Digging In

When Israeli archeologist Dr. Dan Bahat arrived in the United States early in February for a month of speaking engagements, he planned to talk to audiences about the history of the Temple Mount and the current state of archeological digs nearby. After all, Bahat’s visit was sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism in order to reassure Americans that the many historical sites in Jerusalem are still safe to visit, even with the current violent clashes. Bahat spoke mainly to Christian groups and churches across the country, groups whose “traditional visits to holy sites in Israel have fallen off even more sharply” in recent months than those of Jewish groups, he noted.

So the archeologist found himself quite surprised when his planned talks regularly became question-and-answer sessions about the possible location of the Ark of the Covenant.

Bahat, who for many years has overseen the digging of the tunnel beneath the Western Wall, is, in fact, something of an expert on the Ark. Although its location may be of interest to American fans of Indiana Jones, mainstream archeologists generally agree it is directly beneath the Islamic holy site of the Dome of the Rock. “We are not searching for the Holy of Holies. We know where it is to be found, but we cannot dig there, and that is not our purpose,” he said. “We dig only to know more about the Temple Mount, the many religious landmarks there, its rich, rich history.”

The archeologist first began working on the dig near the Western Wall in the early 1970s, soon after Israel gained control of that part of Jerusalem in the 1967 war. At the time, said Bahat, “There was no archeological supervision of the site. The whole dig was run for political purposes, under the Department of Religious Affairs.” Believing that such work was the job of archeologists, he left the dig and the political maneuvering behind, but returned in 1978 when control of the project was ceded to the Department of Antiquities. In 1985, Bahat became the district archeologist of Jerusalem, a post he kept until 1991, when he left to teach at Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University. He continues there, as senior lecturer, while keeping up his work on the Wall tunnel.

Bahat has nevertheless used the interest expressed in the Ark of the Covenant to engage audiences in the whole fascinating history of religious sites in the area, a technique he learned as a professor. Prior to teaching, he led excavations of Herod’s palace in Jerusalem and at Masada. At the Western Wall tunnel, his work has not been affected by the recent violence between Israelis and Palestinians, he reports, adding that the tunnel remains open to the public.