CITY OF DAVID, Jerusalem — We’re in a tunnel five meters (16 feet) under modern Jerusalem, facing a solid wall of earth and standing on paving stones that Jewish pilgrims used 2,000 years ago when ascending Judaism’s holiest site, the Temple Mount.
High up on the earthen wall is a continuous strip of white, which marks where people lived during the late Roman era, according to Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Ari Levy, our guide for the morning. Near the floor are some toppled building blocks, which stem from the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE.
To me, the earth wall is an unfathomable mystery, but to excavation director Levy, it’s a roadmap.
We’re walking a newly excavated two-millennia-old road that was once used by tens of thousands of Jews during the three annual pilgrimage festivals — Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, the last of which is celebrated this week.
Today, an Arab neighborhood of 20,000 souls thrives five meters above these ancient paving stones. That’s one reason the excavations have drawn criticism from international governments and media, which condemn the City of David National Park, and its funder, the private right-wing Elad organization, for digging in an Arab neighborhood that only became part of modern Israeli Jerusalem after the 1967 Six Day War.
The City of David Park is a wildly popular tourist site, but also a hot spot where ancient and modern politics meet. Alongside its controversial location, however, it is the excavation’s science — its horizontal excavation methodology — that has some archaeologists up in arms.
To better understand the archaeological controversy, we toured the path and discussed its excavation with dig director Levy and several other unassociated archaeologists.
What is the Stepped Street/Pilgrims’ Path?
Archaeologists and historians call the subterranean road the “Stepped Street.” Those who prefer to link Jerusalem’s Jewish past to its present tend to call it the “Pilgrims’ Path” or the “Pilgrimage Road.” It was built starting in 20 CE by the Romans, said Levy, and completed under the governance of Pontius Pilate in about 30 CE. A recent study of coins collected at the site appears to confirm this dating.
With each step closer to the Temple Mount, the architectural glory of the Temple would come into better focus
But the Romans covered up all their hard work just 40 years later as a side effect of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Buried under dirt and debris, the paving stones are thus beautifully preserved, in near-mint condition.
According to archaeologist Levy, the path follows the natural topography of the Tyropean Valley and leads from the Pool of Siloam or Silwan, which is one of the largest public ritual baths in the ancient city and traditionally the site where Jesus is said to have healed the blind man. The path goes north, reaching the plaza next to the Western Wall today called Robinson’s Arch.
In total, the path stretches some 600 meters long and is eight meters wide. Both sides of the street were lined with shops that were likely two stories high, said Levy. Back when pilgrims and Romans walked the street, it would have been in the open air. With each step closer to the Temple Mount, the architectural glory of the Temple would come into better focus.
Today, we are walking the underground street in a hot, dank tunnel. It’s between 1.5 meters and almost two meters high, and its width is basically divided into two tunnels — an eastern and western side — to prevent collapse. Archaeologists work hand in hand with engineers to support the living neighborhood above, said Levy, with a multi-step protocol of safety measures and support beams.
The underground Stepped Street is not yet fully open to the public and won’t be for a few years. It is still being excavated, in two shifts a day, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
I want to be your sledgehammer
In late June, there was a headline-grabbing celebration of the excavation of some 200 meters of the route, which was attended by US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman. International media was quick to criticize Friedman, who ceremoniously took a sledgehammer to a thin, reconstructed wall and — eventually — broke through.
At an October 6 speech to a group of Evangelical Christians visiting Jerusalem, Friedman gave his version of why the path is significant, not just to Israel, but to the entire Western world.
“An underground road of some 2,000 feet, mostly intact with the same flagstones as exist on the entrance to the Temple. This was the path, taken by pilgrims — including Jesus as he ascended to the Temple in his well-documented visits — that became known as the Pilgrimage Road,” Friedman told the participants of the “Global Day of Prayer for the Peace of Jerusalem.”
In June, said Friedman, “I had the honor and the privilege to break a ceremonial wall to inaugurate the opening of the first half of the Pilgrimage Road and to walk the entire distance.”
“Not everyone was pleased with this incredible discovery. Those who sought to deny the connection of the Jewish people to this holy city of Jerusalem, they all protested in the strongest terms — that their denial of ancient Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, their denial of the ancient Temple itself, had been exposed as a lie. Exposed, not by politicians, not by activists, not by clergy, but by hard, objective, irrefutable science,” claimed Friedman.
It is, however, precisely the archaeologists’ “science” that has created controversy among the community of archaeologists.
Just keep digging
We descend to the southern end of the tunnel, near where Ambassador Friedman broke through the ceremonial wall, which leads to the Siloam Pool. The breadth of the excavation is impressive, as is the road’s workmanship.
There is an ingenious pulley-bucket system installed, which helps the team lift out sacks of earth, some of which will go on to be sifted by the general public and volunteers in the nearby Tsurim Valley visitors’ center. That work is also under the joint auspices of the IAA and the City of David, and several very interesting finds have surfaced there, including a recently published clay sealing inscribed with the name of a biblical royal steward.
As we walk in the humid tunnel, we pass by intriguing structures, including an unusual raised platform that may once have been used by the town crier. Further south, another surprisingly large structure appears to be a small Roman army garrison that was uncovered in 2018. It was probably built soon after the destruction of the Temple to guard the nearby water pool, said Levy.
At the end of the southern edge of the tunnel are remains from two later-period churches that were once pilgrimage sites for Byzantine-era Christians.
While we walk, I ask Levy about the goals of the IAA excavation.
“We have two main goals,” he said. “One is a touristical goal: to reach the Givati Parking Lot and create a passage from the Silwan Pool up to Givati and from there to the Davidson Center. The second goal: as archaeologists, we want to understand what happened here. This gives us a glimpse of what happened here after 70 CE.”
We double back. Before we start walking up the northern section, there is what seems to be a town courtyard, only part of which has been exposed.
As archaeologists, we want to understand what happened here
North of the courtyard, the excavations continue, but while they are digging along the assumed path of the road in its final approach to the Temple Mount — which archaeologists charted according to Byzantine-era records and the valley’s natural slope — the archaeologists have not yet found any of the same kind of beautiful 2,000-year-old paving stones that line the southern section. Levy said that they were probably taken for reuse, and that there is some documentation of that in the 19th century.
At the end of the northern tunnel we reach a massive, almost two-meter high wall of earth. Levy explained that we are now approximately 360 meters south of the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount and about 220 meters from the Silwan pool.
As they excavate a section of a stone wall found here, the archaeologists will look for samples that will help them understand when it was built, including pottery, organic items for carbon-14 dating, and from inside the wall, quartz cell samples, which give a date of the last time the quartz saw sunlight.
Levy has led the excavation here for the past three years. The earth wall is an open book to him and what looks like a jumble of bedrock, earth, and building stones to this reporter shows Levy clear stratification and context.
However, many archaeologists don’t see quite the same picture.
A few days after the tour with Levy, I spoke with Yonathan Mizrachi, the executive director of Emek Shaveh.
Emek Shaveh, explained Mizrachi, “is an Israeli organization focusing on the role of archaeology in the political conflict, and the way archaeology is presented to the public, the way it is used as a historic narrative.”
The organization objects to the Silwan dig for several reasons, including the excavation’s methodology.
“The main concern about the excavations in Silwan and the Old City is the horizontal excavations, done by the IAA following an ancient street, excavated under the houses in Silwan and the houses in the Old City,” said Mizrachi.
This kind of excavation is frowned upon the world over and “cannot provide us enough data to understand what we find and the dating of the structures,” he said.
As opposed to standard practice in archaeology, which is to excavate a site top down, layer by layer, always reaching an earlier time period, the Stepped Street tunnel is excavated horizontally. If you think of excavations sites like a sandwich, most archaeologists eat their sandwich first by taking off the top slice of bread, then carefully scraping off the mayo. Next they’ll remove the lettuce, hit the tomato, discover the cheese, and then, eventually, remove the bottom bread slice, to expose sandwich bedrock.
But because there are living, breathing people residing on top of this sandwich, the City of David team must leave the top layers fully intact, and, hunting for the cheese, press forward by taking vertical slices of the sandwich around it. While doing this, the top slice of bread cannot be allowed to collapse.
The IAA excavators and engineers have developed an intricate stabilization system to prevent collapse, involving the use of steel beams and plates, and the piping in of liquid concrete to any remaining air gaps.
Horizontal excavation is a method that hasn’t been performed much in modern times — and for good reason. As Levy himself told The Times of Israel, “One of the challenges in horizontal excavation is we don’t know what is in the next meter.”
One of the challenges in horizontal excavation is we don’t know what is in the next meter
For activist archaeologist Mizrachi, however, the “dubious methodology” is only one of the problems with the excavation. Mizrachi heads a left-wing organization that is often at odds with the nationalistic Elad group that funds the City of David excavations — as well as several of the Jewish settlers who have made homes in this Arab neighborhood.
“When the IAA decided to excavate that way, they decided to do a project that the focus is not on method or on the science or on the science’s needs or the scientific way,” said Mizrachi.
“It is actually to do an excavation to provide a touristic interest, or maybe, as we believe, to provide a political interest which is to create an underground city, in Silwan, the City of David, and also an underground city in the Muslim Quarter and other quarters of the Old City.
“It’s all part of a political plan by the settlers and the government to create this kind of an underground Jerusalem, that emphasizes Jewish history. It ignores the present life of the Palestinians as well as other periods of Jerusalem history and that is very dangerous.”
Mizrachi is not alone in his criticisms. I also reached out to Prof. Jodi Magness, a leading archaeologist excavating in Israel, who is currently excavating an early synagogue at Huqoq near the Sea of Galilee. Magness, who visited the Stepped Street most recently in May, is a professor of Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and has no affiliation with the City of David dig.
In conversation, Magness was complimentary of the ability and knowledge of the archaeologists who are performing the City of David excavations.
“I wouldn’t question the scientific qualifications of the archaeologists,” she emphasizes. “This is not a critique of them and their qualifications and abilities.”
She is likewise not bothered by the lack of paving stones in the northern section of the tunnel, which she said could easily have been taken for secondary use at any point in the 2,000 years of abandonment.
But she explained why she, too, regards the methodology of the horizontal excavation as problematic.
“Methodologically, the problem of using a horizontal or tunnel excavation in archaeology is that it doesn’t allow you to see the full context of the remains. Archaeology is all about context, but by digging in this way, you divorce the remains that you excavate from the remains that are above them and around them and that is problematic from an archaeological point of view,” said Magness.
Archaeology is all about context, but by digging in this way, you divorce the remains that you excavate from the remains that are above them and around them
Like Mizrachi, she also questions the motivations behind the excavation. “The problem is because the goal is not a research question,” she said. Rather, it is “driven by non-archaeological, non-scientific agendas — specifically to find a street that connected the pool to the Temple, and then connect modern Jewish Jerusalem with Jerusalem from 2,000 years ago.”
However, other academics do not dismiss the City of David’s horizontal methodology out of hand. Bar-Ilan University Prof. Aren Maeir, who has headed the Tell es-Safi/Gath excavation since 1996, commended the IAA team in the City of David for its ability to work around the obvious difficulty presented by the residential neighborhood.
“As opposed to previous work in tunnels, particularly in the City of David and other places, where they basically were excavating along the tunnel, not in a horizontal stratigraphic manner, in the current excavations in the City of David, they’ve made a method in which they can actually excavate in a truly stratigraphic, scientific manner the various parts of the tunnel,” said Maeir.
“And this is in fact a very important way to make sure that the excavation is conducted properly… This is for sure done in a manner that fits in with the best type of field methodology used in the field, even in open excavations,” he said.
I asked Levy about criticism he’s heard over the years and he said that when the project started, it was partly justified. But as time passes, he said, the team has avoided causing unnecessary destruction, and the documentation of the excavation has really stepped up with 3-D models and other virtual means. He said today he can view a reconstruction of the entire site on his computer and see the historical building processes and contexts.
Levy said technology has allowed the archaeologists to overcome many of the obstacles of the excavation, noting that they can’t just remove the neighbors’ houses.
Another option would be to not excavate at all, of course. That is what archaeology purists such as Magness would prefer. However, for archaeologists such as Levy — and the hundreds of thousands of tourists eager to see the road — that would be an unthinkable dereliction and missed opportunity. Excavation of the street, which still holds many mysteries, helps fill in historical gaps.
At each step of the way, after careful documentation, the goal is to push on towards connecting the tunnel to the Western Wall plaza. As Levy said when we stood in front of the solid wall of earth that marked the end of our tour, “We will dismantle it, dismantle it all, and continue going north.”