The Opening of Underground Area in the Old City is Clear Example of Archaeology serving Political Goals

On Sunday, June 1 2014, an educational visitors’ center is opening in an underground site from the 14th century in the Muslim Quarter. The site will be inaugurated by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation—the body responsible for the expansion of the Western Wall plaza and for the underground excavations in what is called the ‘Western Wall Tunnels.’ The creation of the visitors’ site follows an archaeological excavation that began in 2004. At first, the excavation focused on areas below the synagogue ‘Ohel Itzhak’ in Al-Wad Street (No. 3 in the map below); it continued into spaces beneath homes of Palestinians living east and south of the synagogue.

The Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) unearthed an area that includes several structures, among them the continuation of the 14th century Hammam al-Ein, a wide domed area from the same period, and remains dating back as far as the 1st century CE. Although the majority of the finds are undoubtedly from the Mamluk period—identified with Muslim rule in Jerusalem—the educational visitors’ center will address the genealogy of the Jewish nation and its connection to Jerusalem.

The site highlights several instances of the political use of excavations and archaeological finds:

  1. A significant portion of the excavation was done under residential homes; in this way, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation has expanded its presence in the Muslim Quarter. Although this presence is underground, it nevertheless strengthens the Israeli hold on areas with a clear Palestinian majority.
  2. The location of a Jewish education center in a Muslim site, and beneath homes in the Muslim Quarter, attests to the authorities’ attitude regarding the heritage of the Old City. It is only appropriate that an educational center tell the story that is exposed in the excavation, and not use it for political purposes of strengthening the Jewish connection to Jerusalem.
  3. This project comprises another example of an archaeological excavation serving settlements in Palestinian areas of the Old City. In the first stage, the excavation is presented as a non-political endeavor to conduct research about the past, while subsequently the presence of tourists and the historical narrative cement the Israeli/Jewish connection to the place.

The IAA’s involvement in excavations in the Old City is politically loaded, but is also problematic from a professional archaeological point-of-view. Because part of the excavation is taking place beneath homes, the IAA must verify who the owners are and receive their permission.

The professional reason for abstaining from horizontal tunnel excavations is that archaeological excavation must be done vertically, starting from the surface of the earth and digging into the depth. Otherwise it is difficult, and often impossible, to understand the significance of finds and to describe the remains that are exposed.

The decision to perform the excavations, despite the aforementioned problems, only strengthens the current project’s political goals and those of the Western Wall tunnels in general.

For further information on the tunnels and underground excavations in the Old City, click here.

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