In a Tunnel Beneath Jerusalem, Israeli Culture Minister Gives Obama a Lesson in History

Lighting the menorah wasn't much of a success, but the holiday event did inaugurate an ancient Roman road, even though it will take 15 more years for it to be fully excavated.

Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev visits the "Pilgrims Way", a 2,000-year-old route which is currently being excavated in the City of David on December 27, 2016.
GALI TIBBON/AFP

Culture Minister Miri Regev’s coat caught fire, but the candles in the menorah didn’t — despite the best efforts of the chief rabbi and the mayor. All in all, Tuesday’s Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony in the City of David was not a flaming success.

Some 100 soaking people sat on makeshift benches in an underground hall 10 meters below the main street of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. Someone hung Regev’s coat over a spotlight, and it soon began to smolder, causing panic among the assembled crowd. When the coat was finally plucked off the light, a small cloud of high-quality down feathers fluttered around the hall.

The ceremony was held to inaugurate the new Pilgrim’s Way, a Roman road leading from the Siloam Pool to the Temple Mount that has been excavated over the past few years by the Israel Antiquities Authority and Elad, the organization that runs the City of David national park. But the project, which runs under what is today Silwan’s main street, is very far from finished: Only about 100 meters of the 700-meter-long road have been excavated so far, and the work is proceeding at a rate of only about 40 meters a year. Thus not everyone was thrilled by the Culture Ministry’s decision to inaugurate it now.

The event was also supposed to launch a planned round of celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem’s reunification, which actually falls in June 2017. To this end, aside from activists from Regev’s Likud party, the invitees included the three paratroopers who appear in David Rubinger’s iconic photo of the liberation of the Western Wall in 1967.

The excavation of Pilgrim’s Way has been a source of controversy among archaeologists, since current archaeological doctrine holds that one should excavate from the top layer down. Moreover, excavating underground without endangering the main street running overhead poses a complex engineering problem, and the site currently looks more like a huge workshop than an archaeological site. It is full of iron and concrete scaffolding to support the road above, along with a thick ceiling pipe to bring in air and a large conveyer belt to remove the buckets of dirt.

But the Siyam family, which lives above the tunnel, charges that the scaffolding is insufficient. Members say that large cracks have appeared in the walls of their home since the excavation began.

The tunnel also contains some archeological remnants, of course – Roman paving stones, the doorway of a store, an arrowhead from the Persian period and a coin from the Jews’ Great Revolt against Rome in 66-70 C.E. But listening to the speakers at the ceremony, the entire street is a chapter in Jewish history only.

“When you stand in the City of David, you see layer after layer of foreign conquest, but when you come to the bedrock, there you find the Jewish layer,” said Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. “After other countries leaders’ visit here, they will no longer have any doubts about who owns this city.”

Barkat suggested inviting Russia's President Vladimir Putin to the City of David, and later called on British Prime Minister Theresa May to walk Pilgrim’s Way and on French President Francois Hollande to visit the Western Wall Tunnels.

Regev used the occasion to rail at the Obama administration for permitting passage of last week’s UN Security Council resolution on the settlements, which defined the West Bank and East Jerusalem as “occupied Palestinian territory.”

“Mr. President Barack Obama, I’m standing here on a road my forefathers trod 2,000 years ago; no other people in the world has such a connection to its land – not the Ukrainians, not the New Zealanders, not the Angolans,” she said, referring to three other countries that supported the resolution. “No other people in the world has a connection to its land like the Jewish people’s connection to the land of Israel.”

“They can pass thousands of resolutions, but the stones speak, the stones bear witness, and nobody can refute them,” added Jerusalem’s chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar.

Then, he was invited to light the menorah, but there were no matches. After a few minutes, someone produced a cigarette lighter. But the wicks stubbornly refused to ignite.