Under Jerusalem

From The Wall Street Journal:

In “Civilization and Its Discontents,” Freud compared memory and its recovery to the archaeology of Rome. The visitor cannot see the earlier layers of civilization, but the guidebook says where they once were. This allows us to look at the Colosseum and imagine the Golden House of Nero below. But, Freud wrote, a single physical space cannot hold “two different contents.” If it did, then the Palazzo Caffarelli would occupy the same spot as the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, and we would see the temple in both its early, Etruscan form and its later, imperial form.

Freud never saw Jerusalem. Not only is its visitor’s imagination incited by the Bible, the guidebook of guidebooks, but Jerusalem’s archaeology also presents the simultaneity that Freud thought impossible. The sacred core of Jerusalem is so great that, like New York, they named it twice: Raise your head as you emerge from the warren of the Old City, and you see the Temple Mount of the Jews and the Noble Sanctuary of the Muslims. Two different contents, two different contexts—not forgetting the Christians, who cannot agree among themselves where their sacred sites should be.

In “Under Jerusalem,” journalist Andrew Lawler directs our contemplation away from the heavenly city, and down into the roots of history and faith. Modern archaeology in Jerusalem began as an effort to substantiate Christian faith through modern science. The history of its practice in Jerusalem presents a parade of eccentrics and fanatics, enlivened by obscurantism and riot. Mr. Lawler, unlike so many of his characters, navigates the terrain without offending the political or religious sensibilities of his subjects.

In the 19th century, tourists like Twain and Melville were disappointed by the rundown and rather modest architecture of Ottoman Jerusalem. When Baedeker issued a guidebook in 1876, he apologized for the “modern crust of rubbish and rottenness” that obscured the “Jerusalem of antiquity.” Exceptional in being sacred to all three monotheisms, Jerusalem is unusual as ancient cities go. The tel, a man-made hill in which civilizations are stacked layer upon layer like stony pancakes, is common in the Middle East; the Israeli site at Har Megiddo, the “Armageddon” of the Christians, has 26 layers. But Jerusalem is rocky and hilly. Its layers are compressed as though by tectonic forces and honeycombed with cisterns and tunnels.

Archaeology was a European invention introduced to Jerusalem by French and British Christians. The European soldiers and churchmen viewed sacred archaeology in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson: “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living,” and the dead have “neither rights nor powers over it.” Mr. Lawler’s tale begins in 1863, when the French senator Louis-Félicien de Saulcy launched the first modern dig, just outside the Old City walls. Breaking into an ancient tomb, de Saulcy abducted an attractive sarcophagus and, while Jerusalem’s rabbis launched an international protest against this foreign graverobber, took it to Paris and declared its occupant to be “the consort of a Judean ruler from the seventh century BCE.” He was only 700 years off.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall if the free link doesn’t work, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Usufruct (yo͞ozəˌfrəkt)- “The right to enjoy the use and advantages of another’s property short of the destruction or waste of its substance.”