Opinion & Features

Tunnels beneath the Holy City

Pilgrims on the Via Dolorosa, where one of the underground tunnels opens (CNS)

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.”

Most of the subterranean roads – some of which are 25 feet wide – and passages, propped up with steel and tons of concrete, are beneath homes in the Muslim Quarter. Some run along the edge of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. For the past 20 years, the tunnels’ northern opening has been on the Via Dolorosa, “Way of Sorrow”, which tradition says was the path taken by Jesus to his crucifixion. Although this famous street begins in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, it is a pilgrimage route for Christians who revere the Nine Stations of the Cross before entering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which houses the final five shrines.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, excavation of part of the underground Roman road was halted at the Sisters of Zion convent at the eastern end of the Via Dolorosa. Their property consists of a convent, hospice and archaeological remains which include the Ecce Homo (‘‘Behold the Man’’) arch, named after the words of Pontius Pilate when he gave Jesus a crown of thorns.

Unlike many buildings in the Old City, the Sisters have a clear title to their property, so they were effective in refusing permissions and not allowing tunnel tourists to exit through their convent. So tourists had to retrace their steps to the starting point. However, in 1996, an exit was made lower down the Via Dolorosa near a Muslim school, the Ummariya Madrasah. Protest riots resulted, but the exit is still in use.

A further problem concerns who will own the tunnels and other parts of subterranean Jerusalem if a peace conference results in Palestinian statehood and Jerusalem being divided. How will the tangled and crisscrossing political and religious claims that the tunnels represent be unravelled? Will this maze be sacred exclusively for Jewish people even though Jerusalem lies at the heart of Christian biblical archaeology?

The significance of the subterranean realm to Christians in the Old City can be appreciated by glancing at the city’s history. Forty years after the crucifixion of Jesus, as a result of the Jewish Roman war, the city lay in ruins. According to Josephus it “… was so thoroughly razed to the ground …that nothing was left that could ever persuade visitors that it had once been a place of habitation”.

For nearly three centuries after Emperor Hadrian rebuilt Jerusalem, which he renamed Aelia Capitolina, none of the places connected with the life of Jesus were officially commemorated. Such sites only emerged in the early 4th century, when the first emperor to back Christianity, Constantine, demolished a Roman temple which had been built over the site of the crucifixion, and erected the Church of the Holy Sepulchre there instead. And, like much of Jerusalem, it has been central to Christianity ever since.