Going Underground

Yet another book on Jerusalem's archaeology unhealthily focuses on its past at the expense of its present.

“If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” This is how the Gospel of John ends (NIV), describing the multitude of events in Jesus’s life. But this description could just as easily apply to the life of Jerusalem. There are so many books on the history and archaeology of the city, in fact, that even apologizing for writing a new one has become a cliché. The New York Times recently captured this situation well in an article with the headline “What Happens When Everyone Is Writing the Same Book You Are?” The article itself is about five different authors simultaneously researching and writing about the same bizarre incident in the history of digging up Jerusalem: the ill-fated treasure hunt of British aristocrat Montagu Parker, who searched in vain for the Ark of the Covenant under the Temple Mount just before the First World War.

One of the authors featured in the Times article is Andrew Lawler, who has since published Under Jerusalem, his ambitious popular account of the history of excavation in the city. (Lawler offers his own version of the apology in the acknowledgments.) Lawler’s account is well-researched yet accessible, featuring newly uncovered details. These come from both archival work at the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) in London—the saga of the Abu Saud family, whose houses were undermined by PEF tunneling in the 1860s, is particularly striking—and from interviews with present-day Silwan residents and Israeli and Palestinian archaeologists. The connections he draws between archaeological activities past and present are fresh and illuminating.

But the outlines of the story Lawler tells are very familiar to those who have studied Jerusalem’s archaeology, whether he writes about the PEF and its early excavations in the city in the 19th century, or about Israeli-led expeditions in what is now Silwan after 1967. (It is noteworthy that there are several chapters on each period, but just one on the 50 years of British and Jordanian control in between.) This tale has been told many times before. Why, then, do we have yet another book on the archaeology of Jerusalem? On one level, this seems obvious. Clearly there is an interest, even a demand for these books. Editors keep commissioning them, authors keep writing them, and the public keeps buying them. The basic tale may be familiar, but it is constantly updated with new developments and new ways of thinking about the past. Perhaps every generation needs its own version.

On another level, though, we may wonder whether this interest is deserved, or even healthy. This applies not only to writing about Jerusalem’s past, but also to the obsession with digging for it—an obsession that is not universal. There has always been a deep divide between how Jews and Arabs see the archaeology of the city. For Palestinians, the evidence of their roots in Jerusalem was all around, so “there was no need to dig tunnels or unearth ancient foundations. They already were secure in their shrines and status” (p. 83). Jews, meanwhile, could not initially find the same evidence of their own ties on the surface; to justify their presence in the land during the British Mandate and the early years of the state (and in East Jerusalem and the West Bank after 1967), they dug below. Archaeology was, in the now too-familiar expression, Israel’s national pastime. If this obsession has lessened in recent years—and the attention archaeology receives from politicians like Benjamin Netanyahu may suggest otherwise—the slack has been picked up by conservative Christians from the U.S.

Archaeology can have important symbolic value. But it is ultimately just that: a symbol. It is rarely what is ultimately at stake in the region. Most everyday events of the occupation—the court cases, evictions, demolitions, arrests, protests, riots, assaults, bombings—have nothing to do with archaeology. Even in Jerusalem, where the past (and how it is exploited in the present) is more visible than in most other places, this is true. And in any case, it is not actually archaeology but the city itself and its religious significance that carry the real symbolic power.

One of the places where archaeology does have a concrete impact on people’s lives is in Silwan, which in recent decades has seen both expansive excavations on the surface and tunneling under people’s houses. As Lawler points out, this tunneling is both a dubious archaeological technique (tunneling hasn’t been seen as an appropriate method for over a century) and damaging to its residents (many buildings have been undermined, and some have had to abandon their homes). This, too, is a story that many journalists have told, with the same formula: talk to the City of David Foundation, talk to some people in Silwan, and publish. And nothing changes. The pointlessness was summed up best by one Silwan resident that Lawler met, Miriam Bashir (as quoted in a 2019 National Geographic article): “I’m fed up with journalists. I just want to be left alone.”

This is the problem when we look at the past as heritage that we need to preserve as much of as possible—the paradigm that currently reigns supreme in national antiquities laws and international bodies like UNESCO. That approach constantly pits past against present, with poor and marginalized residents in particular losing out. This is no surprise: archaeology is destructive by its very nature. “The brutal fact is,” as Lawler quotes Israeli archaeologist Meir Ben-Dov, “that if you want to know what lies under a certain stratum, you have no choice but to destroy it” (p. 151). This goes not only for digging from one archaeological stratum to the next, but digging below modern cities in the present. Archaeology is destructive in more ways than one.

The promotional material for Lawler’s book suggests a greater value for the archaeology of Jerusalem: it “could provide a map for two peoples and three faiths to peacefully coexist.” This is a weighty claim. Is it warranted? Is archaeology really important enough to help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? In the book itself, the claim is tacked on briefly at the end, as if an afterthought. And in fact, it feels very out of place: the previous 300 pages have been dedicated to showing how excavation in Jerusalem, from the 1860s to today, by European explorers or Israeli archaeologists, has continually served to emphasize the importance of the past at the expense of the present residents of the city. After 300 pages of dire warnings, Lawler’s final optimism rings hollow. To be fair, he warns that the positive lessons of archaeology might take “another millennium” to have an effect. But in the meantime, the archaeology of Jerusalem joins everything from fidget spinners to a combined Hebrew/Arabic alphabet to Justin Trudeau’s socks as things with the claimed potential of bringing Middle East peace.

Through hundreds of pages surveying archaeology’s destructiveness in the city, Lawler occasionally hints at other ways of approaching the past. “Residents took a practical approach to their surroundings,” he tells us of 19th-century Jerusalem. “Ancient stones belowground might be reused to add a new floor on a house or above a shop. One British visitor recorded barbers conducting their trade within the crumbling remains of a Crusader hospice, herdsmen making their home in a Roman-era tomb, and a blacksmith lodged against an ancient palace wall that might have once housed a Judean potentate” (p. 22). If Jerusalem had produced so few remains of the biblical past, suggested the great French scholar Charles Clermont-Ganneau in 1890, the reason was “that it has been inhabited without discontinuity; it is that it has always lived, and that in order to live it has devoured itself.” The present-day French historian Vincent Lemire has put it another way: Jerusalem is always “described as an eternal city where heritage is everywhere blah blah blah blah”—but it is in fact a living place that is always transforming into something new.

As one of the epigraphs for his book, Lawler chose a passage on Jerusalem from Yehuda Amichai’s “Song of Zion the Beautiful”: “Who has ever seen Jerusalem naked? / Not even archaeologists; / Jerusalem never gets completely undressed / But always puts on new houses over the shabby and broken ones.” But another of Amichai’s poems, “Tourists” (Tayyarim), may be more relevant. In it, Amichai describes how tourists used him as a landmark to point out the location a Roman arch, as he stopped on the way home with baskets of food. Amichai then turns the scene around: “I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, ‘You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.’” Instead of insisting on the importance of archaeology for Jerusalem’s present, it is past time to prioritize Jerusalem’s present residents—all of them—in this story.

*Andrew Lawler, Under Jerusalem: The Buried History of the World’s Most Contested City, Doubleday, 2021. pp. 464.




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