Discovery of mosaic halts work at Jerusalem walkway

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The Independent Online

The planned walkway at the centre of the furious dispute over Jerusalem's holiest site could be further delayed by the discovery of a Byzantine mosaic.

The geometric patterned fragment was exposed by archaeological workers yesterday at the bottom of an underground shaft where one of the walkway pillars is intended to go, as The Independent examined excavation work in the area.

"We have a real time discovery," reported Gideon Avni, director of excavations and surveys at the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Dr Avni said further excavations would now be needed to see whether the mosaic, probably from the fifth or sixth century AD, was part of a larger decorated room or house. He said it was too early to say whether the pillar would have to be moved. If the fragment turned out not to extend further, it could possibly be extracted and exhibited.

The discovery was the latest in a series of twists in the conflict over access through the Mugrabi Gate to the compound sacred to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif - noble sanctuary.

Seventeen policemen and 23 Palestinians were injured last Friday during demonstrations against the building of the new walkway, where the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque - Islam's third holiest site - is located. The work, is being carried out close to the Western Wall, the remains of the second Jewish Temple destroyed by the Romans AD70, and most sacred place in Judaism.

On Monday, Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Mayor, Uri Lupolianski, won praise from Israeli liberals when he unexpectedly announced work on the new walkway would be frozen to allow time for objections, including by Muslims, under a formal planning procedure. But the Israeli government said the archaeological "salvage digging" customary when construction work is carried out in the area, would continue.

Dr Avni vehemently denied claims by some Islamic leaders - and echoed by demonstrators from Cairo to Damascus - that the excavations posed a threat to the foundations of the mosques, saying they were all taking place in a limited area outside the walls of the compound. The Israeli authorities are arranging for webcam pictures of the dig to prove his case.

And while archaeology in Jerusalem is often complicated by religious and political overtones, Dr Avni virtually ruled out the possibility that the digs will discover remnants of the Jewish temple period.

Pointing to arches from Ottoman and Mameluke structures below the ramp, he added: "I don't believe that they will even reach the early Islamic period."

The eminent Israeli novelist Amos Oz yesterday praised the Mayor's decision to put work on the walkway on hold but added in an article in Yedhiot Ahronot: "It would be appropriate if this argument would also lead to the postponement of the archeological excavations - these excavations are also sparking the fires of religious dispute over the question of who in fact is the proprietor of the Temple Mount holy sites."