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.

One thought on “Hezekiah’s Tunnel and the City of David

  1. Pingback: Building Community among the Ruins | Historical Horizons

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