Hezekiah’s Tunnel and the City of David

by Frans van Liere.
The author in a narrow stone tunnel with water up to his knees.

The author, Frans van Liere, in Hezekiah’s tunnel. Summer 2016. (Photo by Kate van Liere.)

More than any history book, archaeology can create a powerful sense of the past. At the same time, just like history, archaeology can be used and abused for political purposes. It can create a sense of national or ethnic identity, or exclude others from that identity. This past summer, when my family and I visited Israel and Palestine, I was powerfully reminded of this. Our visit to Hezekiah’s tunnel in East Jerusalem brought the political uses of archaeology into particularly sharp focus.

The first time I waded through Hezekiah’s tunnel in Jerusalem was in 1991. The entrance to the tunnel was in the Kidron Valley, behind a small building in the village of Silwan, in East Jerusalem. The tunnel was under the authority of the Waqf, the religious authority that guards many of the Islamic holy places, including the Temple Mount, which Muslims call Haram esh-Sharif. My friend and I (both taking summer classes in Hebrew at the time) paid a small fee to the friendly Palestinian man who oversaw the site; he opened a gate, and into the tunnel we went. We were the only visitors. After thirty rather frightening minutes wading through the pitch-dark tunnel in ice-cold water that often reached over our knees, we emerged at the Pool of Siloam, where some mischievous Palestinian boys slammed the gate shut in front of us and demanded a shekel from each of us to reopen it. When it became clear that we would not pay up, they grew bored with us and ran out to throw stones at a passing Israeli car. The First Intifada was still in full swing.

Hezekiah’s tunnel was constructed in the eighth century B.C., by the Judaean king of the same name, when the Assyrian army was besieging Jerusalem. (See 2 Kings 20:20.) An inscription in the tunnel confirms the building date and commemorates the completion of the tunnel. It is located in the so-called City of David, an archaeological site just south of the Temple Mount that is the earliest known inhabited part of the city. The lack of interpretive signage and low-key presentation of the site gave me a sense of discovery and excitement, helping me to imagine how the nineteenth-century archaeologist Charles Warren must have felt when he first identified this tunnel with the water supply described in the Book of Kings.

Man holding a large anthropomorphic harp puppet teaches a group of small children.

David’s Harp explaining “where it all began” to Israeli schoolchildren at the ‘Ir David. Summer 2016. (Photo by Kate van Liere.)

My second visit to Hezekiah’s tunnel, this past summer, was a very different experience. I was teaching a graduate seminar at the Hebrew University, and my family joined me for two weeks. On our last day in Jerusalem we explored Hezekiah’s tunnel. But much had changed. The original entrance, still in the village of Silwan, was defunct, and its gate permanently chained shut. The only way to enter the tunnel now was through a modern archaeological theme park, the “`Ir David” (City of David), run by the private El`ad Foundation, which, according to Wikipedia, is “a Jerusalem-based, Israeli association which aims to strengthen the Jewish connection to Jerusalem, create a Jewish majority in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and renew the Jewish community in the City of David.” More bluntly, a spokesman for the foundation said the aim was to “Judaize East Jerusalem,” which is partly achieved by evicting Palestinian families. Visitors to Hezekiah’s tunnel now enter the park near the Western Wall plaza, pass through the excavated remains of David’s City, and eventually descend into the tunnel through a newly constructed entrance. Not only has the entrance fee gone up significantly; the site is now decidedly more crowded, with Israeli school classes, groups of students and soldiers, and American tourists. A bright yellow mascot of David’s harp is used to tell groups of elementary school children the story of “where it all began.” Great care is given to separate the visitors of the `Ir David from the surroundings of the Palestinian neighborhood.

Sign labeling the City of David, "where it all began"

City of David, “Where It All Began.” Summer 2016. (Photo by Kate van Liere.)

The more recent history of the neighborhood reflects the turbulent history of Jerusalem in the twentieth century. Before the land of Palestine became the state of Israel, the neighborhood was a village of mainly Muslim Palestinians, living side-by-side with some Yemeni Jews who had moved to Ottoman-ruled Palestine in the late nineteenth century. After the First World War, Palestine came under the rule of the British government, which favored the creation of a Jewish state, and tensions between the Arabs and their Jewish neighbors increased. In 1936-1939, during the Arab Revolt, the Jews were evacuated from the area and their property looted. Under the 1947 UN partition plan, the city of Jerusalem was not part of the new state of Israel but a special zone to be administered by international authorities. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Jerusalem was divided; the Israeli government took possession of West Jerusalem, while East Jerusalem became part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. In the “Six-Day War” of 1967, however, Israel annexed all of East Jerusalem, as part of the so-called West Bank. Since the 1980s, there has been an active movement to establish a Jewish presence in Silwan, as in many other parts of the West Bank. This often involves driving local Palestinian families from their homes. The `Ir David Foundation is part of this settlers’ movement, and uses archaeology as a political tool to justify these settlements.

Modern archaeologists have challenged the interpretation of the remains on the site as “David’s Palace.” But this does not deter the `Ir David Foundation from presenting the site as David’s capital of the United Kingdom of Israel. Subsequent layers that indicate the use and re-use of the site by other, non-Jewish populations are viewed as nothing more than debris that needs to be removed, in order to unearth the “true” beginning of Jerusalem as a Jewish capital. The present Palestinian residents of Silwan seem to be included in this debris. The message to them is: you do not belong here.

My visit to another Middle Eastern site, the far less known city of Umm el-Jimal in Jordan, demonstrated to me that archaeology can be less politically partisan. My colleague Bert de Vries, director of the Umm el-Jimal Project and of Calvin’s archaeology program, has been involved in the excavation and preservation of this site since the early 1970s. Bert uses archaeology to empower the local residents, seeing them as a living part of the heritage of their surroundings.

I’ll say more about this project in a follow-up blog post.


Further reading:

When I told him about my idea for these two blog posts, Bert drew my attention to an article he had published on this same topic: Bert de Vries, “Community and Antiquities at Umm el-Jimal and Silwan. A Comparison,” Archaeology, Bible, Politics, and the Media. Proceedings of the Duke University Conference, April 23-24, 2009, edited by Eric M. Meyers and Carol Meyers (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2009), 161-186.

See also several blog posts here on Historical Horizons by Bert de Vries on archaeology and community.

Frans van Liere is Professor of History and director of the Medieval Studies program at Calvin. He teaches world history, medieval history, and history of the book. He grew up in the Netherlands and studied theology and medieval studies at the University of Groningen. His research interests are medieval biblical exegesis, twelfth-century intellectual history, and the late medieval papacy. He lives in Grand Rapids, MI with his wife, two teenage sons, and a cat named Lancelot.

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Chattel and Prophets: African Americans in Presbyterian Church History

by Eric M. Washington

African-American woman praying in a church pew with other congregants in the backgroundA careful reading of African-American church history reveals that African Americans have a long history in Presbyterianism. Despite the small numbers of African-American Presbyterians relative to the overall numbers of African-American Christians, they must be considered an important population within the broader scope of the African-American church tradition, owing to their beginnings in slavery and their prophetic voices within the Church and American society. This humble work provides a brief sketched history of key events and persons within this African-American Presbyterian church tradition.

In common with African-American experiences of other Christian traditions in America, African-American Presbyterian history began with slavery. The consensus among historians is that the First Great Awakening (1739-1770s) was the period that considerable numbers of African-born and American-born enslaved persons joined churches. Regarding the revivalistic “sects,” late historian Luther P. Jackson included the Presbyterian church along with Methodist and Baptist churches. For an example, he noted one revival under Presbyterian minister Samuel Davies that lasted from 1742-1758 in Hanover County, VA. According to Jackson and others, revivalistic preaching emphasized human depravity and the need of the new birth. Revivalist preachers applied this preaching to European, Native American, and African alike.

In 1801, Chavis was the first ordained African-American minister, and the first missionary commissioned by the General Assembly to work specifically among African-American slaves and free African Americans. He received his ministerial education at Princeton, but it is doubtful that he actually enrolled there. (Interestingly, it is known that Dr. John Witherspoon, president of Princeton, personally directed Chavis’ studies.) From Princeton he went to Lexington, VA and attended Washington College in that city, and he then began his preaching ministry as an itinerant evangelist with the Hanover Presbytery in 1801. In 1805, he returned to North Carolina, where he preached to audiences of both African Americans and whites. From that year until 1831, he served as a missionary-teacher among free African-American children and white children. In the aftermath of the Nat Rebellion in 1831 in Southampton, Virginia, the state of North Carolina stripped Chavis of his privilege to teach and preach.

Read the rest of this post on in all things

Eric Michael Washington is assistant professor of history and director of African and African Diaspora Studies at Calvin College. He is primarily interested in studying the African American church from its development in the late 18th century through the 19th century, and individual Christians, primarily Calvinists. He also has a growing academic interest in the growing “Black and Reformed” movement in North America.

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The Dreaded Second Question – Or, In Defense of My Major

by Matt Beukema.

blackboard with hand writing in chalk "History"You’ve likely heard the question or even asked it yourself.

After answering “History” to the question of what I studied in college comes that dreaded second question. The question that comes nearly 90% of the time to history (and English, I’m sure) graduates.

“Do you want to teach?”

I don’t know why the question irks me so much. It’s innocent enough. Plus it seems like a large portion of history graduates do go into teaching.

Maybe it’s the underlying assumption that history is only useful for teaching. It’s a ridiculous concept, really. If something is only good for teaching others, why bother learning it in the first place?

I like to say that I study history for what is, not what was. I learned to think, to analyze, to communicate, to see what I’m seeing. I studied history to understand what ties humanity and the world together.

I learned to recognize and make sense of differences in street layouts and housing design over the 20th century in America, and the subtle racism and classism in post-World War II suburbanization. I learned to recognize strains of political and religious thought in American culture. I learned to dig deeper than initial, simple stories and listen to unheard voices.

I learned to look for connections—after all, a fact by itself means nothing (much credit to my advisor, James Bratt, for that one). I learned to pay attention, most of all, to recognize continuity and change as time goes by.

Studying history helps me make sense of the world around me. It reminds me that the world is both worse and better than I want to believe. History reassures me, advises me to panic less in a mad, mad world. History teaches me that Robert Frost was essentially right: “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”

The dreaded second question sells history–and the humanities in general–short. I’m a much better person for having studied history. I’m a better citizen, thinker, friend. I have little interest in teaching, but I’ll be forever grateful for studying history.

Are those not good enough reasons to study history?

I propose we begin asking better questions of history grads: So you like reading and writing? How does your degree shape how you see the world? How have you continued to learn about and analyze the world around you? What unheard stories are you listening to?

So please, stop asking me if I want to teach. Do all history grads a favor and ask more than the dreaded second question. We thank you in advance.

This post also appears on the post calvin, a blog for young Calvin alumni exploring the post-diploma years.

Matt Beukema is a 2015 history graduate of Calvin College. 

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