When archeology meets politics

Study case: The City of David/Silwan

Paper written in 2015 - Ben Gurion University

On July 5th, 2015, the archeological site of Bet Shearim became part of the UNESCO World Heritage. It is the 9th archeological site in Israel being classified and recognized in the prestigious list. It legitimizes Israel on the international scene, and gives Israel many prerogatives on the area of the site, its environment. Indeed, Israel is now in charge to protect the site of any kind of development that could harm its character. But, the main implication is that the site will be a new place of attractions for tourists coming from all around the world.

Archeological excavations and history are playing a crucial role in the construction of the Israeli collective memory and identity, and it is particularly preponderant in Israel compared to other states. Indeed, as an idiosyncratic relatively new state - built on a Jewish immigration - the “Land of Israel”, which was at the time the British mandate of Palestine, was perceived by the Jewish immigrants as the homeland of the Hebrew people. This view was reinforced through the decades by the numerous excavations and founding of antiquities dated to biblical times.

Archaeology is a study of the past in general and, specifically, the study of the material aspects of past cultures. Obviously, many archeologists might be very sincere in their scientific work; however, when their work is used by Medias or politics, in order to defend some interests, the archeologists themselves should actually question their responsibility. Indeed, the ideological or political use of their declarations should concern the scholars and archeologists - in the case of Israel this issue is particularly complex: the excavations of the past have a direct impact on the present of Israelis and Palestinians, and the conflict itself. If the science of archaeology is to preserve cultural heritage for people of all cultural and religious backgrounds, it has to take into account the physical environment, the local residents and the political situation before, during and after an excavation. According to Emek Shaveh, the organization of archaeologists and community activists focusing on the role of archaeology in Israeli society and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “this is the only way to protect archaeological research from becoming a political tool which can harm certain groups within society while benefiting others”. Moreover, archeology in Israel is charged with a nationalist significance. Israelis feel this constant need to legitimize themselves for being in this land: the main argument being “We, Jews, are here for thousands years and this is what our excavations prove you”. As would have say Robert Cox “Theory is always for someone and for some purpose”; we could actually apply this sentence to archeology as a biased discipline of sciences. Indeed, the critical approach of Cox reveals that often, scientific or academic disciplines are biased and rooted in an ethnocentric vision of the world. Every science serves therefore an interest.

Archeology won’t be an exception because, the subject of research itself depends on affect, believes, values of the archeologists. In Israel particularly, the predominance of politics in daily life have obviously an impact on the neutrality of archeologists and historians. For instance, the neutrality of one of the most important figures of archeology in Israel, Yigal Yadin, is questionable. The very famous archeologist excavated some of the most important sites in Israel such as Massada, the Qumran Caves, Hazor or Tel Megiddo.

However, interestingly enough, his career was not limited to archeology; he also created a political party (democratic movement for change) and had an extended military career (chief of staff of the IDF in 1949). Therefore, the question of neutrality and objectivity in archeology is very relevant because in Israel it is extremely questionable. Indeed, observing the history of Israel’s archeology and the evolution and changing role of archeology in Israeli national identity, we notice that we’ve been from a legitimation on the part of secular Zionists to a gradual abandonment by secular youth and finally, recuperation by the national-religious trend. It is also very interesting to observe that the Haredim (Ultra-orthodox) in Israel are completely disinterested by these questions and by politics more generally. Indeed, for them, the notion of “Nation State” is not even relevant.

Scholars define three features making Israeli archeology idiosyncratic and distinctive:

  • There is a popular interest in archeological remains, and the state highly emphasizes it (we should recall for instance the ceremony of IDF soldiers at Masada)

  • The excavations and the presentation of the past remains selective: the focus is on the Iron Age through roman times to the First/Second Temple periods.

  • Eventually, archeology in Israel fulfills a certain sacred: the practice of Israeli archeology is religious and not secular; it has a national-religious function.

In this essay, we will use the “City of David” as a case to study to analyze this problematic of archeology meeting politics in Israel. Hence, we will question: what are the political implications of the archeological site of the City of David? To what extent can we say that the City of David is a symptomatic political case in the Israeli archeology?

In a first part, we will try to understand the complexity of the relationship between archeology, history and nationalism in the specific case of the City of David, then we will try to apprehend the political and ideological impact this complex relationship have on local life and politics.

  1. The “City of David” : a symptomatic case of study revealing the complexity of the relation between archeology, history and nationalism in Israel /Palestine

  2. History and location of the archeological park : The City of David/Silwan

Today, after centuries of excavations, there is no more doubt about the historical location of the Ancient Jerusalem: it was built on the south-east on of the Temple Mount, in today’s village of Silwan. It is a Palestinian village that was annexed by Israel after the Six Days War, 1967. The inhabitants of Silwan are Palestinians residents but not citizens of Israel. Today, about 55 000 Palestinians and 700 Israeli Jews live in Silwan. The origin of the name “Silwan” comes from “Siloam,” which appears in the writings of Josephus Flavius, and is the Latin form of “Shiloah,” the name of the pool to which the famous channel leads.

The so-called archeological park of the City of David is located in the neighborhood of Wadi Hilweh in Silwan. The modern use of the term ‘City of David’ can be attributed to the French archaeologist Raymond Weill, who mounted the first open-area excavations on the south-east spur in 1913–1914, on a land acquired for the purpose by the Baron Edmond de Rothschild. However, at that time the term “city of David” was barely employed; they preferred “Ophel” which is also a biblical reference to the northern-most part of the spur.

The archeological missions in the area started in the second half of the XIXth century, where they began excavating this hill, which slopes down from the Dung Gate toward the Gihon Spring and the Siloam Pool. Charles Warren and Hermann Guthe are the most important figures of this century participating to reveal the ruins. It is a real place of attraction for archeologists from all around the globe. The excavations continue until this day and revealed that the area has been inhabited continuously since the Fourth Millennium BCE.

Besides, impressive fortifications were revealed by the numerous excavations in the area, as well as a sophisticated water system: this testifies that a sizable city stood in this place during the Canaanite Period. However, it is important to note that researchers are divided over the significance of the city in the Xth and XIst centuries BCE - Period of the Kings David and Solomon. According to Samuel II, King David conquered the city from the Jebusites and named it after himself (from here comes the name “The City of David[1]”). It is agreed that the area was used as a Hebrew governmental center in the period of the late Judean Kingdom (VIIIth-VIth centuries BCE). However, some discrepancies appeared, the small size and meager building of the City of David has led some scholars to doubt that Jerusalem have ever functioned as a capital or even a city of any size in King David’s time. Indeed, in 1880 a Hebrew inscription was found marking the completion of the excavation of the Siloam Channel. This inscription records the construction of the tunnel which was dated to the VIIIth century BCE. It recalls and commemorates a public construction work. This exceptional inscription is among the oldest records of the kind written in old Hebrew, a regional variant of the Phoenician alphabet. Hence, the association with the tunnel of Siloam was interpreted to provide evidence for the ancient biblical narrative. Besides, the long Siloam Channel (tunnel) carried water from the Gihon Spring to the Siloam Pool (which was the water reservoir) and was quarried during the reign of King Hezekiah (VIIIth century BCE). The Gihon Spring was the main water source at the time of the Ancient Jerusalem.

Furthermore, the excavations revealed evidences of the destruction of Jerusalem after Nebuchadnezzar conquered the city in 586 BCE. The area was populated later, in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah (VIth century BCE). In the time of the Second Temple, most of the Jewish population actually lived within the walls of the small city. According to archaeological and historical findings, settlement in the area continued after the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE). During the Byzantine and early Muslim periods (the Abbasid period), the settlement in the area was quite developed, but then, it was all destroyed by an earthquake in 1033, and from then until the start of the modern era the hill was sparsely populated. Over the years, the village of Silwan grew, and its residents continued to cultivate the land of Wadi Hilweh. According to British maps, in the 1930s, only twenty houses stood in Wadi Hilweh, Silwan was included in Jerusalem jurisdiction only during the Jordanian period in 1951-52!

At the beginning of the 20th century, The Baron de Rothschild acquired this land with the intention of dedicating it to archaeological excavations. A short time earlier, in the 1880s, a group of Jews purchased lands in southern Silwan, where they established a community known as Kfar Shiloah. At its height, over a hundred Jewish families of Yemenite origin lived there. However, during World War I, residents began abandoning the village and in1929 with the violent riots and the “Arab revolt” of 1936, Kfar Shiloah got emptied of its Jewish residents.

2. Archeological appropriation of the site : ELAD/The City of David Foundation : a private right-wing organization responsible for the archeological site

ELAD is an acronym in Hebrew meaning "To the City of David", it is the name of the association (non-profit organization) founded in 1986 by David Beri, responsible for the archeological site of the City of David, but also Armon Hanatziv and the Mount of Olives. As they define themselves in their website: “the Ir David Foundation is committed to continuing King David’s legacy as well as revealing and connecting people to Ancient Jerusalem’s glorious past through four key initiatives: archaeological excavation, tourism development, educational programming and residential revitalization”[2].

This association has a very controversial image. Emek Shaveh, an association of archeologists and community activists focusing on the role of archaeology in Israeli society and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, claims that the specific site of ancient Jerusalem in Silwan is managed by ELAD “a right wing non-governmental organization working to settle Jews in East Jerusalem”. They also give us a new light on the matter with some interesting information: the City of David is actually the only national park in Israel managed by a private foundation with a political ideology. The archeologist Dan Bahat actually denies this accusation explaining that many leftist archeologists went to the Supreme Court denouncing ELAD as a private entity possessing a national site. However, according to him, other very important sites in the country belong to private groups such as the famous synagogue of Beth Alpha, dating from the IVth century BCE, and belonging to a kibbutz.

Moreover, according to Emek Sheveh, ELAD has been settling many Israeli Jews in Silwan village since 1991 (about 400 Jewish residents). Eventually knowing the political agenda of the City of David Foundation, we could legitimately question the relevance of the tours and information material that they provide on the site. Indeed, in his article, Adhaf Soueif shows the intellectual dishonesty of Elad during tours: "I found a Byzantine water pit," Professor Ronny Reich of the Israel Antiquities Authority says. "They [ELAD] said it was Jeremiah's pit. I told them that was nonsense." But for a long time the guides would tell the tourists that this was the hole Jeremiah was thrown into. Close to half a million visitors come here each year and are treated to the ELAD version of history. Professor Binyamin Ze'ev Kedar, chair of the Israel Antiquities Authority Council, wrote in 2008: "The Israel Antiquities Authority is aware that ELAD, an organization with a declared ideological agenda, presents the history of the City of David in a biased manner".

Indeed, the Jewish NGO excludes other versions, or parallel histories related to the archeological site. For instance, it is important to underline that the “City of David” has become an important place for Christian pilgrims from all around the world: Jesus would have gave sight to a blind man at the Siloam pool during the time of the Second Temple.

2. Impact of this complex relationship in the local life and politics

  1. Impact on public opinion

Creation of a historical narrative

An important study led by the independent monitoring organization Ir Amim reaches the conclusion that ELAD, which is officially a private organization, serves as a direct executive arm of the Israeli government and enjoys comprehensive and deep backing by the state administration. During the first Palestinian uprising – First Intifada – the Jewish NGO ELAD started acquiring many properties within the village of Silwan. Quickly, the management of the archeological park was totally transferred to ELAD: then, they introduced a new narrative of this site, exploiting the biblical and Jewish connotation of the site, and excluding most of the other points of views. Indeed, ELAD uses the Bible as a history book, and the archeological excavations must go in that sense. For instance, since 2005, ELAD finances the excavations of the controversial archeologist Eilat Mazar, who pretend to have found King’s David Palace, which is until today still not proved. This excavation is one of the several struggles between archeologists among the City of David. Therefore, it is very clear that the City of David illustrates how archeology and nationalism are intertwined. As Nadia Abu El Haj claims, it is natural for the field of Israeli archeology in general to focus on the remains of the “people of Israel”; we can even argue that archeology has always been central to the Zionist political project.

For instance, in the case of the City of David, the excavations showed among many things an impressive structure from the late Byzantine or early Muslim periods, including rare treasure of golden coins. Nonetheless, ELAD’S members have decided to give the findings a “Kosher” Jewish definition and interpretation. A very famous and sad example of this intellectual dishonesty, ELAD presented a Byzantine water pit as if it was Jeremiah’s pit, which according to archeologists and scholars made no sense! After many pressure, they finally stopped saying this to random tourists. This example is only one among other stories of this kind. Indeed, this place is so emotional that all kind of stories are made up by interests. ELAD is particularly good at “selective history” and “collective amnesia” when they do want it… we can think for instance of the “timeline” that appeared on the city of David website, no event was marked between the destruction of the Second Temple and the settlement of Yemenite Jews in 1882 (which represents quite a long time…). Again, under the pressure of honest archeologists, the timeline was changed to included dates of non-Jewish historical periods. It is therefore worrying to see the Israeli Antiquities Authority being so passive in front of these voluntary errors Elad make to bias history. In the words of Professor Binyamin Ze’ev Kedar, Chairman of the Israeli Antiquities Authority Council: “The Israel Antiquities Authority is aware that Elad, an organization with a declared ideological agenda, presents the history of the City of David in a biased manner.”

2. Impact on the community living in and around the archeological site

Impact of tourism

First of all, we can point out the impact of the massive tourism created by the archeological attraction. Indeed, tourism has a direct effect on Palestinian daily lives, and the complexity of the situation is that, obviously, the tourists are not even aware of the political implications of their visit in this site: “But here their effect is devastating – and most of them don't even know it. For the town that nestles here, in this valley on the southern flank of Jerusalem, is Silwan, home to some 55,000 Palestinians, annexed by Israel along with east Jerusalem in 1967, and currently one of the hottest spots in the contest between the rights of the Palestinian townspeople and the plans that Israel has for the area – plans put into effect through a series of administrative measures, clandestine coalitions, and progressive-sounding projects. None of which could work without the funding that floods into Israel from the west. What do the tourists know of this? These gentle, grey-haired folk have come here, on their Jewish National Fund coaches, to visit the archaeological dig for Ir David, the City of David, which, it is claimed, lies below the Wadi Helweh neighborhood in Silwan and justifies the digging, the shafts and the tunneling going on in the belly of the hill and under the homes of the people who live here”.

Therefore, tourism does have a great impact on the political situation and on the local appropriation of lands. Elad actually knows that and that is the reason why they give to this archeological a sacred dimension for Jews but also for Christians and Evangelists. According to the association Ir Amim, Silwan is becoming an “amusement park” comparing it even with “Disneyland”. However, this ambition of creating a full amusement park in the neighborhood will obviously have terrible consequences on the life of the locals. For instance, we should notice a drastic increase of security measures in and around the park.

The ‘Judaization’ of Silwan – Implementation of Jewish settlements, a rude and unfair policy towards Palestinians residents

Developed by the Municipality of Jerusalem and planned by the architect Moshe Safdie, the Town Plan Scheme 11555 intends to transform the area of Wadi Hilweh: the objective is to transform a Palestinian neighborhood into an Israeli and Jewish archeological park. This plan implies the demolition and destruction of the neighborhood of Al-Bustan, meaning the eviction of one thousand residents, and the expropriation of large areas of lands from the Palestinians. The current plan valid in the area designates it as an “open public area special public area and area reserved for archeological excavations” while the new plan designates it as “areas for roads, parking lots, paths, promenade, open areas, special public area, public buildings and institutions, engineering installations and housing”. The plan even mentions that an archeological garden in the spirit of the Second Temple will be build, as well as a promenade going from Mount Zion to the Dung Gate and so on…

Besides, the Town Plan Scheme 11555 seems to discriminate between settlers and Palestinian residents in the realm of building rights. In addition to this plan, the Ministry of Transportation and East Jerusalem Development Authority decided to invest 30 million shekels in upgrading the road going from the Siloam Pool to Givati parking lot. Obviously, it includes bulding parking lots on a private Palestinian land. However, after civil rights Israeli associations denounced those practices, the work has stopped temporarily.

It is therefore very interesting to observe that the pretext of archeology is used at its greater extent to political means, in order to relocate Palestinians. In a very recent example in the Israeli news, Haaretz published an article explaining the story of the Abu Nab family, evicted after a long legal battle. It is presented as the “success of the NGO Ateret Cohanim – with the police’s close cooperation” in expanding the Jewish presence in the middle of a Palestinian area. The main difference between the two groups Elad and Ateret Cohanim is that Elad buys houses in the city of David while Ateret Cohanim, settler’s organization, actually aims to establish a Jewish neighborhood in the very center of an Arab one… Ateret Cohanim is a non-profit organization located in Jerusalem. The aim of this group, as described in their website is to “fulfill a generations old dream of rebuilding and securing a United Jerusalem, strengthening our Jewish roots and reestablishing thriving Jewish communities that are centered around educational institutes in and around the Old City of Jerusalem”.

This right wing organization benefits from a close cooperation with the Israeli authorities. The author of Haaretz’s article Nir Hasson claims that in any case, the Judaization of Silwan is orchestrated by one man… This anonymous man lives in a West Bank colony; he has been involved in property deals in Hebron. He is well-known of Silwan residents, he has almost unlimited funds at his disposal and also benefits from a very close relation with the police and other important authorities. His job is basically to persuade Palestinian families to move out of their home “in a good way”, by offering them a generous compensation if they agree to leave voluntarily but he is also the one who threatens them if they refuse. The “greatest” achievement of this man was to acquire a building with more than ten apartments.


To put it in a nutshell, the archaeology over the area of the Old City of Jerusalem and its environ (so called Holy Basin, including the Wadi Hilweh neighborhood in the norther part of Silwan) is considered of vital interest to Jewish and Christian history. Therefore, since 1967 this area has been to all intents and purposes an Israeli project. According to Greenberg, this means that while professing neutrality and in fact collecting data on most periods of the city’s occupation, archaeology is implicated in a political project of ‘unifying’ Jerusalem… In Israel generally, and specifically in the case of Silwan/the City of David, the relation between archeology and politics is extremely complex, mixed with nationalism, religion, history and Zionist ideology. By its location the site creates high tensions at the level of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because of the relocation of Palestinian residents, the expropriation of Palestinian houses, the increase of security forces in the neighborhood, and the pressure of settler groups such as Elad or Ateret Cohanim. However, there is also a “national-religious fight” around the site- the question is always the same: “who arrived first?”, and the Jewish settlers want to prove by every mean that they did. Therefore they lead what Haaretz calls a “Judaization” of Silwan by implementing new settlements, threatening Palestinian locals and Palestinian traditions in the area; they also rebuild a historical narrative of the place, without hesitating to falsify the truth by saying deliberate lies.

An alternative to ELAD supremacy on the archeological park?

In Silwan, Palestinian residents have come together with Israeli archaeologists in order to present an alternative to the tour offered by ELAD. This tour proposes a visit of the antiquities and also of the modern village of Silwan. This is a way to emphasize both the multiple voices of Jerusalem’s past as well as the social and political context of the practice of archaeology in the present. They present a large view of Jerusalem: from the Middle Bronze Age, while the Canaanites defied the nature and appropriated the Waters of Gihon spring, to the Iron Age – when the ruling elites occupied the crest of the mound. They also present evidences that have come to light about the existence of a popular sub-culture in the poorest neighborhoods. Then, during the tour, they also meet local Palestinian inhabitants to talk about the present impact of those excavations and the tourism on their daily lives. It brings to a crucial question when it comes to this subject, of the responsibility of archeologists for the narrative and facts produced from their findings. Nonetheless, two problems appear: archeologists highly rely on the governmental funding but also on Christian community around the world to support their projects. The guiding principles of those archeologists and Palestinian residents are: to allow everyone to find their own links to the past, the archeology must serve to tell an inclusive and independent story of human existence, culture, and achievement, they want to contribute to an understanding of Jerusalem’s history on equal terms, they refuse to use archaeology to prove precedence, archeology is inherently critical of all historical narratives, each narrative is interpretative and there is no absolute truth-value. Obviously, this is not either a neutral approach to the past but it offers the public a wider perspective on the “City of David”. Moreover, since Jerusalem is culturally, religiously, and politically plural, recognizing the multi-identity of its antiquities even under current conditions paves the way for any future political accommodation, when all sides will be asked to exhibit sensitivity to each other’s historical claims.


Nadia Abu El Haj, Translating truth: the practice of archeology and the remaking of past and present in contemporary Jerusalem, American Anthropological Association, 1998

Ahdaf Soueif, The dig dividing Jerusalem, The Guardian, May 26, 2010

Amos Elon, Politics and Archeology

Christine Pirinoli, « Effacer la Palestine pour construire Israël. Transformation du paysage et enracinement des identités nationales », Etudes rurales 2005/1 (n° 173-174), p. 67-85.

Philip L. Kohl, Nationalism and Archaeology: On the Constructions of Nations and the Reconstructions of the Remote past, Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 27 (1998), pp. 223-246

Entretien avec Dan Bahat, « La guerre des archéologues. », L'Histoire 7/2012 (N° 378), p. 18-18

Rachel S. Hallote, Alexander H. Joff, Politics of Israeli Archaeology: Between ‘Nationalism’ and ‘Science’ in the Age of the Second Republic, Israel Studies, volume 7, number 3, 2003

Yona Dureau, « L'archéologie au péril de l'idéologie », Pardès 2005/1 (N° 38), p. 171-190.

Nir Nasson, The Judaization of an East Jerusalem Neighborhood Gains Steam, Haaretz, November 2015

Raphael Greenberg, Towards an Inclusive Archaeology in Jerusalem: The Case of Silwan/The City of David, Public Archaeology, Vol. 8 No. 1, February, 2009, 35–50

Sites and videos

VIDEO: Digging for Trouble - Israel/Palestine : www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRNAJCHxa7w

Alternative Archaeological Tours in Silwan, www.alt-arch.org

Wadi Hilwah Information Center, The Story behind the Tourist site

Ir Amim, Shady Dealings in Silwan, May 2009

Civic Coalition for Palestinian Rights in Jerusalem, Destruction of Palestinian Homes and Heritage in occupied East Jerusalem The case of Silwan

Emek Shaveh, English Booklet, Elad's Settlement in Silwan

[1]Another place was also called the “City of David”. According to Luke’s Gospel, the place of Jesus's birth, Bethlehem, was also called the City of David. Luke 2:4, "Of course, Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David."

[2] In french, it says « La Fondation Ir David s’est engagée à préserver l’héritage du roi David et à affirmer les liens historiques qui relient Israël à Jérusalem, par le biais de quatre initiatives principales: fouilles archéologiques, développement touristique, développement résidentiel et programmes éducatifs ». The slight difference is actually crucial. The translation is “The foundation Ir david is committed to preserve the legacy of King David and affirm the historical links connecting Israel to Jerusalem…”.

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