A few months ago Didi Remez challenged me to state my position on Jerusalem's history. In case you've missed it (many people have, thankfully), there's an academic insurgency underway these past 15 or 20 years, spearheaded - predictably - by a coalition of anti-Zionist European archeologists, and some Israeli ones. In a nutshell, the claim is that the bible wasn't (this was the title of a long article about them in Haaretz about a decade ago). King David wasn't, the House of David wasn't, the Temple wasn't, Jerusalem wasn't - not until much later - and so on.
I wrote a bit about this in Right to Exist: A Moral Defense of Israel's Wars, but in a general way, not focusing in particular on Jerusalem. Didi helpfully sent me an article of the sort he regards as acceptable, to help me along; so far, however, I haven't said much on the matter because doing so would require serious investigation and I've not found the time. I do intend to get there, however.
Today I joined a tour of ancient burial places in Jerusalem, given by Dr. Eyal Meron, an archeologist himself. While I've been living in this town for more than 40 years, and consider myself as knowledgeable about it as the next fellow, there are vast swathes of things I don't know. Most of what Eyal showed us today was new to me - in spite of most of it being very ancient.
We started in the Dominican monastery of St. Etienne, also known as the Ecole Biblique, a French compound transplanted into the middle of Jerusalem like a combination of time- and place travel.
The monastery itself is off to the left
However, we were here to see something else. If you cross the courtyard to the far right corner, behind the statue of St. Stephen, there's a door most people don't notice
behind which lies a peaceful grove of trees
and in the grove there's an underground structure. The roof above its entrance is modern
and some of the local Dominican brothers of the 20th century are buried in it. But then, deeper inside, there's a set of rooms, chiseled into the rock, and quite very dark (sorry, no photos). There's a front room of a precise size (7X8X5 ama, if I remember correctly), a shallow hole in its floor with bird bones - remains of sacrificial offerings - which were still there when the first Dominicans investigated the cave in the 19th century, and ornately decorated walls. There are a series of side rooms, each of them with two or three rock shelves on which cadavers were laid out, and beneath them hollow cavities where the bones were collected.
The bones are still there, jumbled together, remains of at least 20 different individuals, all of whom lived in this city in the 8th century BCE, about 2,800 years ago.
Such an elaborate and expensive arrangement for the dead, explained Eyal, signifies a city in which some of the living are very wealthy. Who were they? There's no way to know. Not the royalty, since their graves have been identified elsewhere. "Open the Bible to the book of Kings, read the chapters about the mid-1st-Temple days, and choose any of the rich powerful or important families: this is the burial place of one of them".
That was merely the first station on our tour, though it's the last I'll report on today. Still, Jerusalem being the fiendishly complicated place that it is, I can't resist adding that when you walk out the gate of the walled, serene and reflective monastery, with its impressive church, important library, shady groves and long dead Jewish aristocrats, and you're on a busy but grubby street behind the bus depot of East Jerusalem with all its clamor and squalor, right across the street there's a shop selling cold drinks and junk-food. The name of the shop?
That's right. The Argentine butcher from Cuba, selling his candy bars and glaring at the Church. In Arabic.
Update: Elder of Ziyon has posted a film from Jerusalem in 1918. Definitely worth watching.