Helena Flusfeder reports from Jerusalem on cooperation and conflict in the region. The recently opened tunnel near Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock that provoked violent Palestinian protests is of no great archaeological significance, an archaeologist at the Israel Antiquities Authority has claimed.
Gideon Avni said that the tunnel could not compare to other "spectacular" archaeological sites nearby. But it became an issue because of its position close to the Moslem holy sites and its opening was seen as challenging the complex status quo governing them.
The tunnel is comprised of two ancient sections: an aqueduct originally used as a water system to the Temple Mount, along with an underground series of vaults discovered 130 years ago; and the nearby beautiful (but archaeologically insignificant) "Solomon's Stables", which is part of a retaining wall of the Temple Mount and which was built in the first century bc by King Herod.
Recent excavations have revealed a Herodian street with its original crooked paving stones and, 100 yards away, the remains of the seventh century palace of the Khalif of Jerusalem. This is clear evidence of an early Islamic presence in the city, according to Dr Avni.
It is especially significant, he said, because until recently, the Al-Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock "were the most important Islamic monuments in the city. Now we have a network of four Islamic Omayyad palaces. It is the most important archaeological discovery related to the early Islamic period in the past 30-40 years."
The excavations, which were begun in 1968 and continued until 1977, were only renewed in 1994. The Antiquities Authority discussed its plans with the Wakf (the Islamic authority which controls the area of the Temple Mount), and a joint museum renovation project was the result. The "only joint (Jewish and Arab) scaffolding in the world," according to Dr Avni.
This united approach contrasts with the Wakf's claim that Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, did not consult it when he decided to open the tunnel under the Dome of the Rock.
However, Dr Avni points out that the Israeli government has invested Pounds 1.9 million to restore and preserve these Jewish and Islamic sites, as part of a larger archaeological park around Jerusalem, which will be completed by the year 2000.