The Politics of Archeology and Parks in Jerusalem

On 25 September 2013, I joined a tour offered by the NGO Emek Shaveh of national parks and archeological sites around Jerusalem focused on their political dimension. The tour illustrates how parks and archeology constitute another set of tools used beyond the Green Line to assert Jewish ownership of land and facilitate Palestinian evictions.

The largest park within the Jerusalem municipality is the “Jerusalem Walls National Park”. From a view point located south of the Old City, in the Arab suburb of Abu Tor, the tour guide archeologist Yonathan Mizrahi, one of the founders of Emek Shaveh , describes the contours of the park: the Holy Basin, the Arab town of Silwan and one slope of the Kidron Valley opposite the Mount of Olives. This park has been the center of intense archeological activity since 2005. Archeological excavations are used to shape the historical narrative, marginalizing the Palestinian residents from their connection to the Temple Mount/Haram-Al-Sharif.

photo credit: Flash90

National Parks included in the Emek Shaveh tour

A tourist circuit is being created that will run across the Old City to the Givati parking lot excavation, then to the City of David as a major Jewish landmark, and finally down to the Palestinian town of Silwan. The circuit is meant to create a visiting experience in a parallel, imagined, Jerusalem, among the remains of two periods: the Kingdom of Judah and the Second Commonwealth. These two periods are identified, in the Israeli narrative, as the most meaningful periods for the formation of Israeli identity and the connection of the Jewish people to the land.

photo credit: Flash90

Givati parking lot excavations

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and the settler Elad organization and the Western Wall Heritage Fund work hand in hand in order to compress the Jewish history into the short periods of Israelite-Jewish sovereignty in Jerusalem, while cultural layers that are not associated with Jewish political sovereignty or with the sacrificial cult are ignored. The history of Jerusalem is stripped both of the eras that preceded the Kingdom of Israel, and those that followed when it became the Holy City for the Christians and Al-Quds for the Muslims.

The excavation at the Givati parking lot, which began in 2004, has exposed a section of a pool from the Second Temple period (the Shiloah Pool), but, in so doing, the archeologists completely removed a path which had served the local residents as a route from the El Bustan neighborhood to the mosque in Wadi Hilweh.

A number of ancient underground complexes, hundreds or thousands of years old, running underneath the Old City and the village of Silwan include Zedekiah’s Cave (aka Solomon’s Quarries) in the Old City and the Siloam Tunnel and Warren’s Shaft in Silwan. The story told about the tunnels serves as a means to justify Israeli settlement in the Palestinian village of Silwan and in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. The tunnels create an underground Jewish-Israelite city that transforms the Israeli settlers into inhabitants, and the disempowered Palestinian residents into a temporary presence.

The center piece of the tourist circuit is the City of David.

The City of David

The limited excavations conducted by Charles Warren in the 19th century gave rise to the conclusion that biblical Jerusalem was located on the hill south of the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif. Based on the biblical text, the remains at this site were associated with kings David, Solomon, Hezekiah and others. These conclusions, reached by the first archaeologists who excavated the area, identified the hill south of the Temple Mount as the “City of David”. Many Israelis see the remains from the Kingdom of Judea (the 10th – 6th centuries BCE) as evidence of a Jewish past. They consider the fact that the area is identified with the biblical story as proof that the Jewish people, or Israeli society, have inherited the right to take possession of the site. The foundations financing the excavations play a major role in the interpretation of the findings.

The Elad Foundation

The Jerusalem Walls National Park is under the auspices of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), but the specific site of ancient Jerusalem (The City of David) in Silwan is managed by Elad – a right wing non-governmental organization working to settle Jews in East Jerusalem, a private foundation with a political ideology. The Elad Foundation is trying to turn the site of ancient Jerusalem into a “biblical Disneyland”. The foundation, which works primarily in Silwan, began settling in the village in 1991, and it currently owns a few dozen residential properties there. The Elad Foundation contributed funds to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) to carry out excavations in Silwan and the IAA, in turn, sends archaeologists to excavate on its behalf. So, although the archaeologists are paid by the IAA, the Elad Foundation is the source of their funding. The Elad Foundation funds the archaeological digs and then proceeds to annex the land to the national park. The excavating team is seen to be working to help realize the foundation’s goals. By sponsoring the excavations and managing the City of David visitors’ center, the Elad Foundation presents itself as a custodian of both the site and its history. Yet the present day residents are excluded from the site and the story. The Foundation does not view them as the latest inhabitants in the continuum of communities who lived in the site and thus makes it seem as though their presence in the village is temporary and insignificant.

But the aim of scientific archaeological research is to place historical processes in their temporal, social and political context. Remains from 2,500 or 4,000 years ago belong to those who lived here 2,500 or 4,000 years ago. It is not the archaeologists’ job to prove ownership or historical rights. They do not rate the cultures according to a national or moral agenda. By handing over the management of the site of ancient Jerusalem to a private group with an extreme political agenda, the state has set in motion a process that has potentially dangerous political consequences. When archaeological finds are used as proof of the state’s historic right to take possession of a given place and to undermine the rights of the local people living there, archaeology has been diverted from its role as an independent field of research. When tour guides in the site of ancient Jerusalem turn it into nothing more than an illustration or backdrop for the biblical stories, without acknowledging the difference between a mythical perspective of the past and the actual archaeological finds, or when they do not acknowledge the rich remains from other cultures and societies that inhabited the place throughout time, they are feeding the tourists a distorted, nationalist version of history. The Elad Foundation has the power to establish as truth the one story or interpretation in accordance with their ideological position, regardless of the political implications this may have or how this interpretation is regarded within the academic community.

By appropriating the past to serve their world-view, and ignoring the significance of the site for a wide range of peoples and cultures, the Palestinian local residents in particular, archeologists and guides are doing a great disservice both to past and present day societies.

Land Grabs

The extreme consequences of this approach are exemplified by recent development plans for the El-Bustan neighborhood in the Kidron Valley, south of the site of ancient Jerusalem. The Palestinian residents in the neighborhood have been issued demolition orders because their homes were built without permits (like thousands of other homes in East Jerusalem due to the difficulty of receiving building permits from the municipality). If the orders are carried out, they will lead to the destruction of the homes of approximately 1,000 residents. In 2005 the Jerusalem Municipality tried to demolish 88 of the houses in the neighborhood, but retreated from the decision due to international and local pressure. At present, dozens of houses in the neighborhood are slated for demolition by the municipality, with the intent to turn the area into a garden inspired by an interpretation of a biblical phrase that mentions the “King’s Garden.” Several scholars have associated the location of the “King’s Garden” with the El-Bustan neighborhood (“Bustan” in Arabic means garden), and this unproved assumption was enough of an incentive for the municipality to make plans that will harm the local population.

Other parks create buffer zones to limit the expansion of Palestinian villages.

Emek Tzurim and the planned Mount Scopus Slopes National Park

The Tzurim Valley National Park is situated on the slopes of Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives at the start of the Kidron Valley. It was declared a national park in 1988 for the purpose of creating a green belt around the Old City. Agricultural terraces and water wells carved in the rock constitute the main findings in the area of the park. Some of the terraces may be a few hundred years old, but the valley offers the same rural landscape found throughout the Judean Hills. Therefore, the remains’ archeological value does not justify the declaration of a national park in the area.

Similarly, the Mount Scopus Slopes National Park is planned to stretch from the Mount Scopus promenade to the West, up to the edge of the Hebrew University, between the Palestinian neighborhoods of Isawiyah and A-Tur, and towards the area known as E1. An IAA archeological survey ordered by the INPA did not find anything of outstanding value: burial ground from the Roman and Byzantine eras, caves with stone vessels from the Second Temple Period, a Byzantine church dated to the sixth century. None of these findings prevented the construction of the road from Jerusalem to Maale Adumim.

As revealed by Haaretz on September 30th, a Parks Authority staff member was recorded as saying that the Mount Scopus Slopes Park, is meant to prevent construction in the area rather than protect nature.

But digging around the Holy Basin to establish historical facts on the ground is not unique to the Israeli government.

Waqf Excavations on the Temple Mount

In 1996, then-Prime Minister Netanyahu authorized the Muslim Waqf to take unilateral initiatives on the Temple Mount, as a goodwill gesture after the embarrassment caused by the mismanagement of riots following the opening of the Western Wall Tunnels, during which 14 Israeli soldiers and 69 Palestinians were killed.

Two months later the Waqf created a mosque on the Temple Mount at the site of the Solomon’s Stables, then another one at the Western Hulda Gate and the rubbles were dumped into the Kidron valley. In 1999, the Waqf created an emergency exit for the mosques, removing 12,000 tons of rubbles potentially containing unchecked archeological pieces. More unchecked excavations done with heavy motorized equipment continued until 2007.

During the Emek Shaveh tour, we were explained that the sifting of the Temple Mount rubbles carried out in the Tzurim valley by archeologists Gabi Barkai and Zachi Zweig was of no archeological value because it was impossible to tell which layer in the original structure any finding belongs to. To illustrate the absurdity of the sifting project, the guide invited us to throw into the unattended pile of rubbles object from our pockets.

Dr. Eilat Mazar, the archeologist who claimed in 2005 that she had found the remains of 10th Century BC King David’s Palace, and member of the Committee for the Prevention of Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount, voiced in 2007 a complaint to the Waqf for the digging of a ditch on the northern side, using tractors and without real, professional and careful archaeological supervision, calling it an ongoing contempt for the tremendous archaeological importance of the Temple Mount. Mark Ami-El of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) accuses the Waqf of working diligently to erase and destroy every archeological remnant and finding that may testify to any Jewish connection to the Temple Mount. The Waqf intention, he says, is to change the status quo of the place by turning all the areas of the Mount into Muslim holy places, mosques, and prayer areas, preventing any Jewish presence whatsoever in the future. Dr. Mordechai Kedar says these acts are undertaken in the framework of an Arab practice known as "erasing the signs," aimed at eliminating the remnants of any civilization that preceded Islam.


The use of archeology and national parks in conflict zones in order to establish political facts is not new or specific to the Israeli government. In “The Politics and Practice of Archeology in Conflicts”, Perring and Van Der Linde mention the cases of Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, ex-Yugoslavia, or Cyprus, as volatile regions where archeological research is impacting the balance of power of communities in conflict. The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban of Afghanistan was a suppression of archeological remains to promote the supremacy of Islam. Archeology cannot pretend to neutrality. It often contributes to the reconfiguration of cultural landscapes in ways that dispossess and marginalize oppressed peoples, alienating them from the historical environment that they inhabit. Archeological discoveries become convenient keystones for claims and counter-claims of cultural ascendancy and historical revisionism, to support or challenge ancestral rights to supremacy of particular ethnic groups, political systems or world views, creating perceived ties between people and place. The most visible consequences of archeological research are the displacement, disempowerment and destitution of people already made victims by war.

During the peace negotiations, the Palestinian Authority expressed its opposition to the Holy Basin — and in particular the Haram al-Sharif — falling permanently under Israeli sovereignty. In September 2010, ex-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared in an interview that “Israel should agree to an international trusteeship in Jerusalem’s Holy Basin, should allow non-Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem to serve as the capital of a Palestinian state”. This position seems like the only reasonable compromise for the sensitive place revered by the three monotheistic religions.