New archeological work has taken a deep look at a long-lost bridge once found in Jerusalem's Temple Mount, one of the most contested and controversial religious sites in the world.
Researchers from the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Weizmann Institute of Science used radiocarbon dating techniques on dozens of relics to discover the construction date of Wilson's Arch, the arch of an ancient bridge that once linked Temple Mount to the houses of Jerusalem's upper city.
According to the study published in the journal PLOS One, Wilson's Arch was built between 20 BC and 20 CE, either during the reign of Herod the Great or shortly after his death. The second stage of the bridge was constructed between 30 CE and 60 CE during the period of direct Roman rule when the Romans expanded many building projects around Jerusalem, including an aqueduct supplying the Temple Mount with water.
The dating even suggests the second part of the bridge was perhaps built under the rule of the notorious governor Pontius Pilate, who presided at the trial of Jesus and gave the order for his crucifixion.
Archeology in ancient dense cities, especially those with a history as rich as Jerusalem, is a tricky business. Each age, culture, and occupying force brings its own new layer of archeology, which becomes overlapped or intertwined with the previous, making it hard to decipher when structures were truly built. This means it's hard to work out where Wilson's Arch and the bridge fit into the wider story of the temple and its many incarnations.
Excavations at the temple are made even more thorny due to the extreme political sensitivity of the site. Jerusalem's Temple Mount holds symbolic significance in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In fact, the Israeli government describes the Temple Mount as "the holiest site in Judaism." The site has become the focus of controversy and conflict between Jews and Muslims over who rightfully owns the temple.
The Temple Mount is within the Old City, which Israel gained control of in 1967 during the Six-Day War, although Israel has since handed administration of the site back to Jordan's royal family. Although Muslims are free to pray here, Jewish prayer is still forbidden and Jews are only allowed to enter the site to visit.
Recent archeological projects have further fueled the fire. There is much debate surrounding when the Temple Mount was built, with estimations ranging from Herod the Great to Roman colonization to the early Islamic period in Jerusalem. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, Jordanian authorities have previously suggested that archaeological dating has been used as a political tool to closely tie the Temple Mount to Jewish heritage and distance it from Islamic history.
While this new dating is unlikely to resolve any of these issues, the archeology of Temple Mount goes to show how the crossroads between archeology, politics, and religion can be complex to navigate.