Archaeology in Jerusalem: Digging Up Trouble

Contested ground Workers at a site in East Jerusalem have uncovered bones and other evidence of early habitation

Yoray Liberman — Getty for TIME

The Jerusalem syndrome is a psychological disorder in which a visit
to the holy city triggers delusional and obsessive religious fantasies.
In its extreme variety, people wander the lanes of the Old City
believing they are biblical characters; John the Baptist, say, or a
brawny Samson, sprung back to life.

Archaeologists in the Holy Land like to joke that their profession
is vulnerable to a milder form of the syndrome. When scientists find a
cracked, oversize skull in the Valley of Elah, it can be hard to resist
the thought that it might have belonged to Goliath, or to imagine,
while excavating the cellars of a Byzantine church, that the discovery
of a few wooden splinters might be part of the cross on which Christ
died. This milder malady is nothing new. In the mid-19th century,
British explorers who came to Jerusalem with a shovel in one hand and a
Bible in the other used the holy book as a sort of treasure map in the
search for proof of Christianity’s origins. (See a video of archaeology digging up controversy in Jerusalem.)

Now an extreme case of the willful jumbling of science and faith is
threatening Jerusalem’s precarious spiritual balance. It could not come
at a worse time: Israeli-Arab peace talks have stalled; Israel has a
hawkish government disinclined to compromise; and radical Islamist
group Hamas remains powerful among Palestinians. Any tilt in
Jerusalem’s religious equilibrium could create a wave of unrest
spreading far beyond the city’s ramparts. Eric Meyers, who teaches
Jewish studies and archaeology at Duke University, says: "Right now,
Jerusalem is a tinderbox. "

The story begins with a right-wing Jewish settler organization
called Elad, but also known as the Ir David Foundation, which for the
past four years has exerted control over most of the holy city’s
excavations. Led by David Be’eri, an ex-Israeli commando who used to
disguise himself as an Arab for undercover missions in the Palestinian
territories, Elad now has the backing of the Israeli Prime Minister’s
office, the municipality, and the vaunted Israel Antiquities Authority
(IAA), which monitors all archaeological work in the country and which
Elad helps finance. Elad’s own funding comes through unnamed private
donors. (Israeli newspapers have reported that a few Russian-Jewish
oligarchs, including Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich,
attended a 2005 Elad fundraiser.) The organization’s aim is best
expressed in a religious website’s 2007 interview with development
director Doron Speilman. He gestures toward Silwan, an Arab
neighborhood that spills down from the Mount of Olives, and says: "Our
goal is to turn all this land you see behind you into Jewish hands."


This entry was posted in Palestine. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s