Artefact set to fuel Jerusalem debate

The 2,700-year-old docket, discovered in Jerusalem's Old City, carries ancient Hebrew that reads "belonging to the governor of the city".
The 2,700-year-old docket, discovered in Jerusalem's Old City, carries ancient Hebrew that reads "belonging to the governor of the city".PHOTO: REUTERS

2,700-year-old docket could prove Jewish kingdom was in area also claimed by Muslims

Archaeology has always played a central role in the struggle for dominion over Jerusalem. A key find in the city is now bound to become part of a heated political debate.

The discovery of a 2,700-year-old docket was made by archaeologist Shimon Cohen almost a year ago, while he was sifting through dirt from the cracks in the wall of an Iron Age structure in Jerusalem's Old City, not far from the Western Wall, a site abutting the city's holiest hill, which is revered by Jews and Muslims alike.

The docket - a small, round lump of clay, only 3mm thick and 15mm in diameter - is big on implications.

Israeli researchers say it could be the first piece of evidence proving the existence of a Jewish kingdom and its sovereignty in Jerusalem and over Temple Mount during the first temple period. This is not only scientifically significant but could also be of political importance, because by proving the historicity of biblical accounts to some degree, the ancient find is bound to be turned into ammunition in the diplomatic struggle between Jews and Muslims over their claims on the holy city.

Since US President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state, tensions have been escalating. After 21/2 years of relative quiet, Palestinian factions have begun to lob missiles and grenades at Israel from Gaza on an almost daily basis, provoking bombing raids in retaliation. In the West Bank, Fridays have been declared "days of rage" in which Palestinian protesters clash with Israeli security forces.

Mr Trump's declaration has enraged Palestinians, as they claim the eastern part of the city as a capital for their future state. And Muslims revere as their holy shrine the very same hill that Jews call Temple Mount, for it houses the Dome of the Rock, the oldest Islamic sacral structure in the world, and Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest house of prayer for Muslims.

The Palestinian narrative over the issue is becoming more radical. In the Western world, scholars almost universally agree the holy hill of Moriah housed two Jewish temples over the course of history. The first was built during the reign of the biblical King Solomon around 1000BC and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586BC. The second was erected several decades later and destroyed by the Romans in AD70.

STAKING CLAIM

Jerusalem is one of the most ancient capitals of the world, continually populated by the Jewish people for more than 3,000 years.

MR NIR BARKAT, the Israeli mayor of Jerusalem, on what the docket signifies.

This view was once also held by Muslim clerics, but more and more Muslims deny a Jewish temple ever existed. This view found expression last year in a Unesco resolution passed under Palestinian pressure that ignored Jewish links to Temple Mount. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem claims there is no scientific proof a Jewish temple ever existed.

There is ample evidence to support the existence of the second temple. But when it comes to the first temple, while remains of human activity on the hill dating from the eighth to sixth century BC were found in 2016, they proved only that humans did live there at that time, but do not support claims of a Jewish connection to the place.

That is what makes the docket so important. It stems from excavations led by Dr Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah only a few metres west of the Western Wall. Ancient Hebrew adorns the docket, reading "belonging to the governor of the city". It has been dated to the seventh or sixth century BC. The lump of pre-fired and stamped clay was found in a four-chamber structure from the Iron Age. Dr Weksler-Bdolah is convinced the structure she has been excavating "probably served as an administration centre". The docket, she contends, sealed "an important transport and served as some sort of logo, or as a tiny souvenir, which was sent on behalf of the governor of the city".

For scientists, the finding is seen as proof that some parts of the Hebrew Bible are historically accurate. It is the first piece of evidence that the governors of Jerusalem, who are mentioned twice in Scripture, actually existed.

Citing the seal as proof of Jewish sovereignty over the site 2,700 years ago, Israelis see their historical claim to the Middle East's most contested site boosted. Jerusalem's Israeli mayor Nir Barkat said the docket showed that "Jerusalem is one of the most ancient capitals of the world, continually populated by the Jewish people for more than 3,000 years". But it remains doubtful whether that will move Palestinians to acknowledge the Jewish past of a hill they have come to regard as their exclusive domain.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2018, with the headline 'Artefact set to fuel Jerusalem debate'. Print Edition | Subscribe