Sunday, February 18, 2007

Politicizing archeology: on the recent "excavations" in Jerusalem

Yuval Baruch, the managing director of the current "excavations" in the area of the Maghribi quarter in Old Jerusalem (otherwise called the "Mughrabi ramp"), on behalf of "Israel Antiquities Authorities" (IAA), wrote a statement about the "Real Story" behind the current crsis defending the "right of excavation" in the area. I actually knew of this statment through a news report in the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper (I found out later that the author of the report gave a distorted reading of Baruch's article by claiming that he uncovered the "reason of the current crisis" that is presumibly a "cover-up" (Ar. "tasattur") of a newly discovered (in 2004) small prayer hall in the area... Baruch's article mentions this discovery but he does not really say that they are trying to make a cover up.... especially that the the IAA is always finding and registring Islamic monuments).

Before commenting on Yuval Baruch's statement I must say that the IAA conducted major excavations all over Muslim Palestine and actually contributed a great deal of discoveries with regards to Islamic archeology notably with regards to the early period (Umayyad and Abbasid periods). One of the recent examples is the results of the exacavations of Bisan ("Beit Shean"), which gave an additional case proving the early developped urban sense of the new Muslim rulers of the former Byzantine territories. I must also say that I was interested in and I'm a bit faimiliar with "Jewish art" including the representations of "The Temple" throughout history (I enrolled few years ago on a course on this topic, which was after all interesting especially in the ways it shows how Jewish makers in Egypt, Yemen, and Muslim Spain were very much adopting an "Islamic visual language" when making their Bibles and Synagoges). On the other hand I'm stunned with the high level of politicisation of archeological investigation as expressed in Baruch's statement.

The major problem with Yuval Baruch's narrative is that it already assumes an ideological-poltical position from the start. Regardless of all his arguments the very attribution of toponyms such as the "Temple Mount" to the site of Al-Haram Al-Sharif is essentially against the ethics of archeological investigation. Here we have an archeologist who not only conducts an excavation in order to prove the existence of a building that would serve for an ideoloical-politcal goal (that is "Jerusalem is Jewish") but he simply talks about this building as if it really exists merely because few written sources (not contemporary with the events of foundation) have suggested in general terms the existence of this building. This is basically an anti-archeological approach since we do archeology, after all, to overcome the textual sources.

Regardless of all the political circumstances and only from an archeological point of view we have to admit that:

-First, Al-Haram Al-Sharif (that is both the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque) is the currently existing archeological site, we can't deny its existence (by adopting another toponym) for ideological-political reasons.

-Secondly, all written sources and the few archeological evidences (developped since the beginning of the 20th century by Hamilton and Creswell) suggest that the Islamic buildings of Al-Haram Al-Sharif were built on rubbles or at least already destroyed structures, which means that they belong in their totality to a different and new archeological strata and thus we (as archeologists) we can't deny their original identity that gives them the right to be protected as separate and more importantly surviving archeological sites (which are rare for the Umayyad period: that is the founding period of Islamic architetcure). This simply means that any archeological investigation should never threaten their integrity even if that would mean the discovery of new archeological structures.

Besdies from a political point of view it's really difficult not to ask a very simple question: if we (all the peoples of this earth) decide to claim political authority over places (territories, buildings...) solely because each one's scripture gives a religious right of appropriation on any given site in that case, then, we can't as Muslims prevent other (stupid) Muslims to claim, for instance, Cordoba as "taken from us" since it was part of Dar Al-Islam.

The problem of the "Temple Mount" (i.e. Al-Haram Al-Sharif) is essentially the problem of Old Jerusalem; and the problem of Old Jerusalem should be (and especially because of its special religious status for many believers of various faiths) a political problem that needs to be discussed not from the perspective of premodern laws (that is the absence of laws except the absolute right of violent appropriation) but from the perspective of modern international law. Otherwise we'll only legitimize anarchy. The question here is and will always be why should the "Jewish People" given Old Jerusalem's political authority? Why is it that the value of the Jewish religious right is higher than the Christian or the Muslim religious rights? The essential political answer here is the very obvious presence of a population of Old Jerusalem that is the Palestenian population of Jeruslaem that was never given the basic right of choosing its political affiliation.

An archeologist (that is someone who knows better the meaning of human stratigraphy within historical contexts) would be better suited to understand that giving a supremacy of religious right to the Jewish People is nothing more than a premodern way of approaching the politics of Jerusalem. He also, to preserve his very archeological raison d'etre, should never be implicated in the premodern process of destroying monuments for the only reason of reviving older monuments. Archeology, after all, was possible only after the human community decided that all past is valuable AS IT STANDS. It's true that archeology is essentially a process of destruction but never is it a process of destroying surviving and active/alive buildings.

The question will never be whether these "excavations" are archeologically justified or not because simply a seemingly apolitical justification should be recognized by any archeologist not as the right explanatory context for the whole crsis. In other words it's really unethical precisely from an archeological point of view to concede that the IAA as a body belonging to an occupying force (according to modern international law) is the legitemate (thus the adequate) party that could be given the "right of excavation" (and much less the "right of arguing for the right of excavation") anywhere in Old Jerusalem.

Just a marginal note on the way Yuval Baruch dealt with the question of the Islamic "Buraq Wall", which shows a concrete example of inadequate polticization of archeological and historical questions. To assert a certain Jewish exclusive right for holiness in the "Western Wall" he debates the "Muslim claim" of holiness of the same wall (as being the "Buraq Wall") as simply a modern invention (in the 1920 by the Mufti of Jerusalem) only to counter the Jewish attempts to buy it or control it ("After the Balfour Declaration, the Zionist institutions began to emphasize the Western Wall as a national symbol of the Jewish people, in addition to its religious significance. This action led the Mufti of Jerusalem to claim that the Jews intended to take control of the Western Wall, so he declared the Wall  with no religious or historical substantiation  a holy Moslem site. This wall of stones, to which the Muslims ascribed no importance, was thenceforth called El Buraq, after the name of the magical horse of the Prophet Mohammed"). But in a later paragraph he admits the presence of a premodern Muslim belief in the holiness of the wall (precisely as the "Buraq Wall") though he ascribes it only to the 15th century ("The first connection between El Buraq and this area can be ascribed to Mujar al-Din, a 15th century Jerusalem judge... "). In fact this connection goes back even beyond the 15th century. This is for example (and this is only after a very preleminary investigation) explicitely stated by the 13 th century Abu Yahya Al-Qazwini (d. 1283 AD) in his Athar Al-Bilad in the following paragrpah in which he describes Al-Haram Al-Sharif (sorry I don't have an English version of this):
وفي صحن المسجد مصطبة كبيرة في ارتفاع خمسة أذرع، يصعد إليه من عدة مواضع بالدرج، وفي وسط هذه المصطبة قبة عظيمة مثمنة على أعمدة رخام مسقفة برصاص، منمقة من داخل وخارج بالفسيفساء، مطبقة بالرخام الملون. وفي وسطها الصخرة التي تزار، وعلى طرفها أثر قدم النبي، عليه السلام، وتحتها مغارة ينزل إليها بعدة درج يصلى فيها. ولهذه القبة أربعة أبواب، وفي شرقيها خارج القبة قبة أخرى على أعمدة حسنة يقولون: انها قبة السلسلة. وقبة المعراج أيضاً على المصطبة، وكذلك قبة النبي، عليه السلام. كل ذلك على أعمدة مطبقة أعلاها بالرصاص، وذكر أن طول قبة الصخرة كان اثني عشر ميلاً في السماء، وكان على رأسها ياقوتة حمراء كان في ضوئها تغزل نساء أهل بلقاء.
وبها مربط البراق الذي ركبه النبي، عليه السلام، تحت ركن المسجد.

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At 3:45 AM, Blogger zizou from Djerba said...

Really happy to read you again Tarek! Great paper !

At 3:52 AM, Blogger Tarek Kahlaoui said...

Happy to see you here too...

At 6:27 PM, Blogger mink said...

Very interesting post, and nice blog! I wanted to recommend a book (you might know it): Daniel Monk, An Aesthetic Occupation (Duke 2002), deals exactly with the question of architecture/politics in the Haram/Temple Mount. It is not the most easy read but I think it is one of the most original contributions on the Palestine conflict.

At 7:17 PM, Blogger Tarek Kahlaoui said...

@Mink: Thanks... Actually I heard of it but did not read it (should be in my reading list)... You are clearly interested in Ottoman Jerusalem: Is it part of some academic research?

At 11:11 AM, Blogger mink said...

yes i have to admit I am also entangled by the many arms of the academic octapus. I am writing a phd on street-texts in Arabic, Hebrew and other languages in modern Jerusalem (late Ottoman and British). I even have a chapter on the Wailing Wall to my great surprise.

At 9:50 AM, Blogger yuval said...

thank for yours comments.

Yuval Baruch

At 12:56 PM, Blogger Tarek Kahlaoui said...

@Yuval: I'd have liked to hear your comments on what I wrote...


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