Those of you who follow this blog know how much I enjoy touring the country and taking part in archaeological field-trips and nature rambles organized by Yad Yitzchak Ben Zvi, many of which I have described over the past few years. It has been hard having to do without them, during the past six months of lockdown or partial lockdown. So you can imagine my joy when activities started up again, albeit in a limited format and subject to strict Social Distancing restrictions.
On Friday, August 28th, masked, armed with bottles of hand sanitizer, and equipped with mini walkie-talkies (I don’t know how else to describe them) so that we could adhere to the two-metre social distancing rule, yet still be able to hear our guide, we set out on a tour of the archaeological excavations under the Old City of Jerusalem police station, popularly known by its Ottoman Turkish name, the Kishleh.
We had the good fortune to be guided on this tour by Amit Re’em, the archaeologist in charge of the excavation.
Entrance is through the Museum of the History of Jerusalem, housed in the Citadel (anachronistically known as the Tower of David):
In fact, in King David’s time, Jerusalem had not spread so much to the west of what is now known as the Ophel, and the Temple Mount. That happened later. How much later, we do not know exactly, but excavations under the Kishleh have unearthed foundations dating back to the First Temple period, believed to be part of King Hezekiah’s fortifications (8th century BCE).
In fact, one of the beauties of the site is that you can see the layers of history – the walls of the Ottoman lock-up, later used by the British Mandatory authorities to imprison Jewish underground fighters, sitting on top of a Herodian wall, which in turn is built upon earlier Hasmonean fortifications, and beneath that, the original First Temple period defensive wall.
When you first enter the Citadel, you find yourself looking down on an impressive courtyard, where, in happier times (i.e. when not plagued by COVID-19), the Museum offers son-et-lumière presentations, narrating the three thousand year history of Jerusalem – as well as concerts.
Amit led us up to a roof overlooking today’s Old City police station, from where there is a panoramic view of Jerusalem and the surrounding hills:
From there, a heavy, locked door led us to an underground world, where Amit and his team of archaeologists are still stripping away the layers of history to lay bare the secrets of what was once Herod’s palace and was later the official Jerusalem residence of the Roman Procurator of Judaea (his main palace being in Caesarea).
Amongst the things we saw, close to the entrance, on the upper level where the British Mandatory authorities had housed prisoners from the Jewish underground, was a map of Greater Israel (ie. the whole of the original British Mandate for Palestine, which included Transjordan), drawn on the wall by a prisoner belonging to Etzel (known to the British as the Irgun). I have no pictures of this, for reasons which will be explained later.
Further down were dye-vats, dating back to the Crusader era. We know from the writings of the mediaeval Jewish traveller, Benjamin of Tudela, of Jews employed in the occupation of dyeing, living near the palace of the Crusader rulers of Jerusalem and these two huge basins, still stained with red dye, confirm his words.
Descending still further into the bowels of the earth, we encountered the remains of Herodian walls built atop the foundations of Hasmonean-era fortifications. Herod destroyed the walls built by his predecessors rather than use them as the foundations for his own edifices, in order to send a clear message to his subjects. The Hasmoneans are gone, it is Herod who is your master now. (My readers will, no doubt, recall, that Herod was a usurper who came to power with the help of the Romans and who murdered most of the remaining Hasmonean royal family.)
After we emerged once more into the sunlight and came out of the Citadel, Amit showed us the entrance to a tunnel through which, during the Mandate, Jewish underground fighters attempted to smuggle explosives to blow up part of the wall of the Kishleh lock-up and free Jewish prisoners.
The attempt was unsuccessful.
Now, you may be wondering why today’s virtual tour was so short (even taking into account that it was only a half-day tour) and included so few pictures. The answer is, alas, that while I was still engaged in writing this post (which I started about three weeks ago), my computer suffered a catastrophic failure which resulted in my having to take it in to be repaired (it was – and is – still under warranty). The damage proved to be just about as bad as could be – Murphy’s Law in spades. The hard disk had to be replaced and I lost almost all of my photos from the last three months which had not yet been backed up. Fortunately, I had already uploaded some to WordPress and others still remained on my camera. But those that I took on my mobile phone, from which they were erased as soon as I had transferred them to the computer, were lost 😦 .
Moreover, the timing of this disaster could not have been worse, as the COVID-19 infection rate spiralled out of control and the government, fearing an even greater spike over the High Holy Days, announced a two-week lockdown (later increased to three weeks), similar in character to the one we endured at Pessach (Passover), to take effect from Friday September 18th, the eve of Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) until after Succot (Tabernacles). When I took my computer in to the lab, I was told that under the circumstances – the impending lockdown coupled with the rapidly approaching holy days – they could not guarantee when I would get it back and I faced the prospect of spending the festival alone, and unable even to have resource to Zoom. I suspect that for that reason, they didn’t really try to retrieve the data on the corrupted hard disk but merely replaced it with a new one. At all events, I got my computer back the day before Rosh Hashana and since then, have been attempting to retrieve what I can from the Cloud and other places.
Now, to the lockdown. This morning, the government announced a further tightening of restrictions. I should explain that the Rosh Hashana lockdown was full of holes, with exceptions for synagogue services in a limited format and also to allow for the continuation of demonstrations against the government. But the anti-Netanyahu demonstrators, who claimed that the lockdown was all a ploy to put a stop to the demonstrations, ignored the social distancing rules, including the obligation to wear face-masks, tore down police barriers designed to keep the demonstrators in small groups (because in a pandemic, you do NOT want thousands of people all crammed together cheek by jowl, shouting and screaming in unison and filling the air with possibly infected droplets of saliva) and, while law-abiding citizens were huddled together in their homes, prevented from joining family members (other than those who lived with them) for the traditional festival meals, they held a “protest meal” outside the Prime Minister’s home, in complete contempt of all the social distancing rules.
The daily new infections count has soared, coming close on some days to 7000 new cases. Everyone is blaming everyone else. The religiously observant are angry at the restrictions imposed on gatherings for prayer when thousands of demonstrators were allowed to gather with impunity, the demonstrators claim that there isn’t a single documented case of anyone getting infected at a demonstration (this, after some of their organizers instructed them to leave their mobile phones at home so that their presence at demonstrations could not be traced – in other words, deliberately to impede the epidemiological research), owners of private businesses which do not involve contact with the public and who are on the verge of bankruptcy already since the first lockdown cannot understand why they are being “punished” for the sake of “equal treatment for everyone”, many people are claiming that the blanket lockdown is because the government is unable to stand up to all the different pressure groups demanding exceptions and finds it easier to impose a complete lockdown rather than explain why this branch of the economy is closed and that one is not…..
And all this on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the day when we are supposed to look within ourselves and pray for forgiveness for our own sins, but also for those of the community as a whole. That is why we say: “Our Father, our King, we have sinned before thee.” That is why a basic tenet of Judaism is כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה (Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh – All the community of Israel are responsible for one another). But that sense of community seems to be gone. If it were there, we would all be scrupulously observing the social distancing rules, to protect one another. If it were there, we would be examining our own failures instead of blaming everybody else.
From the very start of this pandemic, I have said that God has sent it to test us. Not just the Jewish people, but all of humanity. Can we put aside our differences and work together to overcome this modern-day plague?
It seems we cannot.
Who is left for us to turn to?
I can only answer with the prayer which runs like a thread throughout the Yom Kippur services.
כִּי אֵין בָּנוּ מַעֲשִׂים.
עֲשֵׂה עִמָּנוּ צְדָקָה וָחֶסֶד
Our Father, our King, be thou gracious unto us and answer us; for lo! we are destitute of meritorious deeds; deal thou with us in charity and loving-kindness, and save us.
And because I cannot bring myself to end on a note of despair, I will leave you with the traditional Jewish greeting for Yom Kippur:
May you be signed and sealed in the book of life.
G’mar Chatima Tova
I enjoyed reading this post and watching the movies; although I do not have a working sound card on this PC
to a good year ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ♥♥♥♥♥; may this “calendar” year end soon
as da tabbies say ~~~~~ Cod ~~~~~
Thanks for taking us along on this wonderful tour !
The old city is fascinating place with a history going back thousands of years. And 3000 of those are Jewish history.