Under Jerusalem The buried history of the world's most contested city

Andrew Lawler

Book - 2021

"A sweeping history of Jerusalem and the pivotal role that archaeology has played--both in its invention as a modern holy city and as the match that lit a geopolitical fire beneath it In 1863, a French politician and adventurer heard a rumor of biblical treasures beneath Jerusalem. At the time, Jerusalem was a venerable backwater, not the thriving religious center we think of today. Archaeology itself was in its infancy--more a pastime for treasure-hunting aristocrats than a legitimate scientific discipline. But when Louis-Felicien Joseph Caignart De Saulcy dug into the desert and discovered an ancient tomb, explorers from England, Germany, and Russia followed in his footsteps, competing with one another to make the next big find. De S...aulcy's dig gave rise not only to a new field; it opened a Pandora's Box, turning Jerusalem into the most disputed piece of land on Earth. Under Jerusalem is a 150-year history of the ground just beneath one of the world's holiest cities. It examines the way that archaeology has not only fueled academic disputes but has contributed to some of the bloodiest chapters in Israel's modern history. With an eye on both the past and the future, Andrew Lawler reveals how more than a century of researchers, propelled as much by nationalist agendas as any thirst for knowledge, sparked a revolution in the Middle East, one whose reverberations we continue to feel"--

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New York : Doubleday [2021]
Main Author
Andrew Lawler (author)
First edition
Physical Description
xxxiii, 426 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color), maps ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 359-404) and index.
  • A Moment of Insanity
  • A Fool's Errand
  • A Masonic Mission
  • The Roots of Our Problem
  • A Faithful Watchman
  • A Great and Potent Force
  • Gone with the Treasures of Solomon
  • A Dangerous Fantasy
  • Exalting the Walls
  • The Magnificence of the Metropolis
  • The Rabbi's McGuffin
  • Someone of Great Imagination
  • A Free People In Our Land
  • The Cellar Crusade
  • The Bedrock of Our Existence
  • Millennial Madness
  • Ruins in the Mind
  • Reality is Always Stronger Than Belief
  • The Rebel Dig
  • Resistance by Existence
  • Here We Will Stay
  • Return of the Queen.
Review by Booklist Review

The first official excavations in Jerusalem--a city sacred to three of the world's major religions--began in the mid-1800s, when a French senator received an official permit from the sultan of the Ottoman Empire. In the century-and-a-half that followed, Jerusalem and its honeycomb of underground structures developed into a hotbed of political and scholarly controversy. Generations of Jerusalem archaeologists have insisted that their work is purely scientific and not political. But this entertaining and carefully argued book shows that the archaeology of this ancient city cannot be divorced from the complex knot of its politics. Journalist Lawler is evenhanded in his treatment of the thorny issues of religion, jurisdiction, and cultural heritage in Jerusalem; his care to credit the Arab workers from Silwan who long performed much of the archaeological grunt work is particularly notable in a book that necessarily focuses on the overwhelmingly Christian and Jewish archaeologists. At its heart, Under Jerusalem is a terrific story, bursting at the seams with dubiously legal digs and eccentric personalities.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Journalist Lawler (The Secret Token) explores in this sweeping account the complicated history of archaeological digs in Jerusalem. Ranging from imperialistic expeditions in the 19th century, when explorers competed in a "race to stake a claim to Jerusalem's past," to allegations that prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government used archaeology "as a legitimizer for the state," Lawler's colorful narrative includes aristocrats, scientists, charlatans, and clerics who searched for the "authentic place of Jesus's death and resurrection," sought to uncover the remnants of the ancient City of David, and tried to find the Ark of the Covenant, among other archaeological treasures. He vividly describes early explorers navigating mud- and sewage-laden tunnels to "recover the biblical secrets locked beneath the Holy City," and incisively untangles the contentious geopolitical dimensions of ancient history as modern-day Israelis and Palestinians use archaeological analysis to bolster their political viewpoints and territorial claims. Richly detailed, sensitively argued, and entertainingly written, this immersive history casts Jerusalem in a new light and reveals the tensions that meet at the intersection of science, politics, religion, and history. This fascinating, evenhanded chronicle is a treasure. Agent: Ethan Bassoff, Ross Yoon Agency. (Nov.)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

In the 1860s, when a French adventurer in Jerusalem dug up what he proclaimed to be the tomb of an Old Testament queen, the race was on among European countries to lay claim to the fabled city and dig up its past. Both Jews and Muslins reacted angrily to the possible desecration, and what lies beneath Jerusalem's streets remains contested to this day. Expanding on a 2019 National Geographic cover story, Lawler (The Secret Token) reveals Jerusalem's underground byways and shows us how archaeology and politics powerfully interact in the Middle East.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

An archaeological journey through the millennia in the Holy Land underscores the tensions between the biblical narrative and the historical record. Lawler, a contributing writer for Science and contributing editor for Archaeology, delves into the stubborn attempts to square religion and science through layers of excavation under the ancient "gateway to heaven" for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Jerusalem, contested by the three major monotheist religions, does not give up its secrets easily, especially as each successive invasion and conquest has tended to bury--or appropriate the construction material of--the one before. In the mid-19th century, the first European treasure hunter (archaeology was not yet a scientific discipline), Louis-Félicien Joseph Caignart de Saulcy, with the Ottoman pasha's approval, began digging for artifacts under the once-great city, which had since fallen into decrepitude. He sought traces of King David's legendary conquest of the Jebusites circa 950 B.C.E., the Ark of the Covenant he brought and installed in a beautifully appointed temple, and the temple's destruction by the Babylonians and reconstruction in 516 B.C.E. under the Persians. The Frenchman unearthed the so-called Tomb of the Kings--but which kings (or queens)? After David's son Solomon's glorious rule and Roman conquest, the Byzantine conversion to Christianity, and invasions by Muslims, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans, and the British, there have been countless rulers of Jerusalem. On this note, Lawler quotes an Israeli archaeologist: "Everyone who ruled Jerusalem did the same thing: built his tower and hoisted his flag." Subsequent mapping and discoveries--from Charles Warren to Montagu Brownlow Parker to Eilat Mazar--have not actually found the City of David, but intriguing artifacts and tunnels continue to feed public curiosity as well as rage by the various Jewish and Arab factions over what is deemed desecration. Lawler's narrative is easy to follow, the timeline is helpful, and the maps are excellent. A leisurely, entertaining walk through the ages with a pleasant, knowledgeable guide. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Chapter 1 A Moment of Insanity Henceforth we will approach the Holy Land not by brandishing our sword, but with Bible and pen in hand. --Ernest Vinet On the bright morning of December 8, 1863, a dapper fifty-six-year-old European stood nervously smoking in a vast sunken courtyard that faced Jerusalem's grandest tomb. In his well-tailored waistcoat, high-collared shirt, and silk cravat, Louis-Félicien Joseph Caignart de Saulcy would not have looked out of place at a Parisian gallery or court soiree. The French senator and confidant of Emperor Napoleon III anxiously waited for word of a momentous discovery that he believed would rock the world, and make the former soldier from a provincial town both rich and famous. When his assistant emerged covered in dust from the small square hole leading into the tomb, de Saulcy knew with a glance that the news was good. "An intact sarcophagus! And an inscription!" the man exclaimed, trying to keep his voice low to avoid attracting the attention of the Arab workers lounging nearby. "This is the most beautiful jewel in your crown!" Earlier that morning, while de Saulcy was still asleep inside the city walls, an Arab worker named Antoun Abou-Saouin had been examining the deepest part of the ancient catacombs. He traced a seam in the rock that revealed the outline of a hidden door. A member of the excavation team rushed through the olive groves and into the city to roust de Saulcy from his hotel bed with the electrifying news. The senator had dressed quickly but punctiliously in a room littered with crates of ancient pottery and glass vessels, then made his way along crooked alleys to Damascus Gate. De Saulcy had walked briskly through the crenellated portal and followed a dusty path to a broad set of worn stone stairs his workers had cleared the week before. These led to an open square plaza dug out of the rock that was large enough to contain two tennis courts. At one end stood a battered but graceful portico bathed in the golden morning light, finely decorated in intricately carved grape bunches and wreaths, towering over one end of the empty space. The sole entrance into the tomb was a small door on the left side of the portico. In antiquity it had been closed with an enormous rolling stone operated using an ingenious system of weights. In a city thick with graves, this was Jerusalem's most magnificent burial complex. A second-century CE Greek geographer rated it the world's most beautiful tomb after that of Mausolus, the eastern Anatolia monument that was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and bequeathed us the term "mausoleum." At least since medieval times, the Jerusalem site had been revered as the Tomb of the Kings, though which kings was a matter of dispute. The French senator believed he had solved the mystery. As he had entered the courtyard, de Saulcy assumed a nonchalant air. The Arab landowner and local workers were there, and he didn't want to raise their suspicions. If word leaked of the discovery, there might be unwelcome complications; the landowner certainly would want the third of the treasure that he would be owed by local tradition. So the Frenchman had loitered casually, ostensibly to have a smoke, while three French members of the team went below. They used iron pliers to wrench open the door exposed by Abou-Saouin. De Saulcy was tall, with a high forehead framed by swept-back graying hair and a meticulously groomed Vandyke. When his assistant emerged from the tomb with the news that the secret chamber was accessible, he maintained his composure, strolling casually to the entrance before bending low to duck through the small entrance. Once out of sight, he quickly threaded his way through a maze of rock-cut rooms while his assistant scrambled to keep up. Large arched niches designed to hold shrouded corpses lined the dark labyrinth, along with smaller triangular alcoves that once held flickering oil lamps. Bits of stone littered the floor, remains from Arab, Ottoman, British, and French tomb raiders who had smashed stone coffins in their search for treasure. Breathing hard from his sprint through the stuffy space, the senator stepped through the newly opened door. It led into a square rough-hewn space dominated by a pale-white limestone casket. "We finally had found our burial chamber," de Saulcy later wrote. "How joyful I was!" ♦ ♦ ♦ It was a death that led him to the tomb. A military officer from the northeastern city of Metz, de Saulcy studied engineering and eventually was transferred to Paris to serve as curator of the nation's artillery museum. This left him time to pursue his passion for old coins, which led him to archaeology and the history of the Holy Land. When his young wife died suddenly in 1850, de Saulcy left Paris to tour the eastern Mediterranean and busy himself with the ancient past. "It would be no advantage to science were we to tread again the beaten paths already traced by hundreds of tourists," he wrote a friend as he left Paris that fall. "Mystery and danger sufficed to fix my resolution, and I determined to proceed at once to Jerusalem." During de Saulcy's first visit to Palestine, he had explored the passages of the Tomb of the Kings and recovered a few broken pieces of a sarcophagus lid, which he donated to the Louvre. In subsequent years, the amateur scholar grew ever more certain that this subterranean realm hid the final resting place of the early monarchs of Judah, including King David and his son Solomon. It was widely believed that they had lived some three thousand years ago. In the Bible, the Israelite leader David was credited with conquering Jerusalem from a people called the Jebusites. David united the tribes of Judea in the south with those of Israel to the north, establishing Jerusalem, which lay on the northern end of Judea, as his capital. Solomon then built a short-lived but mighty empire that channeled enormous riches to the city and drew distinguished visitors, such as the queen of Sheba. At its heart was an elaborate temple built by foreign artisans to house the Ark of the Covenant. When these early kings were laid to rest, the scripture said it was within "the City of David"--presumably, inside the walls of Jerusalem. The site apparently survived at least until the first century CE. "Fellow Israelites," Jesus's apostle Peter said in the Christian New Testament, "I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day." Legends of fantastic treasure secreted in the tombs had circulated for millennia. In the time of Jesus, the Roman Jewish historian Josephus wrote of the "great and immense wealth" buried with Solomon. He reported that when the city was besieged by a Greek army centuries earlier, a Judean high priest had plundered three thousand talents--a king's ransom--from just one room of the sepulcher to buy off the invaders. Josephus also said that Herod the Great, who ruled Judea a generation before Jesus, was desperate for cash to finance his renovation of the city's temple, so he "opened another room, and took away a great deal of money." The king did not disturb the coffins of his predecessors, however, "for their bodies were buried under the earth so artfully, that they did not appear to even those that entered into their monuments." Tales of divine retribution went hand in hand with those describing fabulous riches. Elsewhere, Josephus related that when two of Herod's grave robbers approached the coffins, they were slain when "a flame burst out upon those that went in." A similar story was popular in medieval times. A Christian cleric hired two Jewish workers to fix a damaged building in the city, and they stumbled on a secret passage that led to a hall with marble columns and a golden crown and scepter on a table. When a strong wind and loud voices arose, they fled and vowed never to return. By contrast, de Saulcy longed for a dozen years to return and probe the Tomb of the Kings more thoroughly. His public goal was to discredit the theory put forward by the American biblical explorer Edward Robinson, who argued that the early Judean leaders were buried on the opposite side of the city on what was called Mount Zion. His private passion was to find the long-lost wealth of Solomon. Lacking the connections and resources required for such an ambitious project, however, he had to bide his time. De Saulcy's luck changed when he met and married the daughter of a French diplomat, a woman who also was a close friend of Empress Eugénie. This vaulted him into the midst of the reconstituted French court. Soon he was spending hours discussing the Roman Empire with her husband, the Caesar-obsessed emperor Napoleon III, a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. He accompanied the French ruler on trips as far afield as Iceland, and convinced him to support excavations in France to link the glory of the Roman past to the present-day regime. In 1859, as Darwin published On the Origin of Species in Britain, the emperor appointed de Saulcy senator; three years later he awarded him the Legion of Honor. The same year, he traveled with the emperor to the site of a decisive battle between Romans and Gauls outside Paris; Napoleon III ordered an elaborate monument built to commemorate the event, and personally cleaned a gold-and-silver Roman vase recently unearthed there. In France, as was later true in the Holy Land, politics and archaeology were intimately intertwined. The senator used his newfound influence to launch an expedition to the Middle East that included a military mapmaker, a skilled photographer, and several distinguished French scholars. With "the appreciation of the emperor," the mission was funded with 20,000 francs, roughly the equivalent of about $100,000 today, drawn from the Ministry of Public Education. That was nearly a quarter of the ministry's annual budget. Since the sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire had granted France the role of protector of Christian holy places in the Holy Land, largely to annoy its Spanish and Italian enemies. The French embassy in the empire's capital of Istanbul--the conquered Byzantine center of Constantinople--secured written approval from Sultan Abdulaziz allowing de Saulcy to conduct excavations. It was the first official dig permit issued for Jerusalem, and by a man whose titles included Caesar of the Roman Empire. Now, standing in the dim light of candles held by his assistant, de Saulcy caught his breath as he took in the burial chamber. He saw two inscriptions cut into the side of the stone casket. He hurriedly copied the letters, which seemed to be Hebrew, into his notebook and was stunned to recognize one word repeated twice--melek, an ancient word for king. "I clung with all my strength to the hope that I had my hand on the tomb of a king of Judah," he recalled. When de Saulcy glanced up from his scribbling, he noticed that the cover of the sarcophagus was still sealed irregularly with what appeared to be ancient cement. It was rare to find a Holy Land casket that had not been plundered. He backed out of the chamber and made his way up to the courtyard, using the time to come up with a plan. His immediate goal was to convince the Arab landowner, who was still in the dark about the find, to leave the scene so that he could complete his historic discovery free of interference. De Saulcy asked the man to personally take a note to two of his colleagues within the walled city. The message--written in French and not comprehensible to the messenger--begged them to come with all haste to the tomb. Along with the note, he handed the delighted landowner a five-franc coin emblazoned with the profile of the emperor. This guaranteed at least a half hour for the team to examine the contents of the sarcophagus without being disturbed. To ensure that no one hindered the operation, he gave a pocket pistol to Captain Charles Gelis, the team's cartographer. De Saulcy ordered him to use it on the first intruder. "I had a moment of insanity," he later admitted. Gelis laughed but stashed the weapon in his coat. Then they rushed back down to the chamber, which was now crowded with a dozen people and heavy with heat and humidity. The men gathered wood and hay bales on one side of the sarcophagus, unsealed the lid with pocket knives, and flipped the heavy stone top onto the pile "without making a scratch." Within the casket lay a "well-preserved skeleton, the head resting on a cushion." The skull had collapsed into itself and the bones of the feet had fallen to the side "as a result of the decomposition of the flesh." But the arms were still crossed over the pubic bone. The deceased proved to be a diminutive five-foot-three-inch female. De Saulcy directed Gelis to recover what was left of the head. "He slid his hands delicately as he could under the skull, and instantly everything caved in and disappeared as if by magic, leaving at the bottom of the casket nothing but a long patch of brownish soil mixed with splinters of bone." As the men watched, "everything else vanished in the blink of an eye." The French explorer was devastated. "That was all! Not a piece of jewelry, not a ring, not a necklace," he wrote. "Nothing, absolutely nothing." That is when he spotted the gold, though not in the form or quantity de Saulcy might have wished. Thousands of thin and twisted gold threads lay at the bottom of the casket, presumably part of a gold band lining the shroud that had been made of a coarse linen fabric, "of which some stitches survived on a small fragment of flat bone." He had the team collect the threads as well as all the human remains--mostly a brown soil in the lower half of the casket--for detailed study back in France. De Saulcy then dispatched one of his assistants to bring the French consul, Edmond de Barrère, to the tomb so he could authenticate "the importance of my discovery." By the time the consul arrived around noon, "the whole world was assembled." Despite the senator's attempts to keep his secret, word of the find spread like wildfire across town. Within an hour, "all Jerusalem was informed." The Frenchman sent a message to the Ottoman governor of the city, alerting him to the news and informing him imperiously that he planned to "take my sarcophagus to Paris." Barrère descended to the chamber to examine the find. After the inspection, de Saulcy ordered the tomb closed, and the consul went back to his office to draw up an affidavit confirming the discovery. The next day, the ten French members of the team gathered at the consulate to sign the document, which became Jerusalem's first formal archaeological report. Excerpted from Under Jerusalem: The Buried History of the World's Most Contested City by Andrew Lawler All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.