It began as a routine remodeling project: Muslim authorities replacing an old carpet at the Dome of the Rock, the iconic, gold-topped shrine that overlooks the Old City of Jerusalem. But the carpet has sparked a verbal holy war over the hilltop compound, revered by Jews and Muslims whose competing claims often spill over into violence. Israeli archaeological authorities say the repairs were carried out behind their backs, and an Israeli minister urged an immediate halt to the work, claiming it might cause irreparable damage (one of the complaints: a worker who dripped glue onto an intricate stone decoration). Frustrated Israeli researchers also say they didn't get to document ancient floor designs discovered when the old carpets were peeled off and that the Bible's deepest secrets may lie beneath some of the newly exposed floor designs. Although past renovations were done quietly, leaked photos on social media fueled the latest controversy.
The Dome of the Rock and its hilltop plaza are an archaeological gold mine that's never been properly dug because of the political sensitivities surrounding the site, considered Judaism's holiest spot and Islam's third holiest; some even say the Ark of the Covenant may be buried in a secret chamber there. Under a long-standing agreement with Israel, Jordan remains the custodian of Old Jerusalem's Muslim holy sites: A group of Jordanian carpet layers received Israeli visas to complete the job, and Jordan's King Abdullah II financed the project, according to Waqf, the Muslim authority that manages the compound including the Dome of the Rock. Waqf chief Sheikh Azzam Tamimi rejects the Israeli accusations and says the work is long overdue. "Our work ... is transparent," he tells the AP. "We are only putting down carpet and felt. Nothing more, nothing less." (Read more Jerusalem stories.)