Were they victims of a Second Temple-era massacre or simply corpses buried in a Byzantine gravesite?
In the area that stretches between the eastern wall of the Temple Mount and the channel of Nahal Kidron there is a Muslim cemetery right up against the wall of the Temple Mount. But it was the haredim, not the Muslims, whom the archaeologists feared. The Antiquities Authority officials who visited the slope at the foot of the wall on the Temple Mount that night were Drori (who has since passed away), Gideon Avni (the district archaeologist of Jerusalem) and Boaz Zissu (then the director of the unit in charge of preventing the theft of antiquities).
Benny Liss, the archaeological affairs reporter at Channel One, who had close ties with the Antiquities Authority, joined the group. They entered some of the caves that night, along with Liss and a small team. It appears that an agreement had been reached that the reporter would be allowed to tag along solely for documentation purposes, and not for release to the media.
Last weekend, three days before the fast of Tisha B'Av, Liss, now retired, dropped an archaeological bombshell. For the first time, at a conference given by Megalim, the City of David Institute for Jerusalem Studies, he showed the footage that he had filmed in those caves that night. Along with the shocking images of skeletons he filmed, came Liss' own theory, that the skeletons belonged to the 6,000 people who had been killed on the Temple Mount during the destruction of Jerusalem, as described by first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. The audience was in shock.
[The footage showed] Liss go[ing] down the stairs into the cave, the photographer following him. The floor of the cave is covered with skeletons, bones and fragments of bones...The images are reminiscent of a large mass grave. Thousands upon thousands of bones, if not more. Liss recalls: “It was very disturbing."
...The cave, which is near the Golden Gate, was the ideal place [supposes Liss] for the Romans, who stayed on the Temple Mount for a month after destroying the temple, to bury the thousands of corpses.
...historian Nathan Shor...cites evidence that Jews were among those buried on the slope that Liss and his associates visited that night. Shor quotes the account of an unnamed Jew, a student of Nahmanides, who wrote about the discovery of Jewish graves on the slope facing the Mount of Olives, at the foot of the city wall. He also quotes a similar account by an Italian monk, Niccolo da Poggibonsi, but relies mostly on the description of the region given by Rabbi Yitzhak ben Meir Latif, who was born in Italy in the second half of the 15th century....Dr. Dotan Goren of Bar-Ilan University, who documented the Jewish efforts to buy land in the holy sites in Jerusalem and its environs during the Ottoman era, gathered quite a few accounts of ancient Jewish burial sites there. Liss believes that the cemetery that was taken from the Jews was the continuation of the Jewish settlement that existed there...
...The cave was sealed by officials of the Antiquities Authority as quickly as it had been opened because the people in charge of the Ophel promenade project had promised that the caves would not be disturbed during the construction of the promenade and the improvement of the road nearby...In 1995, Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron excavated as part of the development of the Ophel road. Their dig uncovered findings that hint at dwellings, evidently Jewish ones, that existed in the area in Second Temple times. It also documented about 25 Byzantine burial caves along the length of the eastern slope.
...now Professor Boaz Zissu of the Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University...co-wrote, together with Professor Amos Kloner, a book titled "The Necropolis of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period.” Zissu was able to shed some light on the mystery for me.
“I was there that night,” he said. “Even though I didn’t go inside the cave that Liss and his crew documented, I went into one that was nearby. With us in there were people from the Antiquities Authority, including the late director-general, Amir Drori, the district archaeologist, Gideon Avni, and others. After studying still photographs from Liss’ film and comparing them to other photographs from that night, Zissu said that Liss’ film showed that the cave was a Byzantine burial site.
“What shows this clearly is the double trough where the skeletons and bones are placed,” Zissu said. “Also, the entrance shafts to the caves that I remember from that area were covered by stone slabs, which is characteristic of Byzantine burials.”
Which cave are we talking about?...Liss insists that the cave that he documented was higher up, near the wall. Zissu is talking about a few meters above the road, much lower down. Liss insists that in the cave he filmed there were no Christian symbols. Also, it was not a hewn cave but rather a natural one, unlike the nearby caves that he documented, which were lower down...officials of the Antiquities Authority say that they know nothing of this issue and would be happy to receive information from Liss about it.
One of Avni’s successors at the Antiquities Authority says that he heard about a large burial cave in the region that has never been investigated.
One way or another, the chances that the cave that Liss documented, with its thousands of skeletons, will be opened anytime soon, are slim. The cave is below the Muslim cemetery, which spreads out over a large area below the eastern wall of the Temple Mount. Only recently, the Temple Mount Rescue Committee won its battle to prevent the cemetery’s expansion southward, into uninhabited areas.
The Muslims will firmly oppose anyone who dares to approach their territory to try to solve the mystery, so Schmidl and his colleagues in Atra Kadisha can relax.
The story also shows us how little we know about Jerusalem in ancient times. It also shows the major archaeological role that the Temple Mount itself, which has never been excavated due to Muslim opposition, could play in drawing up a more precise map of Jerusalem’s past.