Photo: Dome of the Rock

Muslim men pray beneath the massive stone enshrined at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Israel. Despite its appearance, the dome, called Qubbat as-Sakhrah in Arabic, is not a mosque. Rather, it is a shrine built over the rock from which the Prophet Muhammad is said to have ascended into heaven.

Photograph by Reza/Getty Images

By Mati Milstein

The answer to one of the world's most stubborn mysteries may lie hidden on the site of the destroyed Jewish Temple—under a historic Islamic shrine, beneath a bedrock outcropping of utmost significance to the three major monotheistic religions, and in a secret chamber below an underground cave.

The Well of Souls, thought to be located on the Jerusalem site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, may contain the fabled and elusive Ark of the Covenant. This is the sacred vessel that, according to biblical account, contained the original Ten Commandments tablets that God gave to Moses at Mount Sinai as the ancient Israelites wandered the desert.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the intrepid Indiana Jones finds the Ark of the Covenant in a room called the Well of Souls, though in the Hollywood version the site was relocated from Jerusalem to the ancient Egyptian city of Tanis.

The Well of Souls is purportedly located below a natural cave under the rock upon which Jewish tradition says Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. Islamic tradition indicates Muhammad ascended to heaven from this same stone.

No one knows with absolute certainty whether the Well of Souls—or the Ark of the Covenant—actually exists. Though knocking on the floor of the cave under the Muslim Dome of the Rock shrine elicits a resounding hollow echo, no one has ever seen this alleged chamber.

The Temple Mount itself is rife with a network of some 45 cisterns, chambers, tunnels, and caves.

No Archaeological Evidence

There has never been any proper archaeological exploration of the site, which is under control of the Waqf Muslim religious trust.

Famed 19th-century British explorers Charles Wilson and Sir Charles Warren could neither prove nor disprove the existence of a hollow chamber below the cave. They believed the sound reportedly heard by visitors was simply an echo in a small fissure beneath the floor.

Shimon Gibson, senior fellow at the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, published a definitive review together with colleague David Jacobson called Below the Temple Mount in Jerusalem: A Sourcebook on the Cisterns, Subterranean Chambers and Conduits of the Haram Al-Sharif.

"Since the 19th century, no Westerner has been allowed access to the subterranean chambers on the Temple Mount," Gibson said. "I would have liked to disguise myself as a local Waqf worker and infiltrate these sites, but I wouldn't want to run the risk of creating an international incident."

Historic references to the Ark of the Covenant were rare following the establishment of the First Temple, and it disappeared entirely from the record by the time of King Herod around 40 B.C.

The Ark was possibly demolished during the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C. or was spirited away and hidden during the invasion. It might also have been destroyed or stolen when the Roman legions invaded Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

Unlikely Survivor

According to biblical accounts, the Ark was constructed of wood and coated with sheets of gold. There is general scholarly agreement that, at least at one point, it was indeed hidden in a chamber under the Temple Mount, perhaps in the Well of Souls. However, it would not likely have survived the damp and unfavorable conditions.

"The Ark probably would have disintegrated. Unless, of course, it had holy properties. But I, as an archaeologist, cannot talk about the theoretical holy properties of a wooden box," Gibson said.

The mystery of the Ark of the Covenant has fascinated laymen, writers, and armchair explorers for centuries.

"Countless books have been written on this. Indiana Jones is simply another one, though in movie format," Haifa University archaeologist Ronny Reich said. "But we have no real information on this."

The Temple Mount and the natural cave below the Dome of the Rock are periodically open to tourists, depending upon the local security and political situation.

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