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Western Wall museum plans threaten Roman relics, archaeologists warn

Jerusalem planning council to rule on controversial project that opponents claim would destroy valuable ancient structures beneath the Old City.

By Nir Hasson 

27 June 2010

Jerusalem's district planning council was on Sunday set to rule on a controversial museum project that archaeologists claim would destroy valuable ancient structures beneath the Old City.

The new museum is planned for the concourse beside the Western Wall of the Temple Mount – Judaism's holiest site.

But a group of archaeologists who have petitioned the council says the new building, designed by architect Ada Karmi, would damage an ancient Roman road, flanked by rare and elaborate columns, that runs beneath the planned construction.

They say that if Jewish relics were under threat, the project would never have been allowed.

"It is impossible to exaggerate the cultural damage and the harm to antiquities that would result if the road is encased by the new building's foundation pillars," the archaeologists wrote in a petition to the planning council.

"It is difficult to escape the feeling that the fact that this find does not belong to Judaism's golden age is aiding the authorities in their decision to enclose it beneath the proposed structure."

Karmi's plans would preserve the Roman relics, which the public would be able to view from a basement gallery beneath the new building. But the group of archaeologists, which includes several members of Israel's UNESCO committee, says that this solution ignores the possibility of developing a unique historical site.

"The plans would destroy the chance to create a continuous passage of road over 200 meters long – originally a colonnade – which could serve as a foundation stone for researchers and students of Jerusalem's history, as well as to tourists and the general public," the archaeologists wrote.

In response to the petition, Shmuel Rabinovitch, the Western Wall's rabbi, said the new building would be essential in providing services to the increasing number of visitors to the site. Far from damaging fragile ruins, the new structures would ensure their preservation, he said.


Also reported on 18 November 2009 on Heritage Key:

Western Wall Heritage Center a threat to Jerusalem's Roman History?

Madaba Map Jerusalem
Fragment of the Madaba map - created between 542 and 570 AD - is part of a floor mosaic in the early Byzantine church of Saint George at Madaba, Jordan.

One of Israel's leading archaeologists has publicly condemned the Israel Antiquities Authority's failure to object to a plan to construct a part of the Western Wall Heritage Center over a site where a well-preserved ancient Roman road was recently excavated. The construction area has been designated for religious purposes since Israel took control of the Western Wall in 1967. The building would include a 4,800-square meter, three-story museum and educational institute that would display the Roman road on the ground floor, but Yoram Tsafir told even the most amazing architect will not be able to avoid damaging the find and visitors need to be able to see the entire road - not just a fragment - to appreciate it.

The street known as the Eastern Cardo or the Valley Cardo appears on the Madaba Map - dated to 565Ad one of the oldest detailed cartographic documents in the world - and began at the Damascus Gate in the north and led south, running the lenght of the channel in the Tyropoeon Valley. Excavated in 2007, the colonnaded street was paved with large flagstones that were set in place diagonally, in the customary method of the Roman world, which was probably meant to prevent wagons from slipping. A drainage system was installed below the flagstones.

The Roman-Byzantine road in the Western Wall plaza is indeed an important find according to archaeologist Guy Stiebel: "One of the amazing things discovered is that the Romans, and not the Byzantines, laid the foundations for Jerusalem."

At an archaeological conference in Jerusalem, Tsafrir - a former archaeology professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem - argued that the construction is being approved because the findings are not from a period of Jewish rule over Jerusalem. "One day, we can hope, the entire length of the road might be revealed," he said. "That will be able to happen when more enlightened groups run the city and the country and the cultural treasures that are in it - those that understand that even monuments that aren't Jewish have significance."