Tuesday 29 October 2002

The Armageddon Wall

A simple bulge in an ancient wall of Jerusalem’s Old City has some Israelis fretting about Armageddon. It’s not just any wall. In this case, the old rocks help support an enormous stone platform that holds the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, among Islam’s most sacred shrines.

When thousands of worshippers flock to the area at the start of the holy month of Ramadan next week, the extra weight could cause the wall to collapse, says prize-winning archeologist Gabriel Barkay. Parts of the compound could then tumble down with it. Barkay’s fears fall short of doomsday, but only just: he imagines many dead worshipers, and perhaps riots around the Middle East. “All you need is a big group to congregate up there for the equilibrium to start shifting,” he says. “It’s a matter of time.”

Israelis and Palestinians have known about decay at the wall for at least a year. But while the bulge is an engineering problem, repairing it is a political one. The two sides are bickering over not only who has the authority to fix the damage but also what caused it and how serious it is. Then there’s a broader dispute. The mosque compound is believed to be the site of the first and second Jewish Temples destroyed in antiquity. Some Israelis, like Barkay, complain that Muslim religious authorities have been given too much autonomy to run a shrine that is sacred to both sides (Jews call it the Temple Mount). Muslims counter that Israel is quietly encroaching on Al Aqsa. “When you have competing claims to a holy site, as these two sides do,” says Gershom Gorenberg, who wrote a book about the site, “it becomes very difficult to do even simple, mundane things.”

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