From the cover of Rutu Modan's new graphic novel, "Tunnels."
From the cover of Rutu Modan's new graphic novel, "Tunnels."

Dig into Jerusalem’s subterranean history with new nonfiction and graphic novel

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Jerusalem has a particularly fraught archaeological heritage, with the battle over the city’s present and future reflected in disagreements surrounding its past. In “Under Jerusalem: The Buried History of the World’s Most Contested City,” Andrew Lawler shows how, just as the city reveals layers of history, so does the story of its excavation, with generations of archaeologists breaking earth in pursuit of radically different agendas.

Cover of “Under Jerusalem: The Buried History of the World’s Most Contested City” by Andrew LawlerLawler begins with the fledgling archaeological efforts of the mid-19th century, which expressed the colonial aspirations of Great Britain and France in Ottoman-governed Palestine. The earliest explorers were motivated both by expectations of treasures to loot and by the enduring Christian connection to the city.

At the 1865 meeting that saw the creation of the Palestine Exploration Fund, the Archbishop of York summoned memories of the Crusades in declaring that “Palestine belongs to you and to me, it is essentially ours” and calling for a “new crusade to rescue from darkness and oblivion much of the history of that country in which we all take so dear an interest.”

The excavations that followed often provoked the suspicion and opposition of local Muslims and their leaders, with particular concern about violating the sanctity of the Noble Sanctuary (or, to Jews, the Temple Mount).

Although they already constituted a majority of the city’s population, Jews were uninvolved in these efforts. It was not until 1912 that Raymond Weill, a Frenchman, would become the first Jew to break ground, in an effort funded by Baron Edmond de Rothschild. While the competition between France and England continued, there was now the division between Jew and non-Jew that would become more pronounced.

The subterranean ventures assumed a different tone following the establishment of the State of Israel, as the agendas of competing colonial powers were replaced by those of residents of the contested region, with archaeology assuming a politicized nature. With Jews and Arabs each minimizing each others’ historical connection to the land, the uncovering of material evidence offered significant implications for claims of belonging.

However, tensions were not limited to those between Jews and Arabs. Among Jews, there developed persistent rifts between the largely secular academics and the rabbis. With political leaders needing the support of religious parties, one of the concessions frequently made was to uphold the opinions of the religious establishment concerning what could and could not be dug up. As a result, academic archaeologists sometimes worked clandestinely.

Lawler goes into fascinating detail about numerous digs. He notes that, as a consequence of most Israeli archaeologists’ singular interest in uncovering remnants of Jewish existence in ancient Jerusalem, remains from the Roman, Byzantine, Crusader and Ottoman periods were sometimes sacrificed in order to reach what lay beneath. As archaeologist Meir Ben-Dov stated bluntly, “The brutal fact is that if you want to know what lies under a certain stratum, you have no choice but to destroy it.”

Lawler also chronicles the increasing tendency of excavations to trigger political tensions between Arabs and Jews. In particular, the extensive tunneling along the entire western perimeter of the Temple Mount led to destabilizing buildings in the Muslim Quarter and to accusations about trespassing into holy territory. And in 1999, Muslims dug beneath the Temple Mount in order to create the vast al-Marwani Mosque, offending archaeologists and religious Jews alike.

Lawler effectively conveys how digging up Jerusalem, while continuing to provide stunning new insights, has often provided more kindling to a frequently flammable environment.

Remarkably, many themes prominent in “Under Jerusalem” find expression in Rutu Modan’s “Tunnels.” Modan is Israel’s preeminent graphic novelist, and her newest work follows a fictional archaeological dig that sheds more light on family squabbles, academic gamesmanship and competing nationalisms than on the ancient past.

Cover of "Tunnels" by Rutu ModanIn the story, Nili is a single mother whose father had been a prominent archaeologist before developing early onset dementia. He was bumped from his position at the Hebrew University through the intervention of a colleague, Rafi Sarid, who then took credit for some of his discoveries. Wishing to restore her father’s name and keep Sarid from achieving further recognition, Nili decides to try to start her own search for the lost Ark of the Covenant in an area her father had long ago begun excavating. Meanwhile, Nili’s brother is working as a sort of double agent, sharing Nili’s plans with Sarid in hopes of receiving a secure academic position as a reward.

With the financial support of a shady collector of antiquities and the labor of eager Jewish zealots, Nili begins work adjacent to the former excavation site, now inaccessible due to Israel’s security barrier. After digging and eventually connecting with her father’s tunnel, she encounters Mahdi and Zuzu, Palestinians whose family had worked on the dig years ago, and are now using the tunnel to circumvent the wall.

It is a tale full of duplicity, recriminations and shifting loyalties, as each figure is animated by a different agenda — be it self-advancement, greed, the pursuit of justice, glory for Israel, glory for Palestine or the hastening of the messianic era. Just as in Lawler’s book, each dig reflects a set of values and aspirations that are generally far removed from simple scientific inquiry.

With a visual style here that occasionally echoes Hergé’s Tintin books, Modan has a tremendous gift for storytelling. And in a particularly thoughtful afterword, she meditates on the possibilities of new narrative framing for an enduring conflict. “Tunnels” provides both a rewarding reading experience and a compelling metaphorical lens to bring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Under Jerusalem: The Buried History of the World’s Most Contested City” by Andrew Lawler (Doubleday, 464 pages)

“Tunnels” by Rutu Modan (Drawn and Quarterly, 284 pages)

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.