The Contested Landscape of Jerusalem
Jun 17, 2009 at 2:41
John Matthew Barlow in Islam, Israel, Jerusalem, Judaism, Palestine, Research

Greenberg, R. (2009). "Towards an Inclusive Archaeology in Jerusalem: The Case of Silwan/The City of David." Public Archaeology, 8 (1), 35-50 DOI: 10.1179/175355309X402745

To call Jerusalem a disputed location would be an understatement.  The Temple Mount might be the most hotly contested piece of real estate on the planet, sacred as it is to the three major western religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Archaeologists believe that there has been a city on the site of Jerusalem since about 2600 BCE, meaning that for nearly 5000 years, various groups of people have fought over the landscape: Judeans, Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Seleucids, Jews, Romans, Christians, Europeans, Muslims, imperialists, occupiers, resisters. 

The Temple Mount and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem

Even (and maybe especially) today, Jerusalem is a controversial location.  In 1949, the newly-minted state of Israel officially established its capital at Jerusalem, though only West Jerusalem was under its control.  East Jerusalem had been seized by Jordan in 1948 as a means of attacking the new Jewish state.  In 1967, Israel captured East Jerusalem in the Six Days’ War and united the city.  In 1980, the Knesset passed the Basic Law, which proclaimed the united city as the Israeli capital.  The UN Security Council responded with Resolution 478 (20 August 1980), which states that the Basic Law is null and void.  In response to resolution, all member states removed their embassies to Tel-Aviv, the financial capital of Israel.

Meanwhile, Palestinians have a long-standing claim to the city themselves, dating back to the Arab Muslim conquest of the Middle East in the 7th and 8th centuries.  Since the end of World War I, Palestinian nationalists have claimed that East Jerusalem should be the capital of a Palestinian state.  This hope, of course, was dashed in 1948.  Nonetheless, the claim to Jerusalem persisted, especially during Yassar Arafat’s long period of control over the Palestinian territories.  More recently, the claim for Jerusalem to be the capital of a Palestinian state has lost strength due to international pressure, as well as Israel’s hammer-grip on the city.  Instead, Palestinians are today more concerned with their civil and religious claims to Jerusalem’s landscape and geography.

The city’s religious significance is obvious.  The Temple Mount was the location of the Second Temple of Judaism, destroyed by Roman imperialist forces in 70 CE.  Indeed, according to Jewish tradition, it is at the site of the Temple Mount that Adam was created by God, and the world expanded into its present form. 

The Temple is also a sacred site in Christianity, as it was a location of the Christ Movement of the early 1st century of the Common Era.  It was here that Jesus Christ gave many of his public speeches.  In addition, many Christians believe that the Temple will be re-built with the Second Coming of Christ. 

Finally, in Islam, the Temple Mount is better known as al-haram al-qudsī ash-sharīf, or the Noble Sanctuary.  Mohammad directed his followers to pray in the direction of the al-haram al- qudsī ash-sharīf.  This practice was later changed to point worshippers towards Mecca following Mohammad’s death.  Mohammad undertook the Isra and Mi’raj to Jerusalem in 621, and the al-haram al-qudsī ash-sharīf is believed to the location of Mohammad’s ascent to heaven upon his death in 632.

Israel’s claim to Jerusalem is therefore somewhat shaky.  Its greatest claim to the city lies in geography, in that the city is within the post-1967 boundaries of the state.  And certainly, this is a powerful claim to Jerusalem.  But it is not a complete or total claim to the city.  And, as we can see in UN Security Council Resolution 478, much of the rest of the world is not comfortable with Israel’s claim to the totality of the holy city.  The Palestinians, on the other hand, have the Security Council resolution to fall back upon in its claims to Jerusalem, but the fact remains that the entirety of the city and its suburbs lie within the Israeli state.  Palestinians are limited to two disparate locations on either side of Israel on the West Bank of the Jordan River and in the Gaza Strip along the Mediterranean Coast.

Just beyond the walls of the Temple Mount/ al-haram al-qudsī ash-sharīf  in East Jerusalem is the City of David, located in the village of Silwan, believed by some to be the actual historic location of King David’s city.  In Hebrew, the region is known as Ir David.  However, Silwan is a neighbourhood of some 45,000 people, 90% of whom are Palestinian.  This is particularly true of the enclave of Wadi Hilweh in the northern part of Silwan. This enclave is a prime example of the contested landscape of the city of Jerusalem.


View Jerusalem in a larger map

(Map of Jerusalem with Wadi Hilweh marked, the Temple Mount is located just north of Wadi Hilweh).

Raphael Greenberg, an archaeologist at the University of Tel-Aviv, has recently published an article examining the political and cultural ramifications of the archaeological dig at Wadi Hilweh for Israelis and Palestinians.  Greenberg is rather critical of the process, deploring the politics behind the dig.  For instance, the dig, and its presentation to visitors, has been placed in the hands of a Jewish settler organization, the Ir David Foundation, which gained control of the site in 1994, shortly after the first Palestinian intifada.  Since then, it has made it a point to acquire various locations throughout Wadi Hilweh to carry out its excavations, which are then presented to the viewing public, including tourists, in a theme-park manner, both in real-time, as well as virtually on the Ir David Foundation’s website.

Greenberg points out the problematic nature of Ir David Foundation’s role in the excavation of Ir David, noting that it

introduced a new, powerful narrative exploiting to the hilt the biblical and Jewish connotations of the site (and excluding almost every other viewpoint). Since 1994 Ir David Foundation has underwritten several excavations — including, most recently, that of the purported palace of King David… — the results of which have been recruited to enhance the presentation of Jewish continuity.

The following description, based on excerpts from the settlers’ own statements and on investigative media reports (e.g., Rapoport, 2006), illustrates how archaeology, nationalism, and theme-park tourism have become intertwined in the way the site is experienced by and presented to the public.

When David Be’eri (David’le) first visited the City of David in the mid-1980s, the city was in such a state of disrepair and neglect that the former excavations that had once been conducted were once again concealed beneath garbage and waste... Inspired by the historical record of archeological discoveries made in the City of David in prior years, and by the longing of the Jewish People to return to Zion, David’le left the army to establish the Ir David Foundation in 1986.

Today, the Ir David Foundation is actively involved in redeeming land bought by Baron Rothschild and in repurchasing much of the additional surrounding area. Land and buildings acquired in the area are used primarily for the building of a residential neighbourhood, archeological salvage operations, and for capital projects geared towards tourism of the site.

In short, then, Ir David Foundation’s goal, supported by the Israeli state, is to establish and create a narrative of continuous Jewish use on the site of Silwan.  The past is being used to justify the present, and, hopefully for Ir David Foundation, the future as well.

History is usually regarded as being, well, historical.  It is the location of past events, and most people think of it as a static force and not all that relevant to the world today.  Nearly 25 years after the publication of David Lowenthal’s landmark The Past is a Foreign Country, it should be obvious that this is not really the case; history is alive and present in our contemporary life.

Our entire culture and society, and everything that grows out of that, is based on our cultural understanding of history.  Indeed, worldwide, history is used to lay claim to physical spaces, to historical narratives, and ideas, and is the site of confrontation between competing claims and narratives.

History is also presented to us in museums, in parks and, in what the Irish historian Roy Foster dismisses as “theme parks.”  For Foster, theme park histories are over-simplified historical narratives that present a narrow version of an historical past.  There is a difference between capital H "History" and an historical past, of course.  History is a sanctified, uncontested, oftentimes official version of history.  An historical past is a version of history, of the historical experiences of a people or nation or group.  In and of itself, there isn’t really a problem with the concept of historical theme parks.  Nations and groups create historical narratives that reflect back to them the story of their history, upon which they base their claim to nationhood, for example, or their identity. 

Take Canada, for instance.  Canadians like to think that they have a long, multicultural history, one of openness, tolerance, and respect for all the peoples who have ended up in the geographical landmass that is Canada today.  At the same time, Canadians like to think of themselves as a peace-keeping nation.  These myths are based on a version of history Canadians tell themselves; Canada is a multicultural nation today, and even has an official government policy on multiculturalism.  As for peace-keeping, this myth is based on the fact that a Canadian diplomat, Lester B. Pearson, came up with the idea for UN peacekeepers during the 1957 Suez Crisis.  Both of these myths ignore a long history of exploitation and decimation of Canada’s aboriginal population, to say nothing of racist and exclusionary policies towards Asian immigrants, African-Americans, and various other groups.  Canada has also long been a hearty participant in wars, and has a sizeable weapons industry.

But, on the whole, these myths are ones Canadians repeat to themselves as a means of forging a common national identity across a very diverse, in terms of population and geography, and unyieldingly large land mass.  All nations, all peoples, have these kinds of myths. In some cases, like Canada, they are relatively (though not completely) harmless.  In other cases, like in Wadi Hilweh, it is quite the opposite.

Ir David Foundation has created a theme park history presenting an historical past of Wadi Hilweh to enhance Israel’s claim to East Jerusalem, and thus to the Temple Mount and all of Jerusalem, its capital.  A national park has been created on the site, operated and controlled by the Foundation.  In one deliciously ironic twist, at one point, the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA), a government body in charge of the care of Israeli antiquities and history, found itself working as a sub-contractor of the Ir David Foundation, working on widespread excavations to aid the Foundation’s operation of the park.

The Ir David Foundation declares on its website that it's intent upon

continuing King David’s legacy and strengthening Israel’s current and historic connection to Jerusalem through four key initiatives: archaeological excavation, tourism development, residential revitalization and educational programming.

This is where the problem lies, according to Greenberg.  The IAA has been hit by continual cuts in its budget, which has led it into deeper partnerships with the private sector.  And the Wadi Hilweh dig is a case in point of the dangers of this kind of partnership.  Whilst the Wadi Hilweh dig has gone a long way to deepening our understanding of the history of Jerusalem as far back as the Bronze Age, problems arise in the public presentation of these findings.

Presentation has been left in the hands of the Ir David Foundation,

with the result that they are selectively exploited to further the agenda of this group. Archaeology provides physical and symbolic capital for their settlement project, in the form of a narrative emphasizing Jewish continuity and eliding other cultures, and of relics that testify to such continuity.

The sanctity of the City of David is newly manufactured, and is a crude amalgam of history, nationalism, and quasi-religious pilgrimage. As such, it curiously incorporates many of the qualities used, according to Ben Israel (1998), by nationalist movements in the creation of hallowed land: a revised and selective history, cased in religious terminology (‘holiness’ imparted by the Bible, the kings and the prophets), with mystical overtones (invoking the ‘energy’ of the place; stating that ‘the wall is not just a wall’)...The nature of Ir David Foundation as primarily a national, and only secondarily a religious, organization, required that consecration take the nationalist route. Thus, the presentation of the archaeological finds as a magnet for the multitudes relies on a historical narrative, though indeed bolstered with religious terminology. In the same vein, reference to what is essentially a mystical union of the Jewish visitor with the native soil imparts Ir David Foundation and the state of Israel ‘transcendent authority over past, present, and future’.

In other words, the history of Jerusalem back to the Bronze Age that is being excavated at Wadi Hilweh is not entirely put on display by Ir David Foundation.  Rather than show an inclusive and full history of the use of the site, Ir David Foundation is choosing to magnify the long-standing Jewish presence at the site.  By doing so, the Israeli claim to the site is solidified for a conflicted Jerusalem, and for an imagined post-conflict era when peace is brought to this hotly contested piece of real estate in the Middle East: Jerusalem.  But that Jerusalem is to be entirely within the borders of, and under the control of, Israel.

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