Politics and Narratives: Islamic Archaeology in Israel

By Petersen, Andrew | Antiquity, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Politics and Narratives: Islamic Archaeology in Israel


Petersen, Andrew, Antiquity


It is easy to see the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians as an endless series of attacks and counter-attacks, with no other objective than defeating the opposition. Whilst this view does have a certain truth, in that the parties involved are locked into a violent day-to-day struggle, the conflict also has an important ideological dimension whereby the cultures are placed in opposition. Israel was founded on Zionist principles, which advocated a return of the Jewish people to their Biblical homeland (Robertson & Timms 1997). The ideology was based on the thoughts of Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) and others following the First World Zionist Conference held in Basle in 1897 and began to receive concrete expression in the years following the First World War with the foundation of Jewish settlements in Palestine, the most famous of which was Tel Aviv, next to the Old City of Jaffa. Following the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis in the Second World War and the expiry of the British Mandate in Palestine, the State of Israel was founded in 1948.

Whilst Israel has retained its Zionist ideology up to the present day, the Palestinians have used a variety of ideologies to support their struggle to maintain/regain control of their land. In the early years of the conflict, during the 1920s and 1930s, the leadership was primarily secular, with the notable exception of the Haifa preacher Shaykh 'Iz al-Din al-Qassam (d. 1936), whose death in battle gained him the status of a martyr. During and after the Second World War, the struggle was generally seen as part of the Arab Nationalist cause, with little reference to religion. As the Palestinians increasingly came into conflict with Arab governments during the 1960s and 1970s, the ideology changed to revolutionary socialism as a means of fighting the Zionists. During the 1980s, the conflict again took on a religious dimension with the foundation of the Islamic group Hamas (Ar. perserverance) in Gaza. Since the 1980s, the Islamic religious groups have taken an increasingly prominent role, producing tension and sometimes open conflict with the official Palestinian leadership (Fatah), which still sees itself as non-religious, embracing Muslims, Christians, Samaritans and even Jews who are opposed to Zionist expansion.

It is well known that archaeology in the eastern Mediterranean is heavily politicised, and issues such as ethnicity and religion play a major part both in fieldwork and interpretation (cf. Meskell 1998, although curiously the editor omitted Israel from the discussion). Since 'the modern state of Israel was founded in a self-conscious act of continuity with the Jewish states of antiquity' (Cesarani 2004: 16), archaeology has taken an important role in the ideological conflict. The Zionists regard archaeology as a way of legitimising their occupation of the land by finding physical evidence of a past Jewish presence (Abu al-Hajj 2001). In particular, they look for evidence which supports the Biblical narratives, even though Zionism itself is a predominantly secular ideology (Whitelam 1997). Archaeology is even used as a source for synagogue architecture (Kadish 2003: 23). The high regard for archaeology in Israeli society is reflected in the fact that one of their prime ministers, Yigael Yadin, and several cabinet ministers have been archaeologists. By contrast, the Palestinians have seldom used archaeology as a way of countering Israeli/Zionist claims, preferring to focus instead on living culture such as the embroidered Palestinian dress (Weir 1989) or personal memories of village life (Khalidi 1992; Slymovics 1988; Abu-Ghazelah 1973). A notable exception is Mahmud al-'Abidi's work on Islamic archaeology, which stresses the continuity and achievements of the Arab presence in Palestine (Abidi 1943, 1957).

In view of this ideological atmosphere, it is no surprise that Islamic archaeology has been generally absent from university archaeology departments in Israel, with the notable exception of the work of Miriam Rosen-Ayalon. …

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