Jerusalem Archeology - Digs and Already Dugs in the Modern City

Copyright 2006 by Morris Rosenthal - - contact info

The Serial Tourist's Guide to Living in Jerusalem

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I spent a month working on an archeological dig on Kibbutz Nir David when I was 20. It was a rescue dig, in the sense that a building had been approved for the site (an archeology museum) and the dig was holding up construction. Spent the last two weeks of the month excavating a Bronze Age tomb before the we'd uncovered before the religious got the dig stopped. Israel is rich in archeology, you can barely hope to sink a pick in the ground without uncovering some past dwelling or dweller. Some of the sites that are exciting to archeologists are a bit of a bore to tourists, and wouldn't draw any more attention than crumbing stone wall without a sign. An example to the left, at the foot of Ramban, is observation tower. As you can see, it's less a tower than the bottom couple courses of stone for a tower, and I'll be darned if I can tell them from any other stone footings in town. According to the sign, it's a watch tower from the 12th or 13th century, and there was a hitching post for horses and some decorated pottery (with a yellow pattern) found at the site. The distance from the Old City is about a mile, so this was the frontier for them in those days.
The imposing tomb structure to the left is found on a quiet side street in Rechavia, sandwiched between a couple of modest apartment buildings in a pocket park. I have no idea when the building was erected, but it certainly looks fairly recent. It's also unclear how much of the surrounding work is "original" and how much was added by somebody trying to develop the site for archeology or tourism. For the time being, I suspect it gets left pretty much alone. I tried to slip by the steel bars but I don't have the flexibility I once did. A skinny teenager could certainly get through. The archeological treasure is not the building, but the hole in the wall shown below. According to the plaque, it's a "Rock Cut Tomb of the Maccabean Period." Nothing about what, if anything, was found inside, nothing about who built the outer tomb. The reason I find that so interesting is because both manmade and natural caves abound in Jerusalem, and they rarely go to much more trouble than throwing up a chain link fence and a warning sign that says, "Danger, Hole." The picture to the lower left is a manmade cave of the latter category, part of a cave complex in Independence Park.
The picture to the right is a baths complex found below the Jaffa Gate. It's literally below the Jaffa Gate overpass. The pillars you see aren't part of the baths, they are new highway construction. The baths complex is quite large, and goes on well beyond the frame of the picture. I'd estimate there's something on the order of six or seven levels of baths, titled floors, and a complex water channeling system. No idea if the baths are Turkish or Roman, but everything is so covered with a fine white dust (either concrete or pigeon droppings) that it's an uncomfortable place to move around and flash photography (it gets quite dark) is too washed out to show much. The photo below does show some red clay bricks, the first I've seen in Jerusalem, which I'm sure would be a dead giveaway to somebody who actually knows something about the archeology of baths. The picture to the lower right shows some of the extensive title work after I tried to blow it off and got a face full of dust. If I should develop a strange respiratory disease later in life, I'll have to wonder:-)
An archeological site that I thought was a tourist attraction, except I never see any tourists there, is the Sultan's Pool. I believe the Sultan was the same Turkish ruler who rebuilt the walls of the Old City, but my history is even weaker than my photography skills. It really is a large pool, with a stone stairway at one end, and a trampled chainlink fence just beyond that allows access. I can't tell if the floor of the pool was repoured with concrete in the not too distant past, seems pretty difficult to explain the largely excellent condition otherwise. It;s the vegetation that makes me skeptical, once nature gets a grip on human structures, they rarely last that long. The walls of the pool may have been ornately tiled at one time, an surviving example is shown below. Any coloration is long since bleached out, or maybe the colors would come out if the titles were wet. It's somewhat surprising that the city has been able to resist the urge to convert the pool into a parking lot, if it weren't for the stairs, I'm sure people would be parking there already.
I'm not going to embarrass myself by going on longer about archeological sites I know nothing about except to me the following two observations. First, I've intentionally chosen camera angles and sites that aren't trashed. Most of the caves you come across, whether natural or manmade, serve as party central for either local teenagers or homeless people. They slowly fill up with bottles, mattresses and other detritus of human night life. If they never get cleaned up, I suppose they will serve as the archeological treasures of another era. I can just picture the scholars scratching their heads asking, "Why would they cut these chambers out of solid rock, just to fill them up with trash? Maybe they worshipped their garbage?" The second observation is that archeology is everywhere in Jerusalem, and no doubt some of the shadier contractors make short work of it with a backhoe when digging a foundation, for fear their project will be delayed for years. I noticed they are currently carrying out a dig right across from the Central Bus Station in an area that's been built on several times over. I guess it the same as with construction in modern day Rome, a running battle or compromise between the requirements of the living and the memories of the departed.

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