration of visitors, not infrequently numbering tens of thousands of people in the southeastern corner of the Temple Mount – a situation that arose only when Solomon’s Stables began serving as a mosque – is hardly reassuring to those in charge of the rescue and security forces, and they too have voiced their fears in various internal forums.(23)