Archaeologist Cracks Mysterious Message on Jerusalem Prison Wall

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Shmuel MatzaCredit: Emil Salman

As a 20-year-old member of the pre-state Jewish underground, Shmuel Matza spent four days incarcerated in the Kishle, a prison right near Jerusalem’s Old City walls.

But he made sure that evidence of his brief stay there would remain for posterity.

In a symbolic act of defiance, Matza, a commander in the Irgun at the time, etched his name into the wall of the prison, and beside it, the emblem of his militant anti-British organization – a hand clenching a gun running across a map of Greater Israel with the words “only thus” written beneath it.

These inscriptions are still discernible at the entrance to the facility, recently opened for public tours by the Tower of David Museum. (English-language tours of the site are scheduled to begin on December 19.) Beyond the peeled prison walls, the site includes excavations of remains that archeologists say date back as far as the First Temple period.

“I etched these inscriptions into the wall with a fork because they wouldn’t provide us with knives there,” recalls 87-year-old Matza, who still carries vivid memories of those days. “There were about 20 of us packed into one jail cell. There were fleas and lice, and it smelled pretty awful. We’d go out to the patio for our meals, which consisted of olives, yogurt, pita bread and tea. I still remember that they served the tea in these aluminum cups which got so hot that it burned our mouths when we drank from them.”

The Tower of David Museum            Courtesy of Tower of David Museum

It was Amit Re’em, a young archeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, who set out to find the young prisoner who had etched his name into the wall when he began excavating the site almost 15 years ago and discovered the inscription.

“I knew that there was a Yehoshua Matza [a well-known Likud politician], so I though this might be a relative,” recalls Re’em. “I called him, and indeed, it turned out that Yehoshua was his younger brother. So I immediately picked up the phone and called Shmuel.”

Built in the 1830s, the Kishle was originally used as a military compound by the Ottomans. During the British Mandate period, it served as a police station and jail. Matza was among the many Jewish underground activists held there under administrative detention.

The inscription, now open to the public       Courtesy Tower of David Museum

He grew up barely a few hundred meters away in the neighborhood of Yemin Moshe overlooking the Hinnom Valley, one of four brothers. His older brother had joined the pre-state Haganah, which eventually formed the core of the IDF after Israel gained independence, while he enlisted in the more militant Irgun (also known as Etzel) underground, and his younger brother Yehoshua – later to serve several terms as a Likud Knesset member, including one as health minister, before being appointed president of the Israel Bonds organization – joined the even more radical Lehi. “We had one other brother, but my father insisted that he stay behind and mind the homefront,” recounts Matza wryly.

In 1947, two years after he joined the Irgun, Matza was apprehended by British officers who suspected he was illegally hoarding weapons. After four days in transit at Kishle, he was transferred to the much bigger Latrun prison, where he spent the next eight months before joining Israeli forces in the War of Independence.

Like many of his fellow prisoners, Matza had no idea about the archeological treasure trove lying beneath the floor of his jail cell. It would take several decades before the excavation of the site would begin.

“In this one concentrated space, you have the entire history of Jerusalem,” notes Re’em, who today serves as Jerusalem District Archeologist for the Israel Antiquities Authority. “Layer upon layer of it, starting with the British Mandate period and going down all the way to the 8th century BCE, the First Temple period.”

The Kishle prison, thenCredit: Courtesy of the Tower of David Museum

The Kishle prison, then       Courtesy of the Tower of David Museum

One level below the prison, Re’em and his team found remnants of fabric-dying basins dating back to the Crusader era. Beneath that, they discovered a water drainage channel assumed to have belonged to Herod’s palace, and further below, the foundations of the palace, which archeologists believe extended as far as Mount Zion. Under these foundations, they discovered remains of a Hasmonean-era wall dating back to the end of the first century, and at the very bottom, remnants of another wall believed to have been built by King Hezekiah about 900 years earlier.

“Nowhere in Jerusalem do we have remnants of so many different periods in history in one small space,” notes Re’em.

Spending a few days on top of thousands of years of history has apparently provided Matza with a unique perspective on old age. With almost nine decades on earth behind him, he doesn’t think twice about heading out every morning to his law practice in downtown Jerusalem, where he says he still gets great satisfaction preparing for court battles.

“What am I going to do at home?” he asks. “At work I get to cross-examine people, I get to shout at other lawyers and to argue with the judge. At home, there’s just my wife to fight with. And I know that with her I’m always going to lose.”

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