Property Developers and Neglect Threaten Jerusalem's Ancient Glory

Jerusalem's glorious history is fading at an alarming pace, according to the National Academy of Sciences and Humanities. The Jerusalem-based academy hosted a conference this week on the progress of preserving ancient sites in the capital.

Conference speakers were pessimistic about the chances of Jerusalem's heritage surviving for future generations.

Experienced archaeologists admitted they might have inadvertently hastened the deterioration by unearthing artifacts which were subsequently damaged or even destroyed.

Some of the most important antiquity sites have been damaged or are in danger of being harmed due to pressure from business tycoons seeking to build on them.

Unique remains from ancient times are buried in the basements of buildings put up above them.

Dozens of small archaeological sites exposed throughout the city are neglected. Historical buildings earmarked for preservation are demolished almost weekly by property developers. In the non-Jewish quarters in the Old City rampant illegal construction is damaging ancient structures.

Some speakers accused the municipality and the Israel Antiquities Authority of neglecting the sites and enabling the demolition of buildings of historic value. They want the public to be told of the importance of preservation for the city. The IAA seeks to compromise with the developers at any price and does not stop them from carrying out their plans even when remnants of universal importance are discovered at building sites, critics said.

Such a discovery was made several weeks ago on the outskirts of the Western Wall plaza. Archaeologists said a section of a street exposed a few weeks ago was part of one of the two main Cardo streets - avenues of pillars - in the city during the Roman-Byzantine era. But the authorities had already promised the Western Wall Heritage Foundation that it could build a museum on the site. The remnants that were discovered will be exhibited in the basement of the future building.

Professor Yoram Tsafrir, one of the heads of the Archaeological Institute at Hebrew University and one of the conference's initiators, said that this caused irreversible damage to the chances of preserving the unique site in the future.

"If one day they want to expose the Roman street the museum will block the ability to view the street," Tsafrir said.

He said the customary preservation method of keeping archaeological findings in basements, as had been done in the 1970s in the Jewish Quarter, reflects "archaeology's surrender to tycoons and developers."