Jerusalem: archaeology and politics

Giacomo Pizzi4 October 2010

“Jerusalem belongs to everybody, Jews, Christians, Muslims. And above all, it’s a universal heritage of humanity, under UNESCO protection. Why shouldn’t we try to take, always, shared decisions?”. These were the words, some years ago, of Padre Michele Piccirillo, archaeologist of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum , recently passed away. He was referring to one of the most controversial issues in the capital city disputed by Palestinians and Israelis –the holy site par excellence of the three great monotheistic religions: archaeology and politics. ‘We just have to take a look at what happened in the last few decades, but also before then, in the history of the excavations in Old Jerusalem, to understand that we can’t throw politics out of the window and leave archaeology alone” would the undiscussed expert say. The opening of the tunnel of the Wailing Wall first, the Mughrabi Gate then.

And today, Silwan, a neighbourhood in East Jerusalem mostly inhabited by Palestinians, draws the international attention on to the unresolved conflict in the Holy City of Christians, Jews and Muslims. And excavations, interventions and archaeological plans are brought back to the centre of the debate about what, for the Arab population, is under many respects a home emergency, as pointed out by Father Eugenio Alliata, archaeologist of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum . “A piece of news that often appears on the newspapers is that notwithstanding international appeals, hundreds of people will have to leave the Arab neighbourhood of Jerusalem to make space for an archaeological-tourist park, known as the Royal Gardens” declared the professor. The inhabitants, many living under the threat of eviction, would have to face the archaeologists and plans that, for decades, have intertwined excavations and archaeological interventions with political and religious interests in a spot that, in biblical terms, Israel defines “the archaeological area of the City of David”. According to Father Alliata, the special interests behind some of the initiatives to re-discover ancient Jerusalem are clear. “It’s clear that archaeology, politics and the Bible, publicity and financing meet/clash in Jerusalem on the background of a situation which is already tense enough in itself”, he says. Always according to the archaeologist and curator of the Franciscan Museum of the Studium Biblicum, the result would be an “unwanted and certainly avoidable” collusion between scientific and political aspects. A collusion demonstrated by “the frequent accusation of privileging <some> discoveries while overlooking <some others>”.

And while clashes and conflicts find space on the major newspapers worldwide, there is little interest towards what, in the Eastern neighbourhoods and in Old Jerusalem alike, is a real problem for the Arab community: the population increase, the difficulty to get the permits to enlarge existing buildings or to build new ones. These difficulties are felt not only by the Muslim population, but also by the about 6500 Christians living in overcrowded houses in a historical centre where the population density varies between 20 and 79 people for each 1000sqm: numbers well above the Western average, causing many difficulties to the inhabitants. The  Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land,  who have many buildings assigned to the poorest Christian families for symbolic sums, have recently started restoration and renovation activities with the support of the association ATS Pro Terra Sancta, to restore some of the more crumbling parts of these buildings to grant better standards of living to the Christians in Old Jerusalem. Thus preventing the exodus of the Christian-Arab families from the Holy Land.