Finding ourselves

The IDF conquered Israel's ancestral homeland, but archeologists unearthed its treasures.

City of David 224 88 (photo credit: Courtesy of the Shalem Center)
City of David 224 88
(photo credit: Courtesy of the Shalem Center)
In the moment of triumph, with the Temple Mount in the hands of Motta Gur and his paratroopers, speechless young men gazing dreamily at the Western Wall became the iconic image of Israel's stirring victory in the Six Day War. But the excavation of the Old City made real the Jewish claim of sovereignty over Jerusalem in a sense far deeper than any modern military conquest could. Forty years later, in a country that has grown enamored of skyscrapers and the attractions of other civilizations, it is difficult to imagine an entire nation gripped by the discovery of potsherds and stones. But Hillel Geva still remembers those days well. Geva was among the senior archeologists who had the privilege of excavating the Western Wall compound and the Jewish Quarter for more than a decade after the reunification of the city. "The government set up the Company for the Development of the Jewish Quarter with the goal of returning Jews to the Old City, so we had to race against the construction in the quarter," Geva recalled in his downtown office at the Israeli Exploration Society. "Wherever they took down a rickety old building, we dug." Not that anyone could say for sure what the scholars could expect to find. As much as the looming presence of the Temple Mount testified to the glory of the ancient Jewish kingdom, two millennia of conquest had made it unlikely that much of the rest of "karta d'shufraya" - the City of Splendor - remained. It was by no means certain that peeling back the layers of those conquests would prove rewarding. "We reached the place without any real plan of what to dig, because we had no idea what was still there," Geva explained. "Actually, Avigad [Prof. Nahman Avigad, who had already attained fame as an archeologist for his work at Masada and on the Dead Sea Scrolls] was concerned that it had all been destroyed over the centuries. He was really quite disconsolate. "As it turned out, everywhere we dug, we found remains as old as the First Temple. We found the Cardo, the Herodian Quarter, the Burnt House and more. We were lucky." In other words, they found what makes up the bulk of the historic treasures to which millions of tourists have flocked ever since. Today, a visit to the Jewish Quarter without a tour of the places that Geva and others revealed is unthinkable. The finds have transformed Jerusalem from a dusty little village into a four-dimensional museum of living history. Among the excavations that Geva oversaw was the Broad Wall, the seven-meter-wide wall alluded to in the Book of Nehemiah which was reinforced by the Jews who returned to Jerusalem from the Babylonian exile. "We couldn't help but get excited," said Geva. "The Bible was coming to life before our very eyes." Even for the secular Geva, who like so many Israeli archeologists quotes biblical verses with an intimacy and precision that many rabbis would envy, seeing the biblical narrative verified in stone was extremely moving. And the archeologists were not the only ones to be moved. "The thrill of discovery was not ours alone," Geva said, "it was a joy that the entire nation shared. As soon as we announced a find, people came and begged to be allowed to descend into the pits, to put their hands into the soil that held the shards of our history." EILAT MAZAR remembers being swept up in that sentiment as well. As the granddaughter of Binyamin Mazar, one of the preeminent archeologists of the day, she spent much of her childhood in the Old City excavation sites. "The atmosphere was incredible," Mazar recalled fondly from her office at the Shalem Center, where she is a senior fellow. "It was clear that this was not merely archeology, but a milestone in history. Archeologists came from all over the world to participate in the dig, but locals came by too, out of curiosity to see what we were finding there. Ariel Sharon came by often... Teddy Kollek [then mayor of Jerusalem] in particular visited all the time. Kollek stood at the forefront of the efforts to advance the work, in fact." Archeological discovery in the Land of Israel was nothing new. For roughly a century before the Six Day War, British and American scholars had not only lent their names to parts of Jerusalem (Robinson's Arch, Warren's Shaft, etc.), but had excavated dozens of significant tels across the country. Israelis like Yigael Yadin also made their mark, with monumental finds such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. After 1967, though, Jerusalem became the singular treasure of biblical archeology, and Israelis flocked to redeem it. No longer was Jerusalem's discovery the prize of some foreign adventurer documenting the collapse of a far-off culture. The meaning of such activity for the young Zionist state was tremendous. Modern Jews were forging indelible links to their own forebears - links that, instead of sealing the Israelite narrative, brought it to life. "When you peel back the layers of Jerusalem," said Geva, "you find evidence of the Muslim period, the Crusaders, the Byzantines, the Romans. But lower, beneath all that, are the remains of the First and Second Temples. When you hit the bedrock, you find our home." "I remember when I was digging in the Ophel [between David's City and the Temple Mount] in 1986," Mazar said. "I found jars from the end of the First Temple period which bore inscriptions in ancient Hebrew. Every jar read, 'belonging to the minister.' The fact that I could read these inscriptions, in my own language, gave me a personal connection to the finds that was, honestly, quite visceral." The visceral connection between Israeli Jews and Jewish Israel that archeology provided has weakened somewhat with time, both Geva and Mazar feel. "Archeology was once the national pastime, but today, only a few people show any interest at all," Geva said with sadness. "The annual conferences here used to attract 3,000 scholars. Today they barely have 200. Today's Zionists have other things to do." "When I dug at the Ophel in 1986 and 1987, Teddy Kollek came to see the work, and he was genuinely interested in every minor detail," said Mazar. "Today, there is much less interest. At my site in David's City [where she has uncovered a formidable structure that she claims is David's palace], I have never seen the current mayor, Uri Lupolianski. And it isn't just him. In general, I don't see the same spirit. Archeology in Jerusalem has lost its momentum." The Hebrew University, where Mazar teaches and whose archeology school her grandfather led for many years, "was a true partner in the excavation of Jerusalem up to the late '80s and early '90s, but today it doesn't spend much on it," she said. "It's easier to raise funds for medicine and the hard sciences, I guess. But it's also that it's lost the feeling that this is vitally important." CONTROVERSY IN recent years has contributed to the decline of archeology in Israel in general, and Jerusalem in particular. Forged "finds" such as the so-called James Ossuary and the Joash Stone have exploited the excitement over authentic discoveries and, at the same time, made it more difficult to interest the public in genuine articles with less explosive historical implications. Then there is the tinder box that is the Temple Mount. In 1999, the Wakf, or Islamic Trust, that administers the site bulldozed tons of earth on the Mount to expand an underground mosque without archeological supervision. The Committee to Prevent the Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount - with Mazar as its most outspoken member - warned of the potential danger to artifacts. In 2005, a private initiative to search the more than 10,000 tons of rubble that the Wakf discarded from that work into a municipal garbage dump recovered scores of artifacts from the First Temple period onward - including more than 100 ancient coins, among them several from the Hasmonean dynasty and one from the first revolt against the Romans that bore the inscription, "For the freedom of Zion." It's just more proof, said Mazar, that there is still plenty of Jewish history waiting to be discovered in Jerusalem. "The fact is, archeology in Jerusalem is still in its early stages," she said. "Not even 20 percent of the important sites - not the city in general, but the truly important sites - have been excavated. The Old City itself has barely been excavated." We are unlikely to see, Mazar and Geva admit, another excavation of the incredible scope of those post-1967 Old City digs. We are even unlikely to witness a public fervor for such endeavors as great as the one that swept the country then. But there is still much lying beneath our feet in Jerusalem, they believe, that can convey that same sense of wonder and revelation that archeologists' shovels unlocked 40 years ago. "Some would say, 'You can't remain passionate about such things forever.' But the passion that people felt in the excavations after 1967 still exists," Mazar said. "We just need the establishment to support and encourage it." A dismal future for uncovering the past How many people have entered the Old City of Jerusalem through the Jaffa Gate? Millions more than have visited the archeological finds lying just beneath it, that's for sure. You wouldn't know it, because tall grass overlays the ground before it and because building materials clog the approach to it, but the area just beneath the Jaffa Gate square and adjacent to the site where the expansive and swank new Mamilla Project is being built is home to a smorgasbord of historical remnants. "Here we can clearly see the bathhouse from the Byzantine period," Jon Seligman, Jerusalem region archeologist for the Antiquities Authority, says as he walks through the site. "And here are several shops from that era - look, here is the wall of one shop, there are the walls of another, and there the road leading down… "This wall up here," Seligman continues, pointing up to the hill that descends from the Jaffa Gate - "dates to the fifth century. All these things give us a fantastic understanding of what the city looked like in the Byzantine period…" The site is not the most spectacular Jerusalem has to offer, but it does have a lot going for it. Several centuries of the Holy City's history are marked by numerous structures. The spot is directly adjacent to an already famous and highly trafficked location, and the activity noted here - shopping and recreation - mirrors the function of the mall and entertainment center that abuts it. So why is this site not developed? "No funding," answers Seligman. The Antiquities Authority carries out some 50 excavations in Jerusalem each year, with several of them producing noteworthy finds. For some reason, though, some sites grab the attention of visitors - and donors - while others don't. This site, uncovered in the early 1990s, is one of the unlucky orphans. As pilgrims file past on the path overhead and as cars whiz by on the road perched on stilts above it, this hodgepodge of ruins lies unmarked, undeveloped, unappreciated - and unprotected. Anyone who wishes to do so can come and inspect the ceramic pipes, laid more than 1,000 years ago, that lie exposed here… or they could destroy them. "Unless you're actually giving these sites a framework, not only for their development but for their continued maintenance, then there's no real viability to them," Seligman says with a sigh. "It's a constant endeavor to make sure that the place is clean, that stones don't fall from their places, to make sure that vegetation doesn't grow in the walls, etc. Without maintenance, things disintegrate." When the Antiquities Authority can't afford to draw attention to an excavated site, it sometimes has to save it the only way it can. "One of the possibilities, when we can't locate proper funding, is to bring in truckloads of dirt and cover the sites over again," Seligman says. "Then we have to just hope that future generations will take care of them." FUNDING IS about to become a rather acute problem. Mostly because of preparatory work for the light rail that is to traverse the city, Seligman says, the number of excavations in Jerusalem this year could reach as high as 100. Some important finds already uncovered have not yet been announced, as they are not ready to present to the public, he says. Archeological excavations are more common here than one might think, but only a few warrant media attention. Often the findings are few and of interest only to the scholarly community. The backyard or neighborhood playground is covered over again, the information gleaned being more important than the stones themselves. Clearly, though, that is not what Seligman wants to see happen to the Scopus Cave. There is nothing to mark the spot where, during highway construction in 1999, the limestone cave became apparent. Everyone else simply drives past on the way to Ma'aleh Adumim, but Seligman stops his car at the side of the road, climbs the safety railing and heads 15 meters into the grass. That's where the mouth of the cave opens up. Chisel marks on the walls and the squared corners of carved stone pillars and benches make it immediately obvious what the cave once was. "This is a quarry that was used during the Second Temple period for the production of stone vessels, which were important in matters of ritual purity," Seligman explains. "There was a factory down below here for making stone vessels like the ones we find in all the excavations from the First and Second Temple periods inside the Old City of Jerusalem." The slices that the artisans made into the limestone are still apparent. Lathes that were used to cut the stones into transportable blocks were found intact deeper inside the cave - which extends for five dunams below the surface. Cuts in the stone walls for lamps were also found, as were the lamps themselves. Smoothly rounded bits of stone still litter the ground of the cave. A site like this could be turned into an attraction along the lines of an historical reproduction, with actors churning out souvenir stone vessels - again, if only someone were interested in funding such a thing. Seligman doesn't think it's too kitschy an idea. Nor does he think that there are already too many archeological sites in Jerusalem, or that visitors get more than their fill of stones as it is. Jerusalem has no beach, no river winding through it, no distinctive nest of skyscrapers; it is defined by its iconic ancient stone walls. Why not embrace that as much as possible? "Listen, people flock to London and Paris, and they don't say, 'My goodness, there are just too many art museums here.' That's something that makes those cities into great attractions," Seligman notes, claiming there's no such thing as too much of a good thing. "The Coliseum in Rome attracts four million visitors a year. So what if it isn't 4.5 million?" The successful development of excavated sites such as the one at David's Citadel, he says, also proves what kind of added value an investment in archeology can bring. What's needed, he insists, is the right amount of showmanship. "Look," Seligman says, pointing to a spot near the Damascus Gate, "that tower there is the point where the Crusaders took the city. Just to the left is where Titus began his siege. You tell a story like that, and all of a sudden it's not just stones anymore. We just have to do a better job of telling Jerusalem's story."