Jerusalem is a city of endless beauty and fascination for residents, visitors, and historians. It is also a political tinderbox with conflicting ethnic, religious, and societal claims to its many glories. Archaeology has been a focal point of Jerusalem study as layer after layer of its history is revealed, adding fact, nuance, detail, and drama to its story. Those who study Jerusalem and its unique history, which ranges from pre-Biblical times until the present day, are at the heart of a tempest of claims, counterclaims, and contentious political theater that seems never to wane.
Under Jerusalem by Andrew Lawler is an intriguing resource for those interested in learning what lies beneath the modern city and how those findings affect today’s political and social landscape. Its stories lie in layers, many of which have been undisturbed for centuries. Lawler presents a cast of characters and a progression of events that build one on another, much like the archaeological layers themselves, and the discoveries he shows us beguile and amaze. Each archaeologist who arrived, tools in hand and team at the ready, hoped to tease out Jerusalem’s underground secrets. Each was a product of his or her time. Some had an agenda. Each operated against a particular social and political landscape. Each unearthed discovery was evaluated in light of the ethos of its time but each gains deeper context as time goes on.
Some of the personae who came to explore and left their stories behind them are: Frenchman Louis-Felicien Joseph Caignart de Saulcy, confidant of Napoleon; British cartographer Charles Wilson and his successor, military officer Charles Warren; German Protestant Conrad Schick; noted archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon who was “considered the most influential woman archaeologist of the twentieth century — and by some, the century’s greatest field excavator”; Israeli archaeologists Benjamin Mazar and his granddaughter, a prominent archaeologist in her own right, Eilat Mazar; Israeli archaeologists Yigael Yadin and Yigal Shiloh; and many others. Some of the issues faced by many of them as they searched Jerusalem’s layers included Israeli and Palestinian claims to significant religious sites and the frequent attempts of some groups of rabbis to block excavations for fear of disturbing ancient Jewish bones.
As Lawler’s account progresses, today’s territorial conflicts play an increasingly disturbing role in the explorations of the past. Who has the right to excavate where? Will discoveries support one political side and discredit another? What roles do the three major religions in the area play and how can archaeological finds square with religious doctrines? Can the lessons of the far-off past provide a guide to co-existence in modern times?
Lawler’s prose and the spotlight he shines on the history of each era make his account read like an exciting adventure story, some parts resembling unfolding mysteries, keeping the reader alert and eagerly turning pages to find out how each incident resolves itself. As long-buried secrets emerge into daylight, events and headlines of our time acquire new meaning, providing a useful sense of perspective. Archaeology feels like a vital, relevant, far-reaching endeavor shedding light on today’s headlines and tomorrow’s world.
Extensive front-and-back matter adds context. Included are numerous maps, a long list of suggested further reading, detailed notes, an introduction, an author’s note, and an epilogue that sums up Lawler’s findings. Those interested in Jerusalem both above and below ground will find Under Jerusalem both fascinating and useful.
Michal Hoschander Malen is the editor of Jewish Book Council’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A former librarian, she has lectured on topics relating to literacy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.