Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies
Bar-Ilan University Ramat-Gan, Israel

Jerusalem: Life Throughout the Ages in a Holy City

Internet Educational Activities <>
17 Feb. 1997

Archaeology in Jerusalem

During the Middle Ages the orientation of most writing about Jerusalem was religious; the heavenly Jerusalem described by devout Jews, Christians and Moslems often bore little resemblance to the reality below. Pilgrims described the city in glowing terms, and maps placed the city at the center of the world.

From the 16th century onwards, partly as a result of new ways of thinking arising during the renaissance, Europeans began to study Jerusalem in a more scientific, objective way. For the first time they began to make realistic maps, copy ancient inscriptions and explore the city's antiquities.

European Christians coming to research Jerusalem's past had to overcome tremendous difficulties. The most coveted site, the Temple Mount, was off limits to non-Moslems for most of the 19th century. Explorers resorted to many stratagems, often at the peril of their lives, to steal a look at the Temple Mount. They entered disguised as Moslems, bribed local officials, tunneled under the walls, or sneaked in after dark. Some of these early explorers were simply adventurers; others, guided by personal revelation, dug according to instructions made known to them in visions; others strove to prove a theory and still others to steal treasure. The serious researchers literally had to start on the ground level, having neither means to date findings nor understanding of the secondary use of stones.

Many of the obstacles stemming from strong religious and political sentiment of the three monotheistic religions towards Jerusalem still hinder modern archaeological research. As recently as 1996 the opening of an ancient tunnel in Jerusalem provoked riots resulting in the death of dozens of people. Extremist religious Jews have on many occasions disrupted archaeological digs, charging archaeologists with violating ancient graves. Since several religious parties are members of Israel's governing coalition such demonstrations can set off a political crisis.

The first European description of the Temple Mount was published in 1807. It was quite sensational at the time, for local Turkish authorities had forbade Christians access to the Temple Mount. The first archaeological expedition in Jerusalem was conducted by a group from England in 1818 headed by William John Bankes. Bankes tried to obtain official permission to conduct a dig. When his request was turned down by the authorities, he resorted to working secretly at night. Some of his party dug while others stood guard. They worked at the King's Tomb, outside the city walls. At that time the city gates were locked at night to defend the residents from bandits, and remaining outside their protection after dark was quite dangerous. The Turks eventually discovered the operation, stopped the dig, and built walls at the site to prevent further excavation.

The American Edward Robinson visited Jerusalem for the first time in 1838. He discovered the arch at the Temple Mount that bears his name today; and the Swiss Titus Tobler discovered an arch which later became known as Wilson's Arch. These men laid the basis for modern scientific research into Jerusalem's topography. During the brief and more enlightened Egyptian rule between 1830-1840 the Temple Mount was open to Christians. More freedom was given to archaeologists, who were allowed to dig at various sites in the city. In 1834, Frederick Catherwood surveyed the Temple Mount and made a detailed map of Jerusalem. In 1841 William Tipping, a tourist who visited areas off limits to Christians, sketched the site of the Double Gate, hastily, for fear of being caught. In 1864, Charles Wilson came from England in order to make a map of Jerusalem and explore the water system. His findings prompted the creation of the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF).

The following year the PEF sent Charles Warren, a young officer in the British army engineer corps, to explore Jerusalem. He dug there from 1867-1870, often covering the cost of his expeditions out of his own pocket. Due to the antagonism of the suspicious Turkish authorities he had to dig shafts far from the walls and approach his real objective, the walls of the Temple Mount, via underground tunnels. He crawled through his precariously-built burrows, pursuing knowledge at the peril of his life. For this courage Warren was eventually awarded the Victoria Cross. His observations made the greatest contribution to understanding Jerusalem for the next 100 years. Many of his theories are still accepted today. In 1890 Flinders Petrie laid the basis for dating pottery. From the beginning of the 20th Century most digs were more scientific, not the work of individuals but of organized missions sent by scientific bodies and governments. One notable exception was Montague Parker's excavations. Parker believed that the spirit of King Solomon came to him in London and revealed the location of the Temple treasures. He began to dig in the Ophel in 1909 and cleaned out the Gihon tunnel (Silwan Spring) which was full of dirt. Emerging empty-handed, he then undertook a covert excavation inside the Temple Mount at night. When he was found out he fled, escaping the country before the Moslem authorities caught up with him. His work contributed to the understanding of such issues as the early settlement in Jerusalem and its water supply.

The first Jewish archaeological initiative in Jerusalem was conducted by Raymond Weill in 1913-1914 and financed by Baron Edmund Rothschild, who also bought the land where the excavation took place, in the City of David. His work furthered the knowledge of the Jebusite city.

Surprisingly, there were few important expeditions in Jerusalem during the British Mandate (1918-1948). R. Macalister and later John Crowfoot excavated in the City of David, but their work was not always accurate. Weill resumed his work there and uncovered an inscription from an ancient synagogue, proof that synagogues existed in Jerusalem concurrently with the Temple. Many digs were conducted by the Hebrew Society for the Research of Israel and its Antiquities. Among its researchers were Eliezer Sukenik (whose son Yigal Yadin also became a renowned archaeologist) and Yitzchak Ben-Zvi (who later became President of Israel). Many prehistoric remains were discovered in the Rephaim Valley in west Jerusalem. Burial caves were found throughout modern Jerusalem and Mount Scopus, as well as impressive memorials such as "Absalom's Tomb" and others in Kidron Valley.

The American School for Oriental Research headed by W. Albright opened up new avenues in modern research. In the early years of the modern state of Israel there were few major digs in Jerusalem. Yochanan Aharoni uncovered a First Temple period palace of a king of Judah at Ramat Rachel. Reconstruction in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher led to the excavation of the foundations of the church dating from the days of Constantine. Work on a major scale began in the 1960's when Kathleen Kenyon worked at the Ophel, then under Jordanian rule.

Since the unification of Jerusalem following the Six Day War in 1967 there has been a tremendous increase in the number of digs and restoration work. Among the most famous in recent years are the excavations in the Jewish Quarter headed by Nachman Avigad which began in 1969. Here archaeologists had to deal with a "living city" and work quickly as houses were built in the neighborhood. Many modern buildings were built at great expense on "stilts" to preserve the antiquities below. Avigad's work helped to determine conclusively the size of Jerusalem in the First Temple period. His team also uncovered vast mansions from the Herodian period, remains of the Nea Church, and part of the cardo.

The largest excavations to date in Jerusalem, directed by Benjamin Mazar and Meir Ben Dov, exposed the area along the southern slope of the Temple Mount. They were vehemently opposed by the Moslem authorities. Paradoxically, and to their complete surprise, they uncovered a vast complex dating from the early Arab rule in Jerusalem (Ummayad). In the words of Ben Dov, "it fell to Israeli-Jewish scholars to discover the hidden traces of a glorious period of Moslem history." Both chief rabbis also opposed the dig. What would happen, they worried, if the holy ark were found, which must not be touched by impure hands? They preferred to postpone the excavation until the days of the messiah. The excavations proceeded and the ark was not found, but many important remains dating from the days of the Herod and Jesus are now open to the public. Extremist religious Jewish opposition to excavations reached a new peak when archaeologist Yigal Shilo began to work in the City of David in 1978. Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Goren appeared on television with a bag of bones that he had collected from the site, which he claimed was an ancient Jewish cemetery. Yigal Yadin, then Deputy Prime Minister, led a legal battle to continue the excavation, which yielded very important information about the beginnings of Jerusalem, the Jebusite city and David's capital. In the following classes we will learn some of what these daring archaeologists revealed.

[prev.] [index] [next]

This page last modified Thursday, March 6,1997