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Beneath Jerusalem, a city of the past

Tunnels reveal Jewish roots, draw tourists

Orthodox Jewish men prayed in the Western Wall tunnel in Jerusalem’s Old City. When the newest underground link opens, there will be more than a mile of pathways beneath the city. Orthodox Jewish men prayed in the Western Wall tunnel in Jerusalem’s Old City. When the newest underground link opens, there will be more than a mile of pathways beneath the city. (Bernat Armangue/ Associated Press)
By Matti Friedman
Associated Press / May 31, 2011

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JERUSALEM — Underneath the crowded alleys and holy sites of old Jerusalem, hundreds of people are snaking at any given moment through tunnels, vaulted medieval chambers, and Roman sewers in a rapidly expanding subterranean city invisible from the streets above.

At street level, the walled Old City is an energetic and fractious enclave with a physical landscape that is predominantly Islamic and a population that is mainly Arab.

Underground Jerusalem is different: Here the noise recedes, the fierce Middle Eastern sun disappears, and light comes from fluorescent bulbs. There is a smell of earth and mildew, and the geography recalls a Jewish city that existed 2,000 years ago.

Archeological digs under the disputed Old City are a matter of immense sensitivity. For Israel, the tunnels are proof of the depth of Jewish roots here, and this has made the tunnels one of Jerusalem’s main tourist draws: The number of visitors, mostly Jews and Christians, has risen dramatically in recent years to more than a million visitors in 2010.

But many Palestinians, who reject Israel’s sovereignty in the city, see them as a threat to their own claims to Jerusalem. And some critics say they put an exaggerated focus on Jewish history.

A new underground link is opening within two months, and when it does, there will be more than a mile of pathways beneath the city. Officials say at least one other major project is in the works. Soon, anyone so inclined will be able to spend much of their time in Jerusalem without seeing the sky.

On a recent morning, a man carrying surveying equipment walked across an ancient stone road, paused at the edge of a hole, and disappeared underground.

In a multilevel maze of rooms and corridors beneath the Muslim Quarter, workers cleared rubble and installed steel safety braces to shore up crumbling 700-year-old Mamluk-era arches.

Above ground, a group of French tourists emerged from a dark passage they had entered an hour earlier in the Jewish Quarter and found themselves among Arab shops on the Via Dolorosa, the traditional route of Jesus to his crucifixion.

South of the Old City, visitors can enter a tunnel chipped from the bedrock by a Judean king 2,500 years ago and walk through knee-deep water under the Arab neighborhood of Silwan. Beginning this summer, a new passage will be open nearby: a sewer Jewish rebels are thought to have used to flee the Roman legions who destroyed the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD.

The sewer leads uphill, passing beneath the Old City walls before expelling visitors into sunlight next to the rectangular enclosure where the temple once stood, now home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the gold-capped Dome of the Rock.

From there, it’s a short walk to a third passage, the Western Wall tunnel, which continues north from the Jewish holy site past stones cut by masons working for King Herod and an ancient water system. Visitors emerge near the entrance to an ancient quarry called Zedekiah’s Cave that descends under the Muslim Quarter.

The next major project, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority, will follow the course of one of the city’s main Roman-era streets underneath the prayer plaza at the Western Wall. This route, scheduled for completion in three years, will link up with the Western Wall tunnel.

The excavations and flood of visitors exist against a backdrop of acute distrust between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims, who are suspicious of any government moves in the Old City and particularly around the Al-Aqsa compound, Islam’s third-holiest shrine. Jews know the compound as the Temple Mount, site of two destroyed temples and the center of the Jewish faith for three millennia.

Muslim fears have led to violence in the past: The 1996 opening of a new exit to the Western Wall tunnel sparked rumors among Palestinians that Israel meant to damage the mosques, and dozens were killed in the ensuing riots. In recent years, however, work has gone ahead without incident.

Mindful that the compound has the potential to trigger devastating conflict, Israel’s policy is to allow no excavations there. Digging under Temple Mount, the Israeli historian Gershom Gorenberg has written, “would be like trying to figure out how a hand grenade works by pulling the pin and peering inside.’’

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