Remains of an ancient Muslim prayer room were found under the dirt embankment adjacent to the Mugrabi Gate in 2004, yet the findings, unearthed after part of the embankment collapsed into the Western Wall compound, were kept secret until now.
The information was withheld from the public but had been known to various Israeli officials. The findings were revealed in an article posted on the Israel Antiquities Authority's internet site by archaeologist Yuval Baruch, who works in the Jerusalem district.
In an article entitled "The real story," Baruch revealed that when the embankment collapsed near the Mugrabi Bridge, a small room with a roofed alcove and a dome was unearthed - a type of Muslim prayer alcove facing south. Some have suggested that these are the remains of a prayer room which was originally part of a school for Muslim studies which operated adjacent to the Mugrabi Gate.
The remains apparently date back to the 11th century, the Salah al-Din era known as the Ayub Period and which is of great significance to the Muslim world. This important finding was kept secret in fear that the Muslim community would demand that the site, adjacent to the Western Wall compound, be declared sacred.
One of the Muslim arguments regarding the works taking place near the Mugrabi Bridge is that the destruction of the embankment would damage Muslim sites. The findings published by the Antiquities Authority are likely to support this argument.
According to AP, Adnan Hussein, chairman of the Muslim council that oversees affairs at the holy site, 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."
Sources at the Antiquities Authority say the aim of the excavations is to preserve findings that may be unearthed there.
Meir Ben Dov, an archaeologist and a Jerusalem researcher, expressed his astonishment Saturday in wake of the findings.
"Our irresponsible behavior has provided Sheikh Raed Salah with ammunition. Why was this kept secret for three years? And how can it be said that there are no sites on the embankment related to Islam? It is inconceivable that these findings were not reported to the Muslims and that tractors were sent to an area where clearly there are important findings from the Ayub Period," he said.
On the Antiquities Authority's internet site where the article was posted, there are currently live pictures being transmitted from the excavation site, as instructed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Surfers can keep track of the excavations 24-hours a day via the internet at: www.antiquities.org.il
Itamar Eichner also contributed to this report