Tunnel Under Old City Walls Would Dismantle Early Islamic Building

The excavation of a Byzantine-era Jerusalem tunnel hit a block: the remains of an Umayyad palace; only by creating a large opening in its wall can tour groups pass through

A City of David tunnel, March 29, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

The Ir David Foundation and the Israel Antiquities Authority are digging a passageway under the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, from the City of David to the archaeological park adjacent to the Western Wall. The project requires dismantling part of a wall of a building from the city’s early Islamic period.

In the area of the City of David National Park, south of the Old City, which is administered by Elad, several tunnels are being excavated that will be connected to a large tourism project called the Pilgrims’ Ascent. The central tunnel, known as the stepped street, is dated to the late Second Temple period. It begins at the Pool of Siloam in the center of the village of Silwan and ends in the Givati parking lot, near the Dung Gate, where a new City of David visitors’ center is planned.

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Two other tunnels emerge from the parking lot: The first has been dug up to the area of the Western Wall, allowing passage into the Old City. Very narrow, only small groups can navigate it, and slowly. The second, which follows a Byzantine-era street, will be suitable for larger groups and will also lead to the archaeological park.

The Israel Antiquities Authority and the Ir David Foundation, a right-wing organization also known as Elad, reached a large building under the Old City walls from the seventh century. Built on the Byzantine street, it blocked it: Only the creation of a large opening in it would allow big groups to pass through.

Human rights lawyer Eitay Mack wrote a letter on behalf of the archaeologists’ organization Emek Shaveh, attacking the IAA. He said that preserving the Umayyad building on the route of the Byzantine street is of archaeological and historical importance, and that the remains of the Umayyad palaces are of great importance and attest to the centrality of Jerusalem in the seventh century and have no parallel in Israel.

The excavation of the subterranean streets in Silwan has aroused penetrating criticism in the past, including by senior IAA officials Dr. Jonathan Seligman and Dr. Gideon Avni, who object to digging the tunnels. They claimed that the excavation violates the rules of modern archaeology, for the needs of tourism rather than for scientific reasons.

The IAA response: “The Israel Antiquities Authority is a scientific, professional entity that carries out archaeological excavations and acts to present Jerusalem’s rich past, including the many periods the city saw.

During excavations that were held throughout the years in Jerusalem’s Archaeological Park, the authority exposed along with Israeli archaeologists a series of large structures dating back to the period the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750 AD). These buildings, which were the subject of many researches and are prominently featured, make up a siginficant part of the visiting experience there.

In the 15th century, when Jerusalem was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, the city’s walls were built atop the ruins of these buildings; thus the southern part of the Old City was disconnected from its northern part.

Against this backdrop and due to the wish to give the millions of tourists who visit Jerusalem from all over the world a better travelling experience, roads and paths were developed over the past decades. In addition, several openings have been made to the Old City’s walls and in the foundations of the Umayyad buildings.

The hole in question is a narrow opening that was made in the foundations of one of these buildings after meticulous archaeological examination and documenation were carried out.

This opening enables tourists to move between the two parts of ancient Jerusalem on either side of the Old City walls. This project is part of the ‘Shalem program’ [i.e. whole in Hebrew]: A government-funded plan to unveil, preserve, research and develop the sites of ancient Jerusalem.

The Antiquities Authority is proud of is big contribution to the development of touristic sites around Jerusalem while acknowledging the importance of the archaeological and cultural values of the area.”

Elad’s response: “The archaeological excavations are being conducted by the IAA. All the decisions are made by the authorized parties based on professional scientific considerations. The organization will continue to develop ancient Jerusalem and to display the city’s rich past for the benefit of the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to the national park from all over the world.”