Thursday, March 01, 2007

Jerusalem: Foundations

Four thousand years ago, the world was different. Modern Israel is so developed it is hard to put yourself back in that time, stripping away all the streets and buildings to reveal a twisted landscape of steep but often low hillsides covered only by small shrubs and vines, though it should be said the climate was a bit wetter back then, and some of the deeper valleys had seasonal streams flowing through them. One such seasonal stream flowed roughly from north to south, cutting between at least two large hills - one to the east rather high and long rather than rounded, the other to the west a more traditionally shaped hill which ended with a precipitous drop right at the stream's edge. Just south of the western large hill was a smaller height, noticeably smaller, in fact, than all the hills around it. It was otherwise remarkable except for a natural freshwater spring on its eastern side. This is where Jerusalem began.

Today this area is very much part of tourist/pilgrim country. The long, eastern ridge hill is the Mount of Olives, its northern section an array of church steeples leading up to the summit where that of one of the competing churches of the ascension. Walking past it the other day I engaged in a brief Lenten reflection of wondering how many tour busses could be parked on it at one time. The western hill is Mt. Moriah, the Temple Mount, home to the walled Old City most people think of as old Jerusalem. The smaller hill to its south, Mt. Zion, aka Ophel Ridge, is no longer discernable as a separate hill, the valley between them having filled in over the centuries. When the walls were at their greatest extent, under Herod the Great and his immediate successors, they enclosed this area, as well. Now it hosts a UN girls' school with a cheaply painted white-on-blue sign and a bunch of small shops and slightly larger houses, 60% Arab, 40% Jewish. To its west is another Mt. Zion, this one getting its name thanks to early Christians who assumed David's capital must have been on the highest peak around; today from the smaller Mt. Zion what most stands out from its slopes is the brightly colored Church of St. Peter at the Crowing of the Cock, the alleged site of Caiaphas's house and Jesus's trial, which was also within the walls of Herod's Jerusalem.

At the site of the original Jerusalem, there is an entrance to stone-walled enclosure marked "City of David" featuring a harp symbolizing the king. Contrary to what one might expect, however, it is not run by the government or an academic institution, but by a group known as the Ir David Foundation, a right-wing Israeli group dedicated to demonstrating the area's Jewish heritage, as well as the Shalem Center, a conservative Israeli think tank dedicated to the promotion of Israel, Judaism, and free-market capitalism. It is thus perhaps not surprising that when you look at the gift shop, you don't see historically themed souvenirs but rather IDF-themed hats and T-shirts and the other standard "I Love Israel" gear. The first part of the tour is also a short 3-D video the cinematography of which is a bit like the Lord of the Rings movies as they try to inspite viewers with David's conquest of the city and Solomon's temple as an introduction to a history of the city, a history which they break off abruptly when the Romans ban Jews from the city only to flash forward to portray it as reborn as part of modern Israel with all its new neighborhoods and monuments. The manipulation of history is brazen.

The tour itself also doesn't start off well, as you begin by being told that the ruins below the metal grating that makes up most of the entry plaza, which archaeologists call by the poetic name "Large Stone Structure," is probably King David's Palace. This claim was advanced by Eilat Mazar, who discovered it in 2005, but it's not as firm as those who hype it would have you believe. The most obvious problem is that there's no way to tell whether or not it was a palace. Beyond that, while the ceramics found seem to date to the 10th century BC, the structure is so far missing a floor. This is a problem because you have no way of knowing whether these ceramics represent a bottom layer, or if they could have been deposited long after the structure was built, which would push it back toward being perhaps a Jebusite fortress. There was, however, part of a column with Phoenician designs on it.

The tour picked up rapidly from there, however, largely because our highly knowledgeable guide had an outstanding ability to weave together the story of the city with the story of its excavation in ways I'm not even going to try duplicating. It's also the case that we spent most of the time underground in shafts and tunnels that formed part of the city's water supply system, which really isn't that controversial. Jerusalem during the kingdom period was small. A current estimate puts the population in its early days at about 150 families, and the spring could probably support only about 2500 residents. The people also weren't as monotheistic as we sometimes imagine - the prophets weren't constantly railing against idols to keep in practice. Small statues of various deities were all over the place, kept in homes and probably carried on the person, as well, to protect against misfortune. The main signs of Jewish religious practice were across the Kidron Valley, where small burial chambers were carved out of the hills in what is now the Arab village of Silwan. There are a few inscriptions there, too, one of which states that no silver or gold is buried within, showing an awareness of burial practices and the problems of grave robbery seen elsewhere in the region, suggesting how culturally connected the city was to the outside world.

The Jebusites who founded the city around 1800 BCE weren't that worried about defense. Anyone attacking from a nearby hill would have to first become visible by marching down its side, then cross the valley before marching up the city's hill, giving them plenty of time to man the walls. The big issue was securing the water supply, which it's plain as day was outside the walls. We do know that a tunnel was chiselled to the spring during the Jebusite period, and at one point it intersected a shaft over 40 feet deep. For a long time the theory was that the shaft functioned like a really deep well and women and/or children would have to make daily trips down the tunnel to get water. This even became a rare occasion when archaeology influenced popular understanding of the Bible rather than the other way around. The Hebrew of 2 Samuel 5: 6-8, describing David's capture of the city, is apparently hopelessly obscure and no one really knows what it means except it somehow involves attacking something probably water-related. The guy who discovered the shaft, Charles Warren, who incidentally was also London's police chief during the Jack the Ripper murders, had the self-confidence stereotypically associated with 19th-century amateur archaeologists, and since it was possible to climb the shaft, decided they must have done that and used the water system to sneak into the city. The 17th-century King James is somewhat different, but a bunch of modern translations I checked out on-line seem to have taken that story and run with it.

In 1996, however, another discovery was made, one which completely revolutionized our perspective. I forget precisely what happened, but the upshot is that the tunnel didn't originally end at Warren's Shaft, and in fact the Jebusite construction team had passed right over it, a natural break in the rock they didn't even know was beneath them. The chamber above the shaft was hollowed out later and the rock placed in such a way that it blocked the rest of the tunnel. Today, when you leave the Warren's Shaft minicave, you get to continue along this tunnel until you emerge in a large, cavernous space with loud noises, plenty of action, and metal walkways and equipment everywhere. It was the Stargate! No, wait. It was the ongoing excavation of what the Jebusites were actually building toward, two huge guard towers protecting the points at which Gihon Spring was above ground. What the Jebusites had actually done to get water was not go outside the city every day, but carve out a channel about 20 feet high and thin enough that I had trouble fitting through it at some points that brought the water into the city, where it was collected in a pool within the walls. This was the Pool of Shiloh, which under the Romans became "Siloam," and by the Middle Ages was Silwan, the Arab neighborhood across the valley.

The new theory, incidentally, is that David's army scaled and seized the guard towers, cut off the water supply, and forced the city to surrender. In any case, it was taken, and became first the capital of Israel, and later of Judah after the monarchy was divided. Judah was smaller, but Israel was more vulnerable, for roads followed the high ground in those days to protect against ambushes, and Israel and its capital of Samaria was right along the path of all the military action, including the Assyrians who destroyed it in the 8th century BCE. It was then that Hezekiah made the next major round of modifications, including a new tunnel connecting the spring to the pool. Within it was found the Siloam Inscription, which is not a great royal pronouncement, but more like an ancient Hebrew union plug, in which the construction team announced what they'd done, how they did it, and how cool it was, and it was placed not in public view, but deep inside where teams chiselling from either side had met. This was better than the old Jebusite channel, as it was also hidden from view, part of a new array of defenses to protect against an Assyrian siege which never materialized.

Jerusalem did, eventually, fall to the Babylonians, and a lot of the ruins of buildings that you see open are from that time; there was also a layer of ash deposit suggesting the city was burned. There was more rebuilding during the second temple period, but all we saw was the stepped plaza around the Pool of Siloam, part of which dated from the Byzantine period and part of which was Herodian; today much of the pool is still hidden under a residential area.

Some people get excited because among the dozens of seals that have been discovered, two have names that are the same as ministers of Zedekiah named in the Bible. I guess it's interesting, but I'm skeptical about just assuming its the exact same guy. This, however, may go back to the sorts of things archaeology is and is not good for. Biblical archaeology often gets sensationalized as proving the Bible true or false. It really doesn't work like that. In general, modern archaeology is about using the remains of material culture to understand past human societies. While in Europe archaeology is classified as a sub-discipline of history, in North America it's become part of anthropology. Monumental archaeology might occasionally make headlines, but if tomorrow they dig further in the "Large Stone Structure" they find a plaque that says, "King David's Palace," what does that prove? Maybe it was a temple and David a God about whom later people told stories, or maybe he was a real king whose exploits were exaggerated. Religious believers need not change their minds about anything, and skeptics can always demand evidence of something else. I approach things as a historian, and see both the material remains and our written texts as evidence we need to assess in understanding the past. As our tour guide, himself a graduate student in medieval Jewish history, said, the Bible has one perspective from people looking back on the kingdoms, archaeology gives us another. This lecture might seem a bit wedged in here, but the way many people approach these issues has always gotten under my skin, and as I'm just now starting to get serious about travelling around, it's something I'll probably have occasion to raise again.

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