8. Excavating sacredness

Eyal Weizman
28 April 2002

In a quest for biblical archaeology, Israel has attempted to resurrect the subterreanean fragments of ancient civilization to testify for its present-day rights above ground.When the Zionists first arrived in Palestine late in the nineteenth century, the land they found was strangely unfamiliar, different from the one they longed for. Reaching the map coordinates of the site of their yearnings was not enough. The search had to continue: above, in a metaphysical sense, below the crust of earth in archaeological excavations.

That the ground was further inhabited by the Arabs and marked with the traces of their lives, complicated things even further. So the existing terrain was transformed in the Zionists’ minds into a protective wrap, under which the historical longed-for landscape was hidden.

Archaeology attempted to peel this visible layer and expose the historical landscape concealed underneath. Only a few metres below the surface, a palimpsest made of five thousand year-old debris, traces of cultures, narratives of wars and destruction, is arranged chronologically in layers compressed with stone and by soil.

Biblical archaeology

The quest for ‘Biblical Archaeology’ attempts to match traces of Bronze Age ruins with Biblical narratives. Modern Israel tried to fashion itself as the successor of ancient Israel, and to construct a new national identity rooted in the depths of the ground. These material traces took on immense importance, as an alibi for the Jewish return.

If the land to be ‘inherited’ was indeed located under the surface, then the whole subterranean volume was a national monument. From this source, the ancient civilisation could be politically resurrected to testify for the right of the present-day Israel.

At the centre of this activity, quickly its very symbol, was Yig’al Yadin, the former military chief of staff turned archaeologist. Seeking to supply Israeli society with historical parallels to the struggles of Zionism, he focused his digging on the ancient occupation and settlement of Israelites in Canaan, on Biblical wars and on monumental building and fortification works carried out by the kings of Israel.

The visible landscape and the buried one were describing two different maps that slip over each other. There was a continuous effort to anchor new claims to ancient ones, as a series of settlements were constructed adjacent to or over sites suspected of having a Hebrew past.

Making the historical context explicit allowed for the re-organisation of the surface, creating an apparent continuum of Jewish inhabitation. Settlements recycle history by adopting the names of Biblical sites, making public claim to genealogical roots.

Perhaps the most dramatic example occurred in the city of Hebron. The settlement of Tel Rumeida was built in the middle of a Palestinian neighbourhood there. It was built on stilts, on top of a recently excavated Bronze Age site.

As the sub-terrain erupted onto the surface, the Israeli minister of defence, Benjamin Ben- Eliezer, seized the Palestinian land, declaring it an archaeological site. Soon after, he allowed a group of settlers to build an elevated cement roof over the heart of the archaeological site and put up a settlement composed of seven mobile homes on it, perching over the newly-revealed history.

Recently, after several shooting attacks on settlers in the vicinity of their homes, Ben- Eliezer authorised the walling off of the site and the replacement of the mobile homes with new bullet-proof structures.

What is antiquity – and therefore worthy of of nationalistic sentiment connected with the discovery of abundant archaeological sites, especially in and around East Jerusalem. Previous state -sponso red housing developments were built according to the white-block model of European Modernism, and reflected a socialist ethos.

But new neighbourhoods now boasted arches and domes, colonnades and courtyards, and were clad with a veneer of slated stone. This was the Israeli version of architectural postmodernism: a style of building based on the brutal modernism of raw concrete, but wrapped in features embodying the new national-religious identity.

Against the tendency of Biblical Archaeologists to short-circuit history and celebrate a phantasmagoria of great Biblical events and destructions, a newly emergent Archaeology, advocated in both Palestinian and Israeli universities, has started digging the more recent, upper historical layers of the Arab and Ottoman periods. These archaeologists have worked to uncover the evolution of the daily life of the “people without history” as long-term processes, featuring gradual cultural and social changes.


Tel Hebron (Rumeida)

Tel Hebron - Home of Abraham and King David - Right: an Ancient Hebron Wall and Olive Tree

Left: The work begins - Right: The families moved into new, double- decker caravans

Index to the Politics of verticality

  1. Introduction
  2. Maps
  3. Hills and valleys of the West Bank
  4. West Bank settlements
  5. Optical urbanism
  6. The paradox of double vision
  7. From water to shit
  8. Excavating sacredness
  9. Jerusalem
  10. Roads — over and under
  11. Control in the air

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