'People feel they are living with King David and King Solomon'

 

THE RAPID beats of hand drums bounce off the white stone wall of the Old City of Jerusalem, drawing a wail from a shofar, a ceremonial ram’s horn, and teasing a tune from a clarinet.

A clutch of men, wearing white satin skull caps, and women, some with headscarves, wait at the entrance to a walkway where a grinning boy of about 12 stands under a sagging canopy raised over his head on polls held by four men. A woman in a rose-coloured suit, his mother, hovers.

Members of the party alight from a bus in a long line of tour buses parked bumper to bumper on the side of the wide road that climbs the slope to Mount Zion, which is crowned by the massive Dormition Abbey.

Cameramen record the scene as the turbaned musicians and the wobbling canopy with the lad underneath lead the procession towards Dung Gate, the entrance closest to the Wailing Wall sacred to the Jews. It is a grand day for a bar mitzvah, a coming of age ceremony.

The Jerusalem Archaeological Park lies below Jerusalem’s acropolis where, by tradition, the Jewish temple stood until its destruction by the Romans in AD 70. Parties of Hebrew-speaking tourists, some wearing blue peaked caps, follow guides around the site, pausing at a fragment of an ancient Hebrew inscription that reads “to the place of trumpeting” as shofars and drums sound from above.

Up a flight of steps is a group of Jewish men in skull caps and shawls performing prayers before a section of wall where there had been a triple gate leading to the Second Temple of the Jews.

Above us are the elegant black ribbed dome of al-Aqsa Mosque and the golden cupola of the sublime octagonal shrine of the Dome of the Rock – seventh-century Muslim places of worship that stand where the Second Temple was once located.

Outside Dung Gate and down the hill is the City of David archaeological site managed by the Elad Association, the prime mover of the Israeli settlement enterprise in this hotly contested neighbourhood. Here archaeologists have dug deep in search of relics of periods of Israelite occupation and rule with the aim of retrieving the ancient heritage of the Jewish people.

At the corner of Wadi Hilweh Street sit two Israeli guards deployed to protect settler families housed here by Elad. The surface of the street is rough and parked cars leave only one lane for traffic. On the right is another archaeological dig, fenced to keep out locals. Surveillance cameras installed for the protection of settlers peer down from electricity poles and the corners of buildings.

A narrow twisting alleyway opens out on a broad cobbled road frequented by settlers. A bearded man holding a child by the hand walks past. His wife, her head wrapped in a scarf, and three other children have paused outside Lavonah House, a handsome stone mansion built for settlers.

“Pardon me, I’m a journalist. I’d like to ask a few questions.”

“No English,” he replies and carries on.

Near the taxi rank outside Dung Gate, another youth stands beneath a canopy, preparing for his bar mitzvah.

The media department of the Elad Association, which combines archaeology with Jewish settlement, regrets that spokesmen who could discuss their activities in English are on a flight en route to Israel.

“Next time I come, I will get in touch.”

“Let us know a few days ahead so we can prepare a programme,” says Shira, the media person, cheerfully.

Israeli archaeologist Yonathan Mizrachi explains the importance of the connection between archaeology and settlement activity here in the City of David, or Silwan. “The roots of ancient [Israelite] Jerusalem are here. People feel they are living with King David and King Solomon. This gives their lives meaning.”

The “legitimisation” of the settlement enterprise here “is based on archaeology”.