Antiquities in the Basement: Ideology and Real Estate at the Expense of Archaeology In Jerusalem’s Old City


The present volume is a series of abstracts based on longer reports by Emek Shaveh which draw on internal documents of the Israel Antiquities Authority (henceforth: IAA),[1] obtained under the Freedom of Information Law. While the information we received is partial, it is sufficient to present an up-to-date general picture of the IAA excavations in Jerusalem’s historic basin.

This volume focuses on the Western Wall Plaza and its surroundings. It considers four sites excavated over the past decade by the IAA: “Beit Strauss” (The Strauss Building)  (Chapter 1, Map Site 1); The Davidson Center and its Archaeological Park (Chapter 2, Map, Site 2); Ohel Yitzhak Synagogue (Chapter 3, Map, Site Three); and “Beit HaLiba” (HaLiba Building) (Chapter 4, Map, Site 4). The fifth chapter deals with the overall planning of the Western Wall Plaza. The documents discussed in the text are presented at the end of the file of each Hebrew Chapter (they are not translated into English). In addition, we used various sources, such as protocols from planning committees. We corrected typos in transcripts of planning committees’ meetings, but without changing the meaning (for example, in one discussion, Aelia Capitolina appeared as “Aina Batolina”). Our comments and additions appear in square brackets.

This is for the most part a professional archaeological report. It deals with the policy of the IAA and the manner in which it excavates and conserves antiquities, which are the cultural property of the public and future generations. However, the archaeology in the Old City, at the Western Wall Plaza adjacent to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is also a key part of the political struggle over the future of Jerusalem. Decisions of where to excavate, for what purpose, and how to present the sites following excavation, are weighty decisions that have an impact on the political conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, in which each side seeks to demonstrate and perpetuate its historical right to the city.

The manner in which the IAA researches and presents the past at the Western Wall Plaza fosters an impression, among the public, of ancient Jerusalem as a site of religious importance to one nation only. The present report shows how the decisions of the IAA often arise from extraneous considerations that have nothing to do with archaeology. It shows how the IAA collaborates with the entrepreneurs (such as the right-wing organization Elad and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation), and tries to adjust its activities to serve their ideology. The description of what takes place behind the scenes in the Western Wall Plaza area, as well as in the IAA excavations at the Givati Parking Lot (A Privatized Heritage, November 2014), shows that this is a routine modus operandi rather than exceptions to the rule.[2]

Download the abstract Antiquities in the Basement: Ideology and Real Estate at the Expense of Archaeology In Jerusalem’s Old City as PDF file pdf

General Background

The Western Wall Plaza as we know it today was created in 1967 following the destruction of the Mughrabi Quarter. The section of the Western Wall used for prayer, was placed under the auspices of the Ministry of Religion, and the area south of the Mughrabi Bridge became an archaeological excavation site.[3] The Ministry of Religion began excavating the Western Wall Tunnels secretly in 1969, without involving archaeologists, and only years later were archaeologists Dan Bahat and Meir Ben-Dov added as supervisors.[4] The crowning glory of these excavations was the penetration of the rabbi presiding over the Western Wall, Rabbi Getz, in 1982 into the Temple Mount in search of the Temple artifacts, under the pretext of placing a Holy Ark there.[5]  In 1968, Benjamin Mazar began excavating the area south of the Mughrabi Bridge, and subsequent excavations followed. In the 1990s, the IAA developed the area as an archaeological park and built the Davidson Center– a museum featuring the archaeology of the area.

To date and for many reasons that cannot be enumerated here, the State of Israel has never approved a master plan for the Old City.[6] As a result, receiving a building permit (conditioned on proving ownership of the land) became an impossible mission for most (Arab) residents. Building without a permit is a criminal offense. Thus, a situation has arisen that affects not only the local residents, but also municipal and governmental agencies that are active in the Old City. They all act without an approved master plan. While various overall plans for the Western Wall Plaza were proposed during the tenure of Mayor Teddy Kollek (the best known of which is the Safdie Plan), none were implemented.[7]

In 2004, the Mughrabi Bridge collapsed, and the need to restore it opened the way for a new series of attempts to construct new buildings and expand existing ones in the Western Wall Plaza. The Mughrabi Bridge, which serves the police and non-Muslim visitors entering the Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif compound, was not rebuilt for various reasons, but in a petition on the matter, the court determined that a comprehensive plan was necessary for the entire Western Wall Plaza. Meanwhile, however, a number of projects were already in the works, initiated by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. This organization, which operates under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office, was established in 1988 and was vested with the responsibility of managing and developing the Western Wall.[8] The projects that the foundation advanced at the Western Wall Plaza include the expansion of Beit Strauss and the construction of Beit HaLiba (HaLiba building). In addition, the foundation continues to advance the excavation of tunnels and underground spaces under the Plaza and under the Muslim Quarter, the installation of elevators between the Western Wall Plaza and the Jewish Quarter, and other projects. The rise in scope of the foundation’s activity is related to political changes in Israel. The days of Oslo are over, and the government in power, which is right-wing, has allocated considerable budgets for activities in East Jerusalem, some of which reach the coffers of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. In addition, activities by private organizations with a right-wing ideology in the area have increased. These organizations were politically marginal in the past, but today they are directly or indirectly sustained by state budgets, and enjoy complete cooperation with the municipal and state authorities. South of the Western Wall Plaza, most of the activity is sponsored by Elad Foundation (a right-wing settlers organization which runs ‘City of David” archaeological site in Silwan/City of David), which is expanding its reach from Silwan into the archaeological park and the Davidson Center. North of the Western Wall Plaza, activities are carried out by Ateret Cohanim or the Moskowitz Foundation, which work for the advancement of Jewish settlement in the Muslim Quarter.

These organizations operate without transparency, and therefore, the sources presented here enable only a limited glimpse at what is transpiring in their projects.[9]  In recent decades, there has also been a change in the involvement of the IAA in the area. The Western Wall Plaza is an active sacred site, to which the Israeli Antiquities Law (1978) does not apply.[10] The Ministry of Religion therefore could have in the past prevented the involvement of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s predecessor, the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums, for example, in the excavation of the Western Wall Tunnels. In 2005, following a government decision to invest hundreds of millions of shekels in the development of archaeology and tourism in East Jerusalem, the IAA became a key player in the development of the historic sites and a sort of a contractor for The Western Wall Plaza Foundation. At that time, there was also a change in the nature of the IAA’s involvement in the area. Earlier, development work would take place without archaeological excavations or through sporadic inspection (not by official IAA inspectors). Nowadays, the IAA inspects and excavates prior to each project, but at a cost of accommodating the developers’ ideologies and granting them governmental and scientific legitimacy.

The IAA quotes the importance of the scientific discoveries in these excavations as justification for carrying them out; but important findings will be exposed in any broad-scale excavation in this antiquities-rich area. The excavations are essential whenever a building plan is approved; but the IAA’s decision whether to support a building plan should be independent, not governed by non-archaeological considerations (such as receiving a budget for excavating or supporting the developers’ ideological agenda).[11] The likelihood of discovering impressive finds does not justify the overall policy of the IAA and cannot conceal the massive influence of considerations that have no archaeological relevance on the activities of the IAA at the Western Wall Plaza.


Links to the full reports:

Chapter 1: Beit Strauss: Antiquities in the Toilets

Chapter 2: Tourism and Sacred Sites: The Davidson Center, the Archaeological Park and the corner of the Western Wall

Chapter 5: The Comprehensive Plan for the Excavation of the entire Western Wall Plaza: The Darkness at the End of the TunneDavidson-Map-English-Web

[1] Another report based on internal IAA documents dealt with excavations at Silwan: R. Greenberg, A Privatized Heritage: How The Israel Antiquities Authority Relinquished Jerusalem’s Past”, 2014. On ethics and excavations in East Jerusalem, see R. Greenberg,  2009, “Extreme Exposure: Archaeology in Jerusalem 1967-2007”, Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites 11,  262-281; G. Suleimani, “Israeli Archaeology in the Old City of Jerusalem,”  120-135 in E. Pfoh and W. Whitelam, eds. The Politics Of Israel’s Past. Sheffield, 2013.

[2]  In the interest of proper disclosure: The author of this report took part in the writing of an academic report on figurines at Beit HaLiba. The report was completed and submitted in 2009, at which time none of the documents discussed here were known to him.

[3]  To learn more about the period following 1967 and the war by religious groups against archaeologists, see U. Benziman, A City without a Wall, 1973.

[4] M. Ben-Dov, The Western Wall (Heb.), Jerusalem 1981; ibid., The  Temple Mount Excavations, (Heb.), Jerusalem 1982.

[5] S. Raz, The Kotel Rabbi: The Life of Rabbi Meir Yehudah Getz, 2003, Jerusalem, 265-319; Yiftach Getz, “The Attempt to Find the Temple Beneath the Temple Mount, according to the Diaries of Rabbi Getz,” speech delivered at the “2014 Discovering the City of David Conference – Ramat Rachel,”

[6]  On Israeli politics and East Jerusalem, see M. Amirav, Jerusalem Syndrome (Heb.), 2007, Carmel Publishers; H. Cohen, The Market Square is Empty: The Rize and Fall of Arab Jerusalem 2007; A. Cheshin et al, Separate and Unequal, The Inside Story of Israeli Rule in East Jerusalem, Harvard University, 1999; Dumper, M. 1997, The Politics of East Jerusalem, New York.

[7] On illegal building see N. Merom, “Planning Trap”, “Ir Shalem” pamphlet, Jerusalem 2004; On the various plans for the Western Wall Plaza, see K. Rosenblum, “Jerusalem of Dreams,” Haaretz, May 15, 2013; A. Nitzan-Shiftan, “Stones with a Human Heart,” Theory and Criticism 38-39, 2001; M. Jacobson, “The Western Wall is Also Praying, ‘Leave Me Alone,’” August 9, 2011, YNET online; K. Cohen-Hattab, “ Holiness, Nationalism and Tourism: The Shaping of the Western Wall Plaza in Jerusalem after the Six-Day War,” Peraqim be-Geographia 75 (2010); and Slae, B. et. al. “Heritage and Space in the Planning of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem and its Restoration, 1967-1975,” Cathedra 145, 26-39 (all sources in Hebrew).

[8]  M. Rapoport, “The Most Explosive Place in the City,” Haaretz, March 8, 2008 (Heb.);

[9]  Our report does not cover planning or architectural critique. On the secrecy of planning in Israel see E. Zandberg, “The Architectural Conspiracy of Silence,”  Haaretz, February 12, 2007

[10]  On the holiness of the Western Wall, see O. Aderet, “Prayers, Notes and Controversy: How a Wall Became the Western Wall,” Haaretz, May 14, 2013.

[11]  On the excavations and findings in this area see: O. Grabar and B.Z. Kedar, eds. Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Jerusalem’s Sacred Esplanade. 2009, Austin.


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