Jerusalem: Archaeologists Versus Residents?

By Katharina Galor
Submitted to Session P4501 (Alternative Preservation Practices of 'Cultural Heritage' in the Middle East, 2016 Annual Meeting
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The Southeast Hill, popularly known as the City of David, is one of the most excavated sites in the Near East. Spanning some 150 years of archaeological activity, most of the remains are hidden underground in a rapidly expanding network of cavities and tunnels. The targeted interest in the city’s Judeo-Christian heritage of biblical narratives, however, has for the most part not been of interest to the local residents. When in 1867, Sir Charles Warren conducted his underground investigation he described the residents as “a lawless set, credited with being the most unscrupulous ruffians in Palestine.” Throughout most of the Ottoman and British Mandate period, archaeology in Jerusalem as in the rest of the Holy Land, continued to be a mission of Western explorers, combining scientific curiosity with religious and political agendas. Motivated primarily to discover the biblical past, these missions, however, only rarely involved local communities. This would change drastically with the nationalistic agendas of Israeli archaeology, which sparked the enthusiasm and participation of the larger public. After the 1967 War, excavations in Silwan were resumed under the directorship of Yigael Shiloh, now with the involvement of hundreds of students and volunteers. Ironically, this professional commitment to uncover the biblical past was opposed only by Jerusalem’s ultra Orthodox community, which led to repeated protests and fierce confrontations. The peak of animosity between archaeologists and local residents, however, was not until the 1990s, when excavations started to be carried out under the sponsorship of Elad, a right-wing settler organization. The rapidly expanding excavation and tourist activity, have increasingly impacted the living space of the residents of the above lying Silwan village, primarily Palestinian Muslims, who are kept alienated from the excavation, documentation, and presentation process of finds. As in Warren’s days, two realities co-exist and compete with each other: the elaborate enactment of a biblical legend underground, and the disfavored and impoverished residents above ground. Unlike the occasional disruption of excavation in the past, and Jerusalemite’s verbal and written protests, today’s dichotomy of forces is significantly more intense. Violent clashes between Israeli soldiers and security forces stationed throughout the City of David Archaeological Park, and the marginalized Palestinian villagers, are reported regularly in the media. Cultural heritage in this contested area of East Jerusalem has turned into an increasingly powerful tool caught in the competing narratives of who owns the past.