In Jerusalem's City of David Excavation, Politics Is Never Absent

Ronny Reich, who has spent years excavating the City of David in East Jerusalem, says politics and religion have never interested him, so what’s his connection with the right-wing Elad association, which operates the site?

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

At the end of October 1995, just days before he was assassinated, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin visited the upper part of the village of Silwan in East Jerusalem, accompanied by a large entourage. There, in the place also known as the City of David National Park, a big tent had been set up for the opening of the festivities marking Jerusalem’s 3,000th anniversary − an event that grew out of the vision of former mayor Teddy Kollek.

Also present was Ronny Reich, an archaeologist from the Israel Antiquities Authority. Just before the ceremony, Reich had been asked to excavate a small section of City of David, a sort of gift from the IAA in honor of the city’s special birthday.

Prof. Ronny Reich in earthly Jerusalem.Credit: Koby Kalmanovich

At the end of the ceremony, as the national anthem “Hatikva” was being sung, it struck Reich that this was probably the first time it was ever actually being sung in “Zion” − not Zion as a synonym for the Land of Israel or for Jerusalem, and not a metaphorical Zion, but the genuine, original Zion: the name of the Jebusite fortress conquered by King David 3,000 years ago.

“It occurred to me that this was the first time ever that ‘Hatikva’ was sung in precisely the spot that its lyrics speak of! I was awestruck by my little discovery and I still get emotional whenever I talk about it,” writes Reich in a recently published ‏(Hebrew‏) book entitled “Excavating the City of David: The Place Where Jerusalem’s History Began.”

Route of the Herodian tunnel and drainage canal.
A view of Silwan from the City of David National Park visitors’ center.
City of David: a gold bell.
7 of 7 |
Route of the Herodian tunnel and drainage canal.
1 of 7 |
A view of Silwan from the City of David National Park visitors’ center. Credit: Daniel Bar-On/Jini
2 of 7 |
City of David: a gold bell.Credit: Vladimir Neihin
City of David slideshow

Reich isn’t generally the type to get excited. He describes himself as possessing “a certain amount of indifference.” Often throughout this interview, his response is “What can I do?” − accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders. Mostly, he stresses his indifference to politics. His leftist critics say he must have had to muster every possible ounce of indifference in order to ignore the political use being made of his scientific work.

Over 16 years have passed since that anniversary event and Reich – together with his younger colleague, Eli Shukron – has spent most of that time above and below ground at the City of David. Reich is the archaeologist who has excavated for the longest period of time in Jerusalum, and is considered one of the top researchers of the city. The list of his scholarly accomplishments is long and sheds new light on the city’s history. But alongside the scientific findings, there has been growing political criticism of Reich and his digs – in particular regarding the fact that he allowed the settler organization Elad to make use of archaeology to “Judaize Silwan” in East Jerusalem.

About a year ago, Reich left the City of David excavations to become chairman of the Israel Archaeological Council, which advises the culture minister. In his new book, which describes the history of excavations at City of David from the 19th century through the present, Reich avoids addressing the political and ideological questions aroused by the excavations there. At the same time, however, he doesn’t hesitate to settle a few professional and political scores with colleagues in the world of archaeology.

Huge response

The ancient tel ‏(a mound created over the centuries by accumulated ruins of successive civilizations‏) that rises from Kidron Valley to the Temple Mount is known to Hebrew speakers as Ir David − the City of David. It is located in the village of Shiloah, known to Arabic speakers as the Wadi Hilweh neighborhood of Silwan. This hill, archaeologists agree, is the site of the original Jerusalem, which was situated here because of the abundant Gihon spring flowing below it. Over the past 20 years, the City of David has become one of the most important archaeological sites in Israel, and a popular tourist attraction that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. But the the site’s security and political volatility has also risen as time has passed.

During the years Reich was excavating the site, the Elad organization ‏(the Hebrew acronym stands for “el ir David,” literally “to the City of David”‏), founded by David Be’eri, became more powerful and was entrusted with the management of the City of David National Park. Aside from developing the park and the extensive archaeological excavations there, the organization also helped to settle several hundred Jewish families in the area. The Palestinians living there, meanwhile, responded with several waves of violent protests: against the appropriation of their village for Jewish history; against the municipality’s policy of housing demolition; and against the police’s aggressive tactics.

The violence in the village reached a peak after a security guard hired by the Jewish residents shot and killed – under unclear circumstances – local resident Samer Sirhan, in September 2010. The wave of violence that erupted in the wake of that killing has lasted for over a year. All this happened quite literally above the heads of Reich and his colleagues, who remained engrossed in their excavations amid and below the village houses. But a battle was going on among them, too − a battle among archaeologists over prestige and over the significance of the findings.

The list of discoveries and contributions to archaeological science made by Reich and his faithful partner Shukron is quite long, starting with the discovery of the Siloam ‏(Shiloah‏) Pool, from the Second Temple period ‏(530 BCE to 70 CE‏), to the discovery and analysis of a system of fortifications of Jebusite Jerusalem ‏(from the era of King David‏) and the First Temple period (1006-586 BCE); to the rediscovery of the Herodian street and drainage canal ‏(end of the Second Temple period‏).

In recent years, it seems the public has been informed of a new finding from the digs every few months: a golden bell ‏(perhaps belonging to a Temple priest‏) from the Second Temple period; a Roman sword; a seal with a Hebrew inscription that was used in the Temple rituals; or coins whose location in relation to the Western Wall threatens to deprive the great Herod of credit for building the most famous wall in Jerusalem.

About six months ago, Reich revealed a curious find: V-shaped etchings on the floor of a room. With an openness atypical of his profession, Reich admitted that he did not know what these signified, and invited the public to offer suggestions.
The responses posted by those who saw the item on the Yahoo site ranged from the esoteric to the anachronistic, from ideas about victory signs to the first smiley in history. But they were a testament to the great interest that exists surrounding the City of David. More than 70,000 people took the trouble to respond. A spokesperson for Elad says that, for the sake of comparison, on the same site the story of the Turkish flotilla to Gaza evoked just 3,000 responses.

But the discovery Reich is most proud of is actually a pile of fish bones dating from the First Temple period. He admits that these bones excite him more than the Roman sword, which may have been used to cut down Jews during the days of the Great Revolt.

“That the Romans used swords − I know. That they used swords in Jerusalem − I know that too. And we also know what form the Roman swords took. So okay, we found a sword, very nice. There will be something to show, something to learn; we’ll be able to examine the material from which it was made, as well as the material of the sheath, and to determine where the wood came from. But the fish bones? When we started to find quantities of them ... well, what can I tell you? I was excited. Not in the sense that it made my heart beat faster, but because it meant we learned something new about the diet of the people who lived in Jerusalem.”

As noted, Reich repeatedly refers to himself as being “a little indifferent,” and says he has a hard time understanding why other people get so worked up.
“What can I do? That’s just my nature,” he says. “I’ve also learned in my many years that, sometimes, ignoring provocations from another person can be an excellent weapon. He gets annoyed that I’m not answering, that I’m not firing back. He’ll fire once or twice, see that there’s no response and stop. We just had a little seminar day − what shouting! It was awful. I said: ‘Folks, you’re acting like somebody just raped your daughter!’` What excites me is contributing new knowledge, coloring in another blank area on our map of knowledge.”

‘Kicking themselves twice’

Ronny Reich is the son of Holocaust survivors; his mother is from Austria and his father from Poland. His parents met during World War II and fled together to Yugoslavia. In April 1941, during the heavy German bombardment of Belgrade, his father broke into the Polish embassy and got hold of some blank Polish passports, which the family used to pass themselves off as Polish Catholics. “They even faked the stamps,” says Reich. “My mother, for example, had a visa for Paraguay. World War II wasn’t just camps and extermination and Partisans; there were also people who were constantly on the run, who showed tremendous resourcefulness.”

They crossed into Italy and hid there with their false identities until liberation; then they immigrated to Palestine in 1944. In the War of Independence, when Reich was just a year old, his father was killed in Operation Danny, in the fighting for Lod and Ramle. His mother, Herte, raised her only son alone, in Holon. She passed away a month ago aged 94, after a brief illness.

Reich got into archaeology almost by chance. As an only child of a widowed mother, he deferred his army service and enrolled in university.

“I wanted to study geography and natural sciences but there was no room in the labs, so they told me to come back the next year,” he relates. “And then they told me that I could do geography and humanities but had to pick another major. When I went outside, I met a friend who said, ‘Come study archaeology with me.’ So I went back inside and told the secretary to write down archaeology.”

Between the time he began studying for his bachelor’s degree and the time he completed his army service in 1969, the field of archaeology opened up, especially in Jerusalem. “All of a sudden there was work in archaeology,” he recalls.

In the 1970s, he was involved in the major excavations of the Jewish Quarter, under the direction of Prof. Nahman Avigad, and subsequently he helped to establish the IAA. He applied to become part of the faculty in the prestigious Hebrew University archaeology department but was not accepted, and eventually found his place at the University of Haifa. In 1995, when the IAA was asked to conduct an excavation of City of David in honor of Jerusalem’s 3,000th anniversary celebrations, Amir Drori, the authority’s first director general, suggested the dig to the Hebrew University people, but they turned it down. They may have figured there was nothing left to excavate there, since the tel had been excavated a number of times since the mid-19th century.

“Drori told me that they weren’t picking up the gauntlet,” says Reich. “Now I bet they’re kicking themselves twice − for not taking on the dig, and also for not having accepted me back then. But I’m not out to settle scores.”

Says Prof. Zeev Weiss, head of the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology: “We do not begrudge Reich’s work in Jerusalem. At the time there was no one on the faculty that dealt with Jerusalem directly. Everyone was involved in major projects in other places and no one was available. There may be some disagreement about the method, but no one here has any resentment over what he is doing.”

Family first

When asked about politics, Reich asserts, “I grew up in an apolitical household, I grew up in a nonreligious household. We didn’t talk about politics or religion at home. Not at all. My mother was antireligious. If not for World War II, she probably would have married an Austrian non-Jew. So what can I do − that’s just how I grew up. I don’t take the political side of things to heart. I’m not that way. What can I do?”
Despite his close cooperation with the Elad organization, Reich describes himself as a “leftist who thinks this country should be divided. I also think the Palestinians are unfortunate and should be helped, so they don’t get to the point where they have nothing to lose.”

Asked how this worldview can be reconciled with his extensive scientific activity – that has effectively helped a rightist organization Judaize parts of Silwan – he replies: “Some will say I’m playing into Elad’s hands. But I put my family at the top of my list of priorities [Reich has a son and daughter, and a third grandchild has just arrived], followed by my archaeological research. Politics only comes after that. So yes, they use what I do. As far as I’m concerned, if it turns out that David was never there, I won’t care. What’s come out is what there is. I have no agenda to find any particular thing. Besides, if I wasn’t doing it, someone else would be. And he would uncover the same artifacts. So what’s the difference?”

Reich generally seeks to avoid confrontation with political rivals, preferring to focus on archaeology. The exception is Prof. Rafi Greenberg of Tel Aviv University. Greenberg heads a group of critical archaeologists called Emek Shaveh, which has frequently taken Elad and Reich to task for exploiting archaeology for political ends. Reich retorts that Greenberg’s activity has caused the dismissal of the Palestinian laborers working at the dig. On this subject, he concurs with Elad’s view that until the leftists came to Silwan, peaceful coexistence prevailed there.

“All through the years I’ve made one demand of Elad, and that is that the workers be from Silwan,” says Reich. “I believe that whoever has the misfortune to live in an antiquities site ought to be able to profit from it. But when they ‏[Emek Shaveh‏] started up, there was pressure through the mukhtar, through Hamas. The only thing I want to know is if he [Greenberg‏] gave them ‏[the workers‏] a good explanation. I think they deserve it.”

Prof. Greenberg declined to comment.

Reich notes proudly that his activity, and that of Elad, has changed the face of the City of David in the public’s mind. “Until we started to work, there was a barrel lying at the entrance to the Siloam Pool, which no one had bothered to get rid of. Just a few thousand visitors came each year. Now there are 450,000 visitors a year.”
But his critics on the left argue that this change has brought suffering to the village’s Palestinians: Not only do they not benefit from the tourists, they have watched as settlers have taken over their village.

The archaeological artifacts ostensibly give the people from Elad the most powerful seal of approval for their being here. And Reich, with his talent, supplies the necessary archaeological goods. Meanwhile, Elad provides Reich, and the other archaeologists who work with him, working conditions that are the envy of colleagues at every other major dig in Israel.

“I never chased after money to finance excavations,” he says. “I don’t manage or sign any receipts for anything. We need another truck? The next day there’s a truck. We need three more workers? Then we get three more workers. Another three tons of iron or wood? Fine. It’s not because of my talent. It’s Jerusalem, it’s the City of David. That’s why.”

Reich and Elad are insistent that the political tendencies of those financing the excavations have never influenced the scientific findings. “In the first year they drove me crazy, constantly asking: ‘Nu, did you find something from David?’ I promised them that if I found anything, they’d be the first to know. So far I haven’t had any need to call them. What can I do?”

Hezekiah’s reputation

In his recent book, Reich is critical of someone who did claim to have found evidence of King David at the site − Dr. Ayelet Mazar of the Hebrew University, who claimed that she discovered King David’s palace.

Reich is not impressed with the findings: “I’m not convinced that this is King David’s palace. The ceramics do match the period, the first Iron Age, but when I saw this pile of shards and the place where it was discovered and the link between this place and the wall of that building − I didn’t see the connection. No new data has been found since then, and so I cannot rule out the possibility that these walls are more ancient [than David’s era].

“I don’t refute the historical figure of David, and he certainly had a place of residence in Jerusalem,” Reich adds. “Nor do I refute the assumption that this hill is the City of David. By definition, there is no other possibility. But I didn’t see the connection. Therefore I was not convinced. Nu, what can I do?” he says in that familiar tone.
“Saying ‘I wasn’t convinced’ is not convincing,” responds Mazar. “When someone says that he wasn’t convinced but doesn’t say why or get into the real details of it − then his statement cannot be taken seriously. When I see that he is addressing it in detail, then I will relate to it.”

David isn’t the only one to lose out from Reich’s excavations. The reputation of another Jewish king is also hurting. Reich has recently been making the argument ‏(although it is not in his new work‏) that King Hezekiah did not actually build the water tunnel underneath City of David that is named for him. The tunnel, which runs 530 meters from the Gihon spring to the Siloam Pool, is one of the most impressive engineering feats of ancient Israel.

Those who quarried it worked from two directions, one group from the spring and another from the pool. The question that has been dogging researchers for more than a century is how the two groups managed to meet in the middle, deep within the earth − especially given the fact that the tunnel follows a winding route.

The accepted explanation is that the diggers really only expanded a natural tunnel that was created in the rock as a result of geological processes. But Reich and Shukron discovered, after spending many days in the cold Gihon waters, that the entire tunnel, from floor to ceiling, was quarried by hand, without any natural spaces in the bedrock.

Reich therefore had to propose a new explanation, one that is more complex but logical: He says the original diggers did make use of natural cracks in the rock, which are no longer visible today because of the mounds of dirt and waste that piled up above the tunnel over thousands of years.

The cracks helped to “direct” the workers − for example, by pouring water that trickled through and showed the diggers where they were located in relation to the surface above and in relation to the second group of diggers.

The “reanalysis” of the tunnel led Reich to a new insight as to who was behind this tremendous project. Tradition, and most scholars, attributed the digging to Hezekiah, due to the large number of places in the Bible in which his preparations for war with the Assyrian king Sannecherib are described.

“And the rest of the acts of Hezekiah, and all his might, and how he made a pool, and a conduit, and brought water into the city, are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Judah?,” reads the verse in 2 Kings 20. But Reich discovered that the dirt and waste found in the dug-out pool connected to the tunnel show that the pool was actually created several decades before Hezekiah’s time.
Reich: “I’m sorry this wasn’t what I was looking for, but this is what came out.”
The excavation of the pool, which in essence deprived Hezekiah of his tunnel, is Reich’s greatest achievement.

“Archaeologists are sometimes asked, usually by the media, what is their biggest discovery ever. For me, the peak has to be the quarried pool − its excavation and its artifacts,” he wrote.

The excavation of the pool, like many other efforts in the area, required just as much engineering know-how as archaeological skills. Over the centuries it had been filled up with dirt and waste. Two years were spent building a large structure with metal beams to hold up the ceiling, so it would be possible to dig underneath.
Numerous shards were found around the pool but the most important findings, Reich explains, were mud seals bearing drawings and inscriptions which were used for trade, and thousands of fish bones that corroborated new theories relating to the diet of Jerusalem’s inhabitants in biblical times. The fish, which obviously had to have been brought from afar, attest to the existence of trade relations and a well-off elite that could purchase the imported goods.

The bones were handed over to Reich’s friend Dr. Omri Lernau, a surgeon who developed a hobby of analyzing fish remains from archaeological digs. He is now one of the world’s leading experts in his field. Most of the fish that were found were mullet and sea bream, but there were also Nile perch bones.
“That’s a lot of bones. Somebody must have really loved to eat fish,” says Reich. “Here we’ve colored in another little patch in the history of Jerusalem.”

From one catastrophe to another

The City of David excavations have yielded a great scientific bounty that goes beyond David and Hezekiah. Among other things, Reich and Shukron uncovered the Siloam Pool from the Second Temple period, after a bulldozer involved in development work happened upon it. They also unearthed the Herodian street that rises from the pool toward the Temple Mount; part of this street had been found in 19th-century excavations. The subterranean street and the drainage canal beneath it were completely exposed only after a protracted legal battle waged by the Palestinian residents against the excavations, which they claimed were endangering their homes.

In the end, the High Court ruled in favor of continuing the dig, but this doesn’t stop the tunnel from collapsing occasionally and opening gaping holes in the ground, usually after heavy rains.

Today one can walk, via a tunnel, from the bottom of Silwan almost to the Western Wall plaza, all underground. This is where the Roman sword, the gold bell and a ritual bath were all discovered, as well as a number of coins whose dating may challenge the belief that Herod was the one who built the entire Western Wall.

The excavation of the street has also yielded a seal with a Hebrew inscription that apparently had a connection to the Second Temple. In a drainage canal from the same period which the two men excavated beneath the Herodian street, intact cooking pots were found − not something one usually expects to uncover in a sewage tunnel.
How did the pots get there? One possible explanation is found in Flavius Josephus’ descriptions of the final hours of the Great Revolt in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. The last of the rebels in the city fled and hid inside the drainage canals, and the Romans, wrote Josephus, found the rebels hiding in the tunnels and all those who fell into their hands were smote with a sword.

Reich and Shukron point to holes in the pavement of the street, explaining that they could have been made by soldiers from the Roman Legion who were searching for the rebels below.

And now, from a historic catastrophe to a future one.

The most powerful political argument against Elad and Reich is that, thanks to their activities, they have precluded the possibility of ever reaching an accord with the Palestinians, since without a division of Jerusalem no such agreement can be attained. However, the Judaization of Silwan and the “occupation” of the City of David by settlers has apparently rendered future division of the city impossible.

Reich: “That ‏ − [an agreement] − is not going to happen anyway. Not in our time. This conflict isn’t going to be brought to a close before a catastrophe occurs, and why should I wish for catastrophes? I have lovely little grandchildren.”

In his spare time, Reich has been developing an impressive career as a translator. He has translated into Hebrew a number of books on archaeology, as well as German, Latin and English poetry.

One of the poems he translated is about precisely the time when the last of the rebels were being killed in the sewage canals − Lord Byron’s “On the Day of the Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus,” which begins:

From the last hill that looks on thy once holy dome,
I beheld thee, O Sion, when render’d to Rome;
’Twas thy last sun went down, and the flames of thy fall
Flash’d back on the last glance I gave to thy wall...



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First Committee rally on October 3, 1941.

Ken Burns’ Brilliant ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Has Only One Problem

The projected rise in sea level on a beach in Haifa over the next 30 years.

Facing Rapid Rise in Sea Levels, Israel Could Lose Large Parts of Its Coastline by 2050

Prime Minister Yair Lapid, this month.

Lapid to Haaretz: ‘I Have Learned to Respect the Left’

“Dubi,” whose full name is secret in keeping with instructions from the Mossad.

The Mossad’s Fateful 48 Hours Before the Yom Kippur War

Tal Dilian.

As Israel Reins in Its Cyberarms Industry, an Ex-intel Officer Is Building a New Empire

Queen Elizabeth II, King Charles III and a British synagogue.

How the Queen’s Death Changes British Jewry’s Most Distinctive Prayer