Page last updated at 05:43 GMT, Friday, 5 February 2010

Archaeology and the struggle for Jerusalem

City of David archeological site
The City of David site attracts archaeology students from across the globe

By Katya Adler
BBC News, Jerusalem

"I like to travel and when I travel, I like to have a guide book. Here in Jerusalem, that guide book is the Tanah, the Bible."

This is how guide Asher Altshul likes to start his tours at the expansive City of David archaeological site in Jerusalem.

The site stretches along and down one of Jerusalem's hills, just outside the Old City.

Hundreds of tourists gather. Most are Jewish people from countries all over the world, like the Schneider family from Los Angeles.

The father, Avshalom, says coming here was a must.

"You feel like you're walking on the same stones our forefathers walked on. This is an important part of my children's Jewish education," he told me.

Musa Odeh [centre left] and family
Palestinians say excavations are part of an Israeli plan to drive them from East Jerusalem

The Israeli foundation that runs the City of David aims to strengthen the Jewish connection to Jerusalem in modern times by emphasising ancient ties.

In this case, it is to David, King of the Jewish people three millennia ago. Some historians believe this was the site of King David's palace.

But archaeology has become mired in controversy.

Battle for sovereignty

The City of David excavations, with their underground tunnels and ancient pools, centre around the Palestinian district of Silwan. It is in East Jerusalem, which Israel has occupied since its 1967 war.

About 40,000 Palestinians live in Silwan. Some families have been here for generations. They say Israel is digging here less out of archaeological interest but rather to make political claims over land.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. Israel says it intends to keep hold of the whole city.

John Seligman, Israel Antiquities Authority
The work we do here is not about looking for a particular heritage of one or other. We find what there is and display what there is
John Seligman
Israel Antiquities Authority

The battle for sovereignty over Jerusalem goes to the very heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Musa Odeh guided me through the graffiti-rich, winding alleyways of Silwan's al-Bustan neighbourhood.

About a hundred houses here, including Musa's family home, have been served with demolition orders for illegal building.

But Palestinians say the Israeli authorities make it virtually impossible for them to get construction permits in Jerusalem.

Musa says the City of David archaeological dig is also weakening the structure of many of the houses in Silwan.

A local girls' school partially collapsed last year, injuring 17 students. Residents blamed the incident on archaeologists tunnels running through the village.

They say tunnels have been exposed again this year after gaping holes appeared in several Silwan streets, following heavy rainfall.

Musa is adamant that this is all part of an Israeli plan to drive Palestinians from Jerusalem.

Hive of activity

The latest large archaeological excavation in Silwan's City of David site is a hive of activity.

Archaeology students from the world over are digging, dusting and displaying ancient artefacts found here.

Yonatan Mizrahi, tour guide
Just like if the Vatican found something here, it wouldn't give the church the right to take ownership of this land. The bottom line is that Palestinians are the majority in East Jerusalem
Yonatan Mizrahi
Tour guide

The land here is privately owned by Elad, an Israeli association that also funds Jewish settlement building across occupied East Jerusalem.

But the state archaeologists overseeing the City of David excavations say that's not their concern.

John Seligman has worked for Israel's Antiquities Authority for years. He told me that it was not his job to agree or disagree with the political motivation of the sponsors of an archaeological site.

He said the Antiquities Authority also supervised excavations for the Vatican and the Waqf, the Islamic authority that manages Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.

"The work we do here is not about looking for a particular heritage of one or other. We find what there is and display what there is," Mr Seligman said.

"Here on this site we've had finds from the Arab period, from Roman times and from the First and Second Temple periods. Everything is displayed on an equal basis, as it will be in the future too," he added.

Not all Israeli archaeologists agree with Mr Seligman.


Yonatan Mizrahi runs alternative, critical tours around the City of David and across Silwan.

As a former archaeologist for the Antiquities Authority who worked in East Jerusalem, he told me he saw first hand how Israel and Jewish-interest groups sometimes use archaeology as a political tool.

Mr Mizrahi says archaeology is about learning about the past but that individuals then choose how to interpret the past.

"One religion or another may look at an excavation site and say - that land is ours," Mr Mizrahi said.

But he qualified this by saying even if archaeologists were to find a big sign, reading 'Welcome to King David's Palace', that wouldn't give Jewish Israelis the right to claim East Jerusalem today.

"Just like if the Vatican found something here, it wouldn't give the church the right to take ownership of this land. The bottom line is that Palestinians are the majority in East Jerusalem," Mr Mizrahi said.

Jerusalem is said to be the most fought-over city in the world. Different nations and cultures have battled to dominate it for thousands of years.

Israelis and Palestinians will tell you the struggle is still very much alive today.

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