by Eli Rosen

One of the stories told recently about Jerusalem sounds like a pulp fiction novel, with heroes, rivals, secret political maneuvers and a threat to the delicate geopolitical balance in the Middle East. Amazingly, this story does not come from the corridors of government offices, but from the world of archeology in the land of the Bible, which was no less hot-headed than the world of politics.

This journalist meets the main protagonist of the story, Tzachi Zweig, in Emek Tzurim, the national park in East Jerusalem, located between the Mount of Olives and the Mount Scopus (where the Hebrew University is located). In recent years, Zweig has experienced ups and downs: he “went head-to-head” against well-known government officials and was even banned for his unwavering attachment to his latest archeology project. It is no wonder that his project, which he carries out with Dr. Gabriel Barkai, is one of the most important in biblical archaeological history: it deals with sifting dirt from the Temple Mount.

During our meeting, Zweig got out of his car wearing a straw hat and sunglasses, looking like a modern-day treasure hunter. During our conversation, it was clear that Zweig’s unique influence reflects his personality: he is ambitious and at the same time impatient, wasting little time on irrelevant questions. In light of the path ahead of him, it’s easy to understand why: the amount of dirt that he and his team are testing reaches about 6000 cubic meters, and was collected over eight seasons of archaeological work.

To trace the origin of the story, we must go back to 1999, when Zweig, a graduate student at Bar-Ilan University, heard that the Muslim Waqf (the Muslim administrative body responsible for the Temple Mount) had moved dirt from an illegal excavation site near the front of the well-known structure called “Solomon’s Stables”, and emptied the dirt rich in archaeological remains into the Kidron Valley.

In doing so, he put an end to one of the most serious archaeological crimes in history. Without his initiative, and without the administrative and financial support of the Ir David Foundation, these items of history, whose value is priceless, would have disappeared forever.

I asked Zweig, “What motivated you”? In light of a particularly unpleasant excavation scenario, he shrugged his shoulders (The analysis of dirt spills that are not at the site where they were excavated is considered archaeological suicide). But giving up was not on the agenda at all. The dirt is particularly fertile in finds, and the site from which we excavated is too historically important to let go. “In addition to that,” Zweig says, “every time we are close to giving up, we find something special.” Last year, for example, significant discoveries were made, including a “seal” (a stamp made of clay or metal), which is thought to have been used to seal cloth sacks containing money. It bears the name Gedaliah ben Immer the priest, and implies that its owner was perhaps the brother of Pashhur ben Immer, who is described in the Bible (Jeremiah 20:1) as being a priest of the temple.

At the same time, even if nothing comes out of this dig, Zweig will still continue this meticulous process. For Zweig, archeology is more than digging and searching for old artifacts. A higher ambition lies in it – to ensure that history, the history of humans, will be given the respect it deserves. “Dr. Barkai always says that dirt does not have the same value as a living person, but at the same time, even when he is dead, he should be respected.” Therefore, Barkai and Zweig’s project to save the Temple Mount ensures that the story of the Temple Mount, and as a result, that of the Jewish people, will also be examined in a dignified manner, before “being brought to eternal rest”.

After the excavation dust settles, what will the excavations ultimately reveal? What stories will the discovered items tell? Zweig hesitates to even contemplate this. However, Zweig, with the help of the Ir David Foundation, understands the much greater impact of an in-depth investigation of the history of the Temple Mount. “There is a potential for arousing more interest in the Bible and other ancient Jewish sources.” This is part of Zweig’s ambitions: to generate excitement about Israel’s history as occurred with findings in the past, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Zweig and his team want to make sure that their opinions are heard in writing the pages of the Temple Mount’s history, and to prevent further corruption on the part of others. For without Zweig’s constant vigilance on the subject, significant parts of Jewish history would never have left the landfill.

Eli Rosen, a master’s student at Brown University, did an internship in the “City of David” during the summer of 2006. These days he lives in Jerusalem.

The archaeological experience in Emek Zurim