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Contested Sites

Archaeology and The Battle For Jerusalem

Raphael Greenberg  |  Winter 2007  -  Number 208


Any intellectual practice in Israel entails both the representation of politics and the politics of representation. The ideological implications of practising archaeology in Jerusalem are as many-layered as the cultures that lie buried beneath the city’s surface. Archaeology has always been implicated in the conflict of claims to the contested land but now archaeologists find themselves increasingly in the pay of right-wing settler groups, who use their finds to write their own particular version of history.

The Temple Mount has always been a vortex of political and religious conflict in Jerusalem. While, technically, it is a holy place and hence off-limits to archaeologists, archaeology is never far from the eye of the storm. In 1996, archaeologists stood accused of undermining the Haram, the inviolate sacred site of Islam, during the opening of the ‘Hasmonean Tunnel’ along the Western Wall. The Hasmonean or Western Wall tunnel is a series of vaults, cisterns, carved channels and modern galleries running from the Western Wall prayer plaza to the northwest corner of the Temple Mount/al-Haram ash-Sharif. Cleared at the initiative of the Ministry of Religious affairs, the tunnel system was, as of 1996, accessible to a limited number of visitors, since its only entrance was at its southern end. The seemingly innocuous decision, in October 1996, to create an opening at its northern end, in the Muslim quarter, led to a wave of violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank that cost scores of lives. After 1996, as part of the understanding reached with Waqf officials in the wake of the violence, all archaeological inspection of the Haram ceased, allowing Islamic authorities to carry out unsupervised restoration and clearance in the ancient chambers and halls beneath the al-Aqsa mosque.

This year, during the Mughrabi Gate affair, archaeologists manned the trenches of a media battle surrounding sovereignty of the area near the Western Wall. Archaeology has always been implicated in the issues of national and religious identity that swirl around the historic basin of ancient Jerusalem. Archaeologists usually play a supporting role in the conflict. If Israeli, their excavations ultimately provide support for the aims and aspirations of Israeli society and government: if Palestinian, their research – largely limited to architectural survey and to curatorial duties on the Haram – is often constrained by loyalty to Islamic or Palestinian national interests.

As representatives of a secular, academic approach to Jerusalem’s history, the Israeli excavators of Jerusalem find themselves in a peculiar position. Their discipline and training require them to maintain a dispassionate approach to excavation and interpretation, while their principal clients — developers, public officials, financial underwriters, the tourist industry — expect to see results that will legitimize their concepts of the history of Jerusalem. In his work on modern Israel’s relation to archaeology, Israeli historian Yaacov Shavit offers a concept that illuminates how Israeli archaeologists have handled their occupational dissonance. Shavit proposes a division between ‘greater’ and ‘lesser’ archaeology. The lesser archaeology is that practised by archaeologists in their professional mode, and is the language of their internal discourse; the greater archaeology is the non-professional narrative that is used to market archaeology to the public. The practice of archaeology in Jerusalem has tended to oscillate between these two poles. And while archaeologists hope to maintain neutrality by sticking to ‘lesser’ archaeology, the two modes remain firmly linked, both contributing to the mainstream Israeli perception of the direction and purpose of Jerusalem’s history.

Stage I, 1967-1977:
Exercising the Right of Return

The first archaeological conference in Jerusalem following the Six-Day War was held in October 1967 and was charged with anticipation. Present were Israel’s leading archaeologists: Yigael Yadin, Benjamin Mazar, and Nahman Avigad. Military heroes and cabinet ministers also attended: Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, Generals Narkiss and Gur, and the mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek. It was the antiquities-loving Kollek who first broached the possibility of renewed large-scale excavations by Israeli scholars. There can be little doubt that the nineteen-year separation from the Old City and the unusual (some would say, miraculous) circumstances of the Israeli scholars’ return whetted what was to become a voracious archaeological appetite.

Benjamin Mazar and Nahman Avigad were chosen to head the first major excavation projects in Jerusalem. Both were senior professors in the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology, and had begun their careers during British Mandate times; they had studied Jerusalem before its division by the 1948 armistice lines, and therefore viewed the return of Jewish scholarship to the Old City as poetic justice.

The first excavations were conducted in the largely empty lot adjacent to the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount. Mayor Kollek had drawn up an agreement under which archaeologists were given everything south of the Western Wall praying area and religious authorities were given responsibility for everything lying to its north, along the Haram wall. By the early seventies, the intensive excavations began to find expression in a series of publications on the ancient topography of the Tyropean Valley and the Temple Mount; these all focused on Herod’s temple enclosure as their centerpiece.

Meanwhile, a second locus of excavations developed in the Jewish quarter of the Old City. The decision to raze and rebuild the quarter (which had been badly damaged during the 1948 war) turned into extensive, year-round excavations with unimaginable results. Archaeologists found a wealth of architectural remains spanning the Iron Age to the Crusader periods. In his book The Upper City of Jerusalem, Avigad describes the dialogue between archaeologists and developers, claiming to have reached a ‘golden mean’: the integrity of the excavations was upheld and the ‘most important’ remains were preserved either in open areas or in basements beneath the modern buildings.

For Israeli excavators the most significant finds were undoubtedly the remains of ‘First Temple’ and ‘Second Temple’ Jerusalem, although these were virtually equaled in scale by later remains (mainly Byzantine and Medieval in date). The manner in which these finds were eventually woven into the new narrative of Jerusalem’s—and the Jewish Quarter’s—past has been criticised at length by the Columbia University anthropologist Nadia el-Haj in her controversial book Facts on the Ground. El-Haj illustrates the discourse of exclusion and power used in popular presentations of Jerusalem’s antiquities: the only processes recognised as significant relate to warfare and political authority. Questions relating to identity, social roles, economic disparities and other social issues are hardly mentioned.

While the two excavation projects just described were physically transforming the Old City, archaeology was also implicated in a far more ambitious project with significant political dimensions: the construction of new Jewish neighbourhoods east of the 1949 armistice line (the so-called Green Line). Extensive construction in the neighbourhoods led to the discovery, among other things, of the huge necropolis of Jewish Jerusalem, dating mainly to the early Roman period. Many of the tombs contained decorated and inscribed ossuaries, some of which continue to fire the imagination and fuel controversy to this day.

     In all, a close correlation may be observed between the extent and type of archaeological activity and the political agenda of the Labor-led government in the first decade after 1967: a heavy emphasis on establishing an Israeli presence in the Old City and east of the Green Line, coupled with an earnest effort – personified by Mayor Kollek himself – to fulfill the role of steward of world cultural heritage in Jerusalem.

Stage II: The Lesser the Better

The downfall of Labor in 1977 and the consolidation of the right-wing Likud government throughout the 1980s led to a change in the standing of Jerusalem on the Israeli agenda: despite the passing of the 1980 Jerusalem Law (‘Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel’), the main ideological thrust of the new leadership was focused on the construction of settlements in the West Bank.

The archaeological reflection of this change in priorities may be characterized as a clear move towards a ‘lesser’ archaeology, led by a younger generation of practitioners. The flagship excavation was the City of David expedition headed from 1978 to 1985 by Yigal Shiloh of the Hebrew University on the spur that extends to the south of the Temple Mount, outside the city walls. Though conceived as a follow-up to the Temple Mount and Jewish Quarter excavations, there are several interesting differences in both concept and execution: the area designated for excavation had been set aside for the purpose as early as 1914; the excavation was designed and carried out after the manner of academic tell-type excavations: a two-month field season followed by ten months of lab research; an understanding was reached with the Palestinians residing near the excavation areas: houses and plots were rented for the duration of the season and there was a degree of friendly – if almost entirely commercial – interaction.

Another important dimension of archaeological work during these years was a great increase in the study of the environs of the ancient city. An extensive survey and several important excavations and landscape studies in West Jerusalem joined scores of salvage excavations in the northern and southern peripheries of East Jerusalem to provide materials for a new perspective on the history of Jerusalem.

Herein lies an interesting paradox: the important salvage work conducted in the first decades of Israeli archaeological activity in Jerusalem was occasioned – as far as practitioners were concerned – by a higher power; that is, the initiative was not archaeological, but in fact, entirely political in nature. Nonetheless, it created an archaeology that was able to see itself as entirely apolitical. Moreover, this ‘apolitical’ archaeology was to a great extent invisible to the public. The scientific discourse was almost entirely confined to professional circles, and the sites in question were destroyed, covered over, or left as undeveloped ‘non-places’—anonymous islands in the urban sprawl of modern Jerusalem. There can be no doubt that this archaeological activity salvaged great quantities of information from the inexorable march of development. At the same time, its voluntary self-deprecation helped naturalize the larger political project of enlarging Jewish Jerusalem.

Stage III: Full of Passionate Conviction

The history of Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem reached a remarkable turning point in 1992-3. The electoral success of Yitzhak Rabin and the Labor Party paved the way to the 1993 Oslo accords, yet the election of Ehud Olmert as mayor of Jerusalem a few months later signaled the victory of a religious and right-wing agenda in the city. Galvanized by the threat to their settlement program in the West Bank, the ideological right went into overdrive. In Jerusalem, a two-pronged campaign was pursued, aimed at suppressing Palestinian political activity in East Jerusalem while also establishing a Jewish presence in as many locations as possible around the Old City.

This activity marked the beginning of a hitherto-unknown intimacy between the non-governmental settlement movement and archaeology in the historic basin. The ultimate aim of the settlers was to create wedges of Jewish settlement in the interstices between Palestinian neighborhoods that would prevent any political division of the city, and eventually to dilute the entire Palestinian presence. Archaeology provided physical and symbolic capital for this project, in the form of a narrative emphasizing Jewish continuity and of relics that testify to such continuity.

The most effective of the Jewish settler NGOs was El‘ad (Hebrew acronym of ‘el ir-david’ [to the City of David]). In the early 1990s, El‘ad had attempted to consolidate Jewish settlement in the part of the Palestinian village of Silwan built upon the southeastern spur of ancient Jerusalem (the City of David). Their preferred method had been the acquisition of houses using a variety of legal and quasi-legal means, coupled with vigorous lobbying with authorities, and especially with then Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, for the construction of new housing units on top of the antiquities of most of ancient Jerusalem. The change of government in 1992 put a damper on these activities, and a new tack was taken: obtaining a contract from the Israel Nature and Parks authority to manage the archaeological park in the City of David.

The warming climate towards government outsourcing favoured this gambit, and the settlers used government allies to obtain control of ever-growing slices of the archaeological zones in and around Silwan and the adjacent Kidron valley. Better still, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), called in at first to restrain the settlers’ appetite for construction on antiquities, soon found itself acting as sub-contractor for El‘ad, carrying out large-scale excavations as part of the ‘development of the National Park’. Lured ever deeper into the City of David by lucrative contracts, the IAA has by now invested more than ten years of nearly continuous excavation in the area. The archaeological value of these excavations is considerable, and the discoveries contribute to the understanding of many phases of Jerusalem’s history, from the Early and Middle Bronze Age to Byzantine times. The presentation of these finds to the public, however, has been left to a great extent in the hands of El‘ad, with the result that they are selectively exploited to further the agenda of this group. 

Along with this overt exploitation, the elision of the Palestinians from the excavation process and from the historical narrative that accompanies it has intensified. The contrast between the enormous inputs into excavation and the crumbling municipal infrastructure is particularly vivid. Not only has there been no consultation with the people actually living among the excavation sites, but archaeological operations have become a permanent nuisance, adding another chapter to the tale of municipal dysfunction in one of the poorest areas of town. And not only have the non-Jewish periods of settlement been ignored, but the entire thrust of the development of the site has left the local inhabitants invisible to the casual visitor.

How have Israeli archaeologists responded to these developments? A number of prominent academics have offered some resistance. In 1998, a group of archaeologists from the Hebrew University filed a suit against the El‘ad monopoly of the Silwan basin. The Israeli High Court ruled that the authorities needed to hand over the management of the park to a disinterested party. This handover was never effected, and El‘ad simply outlasted the effort to have it replaced.

Most archaeologists, however, seem willing to draw a line between their professional and social persona, burying their collective heads in the technicalities of fieldwork and the basics of interpretation. But the attempt to pursue ‘lesser’ archaeology under these conditions rings hollow. Many rules of archaeological engagement are being bent in the effort to accommodate the ‘clients’ – the funders and the settlers. The IAA excavators are increasingly exposed as ‘the Messiah’s donkey’ for the ideological national-religious right.

Can Archaeology Further the Peace of Jerusalem?

Archaeologist Hillel Geva wrote an introduction to one of the main showpieces of the Israeli archaeological effort in Jerusalem, Ancient Jerusalem Revealed. He described this work as revolutionary and inspired by ‘a free academic spirit and a deep sense of the trust borne by the scholars engaged in [it]’. Nadia el-Haj has called it a project of physical transformation ‘co-implicated in the Jewish-colonial-nationalist project’. The truth of these views, which are not mutually exclusive, lies very much in the eyes of the beholder. Our review of the history of Israeli excavation in Jerusalem shows that there is neither a single outlook nor an overarching plan in its conduct. But almost all the excavations carried out in Jerusalem since 1967, have been conducted by Israeli institutions, and virtually none by Palestinians. Haphazardly, archaeology has become part of the conflict of identities in what is still a divided city. Is this an unavoidable destiny for our profession, governed by the very nature of the finds, or can archaeology in Jerusalem re-invent itself to further the cause of peace and co-existence? Indeed, what would a post-conflict archaeology of Jerusalem look like?

On one level, this is a question of individual responsibility. As professionals, archaeologists need a code of ethical practice. Whenever and wherever we excavate, we should ask ourselves a series of questions: Who are our clients, in the broadest sense? What kind of impact are we making on the place in which we excavate? Have local people been involved in the decisions that will affect their environment? What is being done to mitigate negative effects of our work? What is being done to enhance the positive effects of our work? What is our legacy to the site and its surroundings, after we have left it?

These may be hard questions to confront. But for its own sake, the archaeology of Jerusalem has a vested interest in stability and political accommodation. If archaeologists find themselves serving a different cause, one that enhances instability, rancour and resistance within the very community that they should be serving, they might wish to change course. If accommodation requires a freeze on new construction within the historic basin and, with it, a halt to new excavations, this might be a price worth paying.

Proponents of the present archaeological activity in the historic basin often argue that their practice is strictly legal: excavations are statutory, and should be carried out by a publicly accountable body such as the IAA. They further contend that, since Palestinians in Jerusalem do not recognize Israeli sovereignty and do not cooperate with municipal bodies, there is no way to integrate them in the planning and conduct of archaeological activities. A third point often raised in support of the current approach is that unlicensed Palestinian construction threatens antiquities: all work in the historic basin is, by definition, salvage work.

These claims, while technically accurate (in terms of Israeli law), are all based on a myopic perspective, as if each plot acquired or excavated is an independent entity. Seen as a whole, construction and development in the historic basin have been motivated, over the last decade, primarily by sectarian interests on the Jewish side and by a relentless population explosion on the Palestinian side (largely a product of Jerusalem’s Separation Wall, which hems in Silwan on the east).

Left to their own devices, these interests lead Jerusalem down the path of religious conflict and away from any hope of political solution. Thus, the archaeological ‘salvage work’ in the service of ideological organizations is, in fact, working towards its own destruction: archaeology conducted behind tall fences, or under cover of armed guards, is likely to fall prey to the latent violence in which it is engendered. What is required, therefore, is an overall policy that will defuse conflict and allow archaeology to serve Jerusalem as a whole.

As Israelis and Jews, we should always remember that we are not the only players in this game. Undoubtedly, Jewish antiquities comprise a prominent part of Jerusalem’s archaeological heritage. But there is much more. For one thing, settlement around the Gihon spring began as early as 5000 BCE, four millennia before King David, and the first evidence for the city’s rise to prominence comes when the city was inhabited by Canaanites, around 1700 BCE. For another, during the main periods of prosperity under the kingdom of Judah, in the days of Roman rule, and in the Byzantine and Islamic periods, the cultural identity of the town and its inhabitants was contested: any reading of the Bible and of history confirms this, and archaeology certainly bears it witness. Jerusalem’s archaeology can therefore provide a basis for many views of history; its presentation should offer different avenues for thoughtful exploration, rather than herd all into a single thoroughfare.

There are many ways in which archaeology can be used to foster understanding between different groups, social strata, and religions. Even in Jerusalem. Multilingual guide-books that offer contrasting perspectives on the past; signposts that suggest alternative interpretations; tours that emphasize not only the different cultures in the city, but also the different social strata or gender roles of people in different times; a celebration of the city as a palimpsest of world cultures, rather than the exclusive property of any single group: all these are strategies and activities in which archaeologists can play a constructive professional role. Jerusalem has been kind to archaeologists. It has made many a career and supplied many a livelihood. It is high time they offer something in return.

Rafi Greenberg came to Jerusalem in 1970 and participated, first as a volunteer, then as a staff member, in the Temple Mount and City of David excavations. Between 1985 and 2000 he served as Senior Editor in the Israel Antiquities Authority. He has been teaching Archaeology at Tel Aviv University since 1998, where he is a Senior Lecturer. His current projects include the Tel Bet Yerah Research and Excavation Project, the Rogem Gannim Project in Community Archaeology, and the West Bank and East Jerusalem Archaeological Database Project.

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