“Under Jerusalem: The Buried History of the World’s Most Contested City” by Andrew Lawler. Doubleday. 426 pp. $32.50. Review provided by The Washington Post.

Yehuda Amichai, Israel’s most celebrated poet, wrote often about Jerusalem with language and imagery that ricochets off the ancient stone walls and into a reader’s heart. Jerusalem was where Amichai lived after escaping Nazi Germany; it is where he died in 2000; and it is where his accessible, imaginative and descriptive style transformed him into a sort of poetic prophet.

His long, gorgeous poem “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Why Jerusalem?” has a haunting refrain. “Why, of all places, Jerusalem?” he asks repeatedly. Why not New York, Athens, Egypt, Mexico, India, Burma? Why not Babylon, Petersburg, Mecca, Rome?

What is it about this city, where ordinary life rubs up against parading pilgrims, where bombs and crucifixions commingle with church bells and the muezzin’s call, where the ground is heavy with history – in Amichai’s words, “submerged and sunken” – that draws adventurers, scholars and ideologues like a magnet?

That question propels the narrative of Andrew Lawler’s new book, “Under Jerusalem: The Buried History of the World’s Most Contested City,” a sweeping tale of archaeological exploits and their cultural and political consequences told with a historian’s penchant for detail and a journalist’s flair for narration.

Beginning when Abraham Lincoln was in the White House, and going up until the raucous headlines of today, Lawler introduces us to an array of men and women drawn to explore the hidden tunnels, broken cisterns, collapsing walls and sewage pits that lie under a small plot of land sacred to the world’s Jews, Muslims and Christians.

“Under Jerusalem” is one of several new books chasing this Indiana Jones of a tale. And it’s easy to sense the allure. The archaeologists and adventurers who came to excavate the past and claim its treasures were seeking scientific knowledge, professional glory and tangible proof of their connection to the ancient biblical text. At times, their eagerness led them to burrow and bulldoze through sacred space, even if, in so doing, they disrupted centuries of civilization and rocked the foundation – physically and spiritually – of Western faith traditions.

Today, controversy over excavations in the Old City is too often framed as simply a conflict between Jews seeking to legitimize their connection to Jerusalem and Muslims resistant to those claims. But in this “city of political hypervigilance,” as Lawler calls it, the real story is far more complicated.

From the beginning, and for many decades following, it was in fact Christians – first from France, then from Britain, mostly Protestants – who swooped into the Holy Land and made a holy mess. In 1863, Louis-Félicien Joseph Caignart de Saulcy of France was the first to conduct an archaeological dig in the city, fueled by the conviction that “Jerusalem’s ancient heritage belonged not to those who lived in and ruled there, but to foreigners like himself,” Lawler writes.

Despite angering local Jews and Muslims and infuriating Ottoman authorities, de Saulcy managed to extract a sarcophagus from the Tomb of Kings that he believed was a consort of a Judean ruler from the 7th century B.C., take it to France and eventually display it in the Louvre. Never mind that experts questioned its true identification and significance. The discovery, Lawler writes, “opened the possibility that archaeology could yield concrete proof of scripture’s accuracy at a moment when advances in geology and biology had put Christianity on the defensive.”

This theme – that science can be used to verify religious beliefs and national claims – courses through this narrative like the streams flowing beneath the Old City. So does the political tumult that de Saulcy’s discovery ignited. Fearful of France’s influence, Britain very quickly launched its own archaeological strike force. Russia also sponsored digs, while Western philanthropists poured money underground – and still do.

One can see how Jerusalem natives, particularly the Muslims who retain authority over sections of the Old City, became so hostile to outside interference in the name of science. Their homes were damaged; their businesses disrupted; their autonomy questioned; their sacred space violated.

There is another, deeper reason for this antipathy, writes Lawler: “Excavating a cistern or searching for treasure might make sense to Jerusalem’s Arabs, but excavating to find your heritage did not. You were your heritage, and there was no need to find that which you had not lost. This profound cultural divide between Westerners and Arabs – and, later, between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs – would grow wider in generations to come, with devastating consequences for all those involved.”

Would that Lawler had delved more deeply into this fascinating cultural divide and the questions raised. What lies behind the compulsion to locate Jesus’ tomb or King David’s palace or Solomon’s temple? How do we balance the drive to uncover the past with reverence for the present? There is endless detail in this book about each excavation, contextualized with discussion of the ethical dimensions and methodological advances in the expanding field of archaeology. But there were times when I wished Lawler had stepped back to explore those larger, motivational questions more fully.

That said, he displays remarkable evenhandedness in cataloguing the politicization of archaeology today, especially considering that so many characters in this book believed that God – or Adonai, or Allah, or Jesus – was on their side. Lawler also carefully narrates the dramatic and consequential rifts between the increasingly powerful Orthodox Jewish rabbinate in Jerusalem and its largely secular, scholarly counterparts.

Tragically, we see positions harden and compromise made more difficult, whether it is in Yasser Arafat’s refusal to acknowledge the Jewish historical claim to the Old City or in the growing influence exerted by the fundamentalist City of David Foundation, widely known by its Hebrew acronym Elad. Sadly, too, we hear in this story echoes of broader troubling trends, as the neutral pursuit of science slams into ideology, greed, nationalism and faith.

Why, of all places, Jerusalem?

Amichai offers a partial, poetic answer: “In Jerusalem,” he writes, “everything is a symbol.”

Lawler’s timely book builds on that insight, showing how and why ordinary men and women, and great empires alike, continue to seek meaning in the dirt and debris beneath this magnetic, confounding city.

– Reviewed by Jane Eisner, who is director of academic affairs at the Columbia Journalism School. She is writing a book about Carole King.

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