Academic journal article Jerusalem Quarterly

King Herod in Jerusalem: The Politics of Cultural Heritage

Academic journal article Jerusalem Quarterly

King Herod in Jerusalem: The Politics of Cultural Heritage

Article excerpt

From his own time to the present day, King Herod the Great (74/73 BCE-4 BCE) has been celebrated as one of the greatest builders of the ancient world. Depictions of his character have been less favorable. Not so popular with his own subjects, and rather negatively profiled in Josephus and the Gospels, he has somehow risen to a national hero in contemporary Israel. His initiatives in Jerusalem, encompassing fully preserved, partially restored, imagined, or recreated artifacts and buildings, have taken on a symbolic function in the dispute over occupied East Jerusalem. This status ties in favorably with numerous other Herodian period sites located in the West Bank, suggesting a territorial claim in which archaeological heritage participates as a seemingly inconspicuous carrier of an ideological message.1

The roots of Herod's physical legacy in the context of current Israeli territorial ambitions appear in initial mid-nineteenth century efforts to survey and document Jerusalem's surviving antiquities, initiated by organizations representing different countries seeking to gain control over various regions of the declining Ottoman Empire. As the most visible surviving structure from the time of Jesus, the Temple Mount, as well as other contemporary sites and artifacts, was of particular interest to the early explorers, most of whom were inspired formally or informally by their Protestant or Catholic backgrounds. For the most part, their endeavors were determined both by scientific curiosity and by religious dedication. This model of framing religious and political ambitions in a chronologically targeted exploration impacted early Zionist endeavors, for which the Herodian period provided not an association with Jesus's ministry and crucifixion, but rather a visual and physical context for the late Second Temple period, understood as one of Judaism's most powerful religio-political eras.

Documenting, excavating, and showcasing King Herod's Jerusalem has thus developed into a key potential tool for the framing of religious and political ambitions within a historical context. From the early twentieth century, educational and governmental establishments have fostered an agenda in which Christian and Jewish aspirations to claim the city's cultural heritage overlap. This confluence of Judeo-Christian interests in the visual and material legacy of Herod's Jerusalem has tended at least partially to eclipse the city's Muslim cultural heritage.

Since Israel's occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, archaeology has played a major role in solidifying the notion that the city will remain the "eternal, united capital" of the Israeli state. In addition to the swift establishment of the Ring Neighborhoods, the passage of the 1980 Basic Law - Jerusalem has provided the political framework for various additional physical transformations that would create so-called facts on the ground. The use of cultural heritage, in particular antiquities that highlight the city's Jewish legacy, has proven to be a particular potent agent in asserting the reclamation of the land of Israel's biblical and post-biblical ancestors. Officially and practically, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) engages all archaeological fieldwork in East Jerusalem in the same way and according to the same legal precepts as in West Jerusalem.2 In response, UNESCO has condemned and declared illegal all archaeological activity in East Jerusalem following the 1967 War. Palestinian archaeologists, for their part, have largely refrained from excavating in the city, demonstrating their refusal to accept occupation and to recognize imposed Israeli political as well as archaeological sovereignty. The exclusive emphasis on First and Second Temple period archaeological remains in Jerusalem has met with repeated criticism, as have recent excavations and tourist activities in Silwan, closely tied as these are with Israel's Jewish settlement and Palestinian home demolition policies. …

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