Finding ourselves

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.’

(BOX) 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 downÉ

‘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 periodÉ’

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 hereÉ 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.’

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