Controversial Dig: The Politics of Israeli Archaeology

By Beck, Mordechai | The Christian Century, May 30, 2012 | Go to article overview

Controversial Dig: The Politics of Israeli Archaeology

Beck, Mordechai, The Christian Century

IN ISRAEL, archaeology is followed with the same passion that soccer excites in other countries. That's because archaeological findings--especially ones that reveal Jews' ancient attachment to the land--have political meaning. As Israelis see it, such findings show that this is their land and no one can take it from them.

The problem, of course, is that another people--the Palestinians--have similar claims to the same land. Often the two sets of claims clash. The conflict sharpened after 1967 when Israel captured the whole of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Israeli government passed a law uniting the city of Jerusalem--an act that the international community does not recognize as legal. At the same time, Israel made the Temple Mount (known to Muslims as Haram el-Sharif), Judaism's most holy site, an Arab enclave under the control of the Wakf, the Arab Religious Council.

The Israelis have continued to dig all around Jerusalem, while the Palestinians have tried to stop digs that they see as infringements on their sacred territory. In the 1990s, Muslims undertook their own dig on the southeast corner of the Temple Mount as part of providing new access to the Marwani Mosque (also known as Solomon's Stables). The dig was criticized by Israelis for taking place without the proper archaeological supervision, and some Israeli archaeologists charged that the Muslim excavators hid evidence of ancient Jewish presence at the site.

Recently, attention has been focused on a site known as the City of David, which lies just south of Jerusalem's Old City. Archaeologists are exploring a site on and around the stream of Gihon, a site associated with the origins of the city. Jerusalem, like so many cities, was founded on or near a water source.

Nowadays this area is a tourist site run by the private Jewish organization Elad, which leads visitors through a complex of tunnels and cavernous spaces that show how the ancients created a water system that allowed them to live on the not very large hill that is the center of Jerusalem.

The people who were responsible for the original structure were probably Canaanites, specifically the people known in the Bible as Jebusites. According to 2 Samuel 5, David took the city from the Jebusites (around 1000 BCE) and turned the city into his capital.

David's son Solomon expanded the site to include a garden--still bearing fruit today--at the base of the hill, which was perhaps the inspiration for much of the sensual imagery in the Song of Songs. Next to this site is a recently discovered stairway that once led to the Second Temple. The stairs, built in the era of Herod, are some 600 meters long and were the main way by which Israelites climbed to the temple.

Halfway up the ridge is a site dug by British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon from 1960 to 1967. It possibly contains the "Millo" or earthen platform mentioned in the biblical description of David's capture of the city (2 Samuel 5; 1 Kings 9). Kenyon uncovered and partially reconstructed a massive wall that stands overlooking the Kidron Valley.

At the top of the hill directly beneath the southern walls of the Old City is a site being excavated by the Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar. She claims that this is the site of King David's fortified palace. Other scholars dispute that claim, saying that the ruins stem from an older period, probably from that of the Jebusites.

To whom does the City of David belong?

"I'm not saying conclusively that this is David's fortress or palace," says Mazar. "But until anyone brings proof that it isn't, I'm sticking to my theory."

"As for pottery," says Mazar, "that is a disputable way of deciding the age of a site. What we have found in the site could be [dated] ten or 20 years one way or the other. So dating the site as David's is certainly in the realm of the possible."

Other structures from the biblical period thought to be in the area are the defensive walls built by Hezekiah or his son Menashe (2 Kings 23 and 24) to protect the water sources; Hezekiah's Tunnel, which was dug into the side of the ridge to defend the city against the Assyrian King Sennaharib (in 702 BCE); and the so-called Jeremiah's Pit, which is unlikely to be the exact pit where the prophet Jeremiah was placed but which no doubt resembles it in its gloomy atmosphere. …

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