An Israeli archaeologist said Sunday that what could be a Islamic prayer room was found at the site of the Mugrabi ramp in the Old City of Jerusalem, where excavation work has sparked angry protests by Muslims who say that the work endangers the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Muslim leaders and critics of the work said the announcement of the find, three years after it was discovered, confirmed their fears that the Antiquities Authority is intent on hiding Muslim attachment to the site.
Israel says the project is needed to repair damage to the ramp caused by a 2004 snowstorm, and the dig won’t affect Muslim holy sites on the nearby Temple Mount. Muslim leaders accuse Israel of plotting to destroy Islamic holy places, a claim that Israel has sought to refute by installing a web cam to monitor the scene and by agreeing to Turkish supervision of the dig.
In an article published recently on the authority’s Web site, Jerusalem district archaeologist Yuval Baruch described the ruins that were discovered after the snowstorm three years ago.
In 2004, when the Mughrabi ramp collapsed, a small room was discovered which contained an alcove covered with a dome, a kind of Muslim prayer niche, facing south, Baruch wrote. Some suggest that these are the remains of a prayer room that was part of a madrasa (a Muslim religious school) which operated near the Mughrabi Gate.
Authority officials said the article was published earlier this month, around the time the project began.
Adnan Husseini, Director of the Islamic Waqf, which oversees affairs at the Temple Mount, expressed anger that Israel withheld news of the discovery for three years. “We didn’t hear anything about this,” he said. “They are always hiding things.”
Baruch said the authority decided not to reveal the existence of the room sooner since it still is not clear what it was. He said finds in and around the room need further research before authorities can say exactly what the room was used for.
The archaeological dig is taking place about 60 meters away from the Temple Mount, the third-holiest site in Islam and holiest site in Judaism.
Activists for Palestinian rights in Jerusalem said the delayed publication of the archaeological find proved the Antiquities Authority has not been truthful.
“This coincides with the way they act,” said Amos Gil of Ir Amim, an Israeli group that promotes coexistence in Jerusalem. “They don’t want to find all the ruins, just the Jewish ones.”