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Archaeology and National Parks in Jerusalem: Who owns the past?



Jerusalem is one of the most precious places on earth and has a complex, varied and rich past. The archeological community and others concerned with the welfare of the city must find a way to allow all the voices of the past to speak and be heard, and we must not allow archaeology to be caught up in a nationalist political web that supports an agenda that is at odds with the majority of the world’s views about the future of Jerusalem and our own American government’s foreign policy on the fate of the Holy City.

Archaeology and National Parks in Jerusalem:


By Eric M. Meyers

Duke University

Durham, NC, USA

May 2009



One of the most sensitive areas on the political landscape of Jerusalem, which was the focus of my paper and many discussions at the recent conference at Duke University on “Archaeology, Politics, and the Media,” is the issue of national parks in the historic basin, especially in the City of David, and how they tell the story of Jerusalem’s rich and diverse history. In addition, the green spaces being developed in these areas around the walls of the Old City makes Israel’s long-range goals abundantly clear. As Ethan Bronner expressed it so well in a lead story in the New York Times recently (The New York Times, May 12, 2009) the political implications of Israel’s $100 million, multiyear development plan “in some of the most significant religious and national heritage sites just outside the walled Old City” are staggering and are part of a larger strategy to strengthen Israel’s claim to the holy city. Who owns the past and who has the right to narrate it in one of the most sensitive areas on the planet is what is at stake there. The fact that the government of Israel has joined with the settler movement to put archaeology at the heart of the political dispute over Jerusalem is “unsettling” to say the least and fraught with great danger. One Israeli archaeologist recently described the new digs in Jerusalem as “a weapon of dispossession.”


The Palestinian community of Silwan has been most affected by this recent activity and is the epicenter for touristic activity outside the city’s walls. The City of David National Park, sponsored and maintained by the settler organization Elad (‘el ‘ir David, an acronym for “to the city of David”) tells the story of Jerusalem and it is mainly devoted to the founding of the empire of ancient Israel by King David and focused on the first Temple period. It is located in the heart of Silwan village and surrounded by the impressive ruins from the 1980’s dig of the Hebrew University and the ongoing digs in the areas being sponsored by Elad. While the archaeologists working on the sites are for the most part well respected and superbly qualified, most have agreed to allow Elad the privilege of publishing their finds and casting their results in a way that bolsters Elad’s own narrative of Jerusalem’s past. Most of the excavations are presented by the City of David tourist center and publishing arm as supporting Elad’s exclusive and nationalist agenda. This is accomplished by means of utilizing the legal rubric of “salvage archaeology,” which allows individual archaeological projects to bypass many of the normal scientific requirements of the Israel Antiquities Authority. Needless to say the funding of all this comes from sources and individuals who do not have the impartial reporting of finds paramount in their considerations.


As Rafi Greenberg of Tel Aviv University has eloquently put it, the incorporation of the City of David excavations “into the settler narrative is multi-faceted—mixing religious nationalism with theme-park tourism. The past is, of course, a palpable presence, used both to shore up the new Jewish settlers’ claim for primacy and to attract Bible-oriented tourism. As a result, conflict with local Palestinians occurs at the very basic level of existence, where the past is used to disenfranchise and displace people in the present” (Public Archaeology 8, 2008; see www.alt-arch.org). Contrast this with a quote from the City of David’s web site:


“The story of the City of David began over 3000 years ago when King David left the city of Hebron for a small hilltop known as Jerusalem, establishing it as the unified capital of the tribes of Israel. Years later David’s son, King Solomon, built the first Temple next to the City of David on top of Mt. Moriah, the site of the binding of Isaac, and with it, this hilltop became one of the most important sites in the world.”


Jerusalem is one of the most precious places on earth and has a complex, varied and rich past. The archeological community and others concerned with the welfare of the city must find a way to allow all the voices of the past to speak and be heard, and we must not allow archaeology to be caught up in a nationalist political web that supports an agenda that is at odds with the majority of the world’s views about the future of Jerusalem and our own American government’s foreign policy on the fate of the Holy City.