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The Oldest Datable Chambers on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem

By Shimon Gibson and David M. Jacobson

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Religious sensitivities have discouraged scientific investigation of subterranean features within the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem, which incorporates the area of the ancient Temple Mount. In consequence, the mystery of this sacred place has been heightened, providing fertile ground for flights of fancy concerning the two Jewish temples that formerly occupied the site. Even serious scholars have had to make do with hypotheses concerning the position and layout of these ancient complexes (Busink 1970:1-20), one of the present authors included (Jacobson 1990-91). However, for a brief period in the second half of the nineteenth century a handful of intrepid European explorers, in particular Charles Wilson, Charles Warren, Claude Regnier Conder, and Conrad Schick, succeeded in lifting this veil of secrecy and visited many of the underground chambers that pepper this sacred site. They left records of some 45 subterranean chambers that they classified as cisterns as well as other cavities and structural remains. Much of this material was published by them (Wilson 1866: 42-45; Warren 1871:204-17; Warren and Conder 1884; Schick 1887:72- 87; 1896: 292-305), but many important details were confined to manuscript and deposited in the archives of the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) in London.

Some of the most reliable and detailed information was recorded by the German-born Conrad Schick (1822- 1901), who settled in Jerusalem and worked there as an architect through the second half of the nineteenth century (Carmel 1983; Strobel 1988). The house that he designed and built there for his own residence, called "Thabor," still stands on the Street of the Prophets. Its distinctive character has made it a landmark of western Jerusalem: today it is occupied by the Swedish Theological Seminary. In addition to his architectural pursuits, Schick was one of the leading pioneers of the exploration of Jerusalem's ancient remains, regularly publishing his findings in the learned journals of the British and German societies dedicated to the exploration of Palestine, namely the Palestine Exploration Fund and the Deutscher Palästina-Verein. While Schick received considerable encouragement and support for his endeavors from Wilson at PEF headquarters in London, as attested by their frequent correspondence, he was cold-shouldered by Warren, who was directing reconnaissance surveys and excavations in Jerusalem on behalf of the Fund during the years 1867-70. In a letter to Wilson dated 15 December 1871, Schick, in his poor grammatical English, complained that "Captain Warren used my service only in a few and very exceptional cases, so to the most part I learned by his printed reports(,) only(,) what was going on" (PEF Archives, Schick 2). Yet, Schick, with his sharp eye for detail, subsequently provided superior information about the subterranean cisterns of the Haram.

Normally, the interior of the Haram was kept out of bounds to explorers, but in 1872 Schick was afforded a golden opportunity to investigate this area. Turkey wished to be represented at the Great Exhibition to be held in Vienna, and the Austrian consul in Jerusalem persuaded them to put on display there a detailed model of the Haram al-Sharif. As Schick related in a letter to Charles Wilson, dated 7 June 1872, he was awarded the assignment of producing a suitable model in wood at a reasonable cost (PEF Archives, Schick 3). He wanted his model to be of value to "students of history and topography" and not merely a display of craftsmanship. It was exhibited with another model in the Turkish pavilion at the Vienna Exhibition of 1873 and later they were sold by his agent, Rev. J.H. Brühl, to the Mission House Museum in Basle, Switzerland, as we are informed in letters from Schick to Wilson, written between 16 June, 1873 and 23 April 1874 (PEF Archives, Schick 7, 9-11). Schick was determined to depict "the substructions (sic), cisterns and all underground buildings as well as those above ground" (PEF Archives, Schick 3). He thereupon set about examining and recording as many of the subterranean features as he was able, during the years 1873 and 1875, and continued making models. Some of Schick's models may still be seen in Jerusalem at the St. Paulus Hospice, better known as the Schmidt School, which is situated oppo-site the Damascus Gate. By Schick's own admission, his monograph on the Tabernacle and the Temple, Die Stiftshütte, is largely a commentary on these models (Schick 1896:III-IV, 55).

This was a period when much needed repairs were being made to the Dome of the Rock by the Ottoman Turkish authorities which brought builders and engineers into the Haram. These circumstances made it easier for Schick to gain access to areas normally barred to foreigners. He was able to observe digging operations and the clearance of blocked underground channels. Several of the cisterns were visited and recorded by him at this time. Schick's drawings benefit considerably from his architectural knowledge. Much of this valuable material remains unpublished.

We are now engaged in a systematic study of the archival material held by the Palestine Exploration Fund in London, including its holdings of Schick's papers, focusing particular attention on documentary material, including correspondence and drawings, relating to the cisterns. By sifting through these records and critically analyzing the information, we have established a typology for the cisterns, which will shortly be published. Associated with this quest is an attempt to date these underground chambers.

There can be no doubt that some of the cisterns and caves within the Haram al-Sharif reach back in date to pre-Christian antiquity. On this point, we have the testimony of the pseudepigraphal Epistle of Aristeas. More correctly, this work should be entitled a discourse which provides an account of how the Greek translation of the Jewish Torah came into being. It is generally believed that the author of the Epistle of Aristeas was an Egyptian, probably an educated Jew of Alexandria, but scholars have not been