Silwan, the City of David, and the Emek Shaveh organization: a discussion

My previous post on this topic (q.v.) several days ago elicited the following comment, which I thought deserved a reasoned response (at some length, as it turns out). Again, please read the previous post first, or you won’t “get” this one.

 Tom – a few things I can say here, but I’ll limit myself to just one. In your first sentence you say “if the experts are correct.” By this phrase, are you intending to suggest that the experts may not be correct? If not, why do you say this? To me, a phrase like that symbolizes so much of what is wrong about the other side – a basic unwillingness to recognize facts that are well established. Do you think the presence of Hebrew seals, monumental Iron Age architecture, and a water tunnel with a Hebrew inscription attests to the fact that this was the heart of biblical Jerusalem? If so, let’s agree on that. That doesn’t demand that all the Arabs have to move out of the area, but when the Arab side denies basic realities (and would love to keep denying them by forbidding excavation, as they do on the Temple Mount), then it’s no wonder that the Arab side has minimal support from people in the U.S.

OK, there are several strands here that deserve to be unraveled. First, when I dropped in the phrase “if the experts are correct” I was admittedly being a bit provocative, but for a particular reason: to get people to think. For the record, yes, I presume that the modern experts are correct when they place the biblical City of David where they do. I embrace that interpretation and that’s how I present the site to people. The evidence mentioned above – seals, architecture, tunnel, inscription – all points that way (even though it is almost exclusively from either the Bronze Age or the 8th-7th centuries and not the time of David – but that’s another discussion). Again, the identification of Jerusalem’s southeastern hill with the biblical City of David I consider a well-founded notion, one which has stood the test of time – 140-plus years of scientific exploration – and has a 99% chance of being correct. My question: Is it legitimate and intellectually honest to elevate this connection to the level of metaphysical certitude. My answer: I don’t think so. Thus, I don’t label such things as “facts”. In that leftover 1% space I choose to retain a tiny bit of healthy skepticism, a bit of caution – and the myriad nagging, unanswered questions about that ancient “first Jerusalem”.

Really, think about what we’re doing when we arrive at such a connection: We’re taking our best understanding of an excavated site and wedding it to our best understanding of various ancient texts. That, in my opinion, is a tricky business, one that calls for nuance, caution and a healthy dose of humility. That phrase “our best understanding” is exactly the one I frequently use when guiding people, not just in the City of David but at many sites, or when discussing a whole host of topics.

Consider that the pathways of human knowledge and progress are strewn with “well-established facts”, all promulgated by “experts”, notions that were, in the end, found wanting and cast off. Indeed, the location of the “City of David” is a perfect example of this. Remember that for some 2,000 years, up until only a little over 100 years ago, all of the “experts” told us (told our ancestors, that is) that the ancient City of David was located on Jerusalem’s western hill: Josephus already in the 1st century located David’s Citadel there (War 5:137), giving Byzantine pilgrims (their tour guides, really!) reason enough a few centuries later to erroneously dub that area Mount Sion (a name we are stuck with still), and at least by the medieval period a Tomb of  David was enshrined there. The “experts” for those 2,000 years thought they had “facts that were well-established”: greatest king, highest hill – it made perfect sense. Sometimes such things, true or not, take on a life of their own. (What is truly mystifying to me is how — again, if the experts are correct — the ancient Jewish memory of the City of David was so thoroughly lost in the first place, sometime between, say, the time of Nehemiah and when Josephus is writing about 500 years later – I don’t recall ever hearing this explained or even addressed.) My real point: Every site, biblical or otherwise, that is undergoing honest scientific exploration is an unfolding story, and a little humility is always in order, in light of the limits of human knowledge. The things we think we know, we will always “know in part”.

About “the other side”: I don’t know who that is. I’m not trying to be sanctimonious when I say that my world is not delineated by “sides” – it’s just not a paradigm I embrace. And I can’t help thinking that at the point we start relegating people to “the other side” we are dealing with stereotypes, usually ‘talking past’ each other – and not really listening.

Now, about the Emek Shaveh folks in particular: Anyone who suggests that they are out to deny anyone’s narrative about the City of David, or to prevent the carrying out of legitimate archaeological explorations, is completely misreading them – or more likely, has not read them at all. Their material makes it pefectly clear that they fully embrace the identification of Silwan/City of David as the original settled core of ancient Jerusalem. Their concerns lie in other areas. They are people with legitimate worries about the way some of the archaeology is being carried out, about the singular narrative that is being imposed on the finds to the exclusion of all others, and about the opaque, enmeshed network of public agencies and private organizations (and money) that have coalesced in support of a certain political agenda. They think it’s problematic, for example, that the IAA is digging tunnels under people’s houses without their knowledge or permission. They don’t like the way that the local Palestinian population have been totally shut out of the planning, execution and “ownership” of the various City of David projects, and stand to reap none of their benefits. And they have problems with a “national park” full of hugely important archaeological remains being placed in the hands of an openly political settler organization, with a clear agenda of changing the ethnic complexion of the neighborhood. You know what? I have problems with these things too.

Dr. Rafi Greenberg, whom I mentioned before (and is featured in this VIDEO), remembers another time when things were different: As a young man he was part of the 1970s City of David excavation team headed by Yigal Shiloah, and he remembers – wistfully – how that dig was carried out in a spirit of harmony and partnership with the local people of Silwan. And, interestingly, he relates this directly to the ethical standards of his own profession, which all archaeologists supposedly embrace. Well, what’s going on today, evident to anyone who cares to take an honest look, is totally different: It’s an in-your-face, adversarial style reflecting the dynamics of  power being brought to bear in advancement of a certain religious/ political/ demographic agenda, over against the needs and interests of the dominant local populace.

Emeq Shaveh’s message – that all is not sweetness and light in the Holy City, nor are things always what they seem – is not a particularly pleasant one. The need in Silwan, they are saying, is for balance, perspective, transparency, inclusiveness and fairness – if it’s not already too late. If anyone has not yet taken the opportunity to explore what these folks are saying, their recently-released booklet can be downloaded here.

Finally, an allusion is made to the issue of “temple denial”, which simply does not belong to this discussion: it’s a different place, different people, and (mostly) different issues. I will simply say that the phenomenon of “temple denial” is very real, completely lamentable – and quite fascinating, and I hope to explore it a bit in a future post. But the implication that the Muslim overseers of the Haram al-Sharif are somehow obligated to allow Jewish-Israeli archaeologists to come and carry out excavations on and under the Haram/Temple Mount in search of their historic temples – that I find quite amazing! Regarding why “the Arab side has minimal support from people in the U.S.” – here we are with “sides” again – I could write reams, however into the realm of pure politics I shan’t venture…

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