JERUSALEM -- A recent earthquake opened cracks in the walls of the Dome of the Rock and the Marwani Mosque that underlie southern sections of the central Jerusalem hill revered by Jews and Christians as the Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.
In most of the world, that would just lead to a quick fix-up effort. Here, it produces denials, accusations, and visions of apocalypse.
So far, the Palestinian newspaper Al Quds has published a front-page report that the stunning gold Dome of the Rock -- an internationally known symbol of the city -- was damaged by the quake, and the Jerusalem municipal government has requested a police permit for its inspectors to enter the highly-charged, Muslim-controlled area to check for structural damage.
A reporter who visited the mosque Wednesday saw no damage to the dome, but observed a horizontal row of fresh cracks in a westerly wall of the mosque. The cracks were nearly half an inch wide and 8 inches to 16 inches long. Worshipers and Israeli security sources said the earthquake also opened new cracks in the Marwani Mosque, which is better known to Jews and Christians as the Solomon's Stables area of the compound.
Arab and Israeli guards at the Chain Gate, near the Dome of the Rock, said that cracks in the dome above that gate, built more than 700 years ago, appeared during the earthquake as well.
Any sort of major destruction could set off a conflagration in the Middle East due to the historical and religious sensitivities of the site and the extreme distrust between Israelis and Palestinians over its management. Palestinian leaders call their current uprising against Israel the Al Aqsa intifadah, after another mosque in the compound whose name, for Muslims, is synonymous with the whole mount.
The current Palestinian intifadah was launched after Ariel Sharon, who subsequently became Israel's prime minister, visited the mount in September 2000. It is at least the fourth time the compound has been at the center of major bloodshed between the two sides.
"It is a very good trigger" for rallying the Muslim masses, said a senior Israeli police official, who spoke on condition that his name not be published. "No leader of Arabs could say `I'm not involved' when Al Aqsa is invoked."
Muslims are fearful that if Jews become involved in the affairs of the site -- which was the scene of the great Jewish temple built by King Solomon at the dawn of verifiable human history, and of the Second Temple, built by King Herod, from which Jesus chased the moneylenders -- they will attempt eventually to reestablish a Jewish temple there.
Israelis worry that the "waqf," the Palestinian-dominated Muslim religious trust that has day-to-day sovereignty, is both incompetent to maintain the archeologically complex site and liable not to preserve non-Muslim antiquities found there.
The Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa have been in place since the seventh and eighth centuries, respectively, and Palestinian leaders including Yasser Arafat and the current mufti of Jerusalem, Ikrima Sabri, assert that there is no evidence the Jewish temples ever existed.
The deep distrust sometimes produces paralysis, sources on both sides acknowledge, and that could pose grave danger to the physical stability of the ancient site.
Earthquake damage is just one in a series of recent signs of physical deterioration.
A ramp leading to the Mughrabi Gate, the principal entrance open to Christians and Jews, collapsed on the night of Feb. 14, during a snowstorm three days after the earthquake.
The west wall of the Islamic Museum, near Al Aqsa, collapsed last autumn. Water leaks are running through the walls in at least two places, and there is a long-running dispute involving Palestinians, Israelis, and Jordanians over a large bulge now under repair in the southern wall of the compound.
In interviews this week, waqf officials denied that any damage at all was caused by the earthquake. But Muslims in and around the site and Israeli security officials familiar with the area confirmed that cracks had appeared at a number of locations.
"There are cracks both in the Dome of the Rock and in Solomon's Stables," said a security official. "In the long run, they might be dangerous. We do not think there is immediate danger, but they [the waqf officials] have got to repair it." He said Israeli officials told waqf representatives last week that repairs were needed "and they said, `It's OK, there is no danger right now.' "
Adnan Husseini, the director of the waqf, said in an interview that "we are not taking advice from the other side. We have our own experts. . . . There was no damage from the earthquake." A waqf employee at the scene showed some of the damage to a visitor but urged him not to tell others, lest it provide a reason for Jews to become involved in the management of the compound.
Just how adversely this mutual estrangement can affect the compound was illustrated Sept. 23, when the west-facing wall of the Islamic Museum, which is near the Mughrabi Gate and Al Aqsa, collapsed.
Chief Superintendent Shmulik Ben-Ruby of the Jerusalem division of the national police said Israeli authorities offered to help with critically needed repairs to the wall both before and after it fell, and that Husseini refused -- and mishandled the job. Husseini said that "this is a big lie." He said the wall fell because of obstacles created by Israelis that prevented workers from repairing it promptly.
The disagreements are closely related to the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians. Arafat insists that only Palestinians should administer the compound. Israeli officials are convinced they are not up to the task. That is why bringing in Jordanians, many of whom are ethnic Palestinians, broke the impasse over the bulge in the southern wall and allowed work to proceed.
"We cannot force them to take our help," the security agency official said. "But if there was a severe problem" on which the Palestinians refused to deal with Israelis, "we would take over."
Palestinian archeologists say they are certain there is no big problem with the compound other than Israeli meddling. Israeli archeologists are sharply divided.
"We are dealing with a huge and ancient compound that is not preserved and not supervised" by antiquities authorities or building inspectors, said Eilat Mazar, a noted archeologist and activist on the Committee for Preventing the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount.
"It is falling apart," Mazar said. "It is just a matter of time until some big section of the inside of the compound will fall in -- from [the weight of] tens of thousands of Muslims, from trucks, from the next earthquake. . . . It is pure stupidity to think if we do nothing that nothing will happen."
But Meir Ben-Dov, who was field director of excavations outside the southwestern and southern walls of the compound from 1976 to 1993, said everyone should just calm down.
"There is a problem with any wall here," he said during a walk around the extensive digs. "These are old walls. Anything can happen."
Charles A. Radin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.