9. Jerusalem

Eyal Weizman
29 April 2002

From the struggles over Haram al-Sharif (the Temple Mount) to the historic stone with which all Greater Jerusalem is now clad, Jerusalem is an intense case study of the politics of verticality.On 24 September 1996, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the opening of a subterranean archaeological tunnel running along the foundation of the Western Wall, underneath the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount compound. Thus the Government demonstrated its control of all parts of Jerusalem, above and below ground.

Subterranean Jerusalem is at least as complex as its terrain. Nowhere is this more true than of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.

The Haram al-Sharif compound is built over a filled-in, flattened-out summit. On it are built mosques and Muslim holy sites, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque (the third holiest Muslim site in the world), and the Dome of the Rock. It is supported by retaining walls, one of which is the Western Wall, whose southern edge is known as the Wailing Wall. The Western Wall is part of the outermost wall of what used to be the Second Temple compound. Jewish faith has it that the Haram al-Sharif stands precisely above the ruins of the ancient Temple.

Since East Jerusalem was occupied in 1967, the Muslim religious authority (the Wakf) has charged that Israel is trying to undermine the compound foundations in order to topple the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, and to clear the way for the establishment of the Third Jewish Temple. The opening of the ‘Western Wall Tunnel’ was wrongly perceived as an attempt at subterranean sabotage, fuelled by memories of a similar event: in December 1991 another tunnel recently excavated below the Haram collapsed, opening a big hole in the floor of the Mosque of Atman ben-Afan.

The ascent of the present Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount in 2000 and the bloodshed during the Intifadah that followed that visit were not unique. The Temple Mount/ Haram al-Sharif has often been the focal point of the conflict.

Israel’s chief negotiator Gilead Sher has told how, during the failed Camp David summit on 17 July 2000 in the Dogwood hut balcony, in the presence of the whole Israeli delegation, Barak declared:

“We shall stand united in front of the whole world, if it becomes apparent that an agreement wasn’t reached over the issue of our sovereignty over the First and Second Temples. It is the Archemedic point of our universe, the anchor of the Zionist effort… we are at the moment of truth

The two delegations laid claim to the same plot of land. Neither side was willing to give up their claim of sovereignty. In attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable, intense spatial contortions took place at Camp David.

Most archaeologists believe that the Wailing Wall was a retaining wall supporting the earth on which the Second Temple stood at the very same latitude as today’s mosques. But the Israeli delegation argued that the Wailing Wall was built originally as a free-standing wall, behind which stood the Second Temple; and therefore that the remains of the Temple are to be found underneath the mosques.

The most original bridging proposal at Camp David came from former US president Bill Clinton. After the inevitable crisis, Clinton dictated his proposal to the negotiating parties. It was a daring and radical manifestation of the region’s vertical schizophrenia.

The border between Arab East and Jewish West Jerusalem would, at the most contested point on earth, flip from the horizontal to the vertical – giving the Palestinians sovereignty on top of the Mount while maintaining Israeli sovereignty below the surface, over the Wailing Wall and the airspace above the Mount. The horizontal border would have passed underneath the paving of the Haram al-Sharif. A few centimetres under the worshippers in the Mosque of al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock, the Israeli underground could be dug up for remnants of the ancient Temple, believed to be “in the depth of the mount”.

Barak accepted the proposal in principle. To allow free access to the Muslim compound, now isolated in a three-dimensional sovereign wrap by Israel, he suggested “a bridge or a tunnel , through which whoever wants to pray in al-Aqsa could access the compound” . But the Palestinians, long suspicious of Israel’s presence under their mosques, rejected the plan flatly. They claimed, partly bemused, that “‘Haram al-Sharif … must be handed over to the Palestinians – over, under and to the sides, geographically and topographically.”

Charles Warren, a captain in the Royal Engineers, was in 1876 one of the first archaeologists to excavate the tunnels and subterranean chambers under the Temple Mount. He recorded no conclusive ruins of the Temple, but a substance of completely different nature:

“The passage is four feet wide, with smooth sides, and the sewage was from five to six feet deep, so that if we had fallen in there was no chance of our escaping with our lives. I, however, determined to trace out this passage, and for this purpose got a few old planks and made a perilous voyage on the sewage to a distance of 12 feet… Finding the excessive danger of the planks, I procured three old doors… The sewage was not water, and not was not mud; it was just in such a state that a door would not float, but yet if left for a minute or two would not sink very deep… we laid the first door on the sewage, then one in front of it, taking care to keep ourselves each on a door; then taking up the hinder of the three it was passed to the front, and so we moved on. The sewage in some places was more liquid than in others, but in every case it sucked in the doors so that we had much difficulty in getting the hinder ones up…”

If that Indiana Jones-type description was correct, what Clinton and the negotiating teams hadn’t realised was that the Temple Mount sat atop a network of ancient ducts and cisterns filled with generations of Jerusalem’s sewage.



East of the Temple Mount lies the Mount of Olives, on whose western slopes lies one of the oldest and most sacred Jewish graveyards. It is believed that from there the Messiah will arrive at the gates of Jerusalem; that therefore, people buried there would be the first to be resurrected.

Since Israel would not concede sovereignty over the Olive Mount (in the occupied part of Jerusalem), and since it lies between Al-Aqsa and the bulk of Arab neighborhoods, it was proposed at Camp David to build a pedestrian viaduct over it, which would be within Palestinian jurisdiction. This idea was flatly rejected by the Palestinians. The image above illustrates what such proposal might look like, were it to be realized. It is yet another example of the politics of verticality.

Jerusalem stone photoessay

Storrs’s stare of Medusa: the Jerusalem stone by-law The first British military governor of Jerusalem, Sir Ronald Storrs, enacted a bylaw in 1918. It required square, dressed natural stone (termed Jerusalem stone) to be used for the external walls of all new buildings constructed in the city.

Giving Jerusalem a single architectural uniform, Storrs created the conditions for its expansion. The stone coating does more than just fulfil an aesthetic agenda by maintaining a continuity of appearance. It visually defines the geographic limits of Jerusalem, and marks by association the extent of its holiness.

According to Judaic tradition, a special holy status is reserved for the ground. Its relocation as stone from the horizontal (the earth) to the vertical (walls), from the quarries onto the façades of buildings, transferred this holiness further.

Israel resurrected this British-era by-law for its own purposes, requiring its application in all parts of the municipality. Storrs had meant it to apply only around the holy basin surrounding the old city. As Jerusalem’s paving of stone climbs up to wrap its façades, a new ‘ground’ topography of holiness is extended.

When the city itself is holy, and its boundaries are being constantly redefined, holiness becomes a planning issue. New territories annexed to the city throughout the area of Israeli rule, east and west, traditionally and historically far from the historical city, were required to be dressed in stone. They became ‘Jerusalem’, physically imbued with the city’s holy status.

This skin of holiness put every newly built suburb well within the boundaries of “the eternally unified capital of the Jewish people”, hence not negotiable in any final status deal.

Curiously enough, since in Israel environmental regulations severely limit the use of open quarries, the ‘Jerusalem stone’ that produces this sacred identity is excavated in the West Bank, mainly around the cities of Ramallah and Hebron.

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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