Another Brick in the Western Wall: Deconstructing Archaeological Debates in Jerusalem and Ayodhya

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The lands in Israel and India have a very long history of changing hands between different religions and cultures. This ongoing change in control over the regions adds an insurmountable ambiguity in the question of modern day ownership. All of the political and religious arguments between Palestinians and Israelis or Hindus and Muslims stem from the fact that there are several cultural groups that all have authentic heritage ties to these locations. Stakeholders from all sides of the conflicts over sites in Ayodhya and Jerusalem call on archaeological evidence in an effort to prove the legitimacy of their ownership claims. Politicians, religious leaders, and even many archaeologists allow their agendas to drive their study, interpretation, and presentation of the sites. A pluralistic compilation of interpretations from different stakeholders shows that both the Temple Mount and the Babri Mosque have multi-dimensional histories that are important to the heritages of numerous cultures. Although all camps involved in these arguments use archaeology to support their ownership claims, their archaeological practices are driven by their political agendas. Archaeological arguments in these cases are not the cause of political debate in the regions, but rather extensions of them.

Al Haram al Sharif—the Temple Mount—has a profound religious significance for Jews and Muslims alike. Both traditions maintain that Mount Moriah is one of the holiest places on Earth. Although Jews—by nature of existing thousands of years prior to Muslims—undeniably established a presence in Jerusalem before the Muslims (after conquering the land in a series of wars against the Canaanites and a whole slew of other preexisting local cultures), the site is presently equally important to both religions—for both ceremonial and heritage reasons. Mount Moriah is the site of the Akedat Yitzhak (Genesis 22:1-19), the construction of the first and second Temples (Kings 6:1-11), and Mohammad’s ascension to heaven where he communed with God and the preceding prophets (Koran 17:1). These events are all paramount to the founding of Judaism and Islam, which is why they bear such cultural and ritual importance. Both Muslims and Jews revere the site and feel very strongly about worshiping at it.

Israelis and Palestinians cannot help but to impose their nationalist goals onto their interpretations of archaeological sites in the holy land. “Archaeological sites and the ancient stories they told galvanized public sentiment. Science and the popular imagination were deeply enmeshed,” writes Nadia Abu El-Haj in her book “Facts on the Ground” (Abu El-Haj 004: 1). Abu El-Haj explains that Israelis and Israeli archaeologists have a preconceived notion of the area’s ancient history based on the Tanach. She claims that Jewish stakeholders interpret their excavations such that they most corroborate the Torah. The Israeli-told history of the Haram typically ends after the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash, completely ignoring the Muslim history affiliated with the site.

Dr Marc Howard Ross wrote a paper on the conflicting archaeological narratives in Jerusalem. He describes debates between Israelis and Palestinians as circuitous games of finger pointing in which all parties involved are guilty of exaggeration and accusations are posed more often than evidence. He writes, “In each, both sides present mutually exclusive claims, and there are fears that accepting even part of the other side’s position is a denial of ones own rights,” (2003: Ross). Ross suggests that stakeholders are hesitant to practice real archaeology for fear of conceding even a piece of history to their opponents.

Jewish and Muslim stakeholders employ the same tactics in order to promote their primary interest—debunking the credibility and legitimacy of the opposing side. The Jews wasted no time in demolishing the Mughrabi Quarter after the capture of the Temple Mount in 1967. The Mughrabi Quarter residences, removed in order to create worship space for Jews at the Western Wall, represented several hundred years of Muslim history. Waqf plans to destroy Solomon’s Stables to make way for a new mosque on the Haram similarly ignored the pluralistic history of the site. Ross quotes American-Israeli Historian Gershom Gorenberg, “Anxious about the future, Muslims seek to erase the Temple from the sites past. In the work of radical rewriting they are not alone,” (2003: Ross). Rather than carrying out excavations and studies with intellectual integrity, stakeholders—from both sides of the argument—use their excavations and tamper with sites and to rewrite history.

Nationalist interference with archaeological integrity is hardly unique to Jerusalem. In Ayodhya, political and religious stakeholders stretched their interpretations of the site so far that it is unclear what is true and what is false. In Jerusalem, Jews and Muslims both acknowledge that each group had a historic presence on the Temple Mount. The debate is about which history will be better reflected in the site today. In Ayodhya however, Muslims assert that there never was a Hindu Temple on the location of the Babri Mosque. Hindu nationalists claim with absolute certainty that there was indeed a temple on the spot dedicated to the birthplace of Ram. These two viewpoints sharply contradict each other and there is no possibility that they are both wholly true. Though the archaeological argument is more polarized in Ayodhya than in Jerusalem, the concept is the same: Both groups have some sort of religious and cultural heritage associated with the site that cannot be ignored. Like in Jerusalem, archaeology in Ayodhya is driven by the political debate. All archaeological disagreement stems from political dissent.

Hindu Archaeologist S.P. Gupta vehemently supports the idea of a Hindu Temple that predated the Babri Mosque. This conclusion serves his political agenda by strengthening his Hindu nationalist claim to the site. He writes, “at the controversial site a Hindu temple was built in the eleventh century which continued to be in use till the very end of the fifteenth century. Then suddenly, in the early sixteenth century, it was demolished and its debris was partially used in the construction of a mosque, now called Babri Mosque.” (1990: 88) Gupta posits with absolute certainty that there was a temple in the location of the Babri Mosque. His rhetoric, reflecting no uncertainty, is much more political than scientific.

Suraj Bhan later disputes Gupta’s claim with equal certainty. In “Myth, History, and Archaeology,” he is quoted, “It must be stated emphatically that Dr. Gupta’s assertions are not tenable, and his conclusions are wrong because his assumptions are faulty,” (1991: 94) Bhan also interprets the Ayodhya excavation such that it bests supports his political agenda: to promote pluralism and secularism  as a more important part of the national history of India. The lack of even a shadow of a doubt in both Gupta’s and Bhan’s statements is highly suspect. Archaeologists seldom speak in such absolutes because they recognize that it is nearly impossible to perfectly capture events that transpired centuries ago from archaeological evidence. Both Gupta and Bhan abandon their scientific integrity for their politics.

The actual existence of a Hindu temple that preceded the Babri Mosque does not significantly affect the political argument about Ayodhya. Of course archaeological evidence would have provided ammunition for one side of the debate, but the underlying problem is that there are two large groups of people that both feel that they should have ownership over the site. In 1886, Col. F.E.A. Chamier, a Faizabad district judge ruled, “I visited the land in dispute yesterday in the presence of all parties. I found that the Masjid built by Emperor Babar stands on the border of Ayodhya, that is to say, to the west and south. It is clear of habitants. It is most unfortunate that a Masjid should have been built on land specially held sacred by the Hindus, but as that event occurred 356 years ago, it is too late now to agree with the grievances,” (Islam 2007:24). A group of people cannot be denied their heritage, especially one routed in a tradition of nearly five hundred years. This was evidenced by the Muslim outrage when the Mosque was destroyed.

When two different cultures have legitimate claims to the same heritage site, the only viable way to satisfy all parties is a pluralistic solution. The demolition of the Babri Mosque essentially ended the possibility of a pluralistic solution in Ayodhya, but there is still a chance of reaching some sort of compromise. For this to happen, politics, religion, and archaeology must be separated. When archaeology is used to trace heritage, it is impossible not to arrive at a conclusion of sole ownership. One group precedes the other and therefore can claim ownership. The union between politics and archaeology also results in the fizzling of the scientific method. Both Ayodhya and Jerusalem have long histories of ethnic violence and bloodshed. Reliving them will only cause their recurrence. Discrepancies over heritage sites can only be settled if tumultuous pasts are abandoned and a new future of compromise begun.

Works Cited

Abu El-Haj, Nadia. 2001. Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

The Bible (New Oxford Study version)

Court verdict by Col. F.E.A. Chamier, District Judge, Faizabad (1886)

The Koran (Dawood translation).

Islam, Arshad, 2007 Babri Mosque: A Historic Bone of Contention. The Muslim World. Volume 97:Pp. 259-286. Kuala Lumpur: International Islamic University Malaysia.

Noorani, AG, ed. 2004 The Babri Masjid Question, 1528-2003: ‘A Matter of National Honor.’ Volume 1. New Delhi: Tulika Books. Selections.  

Ross, Marc Howard, 2003. Competing Narratives and Escalation of Ethnic Conflicts: The Case of the Holy Sites in Jerusalem. Revista de Ciencias Sociales y de la Comunicacion. Pp. 189-208. Murcia: Sphera Publica.

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