Here’s an insider’s tip. Book your ticket for Israel now. Make your reservations in Jerusalem. With the rise in tourism, it’s already hard to find a room in Jerusalem, says Anat Shihor-Aronson, spokesperson for the Tourism Ministry who is leading a tour for counterparts that allows a peak at the future.
She’s having a hard time finding a vacant hotel room for friends coming to the capital for the weekend, and it’s autumn, not even high tourist season. And this is before the newest ancient Jerusalem site is opened. When that happens, Jerusalem will be irresistible to every Bible-reading person.
That’s what I’m thinking as I stand three meters below ground in the not-yet-opened site, an expansive underground walkway which leads from the ancient Shiloah (Siloam) pool up to the Temple Mount. This isn’t a tunnel or a rocky trail. No need to squeeze through a water tunnel or scramble into sacrificial pits. This is an almost unimaginable underground plaza paved in beautiful, white stones, each weighing tons.
The walkway was first opened in 30 CE, give or take a few years. I’m underground, but I feel a sense of vertigo: No one has walked on these stones for some 2,000 years, since the Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70.
Cars and buses are driving above my head. I remember not so long ago, when I used to park my own car nearby in a place nicknamed the “Givati parking lot” for a terrorist attack on Givati soldiers who were receiving their purple berets at the Kotel. The grubby lot was convenient parking for the Old City, even though you needed to climb the hill to the Dung Gate.
Who knew what was buried beneath? In 2007, the lot was roped off. I’m still driving the same car, but the lot has been lovingly excavated into a world-class tourist site. Layer by layer of Jerusalem’s civilization has been uncovered by the patient, persistent and painstaking diggers of many volunteers, guided by erudite archeologists.
Recovered artifacts frequently make the news – coins and oil lamps, a Temple priest’s bell and recently the seeds of the country’s oldest eggplants. As it turns out, the southern slope, Cheesemakers’ Valley, is older than the Old City it abuts. Here was the earliest Jerusalem, David’s City.
In 1867, British Captain Charles Warren found the ancient shaft that bears his name. Archeologist Kathleen Kenyon found a Phoenician capital in the 1960s that confirmed the biblical account of Phoenician builders mentioned in II Samuel.
Even though Jerusalem was reunited in 1967, for the next 40 years later drivers like me were parking on top. Now I watch the techy, emotional sound-and-light show that begins in the former Givati parking lot. It features an illuminated Greek villa from the time of the Hanukka story and its continuation nearby in Area G, where a retaining wall of what many archeologists believe to be the Citadel of Zion mentioned in King David’s conquest of the city (Samuel II 5:9) becomes the screen for a video that traces the history of the city.
Half a million visitors have seen the outdoor show in its first months, but the focus of today’s tour is the newest discovery: this graduated walkway that is being called Pilgrims’ Ascent.
After arriving in Jerusalem, pilgrims would immerse in the Shiloah pool before ascending to the Temple Mount.
The ascent is some 600 meters long and seven and a half meters wide. It had to be so wide, because according to historian Josephus (37-100 CE) a million pilgrims visited Jerusalem on each of the three festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot.
Suddenly, a surprise host appears in the walkway: a short, wiry man in his 60s, in an open-necked shirt and whose salt-and-pepper chevron mustache reminds me of old-time kibbutzniks driving tractors. He’s better described as a bulldozer.
This is David Be’eri, David’s City’s controversial and charismatic visionary and prime mover.
Born in 1953 in Ramat Gan, Be’eri became deputy commander of Duvdevan, the undercover commando unit recently made famous by the hit TV show Fauda. When he was about to complete his service, he consulted with then defense minister Ariel Sharon on what he should do next: remain in the army or follow his dream of revealing the underground wonders of Jerusalem’s past. Sharon advised him that if he didn’t return to the IDF, another officer would fill his place; but if he didn’t reclaim and excavate David’s City, it would remain forever buried.
In 1986, 19 years after the capital was reunited, Be’eri founded the NGO Elad, a Hebrew acronym for “to David’s City.” He got permission from Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund to undertake the legal battle for property rights on its southern slope outside the Old City.
Be’eri sold his family apartment in the city’s Rehavia neighborhood to raise the project’s seed money.
“We’re moving ahead a meter a week,” Be’eri waves toward the diggers, working 24/6 to complete the ascent. “We’ll reach the Shiloah by the end of the year,” he predicts. He expects to get permission to flood the pool so modern pilgrims can immerse themselves.
He hopes to see the project realized for a cable car that would bring tourists from the promenade overlooking the Old City to Jerusalem’s underground magic kingdom.
Despite being the target of accusations against his archeological agenda, Be’eri was awarded the 2017 Israel Prize for lifetime achievement and transforming a personal passion into national pride.
Controversy, politics, doubts fade away underground, as the astounding treasure of our history is revealed. Call your travel agent.