Program to explore buried Jerusalem and its implications aboveground

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Excavations in Israel can elicit protests and even lead to threats of war.

I recall a time, decades ago, when I went to visit an American cousin who was spending the summer working on a dig at the City of David archaeological site, immediately south of the Old City in Jerusalem.

As I approached the corner of a building in downtown Jerusalem (at least a mile from the dig), I heard some chaotic noise. Then I turned the corner and almost stumbled into a protest by ultra-Orthodox Jews, who were angry about the dig.

Andrew Lawler writes in his book, “Under Jerusalem: The Buried History of the World’s Most Contested City,” that “Adventurers seeking the Ark of the Covenant nearly plunged two empires into chaos in 1911. They rattled the Middle East six decades after that. When the mayor opened a new exit to a tunnel along the Western Wall in 1996, more than one hundred people lost their lives .…” In 2001, peace talks collapsed over this underground territory.

On Dec. 14, Lawler will present a Zoom program on the tombs, tunnels and trenches of Jerusalem, sharing stories from his book, which he describes as “the hunt for the Holy City’s past by a strange and colorful mixture of treasure hunters, scholarly clerics, religious extremists, and secular archaeologists.”

As a city revered by more than half the people on Earth, even digs in Jerusalem can be earth-shaking.

Lawler begins his book with an incident that inspired some of Abraham Lincoln’s last words in Ford's Theater: “There is no place I so much desire to see as Jerusalem.” However, the treatment of Jewish graves during that dig sparked international outcries.

Lawler will discuss many such contentious digs and how they have influenced Zionism, Arab nationalism and international conflict, as well as led people from around the world to explore under Jerusalem.

Lawlor’s research was largely funded by the National Geographic Society.

The New Yorker writes, “Lawler’s history tracks both the marvels found underground and the events unfolding above them. …. Probing excavators’ often partisan motivations, Lawler highlights archeology’s power to shape narratives and its development from a discipline ‘not far removed from its far older cousin, tomb robbing,’ into a modern tool of nationalist mythmaking.”

In addition to “Under Jerusalem,” Lawler is the author of “The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke” and “Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization.”  His interest in Jerusalem was sparked by an archaeology conference at Brown University over a decade ago.

The free program will take place on Wednesday, Dec. 14, at 7 p.m. on Zoom. It will be hosted by Elihay Skital, Rhode Island’s shaliach/emissary. For more information, contact Skital at 401-421-4111 or eskital@jewishallianceri.org. To register for the program, and get the Zoom link, go to https://www.jewishallianceri.org/under-jerusalem.

The program is part of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island’s Behind the Book series, which is co-sponsored by the Jewish Book Council. It is also part of the Israeli Culture Series, which takes place on the second Wednesday of every month.

LARRY KATZ (lkatz@jewishallianceri.org) is the director of Jewish life and learning at the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.