King Herod-era staircase to Temple Mount restored

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"We are duty-bound to turn these places surrounding us sacred to Islam, Christianity and Judaism into a bridge and a symbol of freedom of access and worship, coexistence in peace…under the sovereignty of Israel," Prime Minister Ehud Barak said Sunday.

The government envisions the project as a key draw for millennium tourists. The project, however, has angered officials of the Jerusalem Wakf, the Muslim religious authority.

"We are against the excavation and, as we've said in the past, all excavations in the area," said Adnan Husseini, the wakf's director-general. "The opening is illegal, unfair and provocative to the Islamic side of the Temple Mount, and the Israelis are clearly not creating an atmosphere for peace."

Gideon Ben-Avni, the Jeru-salem district archaeologist for the authority, said that Husseini's response was "quite surprising" and that the authority kept the wakf informed about the project throughout its various stages.

Ben-Avni acknowledged that wakf officials had expressed their opposition to the project during several meetings with the authority, but noted that it lies within the jurisdiction of the Jewish-controlled areas of the site.

The site reveals architectural elements from King Herod's royal portico during the first century C.E. Remnants include parts of columns and embossed stone cornices belonging to gates to the portico, a 600-foot-long roofed structure built by Herod.

The stairway, likely one of three, led to the south side of the Temple Mount until it was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans.