Opinion

Jerusalem's Newly-unearthed Temple Tunnel Is Thrilling, Glorious - and Toxic for Coexistence

Walking the 'Pilgrims' Road' was incredible. But archaeology is never just science: it is fundamentally political. Political projects can't take priority over living-and-breathing Jerusalemites, both Israeli and Palestinian

French parliamentarians tour the "Pilgrims' Road" at the City of David archaeological and tourist site run by Elad foundation and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Silwan, East Jerusalem, July 16 2019
AFP

Remember the crude and ugly demonstration of chauvinistic triumphalism three weeks ago, when Donald Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman and Miriam, wife of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, smashed an artificial wall in a tunnel beneath Silwan in East Jerusalem

It’s impossible to forget their gurning, self-satisfied faces as they literally smashed prospects of coexistence in a city they don’t live in, and have no true regard for its real residents. At least I thought it would be impossible to forget them, as I visited the tunnel last week, with the excellent and professional guidance of an Israel Antiquities Authority expert.

U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman smashing a wall at the end of the "Pilgrimage Road" in Jerusalem, June 30, 2019.
Screenshot

I was wrong because if you have an ounce of historical and Jewish awareness in your soul, the moment you enter the cool dark tunnel you forget those tawdry and inconsequential figures.

"The Pilgrims' Road" - we'll get back to the problematic name in a moment - is incredible. Walking up those cool limestone steps, flanked by the remains of entrances to ancient shops and homes along the way, you can for the first time, without any reconstruction or visual aid, really picture what Jerusalem looked like in the last decades of the Second Temple.

The Roman road, for that's what this is, built in the province of Judea, almost certainly at the initiative of that most (in)famous of Roman prefects, Pontius Pilate, for the use of the city’s residents, remains almost immaculate. A stark reminder that it was in use for less than 40 years (the latest coins found there are from 31CE) and that it was subsequently entirely covered over by debris from the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, in 70CE.

Pick up one of the original manholes, and there’s the original sewage system still intact, built-in as part of the road’s construction, with rainwater flowing through it. Half-way down there’s a little square, which probably served as a small marketplace as well. Further uphill, to one side of the road, there’s a little raised stone podium, which would have serviced preachers, and immediately you’re put in mind of that classic scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

It may have been hidden underground for over 1,940 years, and will never see daylight again, but you really need no imagination when walking up the road which once led up from the Shiloah Pool to the gates of Herod’s Temple to see yourself among the Jews and Romans of ancient Jerusalem. It’s glorious.

But then you go back above ground, in the blinding light of midday, and today’s Jerusalem hits you in the face.

The dig is being conducted by the professional archaeologists of the Israel Antiquities Authority, but it's financed by the East Jerusalem settler organization, Elad. Long before Friedman and Adelson and their friends arrived to defile the Roman road, it had been politicized.

The name chosen for the project, "The Pilgrims' Road," highlights the fact that it was probably used by Jews arriving in Jerusalem for the three main festivals at the Temple. But it probably had other uses as well, throughout the year.

Focusing on just one religious and uniquely Jewish aspect of the road, which was built after all by Romans and, for all we know, mainly for the use of Romans, reflects Elad’s political project above ground.

A Palestinian member of the Siyam family arranges furniture thrown out of their home during their eviction by Elad. Silwan, East Jerusalem. July 10, 2019
AFP

That project? Looking for every possible way to establish settler outposts in Palestinian neighborhoods, exacerbating an already grossly unequal distribution of resources, especially land for building, in the "united" city.

I don’t have the structural expertise to form an opinion on whether the excavation has indeed damaged the houses of Palestinians living in Silwan directly above, as residents claim. I’m willing to accept the word of the archaeologists that they are working under the constant supervision of engineers. After all, they themselves would hardly want to spend their days in an unsafe tunnel.

But the work is still being done in flagrant disregard of those living above it.

Archaeology in Jerusalem is never simply a science. And no side comes to the debate with clean hands.

Palestinians have tried for a century to erase any remnant of Jerusalem’s Jewish history, especially on the Temple Mount. But sharing a city - and no one has any illusions that under whatever future political solution to the conflict, Jerusalem will remain a shared city of two nations - cannot be a zero-sum game.

Palestinians watch a family house destroyed by Israeli authorities in east Jerusalem's neighborhood of Silwan. April 17, 2019
Mahmoud Illean,AP

The priority in any city has to be those living in it. Billions of shekels (and millions of hours of drivers stuck in traffic jams) are now being spent on massive roadworks and construction around Jerusalem’s western entrance with the aim of improving the lives of all the city’s residents. Any archaeological finds discovered during this work, no matter how historically significant, will be quickly recorded, and covered up for posterity. That’s human progress.

I feel truly privileged to have walked on the road between the Shiloah Pool and the Temple Mount, but I don’t need it to know that the Temple existed and that there was a Jewish presence in this city thousands of years ago. There is sufficient historic research and evidence for that.

With all the immense value of having visible, physical remnants of our past, co-existence is more important.

Archaeology, even if the archaeologists themselves are working according to strictly scientific standards and recording the existence of Christian and Muslim structures as well, must not be allowed to serve a nationalistic political narrative that airbrushes out other past and present communities. Jerusalem is worth more than that.