A secret world is opening up beneath the twisting flagstone alleys of Jerusalem. Underground Jerusalem. This network of wide tunnels and narrow passages, the result of decades of archaeological digging, has allowed pilgrims visiting the Old City to descend into a parallel universe. They can now also walk on a wide Roman road on the very flagstones that Jesus and his disciples must also have trod on. New excavations are opening up a 2,000-year-old underground road that lies beneath Wadi Hilweh Street in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan, leading from the Siloam Pool (where Jesus healed a blind man) to what the Jews call the Temple Mount and the Palestinians call the Haram al-Sharif.
But the vista seen in 2017 is through a prism of Jewish history. Yonathan Mizrahi, who heads the Israeli organisation Emek Shaveh, which works to prevent the politicisation of archaeology, says that the massive tunnelling project, known as the Western Walls Tunnels, is Judaising non-Jewish sites while ignoring Christian and Muslim connections. “Hundreds of metres of tunnels have been excavated over the past decades,” he says.
In an attempt to redress this imbalance, Emek Shaveh filed a petition on December 6 with the Israeli High Court of Justice, asking why these tunnels have been declared a holy site for Jews but not for Muslims and Christians. It will be heard on February 1. Emek Shaveh were provoked into action by a statement from the legal adviser to the Religious Services Ministry saying that because the entrance to the tunnels is from the Western Wall Plaza, the tunnels were being controlled by the same regulations as those for Jewish holy sites.
Among the questions raised in the petition is why work continues on expanding the network of tunnels without consultation with Christian and Muslim religious leaders. “They run through, under, over and alongside religious sites holy to Judaism, Islam and Christianity,” Mizrahi explained. “For example, a Christian prayer chapel has been excavated, as has a Muslim school and chambers from the Mamluk period, as well as a pool whose area falls mostly inside the Convent of the Sisters of Zion.”
Emek Shaveh say that sanctifying the underground spaces solely for the Jewish faith “means sanctifying structures from the Second Temple period and from the Roman-pagan, Byzantine, Crusader, Mamluk and Ottoman periods. A Mamluk bathhouse became the ‘Journey to Jerusalem’ hall.”
Felicity Cobbing, of the Palestine Exploration Fund in London, like many other archaeologists, supports the petition: “The tunnels are appropriation by stealth and appropriation of cultural heritage for political purposes.”
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