150 years of excavating Jerusalem: A rich layer cake

Book: Under Jerusalem by Andrew Lawler

 Robinson's Arch, located to the right of the Western Wall (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Robinson's Arch, located to the right of the Western Wall
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

For the uninitiated, Jerusalem’s Old City is a labyrinth of narrow streets, hidden stairways, secret courtyards, and dead-end alleys. Yet the deeper mystery lies underneath the Holy City, where ancient cisterns, tombs, tunnels, column-filled caverns, and forgotten prayer rooms have been layered on top of each other over the course of Jerusalem’s vast and varied 4,000-year history.

In Under Jerusalem, American author Andrew Lawler tells the story behind a century and a half of excavating the world’s most contested city, paying as much attention to the aboveground politics as to the subterranean discoveries. Part history, part journalism and part adventure story, the book is nearly as fun to read as exploring the underground passages it describes.

The first people to dig up Ottoman-occupied Jerusalem were not the Palestinian Muslims, Sephardic Jews, or handful of Eastern Orthodox Christians who lived there, but Western Protestants who felt that the “real city of Jerusalem” was underground – and belonged to them. For these foreigners, the bustling markets, crowded buildings, and sacred shrines covering the surface of actual Jerusalem didn’t reflect the biblical city of their imagination. Rather than the medieval Arab town of dusty streets reeking of trash and sewage, they wanted to see Jerusalem as it was during the glory days of Solomon and Jesus. And so the foreigners dug – ironically to find that the ancient subterranean spaces were also filled with trash and sewage.

Though the American Edward Robinson began identifying remnants of places mentioned in the Bible in the 1830s, the first official dig permit was issued in December 1863 to the French senator Félix de Saulcy, who excavated the famed (and misnamed) Tomb of Kings and found sarcophagi he smuggled to the Louvre. The next was the British captain Charles Wilson, of the eponymous arch, who in 1864 described the ground beneath the Temple Mount to be “perfectly honeycombed with passages and cisterns.” It was this allure of a honeycombed underworld that led so many Westerners to try and find what lay within those secret passages – the Ark of the Covenant and treasures of Solomon being the most sought after of all. While such mythical treasures have yet to be found, the digs resulted in some of Jerusalem’s most visited tourist attractions today, such as the controversial Western Wall Tunnel and the dramatically lit passages and caves beneath the City of David.

In addition to the Indiana Jones-style treasure hunt stories and tense political showdowns, what makes Under Jerusalem a compelling read is Lawler’s style of ending each section with an alluring foreshadow of what’s to come. For instance, after de Saulcy left the “city’s domes and spires” above him, Lawler explains that “from that moment until the present, excavations would be an essential component in that effort to control the city, and the threat of protests, violence, and even war would haunt each dig.”

CONTROL OF the city came to mean control of the narrative of the city’s history, which became the point of many excavations after the 1917 Balfour Declaration and its validation of Zionism. As “excavating a cistern or searching for treasure might make sense to Jerusalem’s Arabs, but excavating to find your heritage did not,” Lawler writes that these heritage-seeking digs would later create “devastating consequences for all those involved.” He isn’t being melodramatic – in 1996, the mere opening of the Western Wall Tunnel into the Muslim Quarter sparked 104 days of violence.

Yet after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, and more so after the Six Day War of 1967 – when the Old City came under Jewish control – the conflict was increasing not between Jews and Muslims, but between Israeli scientists and rabbis. As the state determined that sanctity trumped science, digs came to be controlled not by secular archaeologists but by religious groups who wanted evidence to prove Jerusalem belonged to the Jews – mainly to counter those like Yasser Arafat who claimed that there never was a Temple in Jerusalem, and that “the idea of a Jewish origin in Jerusalem is a myth used to justify conquest and occupation.”

The results of this tension were often mixed. For instance, with the discovery of the City of David and it’s palace, archaeologists confirmed the existence of a historical David, but also that the Jerusalem of the so-called Golden Age around 900 BCE was simply a small town, not a major city. In terms of population and prosperity, excavators conclude that Jerusalem reached its most magnificent during the Byzantine era – when the city was neither Jewish nor Muslim.

Rather that contradictory, however, the interests of scientists and rabbis should have been recognized as complementary. As the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle noted, “to explode a myth is accordingly not to deny the facts but to re-allocate them.” For example, Robinson’s Arch was initially thought to be part of a massive bridge connecting the Temple Mount with the main part of the city, but later archaeologists determined “it was an enormous pedestrian interchange that was a wonder of the ancient world.”

In this way, modern scientists confirmed the boast found in the Babylonian Talmud: “Whoever has not seen Jerusalem in its splendor has never seen a fine city.” As Lawler writes, “Orthodox believers had long repeated the phrase, but it was secular Israeli archaeologists who made that splendor tangible.”