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Under Jerusalem, by Andrew Lawler : Book Review

Modernised transport and increased access to Jerusalem in the mid-19th century gave rise to what this excellent history (‘Under Jerusalem : the Buried History of the World’s Most Contested City’ by Andrew Lawler. Doubleday, 2023) depicts as an imperial ‘race’ for the secrets in stone and artifacts either submerged or in plain sight of the Holy City. France, then Britain, Germany and Russia are amongst the nations that expend money, material, and personnel in their different bids to lay claim to the truth about the religious past. The truth itself proves elusive over many decades, as excavators offer up contradictory theories about the exact site of the Prophet’s Dream, the Passion narratives, Solomon’s and then Herod’s Temple, and other major facts of shared interest. Results are mixed. General Gordon, for example, he of Khartoum fame, engages in his own military-style survey, with definitively expressed ideas that a French scholar of the time described as “wonderfully weird.” The cast of explorers, missionaries, Turkish overlords and other global powerbrokers right up to the present, priests, imams, and rabbis define their vying interests, an historian’s fascination but, at times, stupefyingly Dickensian.

Power politics is never far away from the emerging cultural practice of archaeology, where the excavation (legal or illegal) of a holy site can lead quickly to an international incident, or worse. (The casus belli of the Crimean War was over Orthodox and Catholic rights in Palestine.) ‘Under Jerusalem’ is rife with such stories and personalities, though along the way we meet the laudable inventors of modern archaeology, Flinders Petrie and Frederick Bliss, it being said of the latter “he did not allow preconceived religious notions to interfere with his archaeological conclusions.”       

This is a book about the digs since the 1860s. At that time the city was administered by the Ottomans and noticeable is the even division of the city into Jews, Christians (especially the Armenians), and Muslims. This delicate balance keeps the peace, but if representatives of any one group overstep in one way or another, all hell breaks loose. It’s easy to see, even in a work about classical and biblical archaeology, how if any one group enforces predominance in the Holy Land, then there is going to be disaster.

Jerusalem as a pivotal point of imperial strategy changes when the British cede control of Palestine to the Israelis in 1948. The ascendancy of Jewish archaeology is entrenched, sometimes literally, after the Six-Day War (1967), when the mayor of the City famously, or infamously, bulldozes the Arab quarter to provide a plaza to the Western Wall. The Jewish desire to unearth its own heritage leads to rapid removal of Arab, Byzantine, and Roman layers in pursuit of any find dated, as the author puts it, between David and Jesus. Riveting are the disputes between Jewish groups, with an unsubtle divide between the secularists, whose interest is guided primarily by scientific enquiry, and the rabbinic religious whose active protection of the holy sites is governed by their own legal and traditional dictates. These differences go to the heart of Israeli politics and identity, between free enquiry and virtual theocracy, which is why we are going to hear more about archaeological right of access to holy sites in the near future, given the nature of feuds and the appalling course of events there in recent months. While the book details the physical pursuit of the ancient past, in that process Lawler expertly opens up description of the ferocious social complexity of Jerusalem, inside and out, and those very many who make a claim on its meanings.   


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