Archaeologists spend their time excavating and examining sites where humans lived in an effort to better understand the nature of societies from long ago. They let the physical evidence provide clues as to how people lived, what they ate and how they existed as a community.
Some of the best places to explore ancient history are found in tels, hills where one society was built upon the ruins of an earlier society. Such ruins are common in the Middle East, where there has been continuous human presence in many of the same locations for 4-5,000 years.
The issue confronting archaeologists excavating any tel is that one layer of history must be removed to be able to explore the next layer of the human past. Removing the ruins of a floor of a 13th century mosque may reveal a 5th century church, while clearing the 5th century level may reveal a municipal building from the first century BCE. History must be destroyed to find yet more ancient history. Peeling back time yields discovery via destruction.
In the holy city of Jerusalem, the challenges for archaeologists and historians becomes further ensnared in religious and political battles. Why should the ruins of a 16th century mosque be cleared to reveal an ancient Byzantine church? Why should the church be dismantled to uncover an ancient Jewish ritual bath house? Is one truth more significant than another? Does the exposure of ancient Jewish edifices impact today’s realities and political considerations? Is the destruction of an ancient house of worship in favor of another religion’s house of worship an act of historical exploration or a crusade?
The city of Jerusalem became central to the Jewish people 3,000 years ago, when King David sacked the then-Jebusite city and made it the official capital of the Jewish people in roughly 1000 BCE. His son, King Solomon, built the First Jewish Temple in the city in 950 BCE, making the city both the religious center and the political center of the people. Jews made pilgrimages to sacrifice at the temples during both the First Temple period (950 BCE – 587 BCE) and during the Second Temple period (515 BCE – 70 CE). Since the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews continued to live in and make pilgrimages to the city to pray, but without the ritual sacrifices, as Arab Muslims and Christian Crusaders took turns dominating the landscape.
Over the last several years, a team of archaeologists has been excavating an old road used by the Jewish pilgrims of two thousand-plus years ago. The “Pilgrimage Road” was one of a series of pathways that facilitated the flow of hundreds of thousands of Jews into the Jewish Temples. It’s route must have changed during the centuries as the walls of Jerusalem changed, and as archaeologists continue their excavations, undoubtedly, more facts will emerge.
The Pilgrimage Road from the Shiloach Pool to the Temple Mount, used by Jewish worshipers in the late Second Temple period, was excavated over the course of six years and unveiled by the City of David organization on June 30, 2019.
(Source: City of David.)
The road now exists as a tunnel lying beneath a predominantly Arab section of Jerusalem, called Silwan. The area was originally settled in modern times by Yemenite Jews in the 1880’s, who were then expelled when Jordan attacked Israel in 1948 and annexed the area in a measure not recognized by almost every country in the world. Just as in ancient history, the sacking and rebuilding of the city continues to play out.
But today’s Israeli archaeologists managed a new feat: they did not destroy the layers of recent history above the Pilgrim Road; they burrowed a tunnel which left the current residents of Silwan still living in their homes. As opposed to the living history of tels which builds one reality on top of another, and excavations which destroy one history to unveil another, both the ancient Jewish history and modern Arab homes coexist.
Historians celebrated the event as did the State of Israel which plans to develop the road as a tourist attraction as an important part of understanding the history of Judaism’s holiest location. Even foreign dignitaries came to the June 30 opening dedication including U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, White House Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt and United States Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
But Palestinian Arabs cried foul. Palestinians like PLO veteran Hanan Ashrawi said that the United States “will go to any length to show collusion, identification with and support for all these illegal acts, for the transformation of the character of Jerusalem.” A ridiculous charge which prompted Greenblatt to reply on Twitter that “we can’t ‘Judaize’ what history/archaeology show. We can acknowledge it; you can stop pretending it isn’t true! Peace can only be built on truth.”
Traditionally, archaeologists need to destroy one layer of history to reveal the more ancient, but in Jerusalem today, the Israelis managed to uncover a 2,000-year old road used by pilgrims to ascend to the Jewish Temple Mount, while leaving the homes of modern day Arabs and Jews intact. It is a feat which sustains all truths, and underscores both the deep historic and religious ties of the Jewish people to their holiest city, while also respecting the modern sensitivities and political realities of the diverse modern capital city.
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