David Frum

05.23.13

Are These Beams from the First and Second Temples?

Some of the Al-Aqsa beams were brought to the settlement of Ofra in the 1980s. Pictured: Ze'ev Erlich, who helped truck the ancient wooden pieces from a junkyard north of Jerusalem (photo credit: Matti Friedman/Times of Israel) ()

Have archaeologists identified ancient beams from the First and Second Temples, reused by 7th century Arab conquerers in the Al-Aqsa mosque? The Times of Israel offers an interesting report:

Many of the beams were removed from Al-Aqsa in the late 1930s, during a renovation that followed two earthquakes, and some were taken by British scholars to the Rockefeller Museum, where they remain. Other beams were removed in a later renovation of the structure’s dome under Jordanian rule in the 1960s.

In 1984, a scholar from Tel Aviv University, Nili Liphschitz, published a brief scientific paper looking at 140 of the beams in a Hebrew journal, Eretz Yisrael, along with two other scholars.

Liphschitz, a dendochronologist — a specialist in determining the age of trees — found that most of the beams she examined were of Turkish oak, with a smaller number of Lebanese cedars. There were also beams of cypress and several other types of wood.

By analyzing the tree rings and using carbon-14 dating, she found, unsurprisingly, that some of the wood was from the early Muslim period. One of the cedars, for example, was about 1,340 years old, or roughly the same age as Al-Aqsa. (The margin of error for the rather inexact dating process was 250 years.)

But others were older, dating to Byzantine times, and still others dated to Roman times, around the era of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

Even more striking were her findings regarding one of the cypress beams. The age of the beam “was found to be 2,600 years,” she wrote, with a margin of error of 180 years. That placed it near 630 B.C.E. — around 50 years before the destruction of the First Temple.

And one of the oak beams was even older: 2,860 years. That meant the tree had been cut down around 880 B.C.E, early in the First Temple period.