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How religion, politics, and archaeology clash on—and under—the streets of Jerusalem


In the plaza next to the West Wall, excavations continue under the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque's shadow. (Photo: Mati Milstein)

In the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, some of the 50,000 Palestinian residents can hear digging under their homes. Silwan is partially situated atop the popular tourist attraction known to Israelis as the City of David, the oldest part of historic Jerusalem, directly south of the Temple Mount. During the biblical and Roman periods, the Temple Mount was home to the First and Second Jewish temples (which are believed to have stood between 832 and 422 B.C. and 516 B.C. and A.D. 70, respectively), and was the center of Jewish ritual and spiritual life for millennia. Following the Muslim conquest of the city in A.D. 638, the Umayyad rulers erected the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque, two structures that are focal points for Palestinian and Muslim religious identity. There are few, if any, more valued and contested places on earth.

Debate is fierce over who will control the holy city in a final peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians. Many believe the two sides will never reach an agreement. In late June, the Jerusalem municipality approved Tsur's plan to demolish Palestinians' homes in Silwan and build a park surrounded by restaurants, stores, and art galleries where the houses are now located. The city's decision triggered international condemnation and led to protests by both Palestinians and supporters from the Israeli left. Street clashes ensued between local Palestinian residents and Israeli security forces, with casualties on both sides. And with the city proposing to knock down dozens of more homes, the tensions in Silwan are rising every day.

While diplomatic negotiations founder, archaeologists continue digging in the Holy Basin, pulling up new evidence and inevitably adding fuel to the political fire. "There is a sort of thinking that one side is right and the other is wrong," Finkelstein says. "But, in my opinion, there are no saints in Jerusalem."

Mati Milstein is ARCHAEOLOGY's Israel Correspondent.