History is compressed in Jerusalem, where settlements go back thousands of years and every step is over layers of archeology. And in a place where land and its ownership is constantly in conflict, especially over who-was-here-first, this archeology has long been embedded with politics, especially in the relationship between Israel and Palestine.
The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) sent a letter last week to UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova asking for action against the construction of a museum at the site of Jerusalem’s Mamilla Cemetery, an ancient Muslim burial ground. It begins:
“Since we submitted our Petition to you two years ago this February regarding the destruction of the historically, culturally and religiously important Mamilla Cemetery in Jerusalem, we regret that UNESCO has taken no action in response, other than assurances that UNESCO would pursue ‘dialogue’ between the parties on this matter. We presume such efforts at dialogue have been ineffective, as the building of a ‘Museum of Tolerance’ on this ancient cemetery has resumed recently, while new construction work on the site by the Israeli Municipality of Jerusalem threatens to expand the scope of this aggression. We urgently request UNESCO to demand publicly that Israel desist from this archaeological crime and desecration of Palestinian and Muslim cultural and religious rights.”
This Museum of Tolerance has been under construction since 2005 and was planned to be finished in two years, but conflict over the burial site led to it being stopped in 2006 under a Supreme Court order, although in 2008 the court permitted construction to start again. The (simplified) reasoning was that Jerusalem is a place where ancient sites are constantly constructed over, and it’s true, beneath every Jerusalem building is likely at least one other, if not a jumble of ancient infrastructure. Planned by the Simon Wiesenthal Center based in Los Angeles, the completed museum will aim to promote Jewish unity and universal tolerance for the many faiths and people in Jerusalem.
While it has gathered a lot of media attention, it’s hardly the only component in this ongoing conflict for cultural sites. Also this month, artifacts from the mausoleum of Herod were unveiled in an exhibition at the Israel Museum, its biggest archeological exhibition to date, including a total reconstruction of the burial chamber. Officials with the Palestinian Authority (PA) have objected to artifacts being moved from the West Bank where they were excavated, which they see as part of their heritage and the exhibition as a way to “justify Israel’s political claims on the land,” according to PA official Hamdan Taha. The argument of the Israel Museum is that the artifacts will be returned after the show, and that this allows a way to study and interpret them for preservation.
Palestine was voted to be part of UNESCO in 2011 (to which the US responded by cutting off its funding), a move that followed Palestine’s nomination of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem as their first heritage site. This proclaimed its significance as the birthplace of Christ, and also Palestine’s cultural rights over the historic land through the filing.
With land always at an issue, it’s almost impossible for political officials not to get entangled with every artifact find or cultural site. Of course it’s not just officials, the battle over history is even waged on Wikipedia, where articles are edited by either side to reflect their views in details of the Israel-Palestine Conflict. Back in 2005, the Israeli-Palestinian Archaeology Working Group was started as a collaborative research project between Rafi Greenberg of Tel Aviv University and Adi Keinan of University College London to create an archive of archeological sites from 1967 on (post-formation of the Israeli-occupied territories as a result of the Six-Day War in 1967), taking the politics out of archeology. (Following the Six-Day War, archeologists reportedly soon started digging for Old Testament sites.)
As for the cemetery, this isn’t its first disruption, as back in 1964 part of it was turned into a parking lot. This recent development is a part of it and Jerusalem’s volatile evolving ownerships and constructions, and a continued aspect of the area’s connection between archeology and identity.