by Hershel Shanks
New York: Continuum, 2007, 206 pp.
Reviewed by John Merrill
Biblical Archaeology Review editor Hershel Shanks has taken on a formidable challenge. His subject, Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, is arguably the most important archaeological site in the world. It is the center of monotheism, a place sacred to believing Jews and Muslims, and a focal point in Jesus’ ministry. Even for readers of secular disposition, the Temple Mount is a crucial nexus in humanity’s intellectual development. In the site’s long and complex history, monumental structures have been successively built, renovated or violently demolished. A comprehensive account of the Temple Mount is no mean undertaking.
Shanks brings to this challenge his instinct for a good story, an appetite for controversy and a clarity of exposition that for over three decades has made arcane technical matters accessible to non-specialist readers. In addition, he comes armed with a singular ability to mine the archives of the Biblical Archaeology Society and to canvas the world’s leading experts for supporting commentary.
The result is a well-documented and elegantly illustrated survey of the Temple Mount’s more than 3,000-year history, its prominent archaeological features and the important scholarly discoveries that have built our modern understanding.
A conundrum that any complete discussion of the Temple Mount must face is that, with respect to the original Temple of Solomon, not a single structural feature or related artifact has been positively identified. This lack of physical evidence has caused some to question whether Solomon’s original temple even existed. Shanks approaches this problem like a field archaeologist: he starts with the present and works backwards, beginning at the surface of a site, then digging deeper to expose successive layers or historical strata. For readers accustomed to narratives that start at the beginning and proceed forward, this reverse-order sequence takes some getting used to. But the effort is worthwhile, because the technique demonstrates in a powerful way the connection between present and past.
For example, Shanks provides convincing evidence that the 7th century C.E. Muslim conquerors of Jerusalem built the magnificent “Dome of the Rock” where Herod’s similarly awesome Temple stood, before its destruction by the 10th Roman Legion in 70 C.E. Shanks then demonstrates that Herod’s Temple in turn was a spectacular reconstruction of the earlier Temple built by Jews returning from Babylonian exile in the 6th century B.C.E. And to suggest seriously that this so-called Second Temple was not built to replace the predecessor that had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar’s army, one would have to postulate that the story of the returned Temple goods, authorized by Cyrus the Great (whose decree Josephus claims to have seen first-hand), as well as the multitude of references to historical events located in or around that first Temple, would collectively comprise an overwhelmingly complicated hoax.
In the end, doubters can rely only on the absence of physical evidence, which, in discussions of ancient archaeology, is a rather weak position, especially when contrary to logic and common sense.
Two ironies cloud the debate over the existence of Solomon’s original Temple. One is that the Palestinian authorities, who control the Temple Mount platform and who are among the most vocal naysayers, have blocked any archaeological investigation that could reveal the sort of physical evidence that might clarify the issue. And the single artifact—the so-called Jehoash inscription—that would prove conclusively the existence of the first Temple has been declared a forgery by the Israel Antiquities Authority, a finding that is disputed by a number of qualified scholars. Shanks takes his readers through these controversies in detail, in places perhaps over-indulging his taste for debate. Be that as it may, the resistance of both the Palestinian and Israeli authorities to scientific inquiry that could enlighten this important subject provides an uncomfortable reminder that dogmas, like mushrooms, thrive in darkness.
A curious omission from this discussion is the positive identification by Leen Ritmeyer of the original wall footings, carved in the bedrock of Es Sakhra (“the Rock” in Arabic). In a fascinating bit of archaeological deduction,1 Ritmeyer shows that these cleared areas correspond to the precise dimensions of the walls enclosing the Holy of Holies. Then, in the exact center of this supposed enclosure, Ritmeyer identifies another carved rectangular surface, which he argues persuasively to be the location of the Ark of the Covenant. Ritmeyer’s deductions are not necessarily conclusive but deserve mention because, if confirmed, they would seem to refute arguments based on the absence of evidence.
One omission in Jerusalem’s Temple Mount is that, although extensively annotated, it lacks a bibliography. These minor quibbles notwithstanding, Shanks has given his readers an important and useful book that explains better than any tour guide what a visitor to Jerusalem will see.
1. See “Secrets of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount” by Leen and Kathleen Ritmeyer, a 2006 publication of the Biblical Archaeology Society with a forward by Hershel Shanks.
John Merrill is a contributing editor of BAR.